The inspiration for Pantheon came from the unlikeliest source – a chance remark from a former cabinet minister, who in a throwaway line had no idea what he had started.
I was having dinner with James Purnell, Labour’s former Work and Pensions secretary a few months after his resignation. We got chatting about a mutual friend and he mentioned the intriguing story of that friend’s mother, an Oxford child who had been evacuated to Yale in 1940 to see out the Second World War in safety. She had, Purnell said, always harboured a suspicion about the motives behind that evacuation that included 125 children along with 25 of their mothers.
‘What suspicion?’ I asked.
The second I heard his answer I knew I had the story for Pantheon, the latest novel to be written under my pseudonym, Sam Bourne. For the theory he mentioned – and I won’t reveal it here for fear of giving too much away – centred on an idea that had fascinated me for more than two decades, since I myself was a student in Oxford. Today that idea would strike most of us as sinister, if not morally repugnant. And yet it gripped the imagination of the pre-war intelligentsia in both Britain and America. It held sway among people who were the great minds of their age, men and women who are still revered to this day. Yet now the very notion makes us shudder.
I had written about all this in a Guardian article several years ago, but thanks to Purnell’s inadvertent tip – and a subsequent interview with the woman he had mentioned, now in her 70s – I could now see a way to make it come alive through fiction.
The result is a novel built on solid, factual foundations – drawing on documents and archives, including a fascinating selection of letters that passed secretly between Churchill and Roosevelt in the agonising months when Britain was at war but the US was still officially neutral.
And yet I was determined that Pantheon should still be a thriller, an exciting story involving characters born from my own imagination: a young Oxford don, James Zennor – injured as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war and frustrated at his inability to help in the current, titanic struggle against Nazism – and his beautiful wife Florence. In the foreground of Pantheon would be their story, starting with the moment James returns home from rowing alone on the Thames in the early morning, to discover that Florence has disappeared, taking their two year old son with her. Why has she gone? And why do the people around him seem to be hiding something from him?
The challenge was to ensure the factual history of 1940 – a year of intense drama, as Britain stood alone, fighting for its life, while the Americans debated whether they should join the fight at all – did not overwhelm the story of the novel, with its quest across the Atlantic, into the secretive world of Yale University and on the trail of at least one unexplained death.
I hope I achieved that. Now, as with every book, it’s up to readers to decide.
Pantheon by Sam Bourne is published by HarperCollins