The Novel

Sarah stands on the brink, arms open wide as if to let the wind carry her away. She’s come to the high cliffs to be alone, to face the truth about her life, to work out what to do. Her lover is searching, desperate to find her before it is too late. But Sarah doesn’t want to be found. Not yet. Not by him.

And someone else is also seeking answers up here where the seabirds soar – a man known only as the Keeper, living in an old lighthouse right on the cusp of a four-hundred-foot drop. He is all too aware that sometimes love takes you to the edge . . .

This is the blurb for my debut novel The Light Keeper, just published by Marylebone House. More details at www.thelightkeeper.org. Sign up now for exclusive preview chapters and the chance to win a night at the Belle Tout lighthouse.

A Valentine’s Day story

This is a true story. We’re in East London, early Eighties, I’m 15. I really like Laura. She’s arty, graceful, smart, cool. Out of my league. We go to drama club. She dances to a song, I’m mesmerised. So I go off to the record shop to buy it. Derek’s Records, Walthamstow Arcade. “It goes dooo- do-dooo … I think it might be Dire Straits.”

Derek laughs. “No mate, that’s Lou Reed. Walk On the Wild Side.”

He sells me the single. I love it. A few days later I go back for the album, with money from my paper round.

So I take Transformer along to drama club and leave it on the side. Devious, eh? Laura sees it. “Whose is this?”

Cue nervous cough. “Yeah, mine actually.”

“Do you like Lou Reed?”

“Yeah, have done for ages.”

We walk to the bus stop together. We catch the bus. We talk about music. We live near each other. The next Saturday morning, Laura asks me round to listen to music. We listen to Aladdin Sane. The next Saturday, Joy Division. On it goes, Saturday after Saturday in her front room. I love being with Laura, talking music.

So finally, as summer comes, I pluck up courage. Just as I’m going, outside her front door, I say: “Will you go out with me?” (Actually, in my nerves, it all sort of runs into one. “Willyougooutwivus?”)

The sun shines. Birds sing. Buses go past. Laura smiles. Laura laughs.

“Why would I do that?”

I feel sick. I never see her again.


Yes, Father Christmas does exist. An exclusive interview with the elusive festive figure, offering conclusive scientific and journalistic proof. Read and believe.

An article from 2007 in The Independent on Sunday, a publication which, unlike Santa, no longer exists.

The voice sounds shrill and furious. “How did you get this number?” he or she (it is impossible to tell) squeaks down the line. “Wait!” In the background are the sounds of wrapping, tapping and humming as if a thousand people of diminished stature are at work in some cavernous underground factory.

“Good morning.” This voice is deeper, smoother, calmer and distinctly transatlantic. “Senior Elf Barnabus, vice president, communications. How may I help you, sir?”

I want to speak to Santa, I say, not quite able to believe that this conversation is happening. “Of course you do,” says Barnabus, oozing professional goodwill. “Everyone does, at this time of year. Unfortunately…”

This is different, I say quickly – I’m a reporter. Barnabus grunts, unable to disguise his disgust in the way his job surely demands he should. No, wait, I say. My eldest son, a nine-year-old called Jacob, has just declared himself an unbeliever. He says he has worked it out and Santa does not exist. So I want to prove him wrong. I want to write a piece that parents can show their doubting offspring on Christmas Eve and say: “Look, there it is, in the paper.”

Barnabus laughs. “Do you really think they’ll believe it any more after that?” But after a moment’s pause he says: “OK. Maybe this is something we can help you with at this time, sir. May I place you on hold?”

The sound of cheerful industry is replaced by a plinky-plunky tune sung by squeaky voices, like Pinky and Perky playing with a Casio keyboard (so this is what happened to those unwanted Eighties presents). “You better watch out, you better not cry …”

The song sounds more threatening than ever, but it gives me a moment to reh`earse my questions. Chief among these, of course, is how does Santa do it? All those houses (and flats, hotels, hostels and shacks), all those chimneys (and the boarded-up ones, the locked doors and windows) and all those children, all in one night. It is impossible. But that is what they used to say about going to the Moon.

There have been many attempts to blow Santa out of the sky with science, but the most popular – it is still doing the rounds by email – came from the now-defunct American magazine Spy and was first published in January 1990. It grudgingly admitted that while no known species of reindeer could fly there were still “300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified”, so it was not quite ridiculous to imagine a kind of reindeer that only Santa knew about.

Spy had a bigger problem with the apparent impossibility of getting around the world. When its theory was first published there were two billion children in the world (that figure has since gone up by 10 per cent). With an unseasonal lack of charity, Spy ruled out Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and other families who would probably not be celebrating Christmas, religiously or otherwise. That left 378 million children, in an estimated 91.8 million homes.

“For each Christian household with good children,” said the article, by Richard Waller, “Santa has one thousandth of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.”

The resulting calculation was that the sleigh must move at 650 miles per second, or 3,000 times the speed of sound. “A conventional reindeer can run – tops – 15 miles per hour.”

The next problem was the weight of all those presents, estimated at 321,300 tons. Pulling that kind of a load would require 214,200 reindeer, apparently. Moving at 650 miles a second they would generate heat – through air resistance – in the same way a space capsule does when it re-enters the atmosphere. “The entire reindeer fleet will be vapourised within 4.26 thousandths of a second,” said Spy.

The article has generated countless rebuttals, by far the most accomplished being by Roger Highfield, author of Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas. He says the effortlessness with which Santa appears to do it is propaganda designed to “divert attention away from the most spectacular research and development outfit this planet has ever seen”.

Dr Highfield includes all the children of the world – the pagan Father Christmas did, after all, exist long before the Christian St Nicholas – in his calculations and suggests there are actually 842 million stops to be made, over a distance of 221 million miles. “I like to think,” he says, “that somewhere under the North Pole there is a handful of scientists experimenting with the latest in high-temperature materials, genetic computing technologies and warped geometries of time and space, all united by a single purpose: to make millions of children happy each and every Christmas.”

Conventional wisdom says that Santa has 24 hours to deliver all his presents. Dr Highfield argues that he actually has 48 hours, if he travels against the rotation of the Earth. There should be a series of sonic booms heard in the night sky, but there is now real technology that neutralises sound with “antisound” – an advanced form of which Santa may be pumping out from speakers on the sleigh. The acceleration involved in the journey must produce about two billion times more G-force than a jet pilot feels, but a gravitational field around the sleigh would solve that one, says Dr Highfield.

As for all that friction, the astrophysicist Knut Jorgen Roed Odegaard from Norway (where they take their Arctic neighbour very seriously) has an answer: “Santa obviously has an ion-shield of charged particles, held together by a magnetic field, surrounding his entire sleigh.”

Obviously. The technology involved must make Nasa and the Pentagon sick with envy, so it is no surprise that Santa’s annual journey is always tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Norad says it uses a spy satellite in space to pick up the glow from Rudolph’s nose. It then follows the sleigh using radar along the northern border of North America before two Canadian fighter jets are sent up to act as an escort (and make sure he is not an imposter).

Norad and its predecessor, Conad, have been doing this for more than 50 years, since the birth of radar. The cover story is that a local paper in Colorado Springs ran an advertisement for Sears Roebuck that asked children to call Santa. Unfortunately the wrong number was printed by mistake – so eager youngsters actually got through to the private hotline of Colonel Harry Shoup, the man responsible for spotting incoming Soviet missiles. He took the first call on Christmas Eve 1955, but rather than hang up or let a child down, he ordered his staff to check the radars and found that, yes, there was a trace of Santa. Last year the Norad hotline took 563,000 calls; there were 7,000 emails and a billion hits on the website that tracks the sleigh’s progress live, at noradsanta.org.

A spokesman for Norad said: “The fact that Santa Claus is more than 15 centuries old and does not appear to age is our biggest clue that he does not work within time as we know it.” Instead he “somehow functions on a different space and time continuum”. So Christmas Eve – which seems impossibly brief to us – could actually feel to him like days, weeks or months. And, of course, Christmas is celebrated on different dates by Christian traditions, which gives him yet more time.

Others are watching, too. Early last Monday morning an unusual, fast-moving fiery image was picked up by Mascot, the all-sky monitor of the Paranal Observatory in Chile. It was as large and bright as a comet but not quite fast enough to be one. The astronomers passed it off as the unannounced launch of a rocket in Japan, but one report carried the headline: “It is too early to be Santa’s sleigh, isn’t it?” That does not allow for training runs, of course, to get in shape for Christmas Eve. He is carrying a lot of weight, after all.

There are other theories about how Santa does it. The most disturbing is that there is not just one Santa, but millions of them, the strange products of inbreeding over the centuries, waiting incognito in every town and village until the moment comes to deliver, simultaneously. This still allows for the possibility of an Emperor Santa, elected or chosen by birth, ruling the North Pole. Is this the man I am holding the line for?

“Merry Christmas,” says a voice as deep and rich and warming as figgy pudding soaked in flaming brandy, with brandy butter and double cream on the side. It’s him. Suddenly I’m speechless. Santa, kindly as he is, breaks the silence with a disconcerting question: “Have you been good?” Erm… yes. No. Maybe. “I know the answer, of course,” he says. “We’ll have to see about you.” What is that accent? Scandinavian, American, Turkish, Old English, Argentinian… a bit of everything. “I like to ask the question as an ice-breaker,” he says. “You can’t very well ask children, ‘So what do you do?’ Hello? Are you still there, young man?”

This is staggering. This is Santa. The Santa. If there really are lots of them, an ancient family, this is the Capo dei Santa. Father Christmas, whatever you call him in your family. I really have to pull myself together. How do you… well, Santa, tell me, how do you do it?

He laughs – a fruity, lived-in laugh – then he answers. Well he doesn’t, to be honest, not really – but somehow, inexplicably, after talking to the man himself and hearing that voice, it almost seems enough. This is what Santa says: “Just believe.”

That’s it? “That’s it,” says the voice of voices. “And merry Christmas, young man. Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!”

'A richly evocative story of heartache and secrets.' The Mail on Sunday reviews The Light Keeper

This potent debut by award-winning writer Moreton weaves a richly evocative story of heartache and secrets, set along the precarious coastline of the Sussex Downs.
It opens as Jack races from London to the cliffs near Beachy Head, convinced that his wife, Sarah, plans to end her life after a final, failed IVF cycle. But Sarah
doesn’t want to be found, and nor does Gabe, a man holed up in a disused lighthouse and known locally as ‘the Keeper’. In finding each other, they’ll rediscover themselves. Pacy and packed with bittersweet lyricism, it’s a multilayered tale with a surprise ending.

Hepzibah Anderson in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday

Buy The Light Keeper now, in time for Christmas: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Light-Keeper-Cole-Moreton/dp/1910674575

“I deeply regret having been in this business.” An interview with the brilliant, grumpy, funny, waspish, late Sir Jonathan Miller

Sorry to hear of the death of Sir Jonathan Miller, a brilliant man. I arranged to interview him as the chief feature writer of the Sunday Telegraph, but they made me redundant (along with a lot of others) just before it could happen. He agreed to go ahead anyway and enjoyed the subterfuge, as we did it at a festival sponsored by the Telegraph and just didn’t tell anyone from that title. He was grumpy, acidic, funny, waspish, taking aim at everyone from the “twerps” running the BBC to the “idiot” Prime Minister and from Richard Dawkins to his old colleague David Frost. I wrote it up and sold it to Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday, which gave it a great show. Five years later, I am still writing for them, so thank you very much Sir Jonathan. You were a bloody difficult but hugely entertaining, multi-talented man. That was a life well lived.

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Sir Jonathan Miller.

The Cleverest Man in Britain, as he has often been called, can be spectacularly rude about those he dislikes.

‘God forbid David Frost has anything to do with this at all,’ he growls when I bring up the satire boom of the early Sixties, in which both became famous.

Miller starred in Beyond The Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

It was a huge hit in the West End then transferred to Broadway – and while they were in America, Frost brought the same style of humour to British TV with That Was The Week That Was. Miller called him The Bubonic Plagiarist.

‘Frost simply stole most of the ideas,’ he says, unmellowed by the death of his former rival last year.

‘He was a man with grotesque ambitions – to the extent that when he died he managed to have a commemorative service at Westminster Abbey!’

Miller chuckles as if this was a con trick. Curled in a chair at a literary festival, his long, thin body forming a question mark, he seems to burn with frustration. The question is, why? Few people could hope to match his spectacular, multi-faceted career.

After helping to invent modern comedy he went on to become a television star, a public thinker and latterly one of the world’s leading opera directors.

On top of all that, this former doctor continued to study neuropsychology and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. So why does he get so rattled by any mention of his rivals?

Take Richard Dawkins, the biologist who has challenged him for the title of Britain’s Brainiest Atheist.

‘I hope I am not seen like that. He is a fundamentalist.’

The put-down is drawled, as if he almost can’t be bothered to say it. Miller has Jewish roots, but seems to think the notion of God is beneath him.

‘It is scarcely worth anyone dedicating themselves to arguing against it as Dawkins seems to do.’

He is impressed by the science in books like The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, but not by the brash way Dawkins slaps down anyone with a faith.

Miller is fascinated by believers, while Dawkins condemns them as fools.

‘He’s too much of an explicit fundamentalist. He happens to be an extraordinarily inventive biologist, but extraordinarily uninventive when talking about the culture of religion.’

Ouch. He is as dismissive as a teacher marking a troublesome child’s homework, and makes ‘uninventive’ sound like a swear word.

Miller is an intense presence, a tall, pale and serious man with a head of white hair like a controlled explosion. Despite being nearly 80, he is recognisably the man who made ground-breaking TV for the BBC.

The Body In Question was a serious, detailed look at how we work, and also the first TV programme ever to show a human corpse being dissected. It was followed over the years by documentaries exploring the science of the brain, language and madness.

His last major documentary for the BBC was on atheism, back in 2004. But none of these acclaimed programmes would get made now, he says. The BBC is run by ‘twerps who all have degrees in Media Studies, which is like having a degree in stationery’.

Miller used to just ‘go upstairs’ and tell the bosses what he wanted to do.

‘Now you go to a person called a commissioning editor, who says, “You haven’t described the journey.” I don’t have the faintest f idea what they mean. A curiosity about how we work is not enough for the Media Studies twerps.’

He’s off again. The Prime Minister is the next target – ‘that idiot Cameron’ – but then Miller has been a socialist all his life. He has a lot in common with Ed Miliband, having grown up in a socialist family in London, and been a member of the Labour Party, but dismisses the Labour leader as ‘no good’.

‘There was a period when socialism had a grand initiative. That won’t be on offer at the next election. It has dwindled away.

‘I have a forlorn memory of what was once a noble enterprise, of a genuine big society,’ he says. ‘That has been forgotten.’

Behind all this, even the politics, is a sense of immense personal frustration. The reason for it emerges slowly.

Miller says he was ‘seduced’ by showbusiness long ago, and wishes it had never happened.

‘I deeply regret having been in this business.’

That is astonishing when you consider his achievements in the arts and the praise showered on him over the years. The knighthood he received in 2002 was chiefly for his achievements in theatre and opera.

Miller set Rigoletto in the Little Italy of Mafia days for English National Opera and rebooted La Bohème and The Mikado in a similar way. His productions are performed around the world today. Soon he will direct King Lear for the Northern Broadsides theatre company, and is publishing a collection of writings called On Further Reflection.

But somehow, all this is not enough.

‘With hindsight, I slightly deplore what I did,’ he says. ‘It diverted me from what I was intending to do in my medical studies, which was to find out how we work.’

Miller qualified as a doctor in 1959 and worked at Central Middlesex Hospital before he was invited to join three other recent graduates from Oxford and Cambridge in a topical revue at the Edinburgh Festival. ‘It was only supposed to last a fortnight.’

The critics loved Beyond The Fringe, which transferred first to London then New York. Miller found himself locked into a demanding run of shows that lasted three years.

The four performers were given a Tony Award in 1963 ‘for their brilliance which has shattered all the old concepts of comedy’.

Even John F Kennedy came to see himself lampooned. But while they were in America, David Frost sold the same approach to the BBC, says Miller.

‘Peter Cook had ideas about a show on television which was satirical, but by the time Peter came back from New York, Frost put it on. He’d stolen the idea.’

Beyond The Fringe was shocking for the times, as demonstrated by one of its most famous sketches. Cook appears in RAF uniform to address Miller as Flight Officer Perkins.

‘We need a futile gesture at this stage,’ says Cook’s wing commander. ‘It will raise the whole tone of the war. Pop over to Bremen. Take a shufty. And don’t come back.’

Miller says goodbye, pauses then says perhaps it is really only ‘au revoir’, suggesting they will meet again. To which Cook responds blankly: ‘No, Perkins…’

They were taking the mickey out of myths that had grown up around the war. There were veterans in the audience and people who had lost homes and loved ones in the fighting. Some were outraged.

Others were delighted. Nobody was making jokes like this. For that reason the cast of Beyond The Fringe are regarded as godfathers of modern comedy, having bashed down the door for the likes of Monty Python to come strutting in behind. So what does Miller make of them?

‘Well, the Pythons were just simply another lot who happened to be university-educated rather than the usual comedians.

‘The Ministry of Funny Walks is something that makes us laugh because it draws attention to the peculiar varieties of human locomotion.’

This is so po-faced it makes me smile. Thankfully so does he. Should the Pythons have reunited?

‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ says Miller, who certainly doesn’t believe the hype. ‘People turned both what we were doing and Monty Python into a more grandiose achievement than it was.’

Jonathan Miller still lives in the house in north London he bought half a century ago. He was married in 1956, long before fame and fortune, to Rachel, who is still his wife. They brought up two sons and a daughter (Tom, 52, William, 50 and Kate, 47).

Was he a good father? ‘Looking back, I have a sense of guilt about not being attentive enough to my children, not having read to them in the evening.’

This great storyteller rarely sat on the end of the bed and spun tales. That seems odd, but those were different times. He also sent his three young ones to the local state schools, at the time in utter chaos.

His son William later said: ‘It turned out to be a cavalier social experiment that saw all three of his children fail to gain a single qualification. He is right to feel guilty: it was a wholly avoidable disaster.’

Miller insists his heart was in the right place.

‘We did it because I was an old-fashioned socialist for whom going to an expensive private school wasn’t right.’

William eventually went to Bedales public school in Hampshire. So will Miller admit it was a mistake?

‘No, I didn’t make a mistake. There was no way I could afford sending them to private schools [for their whole education].’

Really? ‘The four of us who did Beyond The Fringe should have been millionaires, but we were cheated by the man who put it on. Most of the work I do in opera, I get no royalties.’

The house is now worth £3 million, but Miller insists he is ‘not prosperous’. Though two years ago Miller admitted he felt ‘rather ashamed’ to be helping pay fees for his grandchildren – William’s two daughters – to attend an independent school.

He once claimed his children were not interested in ‘the life of ideas’. Surely they had to hide all that when they were young, though, to avoid the bullies they encountered at their rough schools?

‘That’s probably the case. My eldest son Tom was bullied, and he retreated into a compartment in which he was safe: the photographic dark room. He was able to hide from rather aggressive children. Looking back, I think I rather regret it.’

We finish, and Miller goes through to the Great Hall at Dartington, where an audience of 500 waits for him to perform. He takes a seat and doesn’t leave it for the next hour. There are no jokes, nor grand declarations.

‘What becomes increasingly apparent, the older one gets, is that there are no simple conclusions.’

Still, Miller is mesmerising. His mother Betty was a novelist who wanted her son to become a great doctor like his father Emanuel, a psychiatrist. She was disappointed when he went into the theatre, but told him to concentrate on observing the small things of life.

That is what he does as a director and when talking at literary festivals, taking what he has learnt in medical science and using it to help actors break hearts on stage.

So he shows us how he taught a diva how to convey grief during an aria by twisting her hair and staring sightlessly into the middle distance, as people had been observed to do.

For a moment, he becomes her. His eyes even well up. Then the spell is broken and he moves to another tale, being brilliant and showing every sign of knowing it. But that is deceptive. Talk over, Miller asks the same question over and again to those around him.

‘Was it OK?’

Yes, they say. Five or six times. It was good. And every time, this man who has done so much but found so little comfort in it, gives a brief smile of relief.

Here’s the original piece in Event.

Stories to break your heart, from an English country churchyard

We went for a walk this afternoon, after lunch in the Giant’s Rest pub, and happened to pass through a churchyard. There a tombstone caught my eye, and I paused in the misty rain to run my hand over the metal, trace the words and read the story. It broke my heart. It does again now, writing this.

Elizabeth lived in these parts, around the mysterious Long Man figure in the Sussex countryside, in the 1700s. She and her husband Thomas had 11 children: four sons and seven daughters. Then, over a period of five years, she lost six of them.

The first was Jane, in 1725. She was three years old. The next was Stephen in 1726, also three years old. That same year, Elizabeth also lost Frances, who lived for only three months.

Three years passed, then Thomas died, age one. Richard was next, in 1730, when he was nine months old. That same year, her teenage daughter Mary died, aged 16.

A year later, Elizabeth lost her husband and their father, Thomas.

I don’t know why any of this happened. I don’t know who they were. I feel the need to mark their existence though, having met them like this. Here’s to them. Jane and Stephen and Frances and Thomas and Richard and Mary, and their Dad Thomas. They were here, long ago. They lived. I also want to honour Elizabeth, who somehow found the strength to go on living for 26 more years.

This is the kind of place where time stretches. The tomb is overlooked by a mighty, twisted yew tree whose weary arms are held up by posts and chains. It is said to be at least 1600 years old, which means there is a chance it was alive when the Romans were in Britain, before the legions withdrew.

Time stretches and time spins.

And in another corner of the churchyard there is a memorial to a pair of sisters, Pattie and Catherine, who died 97 years apart. That feels astonishing to me.

Ninety seven years. Pattie in 1894, aged 15 months. Catherine in 1991, having witnessed the First and Second World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Space Race and the dawning of the age we live in now. She was 93 years old.

Their surname is Ade, which in Sussex is a contraction of Adam, a name that links us all. Walking away, one of us says they must have been related. I go back and check the tombstone and find that yes, it’s true of Elizabeth and Thomas, who lived and loved and raised and lost their children more than a century before the sisters were born. They were called Ade too.

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