Published: 7 July, 2011
by PIERS PLOWRIGHT
EVEN on a rain-soaked morning, light pours into Red Széll’s Hampstead living room through a huge sliding window – which is a good thing because Red needs all the light he can get. Diagnosed when he was 19 with retinitis pigmentosa – a degenerative eye condition and the second most-common cause of blindness in the UK – he can see very little these days.
The gradual loss of sight hasn’t stopped him though. From an early career in journalism, working for a recruitment agency, marrying, becoming the father of two daughters, Red has fully entered into the local community and, at the age of 41, has written his first novel.
It’s a thriller, Blind Trust, set in Hampstead, and stars a blind househusband who gets caught up in an increasingly violent extortion racket. But before we talk about the book I want to know a bit about its author – his name, for a start.
Red Széll’s father was born in Hungary. Having survived the Nazis, he left in 1946, not liking the look of the Communists who followed.
The Szélls are a distinguished lot: a great-grandfather was one of the first democratically elected Prime Ministers of Hungary, and conductor George Széll was a distant cousin. There’s Irish blood too, from his paternal grandmother – hence the “Red” (from Redmond).
What Red inherited from his parents was a love of reading, graduating, as he grew up in rural Sussex, from Enid Blyton via Biggles to Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie. A love of thrillers possessed him very early, as he browsed the shelves of Thorpes, Guildford’s enormous secondhand bookshop.
At the end of his first year at Cambridge, Red got the news that he would go blind. “I kind of blocked it out.” he says, “throwing myself into sport – mainly rugby – and parties.”
University, he found, was a great place to get sympathetic support and, apart from giving up cycling and investing in anglepoise lamps, life seemed pretty normal. He did enough work to get a 2.1 – “the drinking man’s first” – and, armed with this, he walked into the world in the summer of 1991, and straight into a recession.
After a job in a Sussex mortuary – the only thing going – a pleasant whiff of unreality blew back into his life when he was made Debutantes’ Correspondent on the London Evening Standard. But, gossip and champagne not really paying the mortgage, he then got a nine-to-five job “sending”, as he puts it, “oil and tunnelling men to dodgy parts of the globe”.
Meeting and marrying Kate – an attorney in the City – and the arrival of their first child, Laura, rescued him. “I leapt at the chance to give up work and stay at home with the baby, ” he explains.
So how autobiographical is Blind Trust, the book he’s been working on for a couple of years? Well, it’s true the hero is a 40-plus blind househusband with two sassy daughters and a working wife, living in Hampstead. But the rest, as they say, is fiction.
What fascinated Red as he looked around the place he lived in was “the paradox of Hampstead wealth”: rich people ripping out the interiors of perfectly good houses and chucking valuable stuff into skips; plenty of money but little feeling for what it could buy.
It didn’t take much for a first-time author with a yen for psychological thrillers to imagine such people falling into the hands of a ruthless conspiracy of villains, able to extort and, if necessary kill to get what they wanted.
It’s a violent story and not for the squeamish. But there’s humour too and, perhaps, a more serious purpose.
“I was tired of reading detective fiction that featured a blind detective or hero who just didn’t ring true,” says Red. “I wanted to write something that shows it how it is, without sentimentality or simplification. I hope I’ve done that”.
I think he has.
• Blind Trust. By Red Szell. Indepenpress Publishing Ltd £7.99
• Piers Plowright is a former BBC producer