My phone rang: 'Hello, I have proof God exists'
A call from a stranger set thriller author Peter James on a quest that has taken 30 years to understand
It sounds like something from the opening pages of a Dan Brown novel. A well-known thriller writer is typing away at his desk, when the phone rings. He answers, and a mystery caller announces that he has proof of God’s existence, and wants the writer’s help to make it public.
This, though, isn’t fiction. It is what happened 30 years ago to Peter James, the bestselling British novelist and creator of the award-winning Detective Superintendent Roy Grace books. Now, though, like the consummate storyteller that he is, James has used that long-ago telephone call as the basis for his new thriller, Absolute Proof.
“It is still so clear in my memory,” says 70-year-old James. “This man’s voice was asking: ‘Is that Peter James, the author?’ I said yes. ‘Thank God, I’ve found you,’ he replied. ‘I’ve phoned every Peter James in the phone book in the south of England ... ’”
There was something about Harry Nixon, as the caller introduced himself (or Dr Harry Cook, as he becomes in the opening pages of Absolute Proof) that intrigued James and stopped him putting the phone down. Nixon clearly wasn’t your standard nuisance caller, James explains. “He told me that he had been a Fleet Air Arm pilot during the war, and was a recently retired academic from a teacher training college in Manchester.”
So he stayed on the line as Nixon explained that his wife had died, and that they had made a pact that they would try to keep in contact via a medium. When he had tried to honour that promise, though, the medium channelled a man’s voice that had told him God was very concerned about the state of the world, and mankind needed to have its faith in him reaffirmed.
Most intriguing, though, was the detail that, to enable Harry Nixon to carry out God’s wishes, he was told something beyond human knowledge – the coordinates to three great lost religious treasures: the Egyptian tomb of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s uncle; the last resting place of the Holy Grail, said to be the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper; and the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the lost casket from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
It was enough to persuade James to invite Nixon to his home. “As a fiction writer you’ve always got people coming up to you saying: ‘I’ve got a story’, and so I have learnt to listen, because you never know. They may have a nugget.”
And so the following week, on his doorstep was an elderly man with rheumy eyes, neatly dressed “like a retired bank manager”. In the flesh, he was plausible enough for James to agree to read the 1,000-page manuscript he had brought. “As he left, he said: ‘Thank you for seeing me, Mr James. You and I have to save the world’.”
My mind is racing. Why, I wondered aloud, had Nixon picked out Peter James? While today his name is well known on account of the Roy Grace books, which have sold 19 million copies worldwide, back in 1989 he had, by his own admission, managed only four titles, of which the first three, all spy thrillers, had “tanked”. His parallel career as a film writer and producer, he tells me, had been characterised up to then by low-budget horror films and – he chuckles at the memory – 1976’s Spanish Fly, starring Terry-Thomas and Leslie Phillips, which the BBC’s film critic Barry Norman declared “the worst British film since the Second World War”.
And it wasn’t even as if James had shown any great interest in religion. The key to this particular mystery, though, seems to be the subject of James’s fourth novel, Possession, just published when Nixon telephoned. “It was about a family who went to a medium after their son had been killed in a car crash. It had done very well and given me quite a profile.”
The day after Nixon’s visit, James was travelling to Bristol for a radio interview, and so he took the 1,000-page manuscript with him to read. “After 20 pages, I’d lost the will to live. It was all ramblings from the Bible, tracts and annotations.” And there it might all have ended, had not the radio interviewer, later that same day, once the microphones had been switched off, casually mentioned in conversation the Chalice Well, the site in Glastonbury where Nixon had told James that the Holy Grail was buried.
“It sent a shiver through me,” he remembers. “I’d never heard of it before, and now it had come up twice in as many days. I left feeling freaked, so I phoned an old friend, Dominic Walker, who was then the Bishop of Reading, and told him the whole story.”
The bishop gave him three pieces of advice: that he needed more than three sets of compass coordinates to prove God exists; that the “something more” should be a miracle of faith beyond the laws of physics; and that, if he found it, there were enough church and political leaders with a stake in the status quo to have him assassinated.
It was, James, says, his “light-bulb moment”. Between them, Nixon and the bishop had been given him a sensational plot. Absolute Proof, though, has been almost three decades in the making. At first, James kept in contact with Nixon. He persisted even after Nixon, using his pilot’s training, used the God-given coordinates to identify the exact spot at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury and – refused permission by the authorities to start digging for the Holy Grail – had broken in and been caught at four in the morning excavating a giant hole.
But when the retired lecturer then tried to enlist the novelist’s help in persuading Egypt’s then president to allow another exploratory dig, this time where the coordinates suggested Akhenaten’s tomb lay, James stopped answering his letters.
The book idea, though, continued to niggle, especially that central question of what would be required to prove God existed. It has been an itch that James has been scratching ever since.
There was a five-day pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the peninsula in Greece that is among the holiest of holies for Orthodox Christians – and is also a male-only zone, with even female animals banned. Plus regular visits to an enclosed Carthusian monastery near James’s Sussex home that he shares with his second wife, Lara, and their three dogs, five alpacas, three emus and 30 Indian runner ducks. And conversations, too, with theologians (including the current Archbishop of Canterbury) as well as with what he refers to as “hardcore” atheists who told James unambiguously that no such proof could exist.
All of this wealth of material he has finally decanted into a fast-paced thriller. It is quite some achievement, but the challenge was more than professional. The whole thing has clearly become a bit of an obsession for him. “I don’t think as a writer I could write about anything unless I was passionate about it, and wanted to understand it. I’ve always been fascinated with why am I here, will there be something after I die, what is good, what is evil? So this book gave me a fantastic opportunity.”
And in seeking out proof of God, has he ended up any more convinced? He pauses before answering, picking his words carefully. “Writing the book has given me a faith in informed intelligent design. When Tim Peake came back from his trip into space in 2016, he said that what he had seen made him think there has to be intelligence in the universe. That’s my starting point, where I’ve got to by very different means.”
And it’s thanks, in part, to Harry Nixon and that phone call. The novel is dedicated to him, but he died five years ago and didn’t live to see the day. James, though, has managed to track down his three grown-up grandchildren. “They came to have tea with me. One grandson, James, is a doctor, and he confirmed that Harry was no flake. He was a man his friends relied upon.”
In other words, the sort of man worth listening to when he rings out of the blue.
– © The Daily Telegraph