Responses to Some Questions from a Book Group

Warning – contains spoilers.

The reading group at the Book Corner independent bookshop in Saltburn on Sea recently read and discussed Finer Things. These are the questions they sent me – and my answers.

  • Where did you get your inspiration for the story from?

I’d just finished my first attempt at a novel – written for my Creative Writing PhD – was thinking about what to do next, and came across a brief reference in a Guardian article to the Forty Elephants gang. I was drawn immediately to the notion of these powerful women, and the particularly female world of organised shoplifters/shoplifting. I also knew I wanted to write something about Art and Artists, and the connections between the two activities seemed irresistible to me. Once I’d done some initial research, things really just fell into place for the first 2/3 of the book – the historical context provided a lot of dramatic ideas. The ending took a little while to come into focus for me. I knew there would be a robbery, and Tess would have to be involved in it, but the actual form of it arose naturally out of the story. Quite a relief, since at that point, I’d written about the first 65,000 words.

To begin with, the main artist character was going to be male, but I really didn’t want this to be a love story, so I switched very early to a young woman. The male co-protagonist survived in the third-billing role of Jimmy.

  • What research did you do into 1960s London and the shoplifting gangs? (I realise you cover this a bit in your Author’s Note).

Lots. Lorraine Gamman’s book, which transcribes Shirley Pitts’ verbatim account of her own life was the most influential. Poor Maureen’s experience at the Borstal is drawn directly from Shirley’s life – though Shirley, who was a much tougher character, survived it a lot better.

I also read a lot of general stuff about the period, about the East End and the Art School scene. Because I have aphantasia, the visual element of writing fiction doesn’t always come easily to me, so while writing descriptions I would look at clothing catalogues, photos of the period, films, all sorts, to pick out the right kinds of period detail.-

Google street view is such a wonderful resource too! However, towards the end of writing the book, my wife and I went to London for the weekend and took a real-world walk around as many of the book’s locations as we could. That was so useful – it was when I came across the Hardy Tree, for example and first encountered the ring-necked parakeets in Kensington Gardens. I’m not a Londoner, and I didn’t know the city especially well when I started writing, so I’m always delighted when people compliment me on having realised the city well in the book. I re-trod that walk after the book was published, and blogged about it here –

It’s also easy to omit important things – for example, it was only during final editing that I remembered the great freeze of 1963. I had to go back to the Jan/Feb scenes in the novel to introduce some snow and ice.

  • Are any of the characters based on real people (apart from the Krays)?

Apart from the named historical characters who pop up on the sidelines – the Kray twins, The Richardsons, Harold Wilson, Duma Nokwe etc. – everyone is made up. Delia shares a bit of DNA with Shirley Pitts and Stella was a kind of hybrid of Alice Diamond (hard-case leader of the Forty Elephants) and Barbara Windsor. The location, Fenfield, is based loosely on Stratford, East London. Of course, all novelists blend their characters out of real people and imagination. Both Itchy Pete and Tommy the Spade have their loosest origins in people I encountered.                                          

  • Where did the idea for Delia’s Imps come from? Do you have any similar superstitions yourself?

I am a saluter of lone magpies, and always send my regards to their wives and children.

Delia’s imps were directly inspired by this passage in Philip Pullman’s introduction to his version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. They grew into their own thing pretty quickly, though.

  • I found the character of Delia sympathetic and relatable, but I felt conflicted about Tess. Is she meant to be an ambiguous character? Do you sympathise with her as the author? 

Tess is young, and I’m inclined to cut her some slack because of that. I hope it’s clear that she grows out of some of her immature qualities during her year at Moncourt and in particular begins to take herself to task for her self-absorption. I also wanted to make her tougher than Delia in some ways, less moral and less fundamentally honest. I do like her. I suppose most of her problems are rather more middle-class than Delia’s – especially her growing understanding that she will never be more than a middling sort of artist – and her dilemmas might seem less urgent. When I was writing, I’d alternate between their character perspectives, and it was always a wrench to leave one for the other. I did especially enjoy their scenes together, when we see how they read each other’s characters. In its original version, the novel began with Delia and ended with Tess; as it ended up it’s Delia at the start and the finish. I suppose if I’m absolutely honest about it (and one hates to admit favourites among one’s children) she’s probably the one I like best.

  • Do you think Jimmy would be happy in his marriage to Tess, or would he end up feeling trapped? Would Tess feel the same?

Aha. Well, actually, I know exactly how it pans out, because there was originally a long epilogue following all the main characters right up to their old age. Suffice to say that the marriage has its ups and downs. Jimmy has to continue living with depression, and that isn’t easy for either of them, but they learn to deal with it. Because Tess is mostly asexual and doesn’t suffer from jealousy, Jimmy is free to follow his impulses in that direction. There’s no feeling of being romantically trapped on either side. They do love each other.

  • Is any of the artwork created by Tess and Jimmy inspired by real artwork?

No. All invented by me. I did Art ‘A’ level, and have continued to love visual art all my life, especially mid-20th century works. It was a bit of wish-fulfilment for me, thinking up the concepts for Tess and Jimmy’s pictures – since all I had to do to make them real was describe them. That said, I would love to see some of Jimmy’s colouring-book images take physical form.

  • Are you working on another novel or writing project, and if so, can you tell us anything about it? 

I’m writing a novel about a short-lived late 1980s indie band who break up before they have a chance to become properly successful. 25 years later, they finally meet again, revisit their past and try to put all their ghosts to bed. To continue the theme of using fiction to create artworks that are beyond my own skills and talents, I’ve had to ‘write’ the band’s songs. That’s been terrific fun.