Westcotes Homeless People’s Reading Group, Leicester

Professor Bob Usherwood of the University of Sheffield recently asked me for a brief account of my visit to the Westcotes group, which he could include in an article for Information Professional – the Library and Information Organisation’s magazine. This is an adapted version of the email I sent him.

As a novelist, I’m a big advocate for public libraries. Also, I’m usually up for talking about my writing. So when Matt, the library manager, mentioned to me that he had lined up Finer Things for the Westcotes Reading Group I naturally volunteered to come along – if they wanted me.

I suppose the stereotypical book group would be predominantly middle class, predominantly female, in a coffee shop somewhere talking about Iris Murdoch – and mostly that’s what they’re like. They’re lovely. I’ve done a few book group gigs and always really enjoyed them. The Westcotes group, however, is different, in that its members are either currently homeless and struggling with substance abuse, or have been in the past. Organised jointly by Matt and Lee Ayres, a local homeless man, they meet in the library once a month to share a meal and talk about a book.

Meeting this group was fascinating and rewarding for me. Things I learned that night about living with drug addiction will probably make their way into the book I’m writing now. I hope they got something out of my contribution too – though if I were to attend again, my approach would probably be different. Normally, I just take questions and see where they go. I think for this particular group a prepared talk might have been useful, just to shape things a little more at the start.

Not everyone had read the novel, and some members were there mainly for the food, warmth and companionship, a few hours out of the rain. After a while, talk drifted away from Finer Things and towards the group members’ personal interests and experiences. The thing is, these are all characteristics of pretty much every book group I go to, including the middle-class coffee shop ones, because they’re never just about the reading; they’re about reading as the context for an essential social act.

Essential social acts are rarer things when you’re coping with addiction and living on the streets. So the point was not particularly my book; it was the fact that these people could come into a library for a few hours to talk about it. They had all been alienated from society, and this group was a toehold on normality for them. For some, it might be the start of a route back in. 

My novel in eleven stops

The weekend before last, at the suggestion of my publisher I took a tour around London, for the benefit of social media, visiting places that appear in Finer Things.

There were several problems associated with this challenge. Most significantly, not everywhere in the book actually exists. Still, I did manage, sometimes on foot, sometimes by Tube, to get around a fair number of the book’s scenes. It was interesting, returning a couple of years after my original research, to think about how the realities of the city of today were translated into the fictional world of the book, and of 1962/3.

1.

I started – as Tess does – at Euston Underground:

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“Tess Green stepped out from the oily heat of the Underground and joined the mass of commuters on Euston Road. To a nineteen-year-old from Dewsbury, the anonymity of the capital was exhilarating.” (p20)

Well, yeah… except that the current Euston Underground I’m lounging against here and the one Tess would have come out of in 1962 aren’t the same. Both stations here were totally rebuilt during the late sixties.

Below is the main entrance to Euston as it would have looked a few months before Tess’s arrival. Preparations for the new station began in early 1962 with the demolition of the Euston Arch.

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A campaign to save the arch, spearheaded by John Betjeman and supported by (friend of the Krays) the MP Tom Driberg failed. All that remains now is its name – inherited by a pub called The Doric Arch – though as any architect will tell you, the Euston Arch was not, in fact, Doric in design.

Why didn’t I mention any of this in the novel? It would certainly have fitted my theme of London on the brink of a cultural transformation. Well, it’s a short scene, Tess’s first appearance in the book, and my priority was to establish her character. Bringing in the works at Euston would have required a long, pace-killing explanation. To be clear: the omission of this material has nothing to do with my having missed it when doing my original research. Honestly.

2.

From Euston, I took the Tube to Chalk Farm – immediately leaping months ahead in the timeline of the novel.

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“I’ve got a proper job too. Barmaid in a pub in Chalk Farm – near that big old train shed they’re turning into a theatre.” (pages 233-4)

As Delia remarks, in 1963 the former locomotive repair yard across the road from the pub was being turned into a performing arts venue – The Roundhouse. Here it is in a photo from 1967, and then roughly the same view in 2019, but with added me.

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3.

From Chalk Farm, I took the Tube to Pimlico, to visit the inspiration for my imaginary art school.

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“It was a broad, open interior with raw, paint-spattered floorboards. Abundant light from its many windows illuminated the three interviewers so that they looked, even in their modern dress, like a scene from one of the Dutch masters.” (Finer Things p.23)

This is Chelsea College of Arts, known in the 1960s as Chelsea School of Art. Its exterior was the inspiration for my (totally invented and Bloomsbury-located) Moncourt Institute. However, since I never described the outside of the building, readers may have their own entirely different ideas of what Moncourt looks like.

Its interior, which I do describe, owes a lot to images like those to be found in this lovely archive of London Art Schools.

4.

I had to walk past the Houses of Parliament, on a day when hundreds of police officers had congregated, ready to manage the conflict about to break out between some nice Anti-Brexit campaigners and a thuggery of far-right opportunists. Nothing much happened while I hurried by. At Trafalgar Square, I found this going on:

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Here was a demo against dangers to cyclists in London – bike riders lying, as if dead, on the road. I climbed up onto the base of Nelson’s Column to get a photo – on the opposite side to the spot where speakers at the anti-apartheid demo in the novel once stood.

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“The Marchers filed into Trafalgar Square, and became first a crowd, then an audience. Barbara Castle spoke, then Harold Wilson, then Duma Nokwe, the exiled secretary-general of the African National Congress.”(p.143)

Much more on this event from 1963 can be seen at the Anti Apartheid Movement Archive

5.

After a bit of a rest in the National Portrait Gallery, where Bill Nighy no less crossed my path, it was only a short walk to an earlier moment in the story:

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“Marius was standing near the doors of the Odeon Cinema, sheltering from a mercifully light snowfall. Even from this distance his disappointment at the sight of the three of them was obvious.” (p.98)

I couldn’t find any images of Leicester Square during the Great Freeze of 1963 – but here’s one of nearby Piccadilly Circus:

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6.

From there, a slightly more substantial stroll into Soho, via the Picadilly and Charing Cross Road bookshops to see who among them was stocking Finer Things, and drop off a few promotional bookmarks.

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“Suddenly there were far more men on the streets than women. Oily little characters outside shop fronts marked ‘Peep Show’, ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ or ‘Private Cinema’ accosted passers-by and tried to encourage them in.” (p. 99)

My description of the area in the early sixties is mostly inspired by ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ – a little masterpiece of British cinema, starring Anthony Newley and Julia Foster. The exteriors for this movie were shot in real-life Soho, including the opening card game, in which the original Ronnie Scott’s premises doubled as a gangster’s dive.

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There are still a few sex shows and porno retailers in Soho, but these days it tends to play up its bohemian side rather more.

7.

On the morning of the second day, a bit deaf and dehydrated from seeing The Flaming Lips in Brixton the night before, I headed out to Delia’s prime shoplifiting territory, in Kensington. It was, as will be evident from the following pictures, sunny.

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“So here Delia was in Kensington Square at half past ten on a muggy May morning. Her scalp itched under a heavy brown wig, and the railings she was leaning against dug into her back. Teddy was supposed to have delivered the apprentice twenty minutes ago.” (p.3)

8.

And from there, a stroll around the corner to Barkers of Kensington, the scene of some of the book’s most dramatic events.

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“With its austere sheets of windows, its unexpected curves, its flattened towers, Barkers seemed an odd thing to discover on a London street … Of all the stores to go hoisting, this was her favourite.” (p.7)

Still an astonishing building, Barkers no longer exists as department store, having finally closed in 2006. Its premises were subsequently carved up to accommodate a variety of much smaller shops and businesses. London is full of such Ozymandiases: permanent monuments to the hubristic optimism of trade.

Here standing in front of it, with a taxicab for a backpack and one of those Art Deco columns balancing on his head, we find the author of the novel:

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9.

From whence, (still in chapter 1) to Kensington Gardens, where first…

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“Delia watched a kid in school uniform feed a pair of lurid green birds that had no place in any English landscape.” (page 12)

These ring-necked parakeets probably established themselves in Kensington Gardens during the 1950s, and a few would have been visible in the early sixties. One story goes that the original breeding pair escaped from the set of The African Queen and another that Jimmy Hendrix set them free from his flat. Nobody really knows. They are extremely friendly, and will generally take a piece of apple if offered.

Just a little further on:

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“Delia and Maureen found Maureen found Lulu near the Peter Pan statue, sitting alone on a bench by the Serpentine, surrounded by half a dozen well-stuffed shopping bags.” (P.13)

The bags are not so well-stuffed, but this is the bench I was thinking of.

10.

Almost done now. First a short walk, but a big leap through the novel to get to The Albert Memorial where this fantastic bit of business takes place:

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“..the four criminals cheered the Choir of the Red Army as it marched from Knightsbridge to Kensington.” (p 278)

The Alexandrov Ensemble still tour the world, and they really did perform at the Albert Hall in 1963. I found this photograph of them marching through London, or one like it, and knew immediately I wanted them to march through my novel too.

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11.

And finally:

This scene was originally intended to occur somewhere else, but during my my research walk, I came across the churchyard here, and it was just obviously so much better.

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“Tess and Penny stood under a violet sky in the graveyard at St Pancras Old Church, looking at the Hardy Tree” (p.187)

The gravestones woven into the tree’s roots were placed there under Thomas Hardy’s supervision after they were removed from their original positions to make way for the expanding railway. Hardy was an architecture student at the time. He found the idea of simply dumping the stones disrespectful, and suggested this alternative. His satirical poem, ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, was likely inspired by the experience.

THE LEVELLED CHURCHYARD

“O passenger, pray list and catch
   Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
   Of wrenched memorial stones!

“We late-lamented, resting here,
   Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
   ‘I know not which I am!’

“The wicked people have annexed
   The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
   Teetotal Tommy should!

“Where we are huddled none can trace,
   And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
   Where we have never lain!

“There’s not a modest maiden elf
   But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
   And half some local strumpet!

“From restorations of Thy fane,
   From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane
   Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”

As well as this literary peculiarity, the churchyard contains the the grave of Mary Wollstonecroft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and mother of Mary Shelley.

Here, also, is the tomb whose shape inspired the design of the classic British K2 red phone box. Like the one Tess goes to in Yorkshire to phone up Penny.

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Image result for k2 phone box yorkshire
See?

And then I was tired, and went home and had my tea.

The end.

Book Launch

You might assume that, as the sort of person who can happily devote hundreds of hours to sitting alone in a room making up stories, I’m unlikely to have much of the extrovert in me. Well, I don’t know if that’s just a stereotype, but if it is, it’s not one I could be said to buck. Hence my unease as my book launch drew nearer. Ah the horrifying prospect of a social event at which I’d be denied my usual refuge of (far too much) alcohol; one whose stated purpose was me!

With any luck, nobody would come.

But what if nobody were to come? That would be terrible.

My research had told me that, apart from a few high-end events, most book launches are relatively unimportant from the point of view of promoting a novel. They’re really just a chance for the writer to celebrate publication. So it wouldn’t matter if nobody came.

But what if nobody came? That would be awful.

Debut writers don’t tend to attract large audiences – nobody has heard of you after all. That’s why my publisher recommended I do my launch in the city where I live, so I could pull in favours, call on friends, colleagues, family, acquaintances… and thus (with luck) ensure myself a reasonable turnout.

And so, shamelessly – or rather with shamefaced determination – I set about pumping the upcoming event. To be fair, quite a number of people I know seemed excited by the novel, and interested in its central concept. Getting them out to a two hour event in a library on a Thursday evening, though, would be a different matter. I estimated that for every person who said yes to me, there would be two who wouldn’t make it. Twenty people would be reasonably respectable, I thought.

Then there were the practicalities. My publisher provided the wine, the library some soft drinks and cakes. I bought in fresh-made Indian finger food from a local shop. Since my novel is set in the 1960s, asking my friend Andy to put together a trio to play songs of the era seemed a nice idea.

and the band played on

Matt, the lovely community librarian, and his team of brilliant volunteers organised everything else. I wrote a talk, decided which bits from the book might make for good readings. Debbie from our local independent bookshop arranged for two members of her team to run a stall selling copies of the novel.

It went well. We sold out on the bookstall, the audience (about thirty in the end, including many people who didn’t know me) seemed to have a good time, and I now have a talk I can revise for use at future events. I won’t be looking to set myself up as a party planner any time soon, but I feel pretty good about it all.

a moment at which I was unusually animated

My triumphant return to Twitter

A few years ago, I had a lurker account. Even that kind of low-level involvement with social media didn’t sit too well with me, though, and I shut it down. I suffered no nostalgia; there was, I discovered, no Twitter-shaped hole in my life. It had merely been pushing more valuable activities out of the way. Let’s do a metaphor, shall we? If intentions are oxygen, Twitter is cigarette smoke.

And then I got a book deal. So there I was in September, lighting up again.

To begin with, it did not go well. After a nightmarish false start when I found myself surrounded by voices howling detestation and fury at each other, I temporarily closed my account and regrouped, unfollowed most of my previous lot and started again.

Now I mostly follow writers and people involved in publishing. They are in the main nice and supportive to each other. It’s been useful and entertaining. I’ve made many helpful connections and engaged with lots of thoughtful, interesting, funny people. Also, by a curious accident, Twitter has reconnected me to an old friend I thought had fallen out of my life entirely and forever.

Sometimes, though, you really can’t do right for doing wrong on there.

How my novel got its name

Although this is the first post in in my ‘debut novelist’ blog, I’ll skip the ‘my struggle towards publication’ part of the story if you don’t mind, except to say that writing novels is lengthy, lonely, often hopeless work, and like most novelists I got turned down a lot before someone said yes. So, of course it was a big deal, personally and emotionally, when Sandstone Press accepted my manuscript in September of last year. The novel they offered to take on, however, was not called Finer Things but The Unlosable Game.

Here’s why it had to change. I am an unknown novelist; my name means nothing to potential readers. Consequently everything else about my book’s cover has to pull in attention, including the title. Nobody at Sandstone much liked The Unlosable Game and, although I was a bit sad to give it up, my publishers had more experience and success at selling books than I did. Agreeing to choose a new title was easy; finding one, not so much. It would require the following qualities:

  1. The title had to say something about what was in the story – about the collision between Delia’s gangster world and the lives of my art school bohemians. That’s why Among Thieves was one of my favourite alternative choices – but…
  2. It must not already have been used for another novel (so Among Thieves didn’t make the cut – and a curse on Jeanette Winterson for having got to Art and Lies first).
  3. It couldn’t be too on the nose – hence goodbye to The Art of Shoplifting and all others of that variety.
  4. And it must not be rubbish. (I am too ashamed to list many of the titles I suggested during a week or so of emails, but trust me, plenty of them were abominable.
titles…titles….titles…..

We had to come up with an answer fairly quickly so the designer could get on with draft cover ideas. I kept throwing lists of ideas at my editor; she kept coming back to one particular title I didn’t like at all (at the time – though now I can see it might have worked). You go snowblind with a thing like that. Everything looks right and everything looks wrong.

And then Alice, who runs Sales, suggested ‘Finer Things’.

Hmmm. All of my characters are looking to make their lives better in some way; Tess and Jimmy are fine art students; the consumerist world of the department stores Delia robs is all predicated on an illusion of a life improved by expensive things. It fitted. During the edit I even found a way to slip those two words into the text, as if they had always been the title I planned. Look out for that, careful reader.