Sunshine and Shops – researching the recent past


Marchmont St

Marchmont Street, where Alice remembered

I am drawn to books that set fictional worlds in real places, real streets, real neighbourhoods. Ruth Rendell, for instance, places the main action of The Keys to the Street in and around Regent’s Park. Writing as Barbara Vine, she set The House of Stairs in Notting Hill and King Solomon’s Carpet in West Hampstead. Charles Dickens uses London as the background to his books.

These and many other writers have had a great influence on me, so perhaps this has played no small part in my own writing. Thus in The Eighteenth of November, the events and the places are real although the characters are fictional. I find it very important to get the settings, as well as the events, exactly right. I was going to say that that’s relatively easy with places, but not necessarily. It depends on how much detail you want and when the action takes place. I have discovered, for instance, that the recent past can sometimes be more difficult to research than the historical past. What shops, for instance, were on the King’s Cross Road or in Marchmont Street in 1987?

Shops are difficult. There will be records somewhere but finding them would take more digging that was warranted. I only needed a typical café so it was more appropriate to create a fictional one albeit based on the many greasy spoon caffs to be found in London. The same went for the shops on Marchmont Street, though I kept the eclectic mix of shops that exist today. I imagine the street was not so trendy in 1987, though the eighties were pretty trendy so maybe it was. Of course the once rather seedy Brunswick Centre, at the Russell Square end, has changed beyond all recognition. Not entirely for the better.

It also required quite a lot of searching to establish the weather on the day of the fire and the days that followed. It may be a tiny detail but I didn’t want to describe something as taking place on a bright sunny day when it was in fact raining. The further in time I got from the fire the harder it was to establish the conditions; in those cases I just didn’t mention it or made the date nebulous, so that it didn’t matter.

The scene in Russell Square was more critical as I needed to describe it as it was in November 1987, scarcely a month after the Great Storm that had downed so many trees in London. As I thought, the trees in Russell Square had been cleared and chopped up but not yet removed, just as they appear in the book. However, many places remained relatively unchanged, Postman’s Park for instance and Parliament Hill. Neither has altered a great deal and remain much as they would have been when Fabriel and Alice searched across London, each on a desperate quest for answers.

The photograph of Marchmont Street comes with the kind help and permission of Silver Tiger. A great site to visit for diverse and delightful photos of London and useful advice, a bit of  philosphy and much else too.


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