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The Importance of Place

My new novel, THE LEGACY OF MR JARVIS, has more than one setting, but the most important, crucial place that dominates the narrative is clearly indicated by the cover image: the south east coast of England.

And not the contemporary south coast that you might visit these days.  My protagonist, Mary, is recalling the events of her life from late childhood  through adolescence in the last years of the 1960s and into the early 1970s.  Anyone who grew up at this particular period of the 20th century will hopefully immediately recognise in the novel the culture and norms that were prevalent.  The ‘Swinging Sixties’ really were a reality for the minority – most people were still trawling attitudes from the 1950s even if in material terms the times were beginning to shift.

But back to that all important setting.

My grandparents moved to Brighton when I was a very young child.   Retirement, it appeared, had promised them the prospect of a seaside home.  It seemed to be what people did years ago – they moved to the sea – as if the seaside was some sort of reward at the end of a working life and what anyone in their right minds would desire.  So the grandparents sold their detached bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex (as it was then termed) and bought themselves a flat in a modern block in Hove, with the snatch of a view of the sea from the precarious, miniscule balcony-  if you were willing to risk life and limb to spy it.  What did they do there?  How did this couple – both born and bred north Londoners of late 19th century Islington stock – occupy their days?  Neither of them drove.  There had never been a car. Always they had lived within reach of red buses and tube trains to ferry them around.   And yet all of a sudden they took themselves off to the south coast as if it was an inevitable destination.

Certainly they walked.  A lot.   My grandfather, all of his life (and he lived without a day’s illness until a sudden heart attack at 88 – despite lifelong pipe smoking and daily fried breakfast habits) walked at great speed, propelling my slight grandmother along with him, coercing her to keep up, Come along, Doll.   Even now I can see his restless gait and  determined, angular chin heading out through the streets of Hove and Brighton, double-breasted raincoat, shirt and tie.  And hat, of course.  This was not a generation that appeared to know casual clothes.

And we visited.  My father, the only child, packed my mother, my sister and me into the car fairly frequently in the years between 1961 and 1972, and drove us down to Brighton to see them.   First from Pinner, then from Northwood, we took that rather tedious, long drive down the A40, onto the South Circular, across Kew Bridge, skirted Kingston, by-passed Redhill and Reigate, noted curiously-named Pease Pottage and kept driving until we arrived at Furze Hill Court, Furze Hill, Hove.

And the sun was never shining.  Our south coast visits were never blessed by the sun.

Although I am sure my memory is a disservice to the sunshine records of Brighton.  Perhaps my father avoided warm, sunny days for visits to our grandparents, knowing everyone else would be clogging Kew Bridge and the Kingston by-pass, an exodus in pursuit of pebbled beach picnics and a chilled channel swim.

Because for me, visits to the south coast are hooked to memories of sludge-coloured seas and opaque skies.

Wet, windswept walks along beach fronts, sodden little girl white socks and matted, tangled hair from the onslaught of the relentless sea breezes. Flesh flecked with goose pimples rather than sun kissed skin.

And then there were those endless drives out in the car.

Because that’s what was done when visiting elderly, non-driving relatives on the south coast in the 1960s.  Everyone piled in (no-one talked of illegal limits of passengers in those days)and we drove along the coast to other windswept seaside places.  Stared through the windscreen wipers at less salubrious, less vibrant towns: at deserted beaches and abandoned Clock Golf and stacked deckchairs and Boarding Houses anxiously displaying VACANCIES signs.

At least these are the images hitched to my memory and the ones I have drawn upon for the setting in THE LEGACY OF MR JARVIS.

Of course it was not all like that.  Not all our visits from 1961 to 1972  were mired in depressing long drives through deserted rainswept landscapes. Brighton, even then,  had its distinct advantages.  We saw all those David Lean films – the sort that ran for 3 hours with intervals for ice cream- at least a year before they reached us in Suburbia.  We went on the Palace pier and wasted our money on Roll-a-Penny. We were charmed by the West Pier, resplendent then, before fire, erosion and disintegration took hold.

But Mary Foster, my protagonist and first person narrator,  does not live in Brighton.  (and her parents are not the sort to go there for ‘the pictures.’) The Foster family live in Sea View Parade, in an area further along the coast that remains unnamed and is fictitious.  And the mood and atmosphere I aim to evoke in the novel are those that have clung on over decades and come instantly to mind when I take myself back to those visits to the grandparents by the sea.

Setting for me is inspiring.  It’s the spark that starts the story rolling – the bare bones and foundations of the tale.  In my first novel, COUNTING THE WAYS, London in the 1980s, Oxford, Wales and a Greek island are all central locations and again places with which I am very familiar.  I admire writers who can write with conviction of destinations they have never visited as it is simply beyond me.  I need to have a strong connection, a kind of sensuous memory of sights, sounds, smells and more to create a setting that feels real and authentic.

At least that’s the plan.

I hope THE LEGACY OF MR JARVIS proves to be faithful to that aim.







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