Friday, November 27, 2009

Mind the Gap

Earlier this week I was thrilled to learn that the nondescript patch of parkland near my home in west London, where I take our dog for her twice daily walks, is actually a Civil War battlefield. True, it doesn’t possess the reverent, sombre atmosphere of the battlegrounds of the First World War – the battle was way back in 1642. Nor is it as well preserved as the sites of the US Civil War (I didn’t see many wheezing joggers, park bench drunks or pooper scoopers when I visited Shiloh). In fact it’s not preserved at all. It’s just there. And that’s what I love about London. There is so much history lurking round every corner that no one can get that excited about an ancient battlefield.

I’ve always been secretly excited by the idea of standing on any given spot and thinking ‘A long time ago, something happened here.’ In London that feeling takes on greater resonance, because the presence of history is carved into the landscape, impossible to avoid. You can turn the corner of an unprepossessing street and find yourself staring history in the face. Or, as was the case with me when I was researching my first novel The Blood Detective, be riding in a taxi.

I had the plot for the book yet nowhere to set it. At the time I was living in North Kensington, on the outskirts of Notting Hill, which at that time was full of tourists who were expecting to see floppy-haired Englishman like Hugh Grant around every corner. I knew and had witnessed a far seedier, edgier side to the area; its history was one of abject poverty, slum housing, and racial tension. The chocolate box image projected by the movie contrasted with the reality I knew, but still I never thought of setting a book there,

Then one day I was in a cab approaching my street. The driver pointed out a small street beside the railway arches, filled with a row of identikit 1970s houses. 

‘You know what that used to be?’ the cabbie asked

Any Londoner will tell you that getting in a discussion with a black cab driver is unwise, unless you’re clinically insane or a purveyor of far right wing politics. So I feigned disinterest. As any Londoner will tell you, disinterest does nothing to deter a chatty cabbie. Only outright disdain will do. 

‘It was Rillington Place,’ he added.

Disinterest be damned. I couldn’t get enough of this. For those who don’t know, 10 Rillington Place was the scene of a set of notorious murders by John Christie in the 1950s, for which another man was wrongfully hanged. The case was turned into a film, with Richard Attenborough playing Christie, the mild-mannered murderer next door

After he dropped me off, I went to back to Rillington Place. I wandered down the street. I counted the houses. There was no number ten. The street name had been changed. It’s layout altered. The houses had been razed to the ground and replaced. Yet they still couldn’t bring themselves to build a number ten. Instead, between numbers nine and 11, there was a gap, filled only by a tree.

I had my setting. A theme, too. That no matter how hard we try, the past cannot be swept away. Places still bear the effect of what has gone on before, even if that imprint exists only in people’s minds.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan,
    This post of yours caused me to reflect. I junked the post I was writing for Monday and, instead, decided to put together something sparked by your thoughts.
    Wait for it...

  2. Hi Dan,

    I loved your story and seeing exactly how your idea to write Blood Detective was concieved.
    I wonder if you've ever seen that cab driver again.

    I'm pretty sure I saw the story about the murders that took place at Rillington Street. I think the murderer had several children and was abusive. If it's the same story I saw the kids interviewed.

    You can put me down as one of the tourists that would be looking for Hugh Grant on Notting Hill or anywhere else he might be.

    Sounds like there's a lot of stories buried in 'them there hills' in London.


  3. There sure are, Susie. I forgot to add that the pub I used to drink was also Christie's local.

    Leighton, I'm looking forward to it.

  4. Dan - as something to scare small boys into good behavior you could try something that worked well for my family.

    When my son and some of his cousins were that age there was an anniversary celebration in a private room in a hotel. The boys got a bit rambunctious so one of my brothers took them aside and told them that if they didn't behave he was going to line them up and have all of Nana's friends give them a kiss.

    That was a horrifying concept so gentlemanly behavior was restored.