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Writing London

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

So, I've always written. I have boxes of embarrassing journals, which I’ll never be able to re-read without wincing - earnest, pretentious little missives that did their best to make sense of the world around me. They did that, too, in spite of their awfulness.

But other things, too - stories, poems ranging from excruciating to not bad, little books. A Horse Named Ginger, painstakingly hand bound with wool and hole punch. And this book I’m writing now, the one that will be published in 2021 and is being billed as my debut (not strictly true, see above). This book that’s been being written for about 84 years and has now become two books - When Days Tilt and When Souls Tear. This book started as an idea when I was living in London, a city that’s deep inside my bones - it always will be, even though I’m first and foremost Australian.

There’s something about that old city. As as Australian with Anglo heritage, London was familiar. Through books, through the BBC series that always seemed to make it to our screens, through stories, through pictures. So when I first went there as a young adult, it felt instantly known. It didn’t feel strange at all, even though geographically it was almost as far away as it was possible to get.

But it’s not just the cultural familiarity. That old, old city - much older than any city we have in Australia (though a mere baby alongside Australia’s ancient Indigenous culture) has a feeling of being sprung from the ground. Parts of it are sunk so deep into itself that nothing can change it - no town planning, no gentrification, no plethora of cheery Pret a Mangers. London is no longer coal-stained and even the most mean and pinched terraces now command banker salaries - but still. Still.

An uneasy wind still shrills over Blackheath, once dreaded for its highwaymen, no matter how pretty its glossy village. Greenwich is a mess of roads and traffic, but pause near the Observatory and look down over the Thames and hear the ghosts murmur. Wander the Docklands and feel the shiver from the old brick warehouses. Stride along arrow-straight Roman roads and step over plague pits in even the most upmarket areas. Have you been to moss-garbed Tower Hamlets Cemetery (old Bow Cemetery)? Or Nunhead Cemetery, with its gothic tumbled angels swallowed by greedy green growth? You’re being watched, there.

And the river! It’s an official archeological site, because of the history that swills around in its brown depths. Go down at low tide and poke around with the mudlarkers and you’ll find centuries worth of clay pipes, and oyster shells from Victorian meals. Bits of ceramic and iron, luminescent old glass, maybe a Roman coin. That mirror down there at the bottom is festooned with my Thames finds (no Roman artefacts, this time). But it can happen. It’s all down there, bumping around together. Like London always has.

It felt so different to me, as an Australian, where the alien cities perch awkwardly on top of the land, plonked there in relatively recent times. In London the city and the land have grown into each other, a bit like the green tendrils wrapping themselves around gravestones in Nunhead Cemetery. There were stories upon stories here, all woven together. Waves upon waves of immigration and mingling, brutality and joy. Also the direst of human conditions - those who know say that being poor in Victorian London was the worst place to be poor, anywhere, ever. Peter Ackroyd said the London rookeries embodied 'the lowest point which human beings could reach.'

London has always been a place of extremes. Of frenetic possibility, of callousness and survival, of humanity and acceptance, of poverty and privilege - all at the same time, cheek by jowl. It was the biggest city the world had ever seen at the time my book is set, in 1858. Nothing could shock a Londoner. There was space for all of life here.

London is unapologetically London, and to a small town girl the energy of this place was intoxicating. The feeling that you’re just a drop in a vast human ocean, walking old roads where millions have trodden, for the tiny blip that is your time here. You become part of this beast, oh so briefly, and your bones never forget that.

And when that happens, you might find yourself catching the edge of a story that won't go away. A tendril of a tale that flaps at the edge of your mind until you catch it and twist it into a new strand. Because this old beast is character as much as setting, and she won't let you be until you finally pay your due and weave that new thread in amongst all her other tales.


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