How a novellist fell in love with north west London
PUBLISHED: 08:00 23 November 2016
Meg Carter immediately fell for the area where famous literary figures from John Keats to Robert Louis Stevenson and Daphne du Maurier had either lived or passed through.
Where writers set their novels has long intrigued me. Some prefer the places where they grew up – understandable, because first landscapes are often defining.
Others are more comfortable travelling further afield. But London was a foregone conclusion when I turned to writing fiction. It was where I came of age, the west of Hampstead – the first place I lived when I left home in the early 80s to study English Literature at Westfield College, the former University of London College once situated around Kidderpore Avenue.
I immediately fell in love with the area where famous literary figures from John Keats to Robert Louis Stevenson and Daphne du Maurier had either lived or passed through.
During my first year I lived close to the junction where Walter Hartright met the mysterious Anne Catherick late one night in The Woman in White - a book I avidly re-read on my arrival, relishing magical descriptions by Wilkie Collins, another one-time resident, of the views over London from Hampstead Heath at night, even if I never saw the Finchley Road as he described it: “lonely” and “deserted”.
For years after my friends and I lived around the outskirts of Hampstead. We walked regularly ‘cross country’ in all weathers to and from each others’ houses in Highgate, Swiss Cottage, Camden and Belsize Park.
I remember strolling up to Parliament Hill one summer day to the accompaniment of Live Aid blaring from every open window. And stopping to draw breath on Archway bridge during frequent treks from West End Lane to Crouch End to save the cost of a cab.
So it is familiarity with this part of London – and a little nostalgia – that means I still feel a tangible thrill when I revisit them through the books I read.
Like Belsize Park tube station where Miss Euphemia Pongleton was strangled on the stairwell by a dog leash in the recently re-published 1930s thriller Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. Or Highgate, so brilliantly evoked in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.
The place I lived longest was West Hampstead. That’s where I graduated from university, began a career as a journalist, and started dating the man who’d become my husband.
Looking back, there were many reasons I fell in love with the web of terraced streets from Fortune Green down to Abbey Road. The area’s close proximity to the city centre and Heath, its independent shops, leafy streets.
What I remember most, however, were the trains. With so many railway lines and local stations it felt alive with possibility - the darker side of which was brilliantly presented in a thriller I still love which came out around the time I bought a tiny one-bedroom flat in Lyncroft Gardens.
King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine features an ill-assorted bunch of misfits and weirdos who come to live together in a disused old school building beside the tube tracks in West Hampstead.
With a conspiracy plot at its heart, it has echoes of The Secret Agent. But ultimately it is a book about the London Underground - the magic carpet referenced in the title - both a looming and sinister presence throughout.
Rather than choose a potentially dramatic backdrop, for example, the decay and gothic excess of Highgate Cemetery which inspired Tracey Chevalier’s Falling Angels, Vine seemed to select West Hampstead because it was the opposite - understated, ordinary and reassuring – exploiting the contrast between setting and action to unsettle.
The book neatly demonstrates the potential for place to become a character in its own right. It was a reminder, too, that some of the scariest dreams I’ve had were set not at night time but in daylight.
I started writing fiction around the time my son started school. Still working as a freelance journalist, we’d reluctantly re-located to Hammersmith.
My first thriller, The Lies We Tell, is the story of two school friends who don’t see each other for 20 years after an incident on a lonely heath when one is attacked and the other runs away. And like many writers starting out, I favoured settings I knew best and that were most immediate for me: the Thames-side arc I regularly walked with my young son when he was a baby.
But for my second, I happily returned to north-west London. The Day She Can’t Forget, Canelo £3.99, is the story of Zeb, a thirtysomething single mother found wandering dazed, confused and bloodied along a remote Highland road. Key parts are set in and around Camden in the early 1970s and present.
In her search to discover how and why she got there, Zeb unearths long-buried family secrets she must confront to move on. Looking ahead, it looks like West Hampstead will play an important role in my third. And I must confess, I can’t wait to get back.