How Sesame's street characters all snapped into place

Primrose Hill customer provided inspiration for children s book, hears Bridget Galton FOR 15 years, on and off, Jenny Valentine worked at Sesame whole food shop in Regent s Park Road, Primrose Hill. She remembers the first day she walked across the brid

Primrose Hill customer provided inspiration for children's book, hears Bridget Galton

FOR 15 years, on and off, Jenny Valentine worked at Sesame whole food shop in Regent's Park Road, Primrose Hill.

She remembers the first day she walked across the bridge from Chalk Farm into what seemed like a charmed enclave.

"I was a teenager living in a squat in Fellows Road. It was evening and walking across that bridge was like you had gone back into a little village. There was a real community there and some extraordinary people would come into that shop.

"I met so many people, amazing old people from the retirement community opposite the park - artists, antiques dealers, musicians. I learned how fascinating the old can be."

One of her elderly customers was a former pianist Eileen Matthews.

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"She was in her late 70s and had fantastic dyed orange hair with white roots and a white stick which she used to trip handsome men up in the coffee shop.

"She was hilarious and had a wicked sense of humour. She used to come in and buy one egg."

While working at Sesame, Valentine had two children, took an English degree at Goldsmiths and worked as a jewellery maker.

After returning from one absence, she discovered Eileen had died and her ashes were in the local landlord's estate office up a small mews.

Years later, when Valentine sat down to write a novel, Finding Violet Park, she remembered Eileen's story.

"I thought if I invented that

no-one would believe me, so I decided I would start from there and let my imagination go."

The teenage hero of the book, Lucas Swain, becomes intrigued by the urn of ashes left in a cab office up a cobbled mews. Convinced that its occupant is communicating with him, he decides to rescue her remains and discover more about her.

His quest leads him to examine his own past and identity to unravel the mysteries around his absent father.

"Violet became a hybrid of Eileen and where my imagination took me," says Valentine.

"She never talked about any family - I think she was possibly twice divorced and possibly Irish. But it was a good thing I didn't know too much about her so I could take my character somewhere else."

Eileen donated a self-portrait to Primrose Hill dentist Vicky Lee and confided that she wanted her ashes sprinkled in the Thames.

Later this year, Valentine and Lee hope to fulfil her final wish.

"She gave Vicky the self-portrait because she wanted to be on the wall of the dental surgery. She said, 'I want it there on that wall.' Over time that picture has got moved from behind something or shifted position and it's now exactly where Eileen originally wanted it. I felt like that about the book - that there was something inevitable about it," says Valentine, who now lives in Hay-on-Wye and is writing her second novel.

Valentine says the whole business of writing her debut novel feels "slightly charmed".

It was another Sesame customer Belinda Hollyer, an editor, who read Finding Violet Park and passed it onto an agent.

And Valentine says the voice of the young boy Lucas also just "popped into my head".

"I had no idea about wanting to write for children but it was fun to be a teenage boy. He was different from me and I could say stuff that as a 32-year-old woman you shouldn't say.

"Working at Sesame was a lovely job and when you find a lovely job you should stick with it. After leaving the shop, I was able to look back at what I had learned there."

Finding Violet Park by

Jenny Valentine is published by HarperCollins, price £10.99.