Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Spirit of Place

'For one moment Swallowcliffe belonged to me. The lake, and the trees, and the sky above - even the house itself - were as much mine as they were anybody’s, because I had become a part of them and they were a part of me. Perhaps I would not vanish into thin air when the time came to go but leave something of myself behind. The next girl to sleep in that bed under the window might wake up one morning with a dream of me in her head, even though she would not know where it had come from, or quite what it was.'
From Polly's Story

Writing the Swallowcliffe Hall books has made me think about the impact a place can have on a person: the importance of the familiar sights we see every day, and the effect our surroundings can have on our state of mind. I've lived within the same four or five mile area of South London for nearly thirty years, with a couple of exciting years' time out in Johannesburg, and most of the time I walk about with my head in the air, thinking random thoughts instead of noticing or appreciating. So here is a tribute to a few of the things that I love about the place I live, in no particular order:

The flowerbed in the pavement outside the tapas bar, which has been painstakingly decorated with beer bottle tops. 

The trees in the park where I walk my dog, and the Georgian house at the top of the hill in the middle.

Bumping into people I know when nipping out to the shops or for a takeaway coffee.

The communal piano outside the station that's free for anyone to use.

The farmers' market on Sundays where you can buy meat, fish, organic veg, street food and all kinds of other interesting things. Last week there were petting lambs for spring! And rabbits!

The fact I can jump on a bus and be up at the South Bank in 30 minutes, or travel through London to St Pancras station in the north by train in the same amount of time (and maybe one day even hop on the Eurostar to Paris). London is my oyster...
The statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station
I love the idea that your relationship with the world around you isn't just a one-way street: that you might have an impact on your environment as well as vice versa (something I was trying to explore in describing Polly's feelings when she knows she has to leave Swallowcliffe Hall). As Karen Blixen put it so poetically in Out of Africa

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”  

So what do you like about the place where you live?



  1. I'm just coming to terms with the fact that I will eventually, 2-3 novels down the line probably, write about the place where I grew up [which I left at 18]. But I know I have to be ready to do it.

  2. Yes, absolutely. The right moment will come. Childhood memories go so deep and are so important in shaping our future lives. Much enjoyed your website, and I know just what you mean about the London Library. I'm not writing anything historical at the moment so have suspended my membership - but I miss it!! Enjoy...