If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that settings are important to my writing. The ones that I write about are often taken from life, though of course adapted or otherwise presented through a glass, darkly. I count myself fortunate in having a good memory – for things that interest me! If they don’t, I am at a loss; I am completely baffled by our motorway systems, for example. I can often recall in vivid detail people and events from a long way back in the past. I’m also very lucky that I have sometimes been the passive and curious observer of some very interesting settings, a couple of which I’ll share here:
When I was a postgraduate student, I lived in a flat in Brudenell Road in Leeds, which was (and still is) quite a run-down area. My room overlooked a ginnel (local dialect for an alley or a snicket!), beyond which were the back doors of a row of terraced houses. A great many men seemed to come and go at all hours of the day to the one immediately opposite my window. Occasionally, a woman appeared, framed in the doorway and wearing her dressing-gown. Being a naïve girl from Lincolnshire, I needed a boyfriend to tell me that it was what he called a ‘knocking-shop’. I watched the to-ings and fro-ings all the more avidly after this.
Just before Christmas, my flat-mate’s mother came for shopping in Leeds and stayed for the night. She and my flatmate slept in my room, which had a double bed, and I moved into the other one. In the morning, when her mother appeared, she was haggard and exhausted. “Thank goodness you weren’t sleeping in there last night,” she said. “There was a police raid on that place over the road, and we didn’t get a wink of sleep.” Damn! Damn! Damn!
Much more recently, I made a short visit to Russia to conduct some seminars for a group of Russian librarians who worked for a charity which had been set up to supply e-books to poor Russian students. The seminars lasted for several days. The charity had arranged for us to stay at a conference complex about thirty miles outside Moscow, explaining that, if we met in Moscow itself, the librarians ‘would only try to escape’. I was somewhat alarmed by this until I realised that it meant only that they might try to do a bunk from the seminars, lured by the attractions of the city. Nevertheless, the conference centre was quite an intimidating place. It had been an old KGB sanatorium and was still guarded by troops (who, I was fascinated to observe, wore different coloured combats every day – while I was there, they were resplendent successively in blue, brown and green). The rooms in the centre were luxury itself. Not much austerity seems to have been practised by the KGB! The carpets were all knee-deep wool pile, and all the bedrooms had fantastic marbled bathrooms. The food was a little strange: Meals consisted of many courses, almost every one featuring pork. There was no wine, but every night new bottles of brandy and vodka were placed on each table (which seated four people). In the reception area, a huge parrot with exotic plumage sat on a perch, neither shackled nor perturbed by the constant stream of human traffic. There were extensive grounds, bounded by the river Moskva. I walked down to the river one day with one of the librarians. An old sign leaned crookedly on the bank. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Oh,” he said. “It says that anyone trying to swim across the river will be shot!”
I honestly haven’t made a word of this up! It is raw material, still to be worked on by passing it through the dark glass. I may even have to tone it down, in the interests of credibility.