Magnolia in Surbiton

As some of my readers with good memories may recall, DI Tim Yates has a sister who lives in Surbiton. So far, his sister has appeared only in In the Family and has no name; she makes no appearance in Almost Love. However, she is a benign, if shadowy, presence waiting in the wings and (I am certain) will crop up in a more central role in a future book.

As I’ve said before, topography and a sense of place are important to me, both in my own writing and in that of others, and I therefore try to place my characters in settings that I know well. I’m familiar with Surbiton because my long-suffering friend Sally lives there. She has allowed me to stay in her lovely turn-of-the-twentieth-century house on almost all of my visits to London over the past fourteen years and she makes strenuous occasions like the London Book Fair tolerable during the day and a joy when I return to her house in the evenings for conversation, wine and good food.

Surbiton is itself an interesting place. It is the quintessential English suburb – even its name suggests it. If you were to hear of it without knowing its location, you would not conjure up an image of a Fenland village or a rugged Scottish town. It sounds like what it is; it even has an equally suburban twin: Norbiton. The twins have mellowed together, their streets laid out and their houses and gardens maintained much as they were in late Victorian times. Even the shops have old-fashioned façades. You feel you might meet Mr Pooter coming round the corner, or see Jerome K Jerome and his friends boating on Surbiton’s stretch of the Thames. Many of the gardens in the street where Sally lives contain beautiful magnolia trees, a feature I think also of the time when they were first laid out, when magnolias were very popular. I love to see them in bloom and am always glad when the Book Fair coincides with their flowering, as it did this year.

Even Surbiton has to move a little with the times, however. On my latest visit, I was amused to see a sign directing would-be purchasers to a new housing development; amused, because the developers have called it Red Square. Now that is a brave step! I don’t know how established residents of Surbiton might feel about this designation, but, as someone who has visited its more famous Russian namesake, I have to confess I see few points of similarity.

I’ve not yet decided upon the exact street in which Tim’s sister lives. Originally, I had conceived of a rather genteel existence for her, perhaps working as a lecturer at nearby Kingston University and living in one of the pretty, solid, semi-detached houses within walking distance of the station. But perhaps she is not like this at all. Younger than Tim, perhaps she is an undercover agent working for MI5. She may even be about to move into a safe house in Red Square.

Red Square