My son called me yesterday evening to gloat because of the outcome for him of a BBC quiz he’d just completed, entitled ‘Where would you be happiest in Britain?’ (The quiz can be found here, if you’re interested. I assume, for readers of this blog who live outside Britain, that it will guide your choice should you wish to emigrate from your country. 😉 I should add that, since the way into it is by selection of a miserable three photographic choices, I rather suspect that it has an equal paucity of possible places to put participants!) It told him that the place in which he’d be happiest is Lewes, in East Sussex (also its choice for my husband – QED my point about the limitations of the quiz), but his reason for calling was to let me know it also forecast the place in which he’d be most miserable. The prediction for him was ….Spalding! Where, apparently, the inhabitants are bereft of several character traits that those of other places have in spades, including friendliness. My son was delighted because he’s always affirmed that I, a native of Spalding, was born among bog-dwellers with webbed feet (and, in point of fact, my paternal aunt did have webbed feet!), whereas he is one of God’s Yorkshiremen.
Not willing to take this lying down, I decided to complete the quiz myself. It told me quite firmly that the place I’d be happiest living in would be Oxford (where there is, allegedly, a very high ratio of ‘cultured, conscientious and’ … ahem… ‘neurotic ’ people, just like me, apparently). And the place in which I’d be least happy? You may have guessed it already: Spalding!
Now, apart from pointing out the obvious – that the BBC must have a real down on my home town; so much so, that I wonder if the quiz might have been compiled by Jeremy Clarkson after he found out that all the restaurants serving food (hot or cold!) there are closed by 10 p.m. – I’d like to take issue with this.
First of all, I know Oxford well and have never considered it to be my idea of residential heaven. It’s pleasant enough and I’ve been to some good concerts there and eaten some excellent food in its (largely overpriced) restaurants. I have a significant number of friends and acquaintances who live or work there, most of whom are cultured and conscientious and some of whom are undoubtedly neurotic.
But, over the years, I’ve also had some pretty duff experiences in Oxford. Here are a couple of examples:
When I was working for a Scottish library supplier, I was once booked into a hotel (called Green Gables, but there, its resemblance to the home of L.M.Montgomery’s heroine ended), a turn-of-the-twentieth-century building that sat right in the middle of a run-down housing estate containing a maze of roads through which feral dogs and glue sniffers roamed at large. The hotel didn’t serve food and I didn’t dare to go out after dark in search of any, so I dined on a cereal bar that I had in my brief case and a glass of tap water. My room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since 1930 (the décor was bottle green and cream) and the ‘en suite shower’ (cunningly concealed behind a clear plastic curtain) was fitted with a rubber mat which, when lifted, revealed a thriving family of wood lice. Not very Oxford as Oxford conceives of itself!
My second example, however, is quintessentially Oxonian. I was visiting a publisher who persuaded me to attend an evening soirée featuring a ‘traditional African music ensemble’. Intrigued, I changed my train ticket and turned up at the event, hoping to feast on some of the exotic music and dancing I’d seen executed by a visiting troupe from Zimbabwe when I worked in Huddersfield (another awful town, according to the BBC). Imagine my chagrin when the ensemble turned out to consist of a quartet of upper middle class white Oxford ladies of a certain age playing its own arrangement of ‘native’ music on some very European instruments! I couldn’t capture my idea of Oxford better than by telling this tale, which does indeed demonstrate that Oxford is conscientious (if self-consciously so), cultured (in its own inimitable way) and neurotic (possibly).
When I think of places which have made me miserable, therefore, I’d have to include Oxford in the list. There are more deserving candidates, however. Among these, I’d cite Rotherham, a town that seems to have had nothing going for it since its magical (definitely, then, before the Industrial Revolution snapped it into its jaws!) ‘merry England’ manifestation, described by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe; Solihull, for several years home of the HQ of Dillons and Waterstones, a place which never seemed to have anything to recommend it except a larger-than-average number of dress shops catering for ‘the fuller figure’; its much bigger and uglier sister, Birmingham (though I admit the canal system there is superb and worth a visit); Bridgnorth, a place so benighted that even the local copper didn’t know where the library was; and, last but not least in the misery-making-for-me stakes, Middlesbrough, which I’ve visited twice and where I had my car broken into on both occasions.
And places where I’ve been happiest? Sometimes in London, spending delightful evenings with friends, though I’d hate to live there; often in Surbiton or Mawdesley, basking in special friends’ wonderful hospitality; at my God’s-own-Yorkshireman son’s various homes over time, both entertained and amused by him and his wife; and – yes – in Spalding; certainly, in Spalding, that sink of human baseness by BBC reckoning. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I’d have experienced a childhood of Dickensian deprivation if I hadn’t been very happy some of that time, and an unusual teenager if I hadn’t also sometimes felt melodramatically sad. Finally, I do actually like the place I live in now – otherwise, why would I have chosen it? – even though the BBC thinks it is only 54% suitable for a person with my character traits.
Which brings me to my final point. Supposing that I do exhibit more than average conscientiousness, cultural awareness and neuroticism, why should I want to ghettoise myself with a massive bunch of people just like me? My immediate neighbours are as unlike me as possible. They include a racehorse trainer, a physiotherapist, a lawyer, a doctor and several businessmen, as well as a number of retired people. Their passions include horseracing, greyhound racing, playing the harp, planting rare snowdrops and keeping bees, in none of which I have more than a passing interest. Some are bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met and extrovert; others are quieter, more reserved, but fascinating once engaged in conversation. Some take three holidays a year; one lives in the South of France for six months out of the twelve; others never have a holiday and hardly leave the village at all. We all appreciate the surrounding countryside. We all like being within a short drive of several major cities and towns. Other than these common points of consensus, mutual variety is the spice of our lives in so far as we share them.
So there you are, BBC. Mood and character createth the individual woman… or man; but not the place. In my book, anyway.
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.