I am fascinated by place, and how a narrative depiction of place – in time, geographically, emotionally, physically – can transport a reader beyond the here and now to the extent that they will not hear their name called or a ‘phone ring. I love to read authors who get it right; writers who take me beyond myself, so that I am walking their streets, into their homes, their places of work, and I’m right there, caught up in the fibers of the story, where I am supposed to be. Place is as much a character as, well, a character. So is Time. I think we can learn much about place and how to write about it by delving into memoir. How do we take people to the places where we grew up? How do we lead the reader by the hand so that they are on our highways and byways, walking to our shops, or meeting our neighbors? It’s good practice – and if nothing else, as a writer you should be practicing, as much as a runner, a concert pianist, or a vocalist has to train every day. That’s why, on this blog, you will read about all sorts of things, and not just about writing – that “naked truth about life” is a golden opportunity for us to cross-train.
Which brings me to the attic.
When I was three years old, we moved into a Victorian terrace house “in need of some modernization.” My mother was in the early stages of pregnancy with my brother at the time, and the house – rented accommodation that my parents would go on to buy when I was in my early teens – was considered an upgrade on our previous home, after all, this one had electricity. The house comprised three storeys, with the large room at the top of the house – the attic – at first used as a spare bedroom for visitors (and believe me, when my mother’s family came to visit, there were people camped out everywhere, after all, she had 9 siblings. I have more cousins than most people have ancestors in the family tree). It was later, when I was 11 that my parents moved up to that room. In my estimation, the attic was the most wonderful room in the house. Mind you, until my parents laid claim to it, it was also the room with the dressing up trunk.
Imagine this – a big black wooden trunk filled with old clothes, two satin bedspreads, discarded lace curtains and another Indian cotton bedspread. The room itself had sloping ceilings – it was in the eaves of the house - and two windows. One window looked down to the lane below, to the duck-pond opposite, and if you craned your neck to the left, you could see the pub – a former coaching inn – at the top of the lane. The other window commanded a breathtaking view across a patchwork of woodland and fields as far as the eye could see. I sometimes wonder why we never had a photo taken from that window, but my father’s box Brownie would not have done it justice. The room smelled a bit musty; the fragrance of used clothing in a room seldom used, of lavender and moth balls. Light came into the room in bright shafts that seemed to attract dust motes as if they were tiny insects looking for a place to dance.
When the cousins came to visit, it was an onslaught of kids looking for adventure in the country (that huge extended family lived in London). The boys ran down to the woods and the girls to the attic. I remember one day, there was me, Stephanie, Gillian, Martine, Jane, Susan, Rosanna and Janice in the attic, and we were royalty locked in the castle, with the war going on around us – it might have been the French Revolution. Gillian was wrapped in the pink satin bedspread. I was wearing a lime green silk-ish bathrobe that had belonged to Mrs. Eldridge at number 6. Martine was swathed in the dark green bedspread and I think Jane was a princess, wrapped in the Indian bedspread embellished with a lace curtain. Sue was reading in the corner, and I seem to remember that Rosanna and Janice were part of the play, but really they would have rather been practicing their coordinated dance routines that only Martine managed to follow. The play-acting had hit some sort of lull, when Gillian suddenly flung open the window and said (in dramatic voice), “The pheasants are revolting.” To which Martine quipped, “Well don’t eat them then.” Jane and I rolled up laughing, Martine nearly peed in her pants, and Stephanie – who I think was trying to direct the proceedings – rolled her eyes and walked off to join Sue, adding, “Know your pheasant from your peasant!” And now, as I remember that day, the hardest thing is that three of those cousins have passed away – what a bittersweet joy memory can be.
If the house was a person, and the room was a limb, that window looking out across the county of Kent, had a heartbeat. On summer evenings, when dusk came late and time ran away with us as we played in the woods, my mother would climb the stairs to that window in the attic and call us home, her voice carrying across the countryside and echoing back again. And she would know that we’d be on our way (woe betide us if we tarried, that’s for sure). In truth, the dog heard her first, rounding us up and chivvying us back to the house as if we were sheep into a corral.
I remember another time being woken by my father before dawn. He half-carried my brother up the stairs to the attic, and I followed, my eyes gritty from being prodded into wakefulness, that smell of musty cold causing me to sneeze as he unlatched the door to the stairwell. He opened the window and told us to keep watch, because a comet would cross the sky at any moment, and it wouldn’t come again for hundreds of years. We watched and waited, until finally we witnessed the comet score a line into a slow sunrise, as if a match had been struck across red brick. “See it, do you see it?” he asked. “I can see it, Dad,” I assured him. I nudged my brother, who was leaning against my arm, drooling in his half-sleep while trying so hard not to miss whatever he was supposed to have seen.
My mother and father eventually claimed the attic for their bedroom. And for a college-age young woman, home from London for the holidays, the attic window was a long way up! I'd come home late from a party, and having lost my key, I began throwing pebbles up to the attic window to wake them. I think my father had slept fitfully, waiting to hear my footfall on the path, for my he soon opened the window to call down, "Just a minute!" “Nice party then?” he asked, as he unlocked the door for me. And I told him it was, as I picked up the two bottles of fresh milk from the doorstep and brought them into the house. Our milk was delivered at five in the morning.
When I think about place, in my writing, I bear in mind that a place has history, as does a character, and the writer can breathe life into both the character and the place by memory, even I it’s a recollection of another place. Sometimes, in November, I can walk out of my house in northern California, and there’s a certain smell to the air – it’s a blend of fog, of yesterday’s warmth and the morning’s chill, and it reminds me of hop-picking season in Kent, where I was born and raised in England. In writing about it, I explore a reflection of the past as it blends with the present, and doing so I can bring both time and place alive. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but exploring place is like exploring character for a writer. You have to climb stairs, look out of windows, know the neighbors. You have to lift your nose to find the scent of the place and you have to listen to the sounds it makes. You have to get under the skin and down to the bone.