Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Goodbye London … until next time

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I have survived a week alone in London – and my first ever stay in a backpackers – and it was a backpackers: basic, staffed by the United Nations, and with a distinctly Dickensian feel.

My room was on the fifth floor, at the end of a lonely corridor where nobody could hear me scream. But the bed-linen was fresh and I had the luxury of a basin and tiny fridge. What more could I need? Actually three things, a pair of rubber thongs, a hanging dilly-bag and a Boroondara gym towel. Fortunately, I had them all – and a slick daily routine. 

I drank coffee from my portable plunger every morning, packed a picnic for each day, and charged my various electronic devices in the evening (or late at night – depending). I spent my days in museums, reading rooms, and on tours. I also saw the Beggar’s Opera in Regent’s Park and in between, I walked the streets of Covent Garden.

You see, last year, after my novel had been rejected and then assessed, I had to decide whether to move onto another project, or keep going. I also realized, that if I were to keep going I’d have to redraft my novel yet again. It felt like failure (though, this is quite normal I am learning), and I wasn’t sure whether I could face another draft – indeed whether I’d have the heart to write ever again. Of course, the latter statement is foolish. I need to write for my sanity. But in the interim, I found myself unable to form the right words. I therefore turned to research.

I knew my main character came from Covent Garden – this was quite a down market area in 1841. I also knew I had to come up with a completely new beginning for my novel, and this involved knowing what Covent Garden looked like in 1841. I needed to explore my character’s backstory (or maybe I just like research) to find out where my she lived, worked, and went to school. Very little of this will actually be in the finished novel. But I needed to know it, in order to decide where to begin (at least, that’s what I tell myself).

There are no exact maps of Covent Garden in 1841 (at least not that I found). Only maps about twenty years either side of this date – in between there were multiple changes to street names, layout and buildings. I read everything I could find at SLV. Trawled British History on line. Wrote pages of notes. Made mud maps of possible changes – and it worked. I am thrilled to say – I could see my Covent Garden of 1841, though it has changed markedly. I  heard my characters speak. On my last evening in the Piazza, I came across a set of market rules that put some final niggling questions to rest. It was so very hard to leave, that night – like returning from Narnia or stepping out of a time machine. But I had a train to catch in the morning.

My main character’s father has always been a musician (but I wasn’t sure what type). In this draft his employment needed to be specified – he has therefore become a theatre musician. To this end, I have read books on Victorian Theatre and, more specifically, theatre musicians. In the V&A reading rooms, I encountered the names of actors, as if they were old friends. It was kind of electrifying. I wanted to turn round and shout it out – look, Macready! Bunn! Kean! They are real people! 
But the librarian held a finger to her lips.

The other aspect of my novel’s new beginning is life in a Deptford emigrant depot, followed by a journey down river to the sea. I decided to take a Thames river cruise from Gravesend. The Thames is an amazing river, tidal and ever-changing. The commentary of the waterman was both droll and informative. I found the Upper Watergate from where my migrants would have boarded wherries in order to be rowed out to their ships. I also visited Lewisham library and with the help of the Local History librarian, added some important details to their route through Deptford. Friends in Essex had warned me against visiting Deptford, but the librarian said it would be fine as long as I didn’t wander round the housing estates after dark. As his warning was made just on dusk, it had to be a quick visit. But I got a sense of distance and space, felt the thrill of walking where my characters might have walked – almost forgetting, in my excitement, that they are not real. 🙂

My other aim during my two weeks in England was to get an impression of WW2 London and the East End. My dad lived in Ilford during this time – hence my time in Ilford Library. In London, I visited Churchill’s Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, as well as a WW2 theme museum that gave a sense of the sounds, enclosed spaces, and smells of this brave chapter in Britain’s history. I want to write a story based on his experiences. 

I am almost ready to begin.

Now, I am in Wales and the adventure of trying to speak Welsh has begun. I hope to put on the page all that I have learned in London and Essex and, of course. Hopefully, it will make my story better – more tactile. Maybe, it will make the finished product more publishable. It has certainly made the process more enjoyable – which is by far the most important thing. For there are no guarantees in this writing game. The journey is everything.

PS. I had some nice photos to add – but Vodaphone is not coping with all the mountains. 🙂
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2 Comments

  1. Carine

    You’re the writer, you can make those characters as real as you like. So if in your mind they once walked the docks you walked on now, that’s exactly what they did =) Hope you’re getting everything out of this trip that you wanted to. Sounds like you’re definitely enjoying it, which is always the best start!
    xx

  2. Hi Liz

    Your account of your time in London transported me back in time and your story is so alive I can feel it from here.

    All that you’ve gathered will filter into this draft or translate into story.

    Thrilled for you.

    Chris

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