It’s wonderful to open this week’s post with the news that I’ve been shortlisted for Best Reviewer of Literature in the 2021 Saboteur Awards, a big surprise given that my running of the Literary Sofa has been pretty shambolic over the last year (bad times make for good excuses). Thank you to everyone who showed their appreciation so far; if anyone would like to vote for me in the final round that would of course be great. Sofa guests Catherine McNamara, Cath Barton, Amanda Huggins and Louise Walters Books are also in the running but fortunately not in the same category as me! Details here – voting closes 5 May.
Meanwhile it’s my great pleasure to welcome acclaimed author Marika Cobbold, who joins me with a Writers on Location post on release of her eighth novel following a ten year gap, On Hampstead Heath. It’s one of my Spring Spotlight choices, set in a place I’ve known and loved for many years and at only fifteen minutes’ drive from my house, probably the closest location in this long-running series to where I live. My review of the novel follows:
I’ve never been much of a walker. I would go so far as to say that I felt a certain resentment about the whole business of putting one foot in front of the other. It didn’t help that writer-friends like Amanda Craig and Elizabeth Buchan were always extolling the delights of a bracing 10k walk; the wetter and windier, the better. I love them. I do. But there were moments when I wished they were a little less, well, perky. They said that I too could be perky, if only I followed their example. I sat down with a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Some fifteen years ago I moved up to Hampstead. ‘How wonderful, everyone said, ‘You’ll have Hampstead Heath on your doorstep.’ I decided to take their word for it. Then Gilbert, a shiny-black miniature pinscher, entered my life. Gillie was small of stature and giant of heart and he had the energy and stamina of a marathon runner. Whether to walk or not to walk was no longer a choice. If I wanted even a moment’s peace to work, I needed to tire out Gillie first. And so began my love affair with – if not walking exactly – certainly with the 790 acres of ancient woodlands, meadows and pasture, paths and ponds, that is Hampstead Heath. Every day, come rain or shine, Gillie and I would set off on our tramp.
The air is fresh on the Heath. (For a Londoner, anything you breathe in that is below 80% diesel counts as fresh air.) An hour there is the break your poor city lungs crave. Come May, our favourite winding path was a maze of scented cow parsley and that June we walked amongst red poppies, giant daisies and something blue – forget-me-nots. It was the Heath that gave me the title for my new novel and it was there that I found the perfect location for its pivotal scene, Viaduct Bridge.
The search for the ideal spot had taken me across London, up and down buildings, along canals, only for me to come across it on my own doorstep. Viaduct Bridge is dramatic, tall enough for the requirements of my story, and while accessible to the public, nowhere near a CCTV camera. In short, the perfect setting for my news story about the Angel of the Heath and his daring rescue of a woman drowning or, to be accurate, the fake news story. Viaduct Bridge was built in the mid 19th century by Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, who wanted it to be the grand entrance to an estate of similarly grand villas. Mercifully, a land preservation campaign launched by angry locals stopped Sir Thomas in his tracks. The unspoilt acres remained unspoilt and we were left with a magnificent monument to people-power and an early example of what has become a perennially popular Hampstead pastime, public protest.
We rang the changes, walking on the Heath extension, close to Jack Straw’s Castle, which, true to the idiosyncrasies of the area, is not a castle but was a famous pub. Charles Dickens enjoyed eating there, describing it 3 as a place where he could get “a red hot chop for dinner and a glass of wine”. William Makepeace Thackeray and Wilkie Collins also visited, though I have no idea what they liked to eat.
A few hundred yards from Jack Straw’s Castle, Gillie and I came across another magnificent folly, the Pergola. Built in 1904, it too was the brainchild of someone with more money than sense, making me think that sense can be overrated. The pergola, in its faded glory, provided a perfect place for my two lovers in which to wander. These were happy days, but one sunny June morning in 2019, Gillie was taken, snatched as he played with another dog, just feet away. One moment he was there, the next, as a dog-walker crossed my field of vision with his pack, he’d vanished.
What happened next is a long and terrible story, but suffice to say, he was found dead the next morning in the middle of a main road, in a completely different part of London. He’d been run over; we think while trying to get away from his captors. He had been stripped of his own collar, with its identity tag, and was wearing a new one. His abductor was never found. It broke my heart.
It took a year and a new little dog before I set foot on the Heath again and there are parts where I can’t bear to go. The other walkers see me there, a woman with her dog. Only I can see the other one, the tiny, sloe-eyed puppy with a tail that never stopped wagging, gambolling along; always there, always just out of reach. Gillie is in the book too, I didn’t know how to finish writing it without him there.
I still love the Heath, a place for artists and dreamers, for lovers and walkers, for weary office workers, for mothers and children and of course, for dogs; a blessed bit of nature in the midst of our capital city, but walks there now are bittersweet.
Thank you to Marika for this beautiful but heartrending post – it must have been so difficult to write about the terrible experience of losing Gillie.
IN BRIEF: My View of On Hampstead Heath
When you read a novel set in a place you know and it’s done well, it’s very satisfying. The setting is what drew me to On Hampstead Heath but it’s only one of the merits of a relatively short book with a lot to say, think about and discuss. The subject, broadly and specifically, is truth, or its absence where you would hope to find it which, let’s face it, is almost everywhere in this era of fake news, vested interests and corrupt government. While protagonist Thorn Marsh is a journalist who compromises her own values by inventing a story which goes viral, the novel is liable to make any reader reflect on their own relationship with the ‘facts’. Do we believe things without evidence or looking at the other side, or worse, spread information we can’t vouch for? Cobbold’s sharp and witty prose proves the perfect tool for dissecting the issues to reveal a culture where the nuances of debate are often lost to simplistic polarities and even objective truth can be shockingly elusive.
Stimulating topical relevance and enquiry are all very well but they don’t make a novel. For me, the portrayal of Thorn as a realistically flawed and relatable middle-aged woman in the eye of a crisis was what did that. Sure, I would say that, but I don’t get to say it often enough. Thorn’s a really interesting, complex woman and her personal story touched me. I can imagine sitting up late talking to her for hours. Interrogating the nature of truth is a skill; creating characters who feel this real is an art.
My next guest in early May will be Amanda Huggins with a Writers on Location post about the North Yorkshire coast, setting of her beautiful novella All our squandered beauty.