Louise Hare is a London-based writer and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Warrington, the capital is the inspiration for much of her work, including This Lovely City, which began life after a trip into the deep level shelter below Clapham Common.
This Lovely City
With the Blitz over and London reeling from war, jazz musician Lawrie Matthews has answered England’s call for help. Fresh off the Empire Windrush, he’s taken a tiny room in south London lodgings, and has fallen in love with the girl next door. Touring Soho’s music halls by night, pacing the streets as a postman by day, Lawrie has poured his heart into his new home – and it’s alive with possibility.
Until, one morning, he makes a terrible discovery.
As the local community rallies, fingers of blame are pointed at those who had recently been welcomed with open arms. And, before long, the newest arrivals becomes the prime suspects in a tragedy which threatens to tear the city apart.
Congratulations on This Lovely City, which is an absolute treat of a novel, can you tell us a bit about the initial inspiration and motivation behind the story?
Thank you! The novel actually developed out of a short story. I’d done a guided tour to a deep level shelter beneath Clapham Common which I’d known was used as an air raid shelter during WWII. What I was surprised to find when I got down there was that they had also housed Windrush passengers for a few weeks when they’d first arrived. I was on a creative writing MA at the time and had to write a short story for the course. I just tried to imagine what that must have felt like, to arrive in a strange country and then find yourself shoved underground, how disorienting that must have been. That was how I came up with Lawrie – an edited version of that short story is now the first 1948 chapter in the novel. When we workshopped it, the overwhelming feedback was that people wanted to know what happened next. Evie was a character I’d already been thinking about for a separate story but when I tried putting her together with Lawrie it just seemed to work.
The novel is set mid-twentieth century and in particular around the arrival of the Windrush generation, how important was it to tell this generation’s story in part?
Strangely enough, I didn’t set out to write a Windrush novel. It was an accident, mainly born out of the original short story, and once I had the plot I knew I had to write it. What is important to me is exploring Black British history and telling stories set amongst Black communities that have often been ignored. Naively I had assumed that people knew about the Windrush period, mainly because I was so familiar with it. I’d read Small Island and seen various programmes on TV so I thought it was in the public consciousness. When the Windrush scandal happened I realised that actually a lot of British people just didn’t know anything about it. I even knew people who lived in Brixton and south London, who walked past Windrush Square on a daily basis, and never knew where the name had come from.
I believe the novel was written pre-Windrush scandal, and there is a lot in it about a sense of belonging, community and welcome, so when the Windrush scandal came to light, how did you feel about the story and these questions of belonging, community and welcome in Britain?
The idea of belonging and being welcome were in my mind right from the start – the initial short story was called Welcome Home, which referred to the fact that the Windrush passengers had British passports and thought of themselves as travelling to the Mother Country. They weren’t immigrants in the usual sense of the word. And I’ve lived my life being asked that dreaded question – But where are you really from? So I really wanted to address that through Evie who was born in London, contrasting her experience with Lawrie’s as a new arrival. I’d pretty much finished the last draft and my agent was happy with it when the scandal came to light. I did one last tiny edit, just making sure that we’d really emphasised those points.
And following on from that, the novel explores the racial and cultural tensions particularly in the mid-twentieth century, writing over half a century later, how did it feel to step back into this period of time with these particular tensions at the fore and where do you think society is now in terms of attitudes and race relations?
I think that the main difference between the 1950s and now is that racism tends to be more subtle. When Lawrie is looking for work, employers are legally allowed to tell him that they won’t employ him because of the colour of his skin. All that changed gradually as laws against racial discrimination came in from the 1960s. What I’ve observed personally over the past few years is that we’ve become complacent. As a society a lot of us had assumed that these racist attitudes had gone away, that a new generation had stamped them out. In reality I think that it just became less acceptable for a while to voice racist opinions. A lot of Evie’s experiences of racism are my own – some from my childhood in the 1980s and 90s, and others from very recently. A lot of people expect racism to show itself in the form of aggressive language or violence but I wanted to show that it can manifest in smaller ways.
The novel’s title is This Lovely City and I wondered about the origins of this – as, for protagonists Evie and Lawrie, at times, London is far from a ‘lovely city’.
The title comes from a calypso song – ‘London is the Place for Me’ that was sung by Calypso musician Lord Kitchener for the reporters who met the Empire WIndrush at Tilbury docks. I liked the hope in the song, and there is a lot of hope in the book, even when things are going badly. It is meant to be slightly ironic though!
At the heart of the novel is a love story between Evie, a mixed-race Englishwoman, and Lawrie, a Jamaican arrival to the UK on the Empire Windrush, and the obstacles and struggles they face both individually and as a couple, how important to their story is this sense of adversity?
The love story was sort of a happy accident. I had these two separate characters – Evie’s story was something I’d been sitting on for almost a year and then I realised that once I added in Lawrie it worked. The fact that they’re in love raises the stakes for both of them – they’re fighting to stay together as well as to keep their freedom. You keep reading to find out if it works out alright for them, because there’s a real risk that it won’t. Even I didn’t know until I reached the end which way it would go.
The plot also touches on the challenges facing mothers of mixed-race children in the period, with a very nuanced portrayal of the relationship between Evie and her mother Agnes. Agnes is a very complex woman and I was curious about how she came into being as a character and your own understanding of her.
Agnes was one of my favourite characters to write, along with Aston, because they both started off as just serving a purpose and then developed into quite complex people. Agnes has had a hard life. Once I started thinking about what her life must have been like, bringing up a mixed race child in the 1930s and 40s, never getting married, having lost the love of her life, it was actually not that difficult to see why she is how she is. At times she treats Evie abominably but she does love her. She just doesn’t know how to show it.
The novel is treated to a cast of wonderful characters, and I found DS Rathbone, in particular, to be a character that engenders strong reactions. How typical of mid-twentieth-century attitudes do you think DS Rathbone is and how much is he a symptom of the problem and how much a cause?
Rathbone was probably the trickiest to write. I wanted him to be more than just a stereotypical ‘racist cop’ character, but at the same time I wanted to limit his involvement because I wanted each appearance he makes to have impact. Whenever he shows up you know something bad’s going to happen but I didn’t want him to become a panto villain. Rathbone portrays a view that I think is still current – the idea that he’d be happier if he could send everyone away who wasn’t white. He says it all to Lawrie in the very first scene they have together. He’s just an average man yearning for a better time, whenever or whatever that means. I was writing a lot of the first draft just after the 2016 Brexit referendum so Rathbone’s character was heavily influenced by people I saw on TV, glorifying this mystical golden age and going on about the British Empire. The main difference is that Rathbone is living at a time when there still is an empire to talk about.
At the end of the novel, the epilogue moves the story some eight to nine months on from the main narrative, what was the reasoning behind this timeframe and did you ever consider taking a bigger leap forward in time, to see how where the characters and society at large are at some ten, twenty years down the line?
I played around with a few different timeframes for the ending of the book. In the end I decided it made sense to jump just enough ahead that there was resolution for the main characters. I didn’t consider ten or twenty years ahead because so much happens in terms of race relations in that time and I didn’t want to introduce that in a last chapter. It’s for the reader to imagine what will come afterwards.
This month at NB we’re thinking about book to screen adaptations, and I wondered whether as an author you visualised the characters or the scenes of This Lovely City at all in this sort of cinematic way? And, in an ideal world, who would be your dream cast if the book was made into a film?
I definitely visualise scenes in my head as if they’re a film. I can see everything in my head. Some of the settings in the book are real, such as the department store restaurant Lawrie takes Evie to (which is now the café in Debenhams, Clapham Junction!) and of course Clapham Common, although the real pond doesn’t quite look like the pond in my head.
In an ideal world I like the idea of casting unknown actors for Evie and Lawrie. They’re so young at the beginning that it would be nice to give someone that opportunity. For Agnes, maybe someone like Emily Watson who’s always fantastic in everything. I’d have Jimmy Akingbola in mind for Arthur and Philippa Dunne, who plays Anne in Motherland for Mrs Ryan.
As a debut novelist, how has your experience of being published been? Has it differed at all from your expectations?
So far it’s been a very exciting and positive experience. I’m quite lucky in that I have a good friend, Harriet Tyce, who was published last year. I’ve been able to watch her publication journey first so I knew some of what to expect. Even so, it can be a nerve-wracking process, seeing your words go out into the wild and waiting for people to decide if they’re any good or not!.
I’m sure on the back of this book you will have a legion of fans, me included, who will be hoping for another book, can you tell us if there is a second book in the pipeline and perhaps what we can look forward to?
I’m working on book two at the moment. It’s tentatively titled Passage and it’s set in 1936, partly in Soho but mostly onboard the Queen Mary. My main character is Lena, a jazz singer who’s just been offered the role of a lifetime on Broadway. She’s excited to have the opportunity but she’s also running away from something. And then there’s a death… It’s very much a murder mystery. Hopefully in the vein of Agatha Christie crossed with Patricia Highsmith!