Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Five Things Literary: London, England with Harriet Lane

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Harriet Lane

Our Five Things Literary series allows authors to share vivid insider details about literary life in their communities. Today though we travel to the other side of the pond to hear about the literary lifestyle in London, England — specifically the neighbourhoods of Highgate and Archway.

Today's feature was contributed by Harriet Lane, the author of Alys, Always (Simon & Schuster Canada). Alys, Always is Harriet's debut novel and is set in the neighbourhood where she lives. Read on to hear about literary life in London!


Five Things Literary: London, England

  1. Fairytale
    • I live on Highgate Hill in north London, somewhere between posh, pleased-with-itself Highgate, full of boutiques and coffee shops, and down-at-heel Archway where you step over drunks on your way to the (excellent, thrillingly cheap) Turkish greengrocer’s. According to the legend, Dick Whittington — having failed to find his fortune in London — was halfway up this hill, heading back to the country, when he heard the bells telling him to turn again, to give London another shot. He took the advice and ended up Lord Mayor.

      In his day, towards the end of the fourteenth century, the neighbourhood must have been fields and forests; but now Highgate Hill itself is a pretty charmless urban thoroughfare, especially in its lower reaches: a windy roundabout, a bus terminal, fast-food joints and betting shops.

      On the way to the underground station, I walk past the local hospital’s emergency entrance, sometimes pushing through the crowds of chain-smoking wheelchair-users trailing IV stands. But Highgate Hill still sounds romantic to me. I like that evocative fairytale echo of opportunity and transformation (themes that appear in my novel; the protagonist lives on my street, but yearns for the top of the hill). I also like that there’s an unobtrusive statue of Dick Whittington’s cat in front of a rather grotty local pub.

      Dick Whittington's Cat


  2. Highgate Cemetery
    • As I walk the children home from school, I hear the tolling of the Highgate Cemetery bell, warning that the gates are being locked for the day. Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radcliffe Hall, Stella Gibbons and Beryl Bainbridge are buried here, in its mysterious dark green avenues, alongside Karl Marx, the physicist Michael Faraday and (a more recent arrival) the painter Lucian Freud. It’s a powerful place, the Cemetery: a silent walled city for the dead and for foxes, its 15 hectares littered with listing Victorian pomp: overgrown, tumbledown, peculiarly atmospheric. The West side, with its Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon and Columbarium, is so hazardous it can only be viewed on escorted tours. I’d advise you to stick like glue to the guide. You wouldn’t want to get lost in there.

      Highgate Cemetery


  3. Late Greats
    • The leafy streets and terraces of Highgate — at the top of the hill, where the air was always considered to be cleaner and better for you — are studded with blue plaques, glazed ceramic discs fixed to property facades in commemoration of notable former residents: AE Housman, JB Priestley, John Betjeman. Dickens and Coleridge also lived nearby. Archway (always an edgier neighbourhood; for most of its existence something of a slum) has none.

      AE Housman's Home in London


  4. Living Fiction
    • Unlike moneyed Highgate, Archway is a district in flux, populated by the urban poor, art students and young families with all their aspirations, complicated baby buggies and potted bay trees on the front step. Perhaps because of this friction, it’s a neighbourhood that appears fairly regularly in contemporary fiction. The Archway Tower, an unlovely brutalist office block over the tube station, plays a key role in Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. By my calculation, Barbara’s basement flat in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is about seven minutes’ walk from my front door. In Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad, a character cycles home ‘towards the kebab shops and security grilles of Archway, where the children of North London live who cannot afford to move nearer their families, and do not dare to move further away.’


  5. Archway Library
    • My local library is located in the shadow of the Archway Tower, next to a pawnbroker, in an godawful windswept piazza forever gusting with scraps of litter. Inside it’s badly lit, more than a little shopworn, and not especially fragrant. But it’s usually busy: thronging with mothers and toddlers, people on their lunch breaks, after-school teens, the odd vagrant making the most of the central heating. You can come here to read newspapers or The Racing Post in its squashy chairs. You can hire a computer terminal for a half-hour slot while your kids loll around in the children’s section. You can rent Bridesmaids or series four of The Wire. And we haven’t even started on the books.

      This modest little building works. Over the years, it has given me endless treats, shocks and surprises. I’ll always be grateful to it for — and this is just off the top of my head — The Haunting of Hill House, The Grass is Singing, The Little Stranger, Legend of a Suicide, American Wife and Tony and Susan. As politicians look around for austerity cuts, libraries may seem an easy target; and yet a good local library, like mine, achieves something that the number-crunchers are barely able to fathom. It’s a portal to thousands of other worlds, some of which may usefully illuminate your own.

      Archway Library

Harriet Lane's first novel is Alys, Always, which was sold in the UK, France, Canada, Italy and the US.

For more information about Alys, Always please visit the Simon & Schuster Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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