Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The story behind my Limehouse story

Now that my Limehouse story has been published (read it here), I thought I'd set out some thoughts about where the idea came from and how it developed.

I’ve already blogged about this project and my first visit to the area, when I took lots of photos and made pages of notes. The mile of the London Marathon route that I'd been commissioned to write about had so much potential. The challenge wasn’t to come up with an idea, but to find some sense in all the rambling thoughts it provoked.

Dickens was an obvious early starting point. My mile has a pub where, as a child, he was made to dance on the tables for money – a pub that features in at least one of his novels. But I wanted to dig deeper.

What about the wharves? Narrow Road is lined with them. These are the small docks, slipways and storehouses from which some of first – voluntary – passengers set sail to Australia.

One of them, Dunbar Wharf, was once the headquarters of the world's largest private shipping fleet. I read about its founder, Duncan Dunbar, the seventh son of a Scottish tenant farmer, who moved to London and made his fortune in wine and spirits. And I read about his son, also Duncan, who built the shipping business.

He named his largest ship the Duncan Dunbar, whether in honour of himself or his father nobody knew. I learned that it ran aground three years after his death off the coast of Brazil. Its captain landed his passengers on a sandspit and rowed 120 miles in an open boat to get help (everyone was rescued 10 days later). Another story told of a ship that caught fire off Australia – the last anyone saw of its captain was when, to rescue her from the flames, he threw his wife overboard.

I read the younger Duncan’s will to see what story ideas it might suggest, but felt my attention drawn back to the streets of Limehouse.

Next I researched Alderman Henry Potter, a mayor of Stepney, who gave his name to Potters Dwellings, an alms building on Limehouse Causeway.

I discovered that he once made an incredibly tedious, and obsequious, address to members of the royal family, which I read to no benefit. Then I became intrigued by the fact that Potters Dwelling had been renamed Saunders Close.

I learned that a Mr Saunders was the caretaker of the building during the second world war. It was renamed after him in honour of the valiant – but frustratingly unspecified – deeds he performed during the Blitz. I found someone who, before the war, attended the school next door, and remembered the building under its old name. She knew Mr Saunders had done something incredible, but didn't know what.

Finally I read about the Chinese community that used to live here, how they made it London's original Chinatown, before just about everyone moved to Soho. Many of them worked the early steam-liners that docked in London. It was only when these young hands arrived that they found their passage was one-way – they had no means of returning home and were destitute, unless they could find work on another ship. The idea of writing about one of them appealed.

I looked into this further. I read about Fu Man Chu and the Yellow Peril, Jack London's journeys into "The Abyss". I discovered that the Chinese community that took root on my mile were mainly from Canton and Southern China. Their compatriots from Shanghai lived about a mile to the northeast, around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street.

I remembered that about a year ago I wrote a story based in Southern China for the children of my local primary school, one that took inspiration from ancient folk tales that mixed human and animal characters  I started to wonder what might happen if I transported some of those characters to Victorian Limehouse – how would their hopes and fears manifest themselves in the London of 1892?

Along the way, I found myself reading the transcripts of trials held around that time at the Old Bailey, London's main criminal court. They captured a form of justice that was brief and brutal. The idea of characters bearing testament appealed. A line kept running through my head: "I am Sheep, some say I steal". It became the first line of my story.

The last step, I teamed up with my illustrator, Nick Parker. The need to brief Nick made me think more deeply about what my story was about, and what mood I was after. His response to early drafts, and his initial drawings, made me revise the piece endlessly – until the final deadline arrived, when I put down my pen, crossed my fingers and handed everything over to my editor, Rishi Dastidar. And there my story ends, or begins.

Monkey! One of Nick's brilliant illustrations



5 comments:

Faye Sharpe said...

Wonderful Neil! I was only sorry it stopped when it did! A beautiful fable. And Nick's illustrations are just perfectly fantastic. You found THE story to tell.

John Simmons said...

Well done, Neil, really interesting to read how much research went into your story. Its beautiful lightness doesn't suggest the weight of research. My mile is very close to yours and I skimmed it by comparison - but I had a family link that meant I'd been 'researching' mine for forty years. We came up with completely different approaches to this tiny area of London, and that's the beauty of the 26 Miles project. I love Nick's illustrations too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Neil, I was born in No 2 Potters Dwellings in 1934. i can remember the wartime air raid shelter being built in the yard. In those days of course the gates of Gill Street school didn't open up in Limehouse Causeway. There was a large playground where the front of the school is now. I'm so pleased to find out the history of its name and also how the change of name came about.

Neil said...

Hi anonymous, lovely to hear from you. When I have a bit of spare time, I'd really like to find out more about Mr Saunders. I wonder what he did that was so brave?

Anonymous said...

the name did not change to saunders close unitl about 1964 after the flats had been totally remodernised

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