A Sense of Place
A Sense of Place
It was in Jericho, the formerly working class quarter of Oxford next to the canal, where Philip Pullman placed his Gyptians, living on their barges in Northern Lights the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. The Dead of Jericho was the fifth novel (though the first to be filmed) in Colin Dexter’s Morse series and was also set there. In Sylvia Vetta’s Sculpting the Elephant Jericho is where artist Harry King, one of the book’s central characters, lives and has his business. So I enjoyed exploring its streets and walking along the canal when I went to the Jericho Book Fair recently with my publishers, Claret Press. The Oxford Indie Book Fair was there too.
The flaneur (or flaneuse) is the spectator of urban life. The word has acquired a meaning beyond its original, rather prosaic, translation of ‘stroller’ or ‘idler’ – though I was a bit of both. Baudelaire called him ‘a mirror as vast as the crowd itself…responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.’ An early apotheosis was probably in Flaubert, who blurred the question of who was doing the noticing of the streets, the character or the author, but can be summed up by Christopher Isherwood’s famous phrase in Goodbye to Berlin, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open’. Today the psycho-geography of city streets is considered by architects and town planners and the flaneur has become a recognised literary figure, the walker of the streets, like Will Self or Peter Ackroyd, though they have distinguished predecessors, most notably Charles Dickens.
By and large, writers need place. Even writers of speculative fiction cross-reference locations within their own new-minted worlds. Middle Earth has distinctive places and topography, so does Gilead. Gimli walks the streets of Minas Tirith, noticing the stonework, Offred describes the stadium turned punishment park. Some writers anchor their tales in one particular place – Dexter’s Oxford is a case in point, but one could equally cite Hardy’s Wessex or Bennett’s Potteries. Others use location as integral to the narrative. In my own case, location is very much part of my plots, as well as the themes of the books. So Plague, the first in my crime series (Claret Press, 2020), is about power and is set in Westminster. Several aspects of London’s very specific geography and history inform the plot (newly discovered plague pits, a subterranean ‘lost’ river, a hidden Roman baths and World War Two underground bunkers). It couldn’t be set anywhere else. It is so very local that I’ve even created a popular ‘walk of the book’ and a London Guide company wanted me to lead it as one of their walks.
Similarly, Oracle, the second book in the series, (Claret Press, 2021) needs its setting, in Delphi and Athens, Greece. It helps drive the narrative and also illuminates character development. ‘Know thyself’ is one of the Delphic maxims attaching to the Temple of Apollo there and my central character certainly needs to do that, she’s been making some very bad decisions. The theme here is justice and the various forms it takes, from the arbitrary rule of the ancient Gods, through blood justice or vengeance to modern day justice under the rule of law and Delphi figures in that too, just as it did in 5th century Athens (BCE) when Aeschylus wrote his Eumenides, set in Delphi and Athens. Unfortunately travel restrictions have prevented me from returning there to compile another ‘walk of the book’, though Mount Parnassus and the Temple complex would be great sites to walk around.
I’m currently writing Opera, the third in the series, which returns to London and which visits some of the capital’s lesser known haunts, places of enchantment hiding in plain sight, for the theme here is truth. I hope to create yet another walk. Maybe that one too will become a guided walk.
If you would like to do the self-guide Plague walk, which follows the course of the lost river Tyburn, download the leaflet here. If you’d like to read about creating that walk, try my website at https://julieandersonwriter.com/2020/08/08/walking-a-book-walking-a-river/ and subsequent pieces.