Wendy Moore, local author and co-founder of the Elthamread, talks to Stella Duffy about writing, living in south London and the ideas behind London Lies Beneath.
WM: You were born in Woolwich and have talked about your mother’s family coming from poor backgrounds in south London. How important are your south London roots and working class ancestry to your writing?
SD: My father's family, in New Zealand, weren't privileged either. I think class is huge whenever and wherever we are writing/telling stories; it is something else that defines who we are, how we behave, what we dream. I never understand when writers all too often, especially with ‘London novels’ write about everyone as if we are all white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied - that's not the truth of the vibrant and mixed city we live in and so it's not what I want to write about. I'm the youngest of seven children and I'm well aware that being the youngest gave me some benefits that the others didn't have, not least being able to stay on at school long enough to go to university. Class, poverty, gender, sexuality - these things are inextricably linked for me, and they all come back to the main problem for our society - inequality.
WM: How old were you when you decided to become a writer and what inspired that?
SD: I never 'decided' to be a writer. I wrote lots of (bad) poetry as a child and teenager, I loved stories, I have always read and been encouraged to do so by my parents, both voracious readers and very fond of the library! I started out as an actor, became a standup and improviser, and it was impro that really taught me how to write. Making up stories in front of a live audience is a GREAT training for writing, as is theatre. I think my work as a theatre director helps too, it is useful for visualising scenes.
WM: If you had stayed in Woolwich, been brought up and educated in south London, rather than emigrating to New Zealand, do you think you would still have had the same opportunities? Would you still have become a successful professional writer?
SD: I'm not sure. The small town I grew up in - Tokoroa [in New Zealand] - was easily as poor as Woolwich in the 1960s, but as it was massively multicultural, and the vast majority of people worked in the same timber mill (where both of my parents worked) so there was perhaps a stronger sense of an equal community. Of course there were people with more privilege (the kids whose parents ran the mill or had senior jobs there for example) but we were more similar in class, while being more disparate in ethnicity - and I consider myself hugely fortunate to have been brought up with so many different people. There was also a real sense, in NZ, that further education was possible, and that a career - rather than the labouring work my father did - was possible. This is NZ at that time though - the current NZ millennials are dealing with the same problems as the UK ones.
WM: What drew you back to live – and write about – south London?
SD: In 1981, when I was 18, one of my older sisters died. I had always intended to come back to London for a few years and properly get to know the elder siblings who had not moved to NZ when my parents took the two youngest of us. When Hazel died one of the things I had most dreaded - my siblings not surviving to become my friends - happened. Also, when I left university in 1984 I worked as an actor and I wanted to try theatre work in London/UK. I didn't expect to stay for 31 years though! I always thought I might be here for 3 or 5 years and then go back and make a life in Aotearoa/New Zealand. But then I fell in love ...
As for south London, it was where I could afford to live! And it was where my brother lived, and now where one of my sisters lives, where my mother comes from, so it has always felt more 'home' to me than north London. As one of the characters in The Room of Lost Things [a previous SD novel] notes, the river is the gift of South London. When I lived in north London - for five years only! - I hardly ever saw the river. Living in south London I cross it, and love crossing it, three or four times a week at least. In terms of writing about it - I've written about Constantinople, the Fens, California, New York - I see land very much as a character in books. South London has a particular, and usefully vivid, character.
WM: London Lies Beneath is based on the true story of a 1912 tragedy which involved several families from Walworth. What drew you to write about that?
SD: I'd heard the story many years ago and parental grief interests me. We now say, as if it were true always, ‘it's not natural for a child to die before a parent’ - I heard it a lot when my sister died, and also when my nephew (the son of another sister) died. But that's not true. Until the past hundred or so years it was extremely common for children to die before their parents - in childbirth, at a young age, or in war. It's really only with modern medicine that this has become so unusual. Which is not to deny the grief, but to look at it another way. I was also interested in the mass grieving that went on for these boys - a million people lined the route of their funeral. We tend to speak as if mass grief hysteria only happened when Princess Diana died, but it has always existed. I'm also very interested in the untold stories of working class people - so often anything about the Victorians or Edwardians is about ‘those upstairs’. They don't interest me at all, I find those below stairs far more juicy.
WM: The novel weaves together elements of different generations and different cultures, teasing out family loyalties and divisions, divides between class and gender. Did you draw on your own family’s stories? What other research did you do?
SD: There's very little of my own family's stories in the book - my grandfather was born in Deptford, in a shared house, in deep poverty. My Nana was in service in a large house in Wimbledon. Both of those stories feed a little of the characters, but I haven't based any characters on anyone in particular. In many ways, despite being based on a true story, because I chose to use invented families rather than the real ones this feels more fictional to me than much of my work. There are a few accounts of the boys' funeral and otherwise I looked up accounts of the time. Maude Pember Reeves's book, Round About a Pound a Week, is good on the poverty of the time and - being verbatim accounts - possibly more trustworthy than those written by the doing-good middle class about the poor.
WM: Among the voices in the novel you interweave the story of Edward Lovett, the middle-class collector of folk charms and amulets. Why did he interest you?
SD: I'm interested in why people have faith, what they believe in. Lovett didn't believe in any of the charms he collected, he was simply interested in the fact that people had them. The charms also gave me a great opportunity to create entirely fictional stories for their background - Lovett noted merely where he bought them and for how much, sometimes what people believed about them, but never the history of the charm itself. So that gave me great freedom to create brand new stories for actual objects that are in museums now.
WM: The recent tragedy of Grenfell Tower suggests those class divisions and the scandal of poor people being packed into poor quality housing is as relevant as ever. Do you feel the novel has a modern resonance?
SD: I hope it does.
WM: Eltham Library has signed up for the Fun Palaces initiative which you co-founded. What do you hope people locally will gain from that?
SD: I hope people get involved! Fun Palaces are about community - we encourage people to bring their passion, their skill, their hobby and share it with their neighbours. We have found (this is the fourth year of the national Fun Palaces initiative) that when people get together and create something together, be it a science experiment, or a local quilt, when they teach each other a dance or how to knit or how to code, that they speak to each other differently, they get to know each other better. It's always easier to have a chat with your neighbour while doing something together than when sitting at the bus stop.
WM: Finally, Eltham boasts many writers and aspiring writers. What advice or encouragement would you give them?
SD: Keep going! There are no tricks, no ticket, no easy way in. Do the work, keep doing the work. When the work is done, edit it, make it better and then send it out. Get rejected, make it better again, send it out again. And then get on with the next thing. Also - it's ONLY writing. Don't take it too seriously. Anyone can do it, if they have the patience and time, but only you can write the story YOU want to write.