My third novel, The Unravelling was published by Honno in 2016. My protagonist, Karen, does visit Wales in one chapter, but the book is largely centred on a council estate in Lyford, which was also a setting for my second novel Motherlove. Lyford is fictional, but it’s based on Luton, where I grew up. That is to say, it is based on my memories of the Luton I knew, before I moved away in the 1980s.
Motherlove draws on an assortment of images I carried with me of Luton, especially Wardown Park, but the council estate in The Unravelling is inspired, more specifically by the estate in north Luton where I grew up and walked to school, watching the massive engineering of the M1 steaming past the playing field.
Why is the setting so important to me? I think it’s because it reflects my fascination with things buried under the surface. Layers of history build one upon the other. They disappear beneath the next, but their bones are still there if you look. And that is very much what the book is about: the bones of the past scratching through to the surface.
This was my home estate in 1969, three years after The Unravelling is set. It has expanded greatly since then.
Visit a quaint village with half-timbered houses and a castle nearby and you can’t really escape a sense of history, but most people wouldn’t expect to look for it in a post war council estate. Growing up there as a child, I assumed it was all eternal – it had been there all my short life – yet all around me were signs of change. My grandparents spent their last years there, in one of the prefabs hastily erected after the war, and I witnessed the prefabs being bulldozed, to make way for the tower blocks that I watched rising, day by day, betting with my sister on which one would win.
One of the towers was called Hooker’s Court. For some reason that escapes me, the name has been changed.
I was aware that some houses predated the estate. It’s bordered by an outpouring of 1930s enthusiasm for pebble-dash semis and suburban bungalows, feeding off the main road out of town into short stubs of proposed streets that never led anywhere until the council got to work after the war.
You had to head out of the estate into the adjoining suburb, formerly a village in its own right, to find evidence of seriously old buildings. There was even a thatched cottage, slowly decaying, which has now been moved to a museum.
There are still one or two older houses on the edge of the estate, dating from Victorian times, when the railway cut through the common and created the pocket of land on which the estate was later built. Before the railway, and for decades after, despite the attempts of 1930s developers, the area was countryside, with a scattering of farms. But all that remained of the rural life when I came along, was a small market garden and a wedge of allotments bordering the railway. My father worked one of them. They were the realm of grumpy old men with views on broad beans. The allotments are still there today and thriving.
One other feature from the distant past is also still there. The Lane. Today, it is merely a neat pathway running between flats and new houses that have sprung up since I left.
It looks so in keeping with the development all around that you’d think it must be the work of modern town planners. In reality it is the only man-made feature that has been there from the start.
Here it is, in the 1880s, just a farm track.
And that is how it remained, when I used to walk home along it as a child. It was a dark, rough, muddy track, overhung with tangled trees, although the farm it once led to had disappeared entirely, remembered only as the name of one of the school houses.
The lane crosses a brook, these days on a neat metal bridge (just visible under the dark trees at the end), but when I was a child it was an old plank bridge, with an iron pipe running beside it. All self-respecting children natural chose to cross on the pipe rather than the bridge. The pipe is still there. Carrying sewage, I imagine.
The brook beneath was one of many tamed, long before the estate was built, into drainage ditches. Once the house-building began, some disappeared underground, and re-emerged hundreds of yards away. Towns tend to do that. It’s odd to think there’s a river flowing straight across the centre of the city of London, the Walbrook, which was totally underground even by Tudor times and is now just a street name.
This is the point where one brook on the estate disappears and I have never worked out where it reappears. Boys would venture into the culverts, but not me. It was well known that killer leaches lurked within and they would drain your blood and you would DIE!
Although I didn’t think in terms of historical development when I was twelve, I did know that there was very serious history on our doorstep. Under the railway, and through the copse where the River Lea rises (these days through a scenic metal grid in a concrete bunker), you come to banks and ditches that mark the site of a Neolithic settlement, although I always thought of it more as a wonderful wilderness of kingcups, tree dens, cowslip meadows and sticklebacks.
And, of course, there is the Icknield Way, which, in Luton, can’t decide whether it’s a suburban street or a prehistoric trackway. It is one of the great ridgeway paths that followed the chalk downs across England. Drive a hundred yards out of Luton and you cannot escape the downs on either side. They were our weekend playground, whether you were into gliding, kite-flying or just rolling down the hill.
At the foot of the downs lie reservoirs with canals and locks and a hump-back bridge that always had me squealing as we sailed over it in the old Morris 10.
The canal age began with the Bridgewater canal, the duke of Bridgewater being commemorated by the Bridgewater monument that is unmissable, poking out of the trees on the brink of the downs in Ashridge. Why it is called Ashridge I don’t know, because it’s cloaked in majestic beeches and silver birches but I’ve never seen an ash.
Behind the crest of the downs, on the gentle dip slope, lie small villages in what you might call Range Rover country.
I helped myself to all these images of Luton and its surroundings in creating the fictional setting for The Unravelling – the estate, the prefabs and allotments, the gloomy lane and its iron pipe, the canal bridge, the downs and their villages.
There is a house in the Ashridge woods that I would have loved to include, but I couldn’t because it’s too unique to be fictionalised. So unique that from my earliest years it was my dream home, because how could anyone not want to live in a house with a blue roof? These days, as a soulless adult, I look at it and just wonder how difficult it would be to replace bright blue pantiles, should one get broken. Time does that to you.
My images of Luton and the Chilterns don’t conjure up the wild Welsh wilderness of Celtic mysteries, and they don’t lend themselves to gritty urban thrillers, but they are the perfect setting for my brand of domestic noir, which understands that the darkest traumas can unfold in the most suburban settings.