written for Virago’s site for hb of RoLT, 2008
I live in Loughborough Junction, which is something of a no-man’s land (what with not having a tube and London being so very tube-bound) directly between Brixton and Camberwell. It’s less than three miles from the West End, closer to the River Thames, if I’m not slouching I can walk from my place to the London Eye in three quarters of an hour. It’s therefore very central and, not having a tube, not central at all. We’ve lived here for eleven years. It is not the sort of London area that has Starbucks and Pret. It does have a second hand shop with a startling array of house clearances, one wig shop, two nail bars, several variations on Anyplace Fried Chicken, and the best rice and peas place on Coldharbour Lane. It has several streets of massive Edwardian houses, some others with elegant little Georgian terraces, and one of the larger council estates in South London. It has yellow signs asking about robberies and muggings. It has the very lovely Ruskin Park. Charlie Chaplin worked here and Dan Leno lived here. It has two quite splendid libraries in the Carnegie and the Minet, and it has The Cambria for All Black games and bacon sarnies too early in the morning. It has any number of races and faiths and religious practices and a very good halal grocer. And a chemist that used to have a Post Office in the back of the shop but, of course, no longer does. There’s a gallery too, some artists’ studios, and an inordinate amount of black cab garages. All of which makes it a classic big-city mix. Very poor and (relatively) wealthy. Black, white, and brown. Old and new. So far, so everyone else’s big-city novel. Except that as far as I know, there are no other big-city novels that were inspired by the writer’s dry-cleaner (who had become a friend after years of chatting across the counter) saying: “You should write about a dry cleaner. We know people’s secrets.”
Five or six years ago, Faisal saying, “we know people’s secrets” stayed in my head, took up more space, filled my thoughts. It got in the way when I was trying to write a play and work on a TV idea and finish another novel. The things that are left in pockets. The duvet that’s taken in to be cleaned. The dress that is let out in order to hide the weight gain – and the other taken in to emphasise weight loss. The keys cut – and kept. The stain that may be removed, but has still been shared with another person. Another person who, unlike every other shopkeeper, does not simply sell you something you want or need, but takes your dirty, soiled, used – personal – items, your own things, and then gives them back to you – clean and mended. And in the case of this book, the shopkeeper who has been doing that for over forty years. Who has seen his beloved city change from behind a counter, looking through a plate glass window.
This is definitely a novel about London, definitely a novel about big city life. It’s about the man who sleeps on the 345 bus, the homeless guys at the corner, the people of every diaspora attracted to the anonymity of the city. And it’s also about family and friendship and the secrets the dry cleaner keeps.
And that’s all I can say. I’m really very fond of The Room of Lost Things. I worked* incredibly hard on it, I think it is certainly among my best work. But that’s what I think, and my part’s over now. It’s a book. It needs to be read, and it needs other people to tell me if it does what I hope it does. Feel free to let me know.
*(Writing is not hard work. Working in a plywood factory in 36 degree heat is hard work – done that. Having four children under five is hard work – helped my sister quite a bit there, wouldn’t fancy it much these days. Cleaning houses for the kind of people who also want you to iron their underwear is certainly hard work – done that, never again. Doing twelve-hour stints in a gift shop/florists on Christmas Eve is definitely hard work on the feet, didn’t like that. Writing books is not saving lives in an A&E unit, it’s not being a boilerman, it’s not nine hours a day in a job you hate simply because it’s the only way you can make money. Which is why, while I agree loads of writers (and me too!) work hard, I do not think what we do is ‘hard work’.)