Loughborough Junction/making The Room of Lost Things

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’.)


  1. Half way through your book and just loving it! Lived in Herne hill Road late 80s/90s for 7 years so can recognise everything. Am recommending like mad to my friends – such a fantastic premise for a novel. Will let you know what I think when I’ve finished – don’t know why i am wasting my time typing!! BTW – is the gay guy someone who works at Brixton Rec by any chance???
    Thank you
    PS I am a nurse – does this count as hard work?!

  2. my sister’s a nurse, therefore I’m obliged to say that yes, absolutely, ALL nursing is hard work/full work/working fully!
    great that you’re liking it Paula. wonder if you lived in my house back then?!
    and no, the gay guy, Stefan, isn’t anyone I know. so hopefully he’s not anyone you know. it IS fiction – though yes, the places are (hopefully) very real.
    be very happy to hear back from you when you’re done.

  3. Hey Stella, have been blown away by this – which is GREAT, as I picked it for my book group of 20 odd…
    Tonight’s the night in Teddington: pity you’re miles away! Adoration and praise must be good for the soul, surely? Another time maybe – you’re always welcome. All the best –

  4. ah what a shame Trish, Loughborough Junction to Teddington – 35/345 to Clapham Junction and then a train from there, surely? I could have joined you easily! really hope your 20-odd liked it, and please feel free to let me know. Obviously praise and adoration are nicest, but feedback and readers – other than those slightly bonkers nasty ones who sometimes turn up on Amazon! – are always welcome! x

  5. Hi there – they loved it! A few qns for you, as any passionate reader would with any book, I guess, but the voice, the spirit, the people and intent – and obvious love for the place, won everyone over – bar two. Tchh! We’ll be there again mon apr 27th if still up for it. Always wine and a lot of laughs – at my old W’s store on the High St, 7.30. Bring S for a night out! Thanks for writing it, a pleasure to read. xx

  6. bar two? who are they? let me at ’em! nah, that’s a great ratio – and wine and books, perfect combination!
    can’t do 27th, it’s a buddhist women’s evening (cake, tea, very occasionally wine!)
    thank you (and your lot) for giving me smiles this morning – and you’re my 100th comment (in all of 3 months of blogging – congratulations!)

  7. Maybe another time. When are you going to blog some more about buddhism then, or is it tooooo private perhaps? I’m going to Japan in a few weeks and have always been interested – within the concepts of buddhism, it’s only the preservation of spiders I can’t quite hack! Have a lovely night.

  8. no, it’s def not too private. or just too … normal (after practicing for almost 23 years), I find I tend to blog about a ‘Thing’. Something new or moving or exciting or annoying. The buddhism I practice is Japanese – Nichiren Daishonin/Soka Gakkai buddhism – and doesn’t place an awful lot of emphasis on the preservation of spiders, it must be said, so you’d be fine with us – or I could get it out into the garden for you. If you want to live & thrive etc …
    Maybe I should chant about it and find something bright and meaningful to share!
    travel well. x

  9. Have just read The Room of Lost Things. Want to thank you for it – it felt like the book I would like to have written (had I the special talent required to make ordinary people’s lives into an absorbing, sensitive book). I grew up in Brixton in the 50s and came back to south London (Herne Hill) in 1994. When Robert left the shop for the last time I burst into tears – no warning lip trembling or anything. Good heavens I don’t often do that.
    Must have been all the memories you jogged in my brain.
    p.s. my friend who lives at Loughborough Junction lent me your book – she was in the protest group against closing the Ticket Office.

  10. ah Shirley, thank you so much! that’s great to hear, exactly what I tried to do – make a novel worth reading from ordinary lives.
    delighted your friend passed it on – we seem to be finding ourselves a real little community here … maybe it can be done ‘these days’ after all!

  11. Hi Stella
    Another WOW THANKS for such an enjoyable read. I’ve lived next to Ruskin Park for 11 years (near the Cambria) and before that on Herne Hill for 6 years. It was wonderful reading something that seemed so personal on the one hand and a great story on the other. You’ve made me love this area even more!
    There were so many times I giggled with familiarity over the landmarks, the bus routes, the walks from a to b and I could just picture some of your characters SO well.
    I will enjoy recommending to as many local book-lovers as I can in the knowledge that they will surely love it too!
    Still can’t figure out exactly where the shop was/is though!

  12. hi Jane, great you found it an enjoyable read. and local! the shop WAS Faisal’s dry cleaning shop, at the Junction itself, where there’s now a nail/hair shop, it was a dry cleaner’s for many many years before it changed just this year. I did kind of fudge the geography of the junction itself though, tried to make it a bit more fictional!

  13. Oh what a delight to read the book, not only is it a great read but also knowing the area. Started out in life living in Milkwood Road with parents and grandparents – neighbours took my dad to the Green Man for a drink on the day I was born (as long ago as 1948). After years away from the area moved to Camberwell in 1983; many of the observations on why the characters like living in the area ring true. Now, every time I stand on the platform at Loughborough Junction station waiting for the train to St Pancras I can’t help but think of Robert or Akeel standing there. Yes, I know it’s fiction but when I look at the photographs of me as a baby in Ruskin Park I can’t help but wonder if Alice is in the background with Robert.

    I’ve enjoyed your earlier novels, this one tops them – one of my books of the year. Thank you very much.

  14. thank you so much for telling me! you know, our books go out into the world and after spending one or two (or in this case five!) years working on them, they go away and we rarely hear back, or if we do it’s a nod here or there. to know it is true to you is wonderful, not least because of the Green Man and the area! really appreciate it John.

  15. Hello, do you still live in the local area? I had a community photography exhibition last night in and around Red Gate Gallery. I though i saw you there? maybe not. My mother recommended the book to me and i’ve just picked it up.. i wanted to contact you about the exhibition please visit the blog.. i’d like to do more projects like this.. Maybe i should do a project in LJ based on your book…


  16. hi Nick, yes I do live here, but no, I wasn’t at the Red Gate last night. hmm, wonder who the doppelganger is?! why don’t you get in touch when you’ve had a chance to have a read of the book, if it’s something you want to work on we should talk …
    meanwhile will try to pop in to the exhibition and have a look if it’s going on.
    all best,

  17. Hi Stella, I heard you speak at the You Care Ladies Evening recently and you spoke so engagingly that I bought “The Room of Lost Things”. Just finished it half an hour ago and can’t wait to recommend it to my book club! Such a beautifully observed novel; loved the characterisations and the clever interweaving of the stories..wish I had an ounce of your talent and look forward to reading more of your books, Thanks, Rosina

  18. it was a lovely and important evening Rosina, and I’m really delighted that the book has also touched you. thank you for letting me know. (and yes, please do give it to your book club, I’ve done a few book club events for this novel and it seems to be very book-clubbable!)

  19. I had a triple bypass at Kings on 13 July this year. When I subsequently went to Kings for a follow up appointment I decided to walk down Coldharbour Lane to Loughborough Junction Station to soak up the atmosphere (having just read & enjoyed “The Room”). At the station I was conned into giving £5 & a can of coke to a woman who claimed she’d been beaten up & had no money to get home by bus to N.London. I’m convinced I was conned mainly because of a belief that no-one from N.London would ever find their way to Loughborough Junction Station. Still, the alternative was to tell her to buzz off which I was not prepared/ too embarrassed to do. She did actually have some bruises on her face. Ca Va!

  20. oh I think I’ve been conned by that woman too (but she’s usually outside Brixton tube!) … on the other hand, maybe she had been beaten up, maybe the money you gave her was the only way she had of getting home, maybe you were her guardian angel for the day. I always figure that as I long as I don’t feel the need to beg, then I’m the one with the good fortune and if I can give, I will. nice gesture Ron, and glad you enjoyed the book – and the walk … x

  21. I’ve just finished The Room of Lost Things this morning and am recovering after a good cry. What a wonderful book. I lived in Camberwell, Brixton and Herne Hill in the 70s and it brought the area so vividly back to life, but more important was bringing out the dignity in Robert and Akeel’s lives, and the lives of their customers. I’ll be buying a copy and sending it to a friend in Philadelphia who used to live and work in the area.. I hope it is still in print; mine was picked up by chance at the library. This is the first time I’ve read one of your books and will now start working my way through the others. I’m glad you have a backlist.

    Thanks again,
    Fran Devine

  22. How lovely. Thank you for letting me know. And yes, it is still very much in print.

  23. Looking for an electronic DRM free version of your book?
    Is there one available?

  24. Which book? All but two are available on kindle. Though if you mean a free copy that you don’t have to pay for, I sincerely hope not! That’s what libraries are for.

  25. Hey Stella

    Making Room Of the Lost things (i’ve just moved to Loughborough junction)

    DRM = Digital Rights Management
    Effectively means when you buy a book from our good friends amazon..
    you are forced to use their hardware to view it.

    When I buy somthing I want to actually own it.
    Libraries are there any left?

  26. Kobo would be great for you! No amazon engagement at all. So yes, you can buy RoLT on kobo. Go for it! And there’s always the paperback, or the hardback, then you could actually own it …
    Oh and yes, there are libraries everywhere. If you can’t find your local one I’m happy to find one for you. Where are you based?
    In Loughborough Junction, we have 3 libraries within five mins walking distance.

  27. I have a device already thanks.
    It supports open standard formats.
    Kobo is still DRM = http://www.kobobooks.com/ade

    I have access to the greatest library in the world from my house
    no walking required = the internet

  28. but actual libraries pay writers a tiny sum in copyright for the borrowing. the internet doesn’t. I’m all for great access, but not so fond of people paying big money to the likes of Apple and Microsoft for the hardware, while expecting artists to give away their work for free. If Apple gets paid, I think I should too!

  29. Wow what a sensitive perception you have of us ordinary folk. Wish I could put on paper the things that are at the back of my mind,and that I see and feel but need someone like you to put into words. Will be hunting out the rest of your books now. Thank you so much.

  30. ah, thank you Lynda, that’s very kind. As ‘ordinary folk’ myself, I think it’s really important to see real life reflected in our fiction as well as the various kinds of escapism.

  31. […] this, […]

  32. […] wrote a blog about writing the book, which you can read here. I’ve copied the most important part below (in case my technological skills do not extend to […]

  33. I really enjoyed Room of Lost things. I am a psychiatric nurse based in Landor Road but at the Maudsley 2 or 3 times a week. The place and people in this book although now a few years old are very real and the book was a great read. I loved it but not just because of it’s recognisable locations mostly because it was a really good tale. Thank You

  34. ah, thank you for saying so. I’ve lived here for almost 20 years, so it’s def very real to me!

  35. I’ve spent only many weeks, not years, in the area of Room of Lost Things, but am a walker and greatly enjoyed the detail. As I approached the end last night I wondered with some dread where Robert was going – and thank you for giving options.

  36. ah, I’m glad you were happy with the options. It’s where I live, so the area is well-known to me too.

  37. All those keys have stayed with me – tagged and untagged, used and unused.

  38. they stayed with me too – and arrived in a dream as a useful thing to add in to the book. I think they’re still quite dream-like.

  39. Robert’s sneaking into other people’s flats was my favourite thing about him. Oh and I’m glad you liberated Helen.

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