Location is something that is really important to me when I am writing. If I can get away with it, I prefer not to describe the characters too much if I can get away with it because I like to leave it to my reader to imagine what they look like. I want them to be comfortable with the characters and identify with them – I’m not interested in their skin or hair colour, size or shape, unless it’s important to the story. However, when it comes to the locations I write about, I want the reader to picture them very clearly. Most of the places I set my writing in are places I know well and love, so it’s tremendously important for me to get that love across to my reader. What I see, is not necessarily the same as what the occasional visitor notices.
In ‘Unforgettable’ there are two main locations – Exeter and the Fylde coast – and there are buildings within them that play a significant part in the action. Tom first meets Olivia at The University of Exeter when they are in the same hall of residence. I spent almost two years living in Thomas Hall and have many fond memories of it. Originally a family residence, it was granted to the university and there genuinely was a rule that men were not allowed to stay in the main building, so the boys were all housed in the stable and the former lodge. The grounds around the house were stunning and for me, it was like living in a Jane Austen book! Tom doesn’t have the same appreciation, but I wanted to convey some of the beauty to the reader in spite of his failure to appreciate it!
Consequently, I found myself standing outside a crumbling manor house, its cream paint peeling and flaking away to reveal the brickwork beneath. It seemed a fitting and slightly depressing reminder of the house’s faded stature: from grand home of the at least rich, if not famous, to an accommodation block for a hotchpotch of students, some of whom would have been more likely to be found in the servants’ quarters in the house’s heyday.
Not that it wasn’t attractive in its own way; it certainly had character and the grounds were beautiful – a rolling landscape of wide paths and lush gardens. At the bottom of the garden sat thickly foliaged plants that would – as we later discovered - give you a nasty looking rash if you so much as breathed too heavily near them.
Unfortunately, none of this mattered to me, not only because I knew nothing of plants and had little to no appreciation of the beauty that surrounded the house, but also because, as I was soon informed, I was not to be housed in it. The property had been gifted to the university on the proviso that no male students were to be allowed to reside in the main house. Modern equality laws being what they were, the university had, in its wisdom, decided that this stipulation was not really practical and got around the clause by housing male students in what had at one time been the stables and the Lodge House. Thus, the hall could still be mixed accommodation. It was to the latter building – now referred to as ‘Westgarth’, or more colloquially, ‘the Garth’ – that I was assigned.
Tom does later develop a better appreciation of the building when he’s forced to see it through someone else’s eyes. Her glasses may have been slightly more rose-tinted, but she saw Thomas Hall the way I did!
The room itself was depressingly furnished. On our first evening we’d been treated to a talk from one of the more prosaic third years about how the bare wooden floorboards had once borne the dainty slippers of beautifully ballgowned debutantes. Now, they were scuffed and depressed by years of abuse from black soled trainers and stiletto shod students. She told us – with a nose wrinkled in disgust – that this disgrace was disguised by the formerly rich Persian rugs whose brightly woven patterns were now dulled by dirt and time. Like everything else in the house they were frayed at the edges and threadbare, but she tried to conjure up for us an image of their dazzling beauty, not the moth-eaten tattered rags they’d become.
A pool table graced the centre of the room, the green baize scarred with jagged chalk lines, stirring memories of games fuelled by drink. The legacy of these were the ugly furrows that cut through the dark wood and the ring marks from glasses long-emptied; relics from departed students.
In the corner, a battered grand piano harked back to the house’s glory days. She informed us that it longed for someone to play it as it would once have been. One of the boys from the stable had responded to this invitation by sitting down and thumping out a medley of Oasis tunes.
The low bay window with its peeling white paint looked out onto the carriage drive; a long arc that swept up from the road to the front door with just enough room at its apex to swing a carriage – or in more recent times, a car – around.
Much as we took the mickey out of her grand statements, seeing the place through her eyes taught me to appreciate the room we inhabited. My first, disinterested observation of it was as nothing more than another dingy room, with its squeaky-springed sofa and low-lying wooden coffee table. After her lecture I saw a little more of the beauty in it and I quickly fell in love with both the room and the house that contained it.
Blackpool Tower Ballroom is iconic in the dancing world and beyond. To me, dancing there is normal – we did it most weekends when I was growing up – but whenever I mention it to others, their faces take on a kind of glow as they tell me how lucky I am. And they’re right. It may be normal to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the magic of the place. When I was little, apparently I used to tell people I lived in Blackpool Tower and to be fair, we were there so often it probably felt like I did! The Tower was the only place I was allowed to wander on my own, even from a very young age, because all the staff knew me and if they saw me with anyone other than my family, they always stopped us to check that I was meant to be with them. The Tower is my safe haven – I’ve experienced pretty much every emotion going in there at one time or another, but the Ballroom is a source of comfort. Nothing ever seems quite as bad when the Wurlitzer is playing and I’m on that floor.
I had been an occasional visitor to the Tower Ballroom before, but the beauty and sheer unadulterated opulence of it never failed to impress me. On this occasion, after so long away from its grandeur, it took my breath away. Three sides of the magnificent block parquet floor were surrounded by a two-tier balcony supported by rectangular Corinthian-style marble columns with triple bowled chandeliers spaced at regular intervals along the sleek undulations of both tiers. Beneath this were walls of brown and burgundy tiles, smooth and sleek in the main, but some were decorated with stippled flowers and the whole was topped by Victoriana wallpaper that harked back to the era in which it had been built.
At the end of each balcony, gold scroll work concealed the speakers that were filling the cavernous space between them with the sounds of the organ; chipped gold leaf cherubs holding lyres and bunches of grapes channelled the spirit of Dionysus while the names of composers such as Haydn, Chopin and Liszt looked down at the dancers below, moving mellifluously to the strains of an unfamiliar tune.
My eyes were drawn again to the far end of the room, where the faux elegance of the white and gilt staircase with its mockery of a red carpet led guiltily up to the true centrepiece of the room; the magnificent Wurlitzer organ being played by Mr Blackpool himself, Phil Kelsall.
Grace appeared at my side and tucked her arm through mine to lead me to where she and her brother were sitting.
‘It’s stunning, isn’t it?’
I nodded, still too enthralled to give her a proper answer.
‘You’d never believe it wasn’t original, would you?’
I stopped walking, pulling her off balance and making her stumble in her heels.
‘What do you mean?’
‘It all had to be redecorated after the fire in ’56,’ she explained. ‘None of the decor in here is more than sixty years old. The structure and the Wurlitzer survived, but the floor was completely destroyed and obviously everything else was either fire or smoke damaged. They did an incredible job restoring it though. It’s pretty much exactly as it was before then.’
I looked up at the classical style frescoes and then at the backdrop of the Bay of Naples on the stage and shook my head.
‘I know,’ Grace said, as she tugged me along. ‘It’s got to you too.’
She made it sound as though the Ballroom was a living breathing personality, but she was absolutely right. I’d had a visceral reaction to the thought of all this beauty being destroyed; the charred ruins smoking, choking the air.
Bid me discourse and I will enchant thine ear.
It was in big letters above the stage, but it was as if the Ballroom itself had spoken to me. She knew her purpose and she wanted to fulfil it, wanted to welcome you into her warm embrace and surround you with beauty of every kind. I could almost see and feel the notes dancing through the air around me as the music played and the dancers twirled.
Blackpool itself has the same effect on me. My husband and I see the town in very different ways and whilst I don’t think writers should shy away from the realities of living somewhere where poverty and its related issues are an increasing problem, at the same time, I would never want to dismiss the town I love as being nothing more than those problems. I see past that to the heart of the place and that’s a very different thing.
The car park backed onto the rear of the promenade and was the most convenient for the Tower, but it was a singularly miserable place, even by car park standards. The gaudiness of the brightly lit arcades on either side of it contrasted sharply with the dishearteningly grey and austere sprawl of tarmac. Nearby, tattered and faded awnings fluttered above some of the shops undermining their attempt to appear prosperous and popular. It was important to fake the seaside good cheer for the tourists who always seemed to occupy Blackpool’s streets. The reality of living in the town outside of the summer season could be very different from its public persona.
For the outside observer, it was a depressing place, the faded grandeur of the Victorian era and beyond, a mere memory now. Like most British seaside towns, drugs and homelessness were more its watchwords than the family entertainment and holidays of earlier decades. Yet for the locals, Blackpool still somehow managed to hold on to much of its charm, due in no small part to the increased attraction of the Tower Ballroom, after multiple appearances on Strictly Come Dancing. The town engendered a deep-seated loyalty in people like me who had spent many happy hours enjoying the entertainment it had to offer. Yes, I could see that North Pier was being allowed to fall into ruin, but in my mind’s eye it was still as beautiful as it had been when I’d first visited with Olivia in the early days of our relationship. Little was the same in Blackpool, yet in some respects, nothing had changed. The town had stagnated, but people still felt drawn to it; popular as it was with hen and stag weekends, in the summer you still found families playing on its wide expansive beach and although my days of riding the donkeys were in the past, the children loved it. In South Shore, the rollercoasters of the Pleasure Beach still carried screaming thrill-seekers around their rickety tracks, the old rides as popular as ever, even in the face of the gleamingly new metal structures of their more modern counterparts.
Where I am has a huge impact on me emotionally and I try to convey that in everything I write. Yes, the way we feel can affect how we view a place, but equally, being in a place we love, or have happy memories of, can lift our spirits tremendously. How often are we told that getting outside is good for our souls? I can’t imagine setting a story somewhere I don’t know and love (and I take my hat off to those writers who can) because so much of the characters I’ve created comes through in those descriptions. But it’s more than that. I think what it boils down to is this: I want to share my love of these places so my readers might visit and get the same joy from them as I do.
Blackpool Tower Ballroom: ID 85843366
Blackpool promenade: Jonathan Sykes via Pexels
Thomas Hall, Exeter: public domain photo from Wikipedia