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Alan Williams – Author of The Blackheath Seance Parlour

Following on from yesterday’s review of The Blackheath Seance Parlour, here is a Q&A session with Alan Williams, the author. Please note that the interview contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet (you should), please go to the review page instead.

Q: You obviously spent a great deal of time researching the local area, as mentioned in the appendix. Are there any historical leaps that you had to make for artistic purposes?

A: There are. One of the most iconic buildings in Blackheath is the Tea Hut and although it wasn’t standing there in the 1840s, I had to drag it back in time to be in the book. It’s too much a part of Blackheath to omit. I also had to play with the time frame of the Clarendon hotel. In the early 1900s it was three separate houses used by the ship builders of Deptford. One became a bed and breakfast but the rest of its history is at best vague. And then there is Montague John Druit.

Q: Why the decision to make Montague John Druitt the murderer? Did you spend much time reading about his association with the ripper murders, and his unfortunate demise? Do you have an opinion about what really happened at the school where he taught?

A: Initially, I wrote Druitt in because I wanted to give a nod to a different part of Blackheath’s history but the more I read into his background the more intriguing it became. His is a story in itself. He was a respected barrister who also took on a job in a school in Blackheath. There was an accusation that he had interfered with a boy there, though it was never proven, but the social shame of being homosexual during that age, the passing of his father, then his mother’s mental decline, incarceration and death six months earlier had to have played a huge part in his own mental state. And because there was a family history that increasingly revolved around mental illness, particularly in that unenlightened age, he would have been frightened for his own sanity or at least aware that it might also claim him and he hinted at this in the letter he left. So having been dismissed from the school and with the (supposed) severance cheques from the school still in his pockets, he wrote a note reading “Since Friday I felt I was going to be like mother, and the best thing for me was to die.” Then he filled his pockets with stones and threw himself to his death in the Thames.

On top of this came the accusations that he was, in fact, Jack The Ripper. There is much that isn’t known about Druitt, so drawing him back and placing him in The Blackheath Séance Parlour allowed me to use the switch of personality that was, I think, placed on a frightened and lonely man during a witch hunt. The more I think about Druitt, the more I want to write his novel.

Q: Were there any other local characters/places that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

A: The church was the biggest shock. The novel is set just before the building of it had begun and although this played out somewhat as a strength, my first reaction was ‘How can I write a novel set in Blackheath with the church missing?’ When people think of Blackheath they think of the church. If you Google it, you get the church. The church is the celebrated icon of Blackheath. In the novel, Blackheath was the only parish not to have a church of its own so I brought in the architect who originally built it and had a horrifyingly drunk Maggie attempt to seduce him in the Gypsy Moth.

I brought in a lot of the actual people who did run each shop in 1840s Blackheath. (Thank you Neil Rhind for your book Blackheath and Environs – in my eyes, the Blackheath Bible.) And there were many, many more people with staggering and globally important histories right down to the women on the convict ship, that I would like to have included but Blackheath, once you start digging, offers up such a history that you could write a dozen books about it so I had to put the brakes on fast or mention briefly them in passing.

Q: How long did it take to write? Your bio says that you work within the film and television industry. Did script editing bring out the frustrated novelist? How do the two processes differ?

A: It took a year to write, then six months to rewrite. The scenes with Maggie in them wrote themselves. She’d walk onto a page and I could almost just sit back and watch what happened. I spent many an enjoyable afternoon in the Hare and Billet writing her.

As for the difference between script editing and writing, they are intertwined to a degree but also poles apart. It’s much easier to go in and sharpen other people’s work but with your own, sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. I let Séance Parlour sit for six months to gain some distance from it before I went back in with the red pen.

Q: If the reader accepts that Klaus Van Dyne is an evil genius, and can graft bodies together to form human wings (which is a fantastically creepy reveal incidentally), why would this gruesome but scientific process cause the children to become flesh eaters? I enjoyed them simply as flying demons – did they need to become vampires too? Do you think of them as vampires?

A: Thank you. I see them as people with an altered physiology and with that comes a whole new set of base instincts. Their nurse tries to stop their cat and mouse games with animals when they are children but it becomes clear to her that it’s a part of their primal instinct she can barely suppress. If anything, for them, it’s more about the thrill of hunting or a way of dealing with problems. They are set aside as a species with no peers or role models and they do still depend on injections of various solutions found only in birds and other animals to remain healthy and because of these factors they become a rule to themselves. I didn’t want to create a vampire that skulks about and has an evil plot, I wanted them to be more raw.

Q: Whilst reading the book, I had the strange sensation that the people who could contact the afterlife were the rationalists, and the men of the establishment (priests, scientists) were the mystics. Do you believe in contact with the afterlife? The book feels quite critical of organised religion at times – are you speaking through Maggie?

A: It was an age when science was beginning to challenge religion and women were beginning to take a stand. The women in Séance Parlour are very strong-minded, Maggie in particular and her dislike of Father Legge turned her against religion. I think it became a battle of wills between the two characters and in turn a battle over the church’s monopoly on faith. Like science, the séance parlour becomes a threat, chipping away the church’s power and influence.

Q: Where’s the spookiest place in Blackheath?

A: You have to go a long way to beat a good thick fog on the heath itself.

The Blackheath Seance Parlour is on sale now £10 from Amazon.

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The Blackheath Seance Parlour

The Blackheath Seance Parlour novel by Alan Williams
The Blackheath Seance Parlour is a new novel by Alan Williams, published tomorrow. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy, which I’ve just finished reading. Below are some thoughts on it.

We are placed in the 1840s and into the lives of two sisters who are running a chocolate shop in Blackheath. The business is going very badly, and so they decide to open a seance parlour instead.

To say that the novel is set in Blackheath is an understatement. Almost every important scene takes place in the village. All the pubs, churches, and other key buildings in Greenwich, Lewisham and Lee appear throughout the novel. But what really makes it interesting is the way in which the author has woven the fictional characters around real historical figures from the area. I found myself rushing over to Wikipedia several times, to try and decide whether the new guest at a dinner party really was the “father of meteorology” or not (he was), or whether the architect really did build All Saints church (he did).

Although set in the 1840s, the dialogue between the characters feels fresh and alive. It’s a funny blend of genres – at times it felt as though I was reading Cranford, at other times gothic novels such as Vathek sprang to mind. The level of consternation within the village at changes to the high street felt as though they had stepped from the comments pages of this blog at times!

Page 63:

“A new shop in the village was big news. A suitable addition could uplift everyone and give their lives renewed inspiration and purpose, whereas the wrong shop could lead to depression and a sense that the village was sliding into ruin. On the rare occasions that this occurred, the owners were ostracised, there was an unspoken boycott and soon, through ruin or social pressure, the shop was gone and everyone was happy again. Blackheath was a very fussy village.”

I particularly enjoyed the proprietress of the Blackheath Tea Hut. Whether it really existed before the 1920s isn’t clear but it’s great fun either way. As she explains:

‘They are trying to close us down again. It’s always the same people. They said because we are a wooden building and every so many decades we need to rebuild, that each time we should apply as if we are a brand new business. It is so they can say no to us. This is, and always has been, our part of the heath. But every time they refuse to acknowledge the previous hut so they shorten our history. Well we’ve built it strong this time. This hut will be here well into the 1920s. Let them stick that in their pipes.They say that we attract the wrong sort but everyone knows it is because we draw the crowds that refuse to pay the scandalous prices of the tea room in the park.’

It doesn’t matter that there is some artistic license. I don’t mind whether Princess Sophia really used to look up into the sky from the Ranger’s House with her telescope – it’s still a lovely image.

We’re in a world where spiritualism is real. Although there are many charlatans, some people really can contact the afterlife, and this is key to the plot. The church takes a dim view of this, and many of the arguments in the book (mostly after several glasses of strong port or oily gin at the Hare and Billet) are between the main characters and the local vicar. Even if you find fortune-tellers and mysticism irritating in the real world, you are gradually sucked into the excitement and mystery of the story, and probably end up siding with them before the book has finished with you.

This is a book containing a novel within a novel, and the internal novel is a little tiresome for the first few pages, perhaps because it is written in such a hyper-gothic penny-dreadful style (even though this is historically accurate). But I soon found myself caught up in the adventures of the mysterious count, with glimmers of The Count of Monte Cristo.

One of the most discouraging things I read about the book before actually attempting it was that this was a vampire novel. It isn’t. If you are sick of the sight of True Blood, if Twilight has you reaching for the sick bag, do not be dissuaded from reading this book! It doesn’t have any of the vampires-as-metaphors-for-chastity and it’s much more like “Cranford with teeth”. Indeed the sections dealing with these matters are some of the most enjoyable by the end.

For anyone living in Blackheath, it’s a great read – funny, thought provoking, and lively. Not to mention a great way to be taken back in time as you walk across the heath. Just take a lantern with you…

The Blackheath Seance Parlour is published by Cutting Edge Press, and is released tomorrow (Thursday) 1st August. It’s available to pre-order now on Amazon, and from Waterstones.

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The optimists

A couple of much more upbeat pieces in The Times:

Giles Hattersley: Why we are all climate camp followers now
(which wins the Bugle award for least imaginative headline).

As I walked up there, I did hear a load of people shouting “get a job” from the safety of their cars as they drove past the camp… Didn’t hear anyone reply “get a bike” though. The article also mentions the number of planes over Blackheath.

Jonathan Leake: From margin to mainstream
Claiming that the protest gives the government the “political space” that they require to get tough on climate change.

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A Vintage Affair

A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

Just before Christmas, I was contacted by author Isabel Wolff, to tell me that her new novel “A Vintage Affair” was set in Blackheath. She asked if I would like to receive a copy to review. I said I’d love to, but have only just got around to reading it. I should start by saying that the Bugle is a man, a bit of a geek, who usually loves sci-fi, so possibly not the target audience, judging from the cover. However, I didn’t let that put me off, and I’m glad (although I will admit to hiding the cover behind a copy of The Metro whilst sitting on the train from Blackheath to Charing Cross). Why can’t books have neutral covers? I hate the fact that I am directed to a book on the basis of machismo, or equally supposed to discount it as it has a picture of a pink frock on the front!

Anyway, onto the book – the blurb sums it up well:

It is about a textiles expert, Phoebe Swift, who opens a vintage dress shop, ‘Village Vintage’, in Blackheath. One day she goes to visit an elderly French woman, Therese, who lives in The Paragon, and who has a collection of lovely clothes that she wishes to sell to Phoebe. But there is one garment that she won’t part with – a child’s blue winter coat from the 1940s. As Phoebe uncovers the mystery surrounding this little coat, and the child for whom it was destined, she realises that her own life is is to be changed forever.

It is certainly romantic fiction, but is written in a very readable and enjoyable style, almost like a thriller, except that the primary aim is not to guess “whodunnit”, but “whichmanisprincecharming”, and “willtherebeahappyending?” It’s the sort of book that you can virtually swallow whole – definitely a page-turner, and doesn’t require much effort on the part of the reader.

The book feels as though it has been written by someone who is very intelligent, and has researched their subjects thoroughly, but is now writing about those subjects to appeal to a wide audience.

Nearly all of the female relationships in the book are firm and honest – and the friendships are struck up quickly and easily. It also contains that soap-opera fantasy whereby friends and neighbours’ doors are always ajar, and people always pop in – think Ambridge rather than London.

The vintage clothes are used as a metaphor for previously lived lives, the main sentiment in the book is that these possessions are somehow endowed with the emotions of their owners. The book made me feel as though I should pay more attention to the clothes I wear, and not just stagger around in any old thing. I’ve always been slightly suspicious of fashion as an extension of greed, rather than an expression of yourself or of art, but this book definitely puts a positive spin on how clothes can improve a person.

The characters are easy to grasp, and enjoyable, possibly with the exception of the bizarre shop assistant Annie, who, when she’s not auditioning for local rep, is making strange comments about “souks” (p193) and “Grace Jones” (p210)… But apart from this, the more emotional scenes dealing with loss, melancholy, and regret are warm and effective.

The book is crammed full of Blackheath. Many of the books mentioned on this blog previously have only made passing mention of the place, whereas virtually all of the action in “A Vintage Affair” takes place squarely within the village, with occasional soujourns to Greenwich (the view from the Picturehouse bar becomes far more picturesque than the usual view of the barbers that I recall). Everybody seems well-off enough not to worry too much about money – and Blackheath feels a little like a fantasy land from a bygone era. Of course there are also a couple of trips to some vineyards, some romping in grand houses, and up the OXO tower, but those are par for the course, yes?

A few notes about the locations:

Raffles Clothes Shop, Blackheathsistersanddaughters

Village Vintage – the shop at the centre of the novel. From the description, I imagine it being where Raffles the clothes shop is (opposite the church, see above left). However, “Sisters & Daughters” near the station seems quite a nice fit too (see above right).

Cafe Amici, near Bush House, London
Cafe Amici - I couldn’t help noticing in the author’s bio that she used to be a BBC World Service producer… Which made the inclusion of Cafe Amici (right opposite Bush House in real life) an amusing easter-egg.

Costcutters convenience store, Blackheath

Costcutters p243-244- schoolgirls, going to the same high-school prom, being held at the Natural History Museum, as the millionaire’s daughter, dreaming about buying a £245 pound dress, currently working in CostCutters on a Saturday for £45 a shift.

Clarendon Hotel, Garden
Clarendon Hotel p223- Does not get a very flattering write-up (perhaps justifiably) – Phoebe’s non-wedding reception, probably a lucky escape?

Bennett Park, Blackheath, London
Bennett Street- Clearly based upon Bennett Park, next to the station

Blackheath All Saints Church by flickr user littlestar19
All Saints Church – mostly walked past, or bonging in the background

The Paragon, Blackheath, by flickr user John.P

The Paragon – where Mrs Bell lives.

Moon Daisy Cafe – frequent meeting place – possibly based upon Montpelier Coffee Shop?

Chapters All Day Dining, Blackheath restaurant
Chapters All Day Dining p377 – Dan and Phoebe go there to toast Dan’s success.

Blackheath Halls by Flickr user John.P
Blackheath Concert Halls – Possible location for a fashion show? p382

Blackheath Society Newsletter
Black & Green – Nice name for the local freesheet newspaper that Dan works for… Not sure that any local papers around here quite manage to cover the Social Whirl so effectively though! Poetic license, I guess. p206

Author Isabel Wolff interviewed about the book here:

You can read the first two chapters here, to find out if it is your sort of book. On balance, I really enjoyed it, which surprised me!

Not all the photos were taken by me. Click on them to go to the respecitve author’s Flickr page.

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Blackheath Royal Standard Pub

I’m quite conscious of the fact that there isn’t enough about Blackheath Royal Standard (the place, not the pub) on this site… The main reason is because it takes me ages to get there, unless I’m on the bus, when I’m usually heading for the delights of Sainsbury’s or Lidl.  For a while the brilliantly named Hi, Standard blog looked like it would be doing the business, but it hasn’t been updated for a while.

Anyway, at Mrs Bugle’s suggestion, we ventured into the unknown, and headed for Blackheath Royal Standard (the pub not the place) last night.

Blackheath Royal Standard Pub, London, SE3

My overriding sense was that it is a bit of a chilly pub… Maybe we just found some draughty seats, but I felt like I couldn’t get warm in there!  The barman was friendly enough, and the pint of Pride was good (they also do ESB and Bombardier at the moment).  Mrs Bugle had a glass of Chilean Merlot which received no complaints.

But the place felt a bit depressing.  I have a problem with football on in pubs at the best of times… I don’t know why, it just always seems to spoil a pub.  And the place was full of fruit machines, and electronic quiz machines flashing and glaring at the punters.  The food looked harmless – nothing amazing, but what you’d expect from a town boozer kind of pub – chips, burgers, etc.  I bet they do vegetable lasagna for the vegetarians… If there are any vegetarians… The way that stags head was staring at me from its mounting on the wall, I’m not sure that this is the place for veggies…

It looks like it has been done up fairly recently, but as though the customers chose not to notice – weird bits of tin stuck to the ceiling, and overstuffed green leather sofas – the description on their facebook page demonstrates the slightly misguided direction that the pub has gone for:

Inside, the sophisticated décor resembles that of a classy gentleman’s club. With a ‘tin’ ceiling and an eclectic mix of furnishings including big chesterfield seats, this more upmarket, open plan site is ideal for enjoying a drink alone or with friends, or some fantastic food.

As one of the commentators on the page said “who wants tables instead of pool tables?”  As soon as I walked in, I thought “this looks like the sort of pub that will have a pool table somewhere”.  Clearly it used to have them – it’s that kind of place… And it would be great with a couple of tables for pool, a jukebox, no telly on, and maybe selling some pasties, this place would be just great, instead of trying to be something it isn’t.

Other points of interest:

Blackheath Royal Standard Pub, London, SE3, Quiz Night

Free wifi (for the geeks, although I didn’t see any)… It’s passworded though.

Quiz nights on Sundays at 9pm, entrance is £1.  Anyone ever tried this?

Oh, and Aspall cider, which is always a nice surprise.

Beerintheevening review here

The Blackheath Bugle’s Google Map here.

Contact Info
020 8858 1533

44 Vanbrugh Park, Blackheath, London, SE3 7JQ

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