ALY MONROE: SETTING THE PLACE FOR ICELIGHT

Written by Aly Monroe

A convincing sense of place is important not just to readers, but writers as well. Here, spy novelist Aly Monroe describes how childhood memories of Purley and South London influenced her new novel Icelight, the third in her series featuring intelligence agent Peter Cotton which is published by John Murray on 13th October.

 

When I was a girl, I lived for some years in a place called Purley. My father had been asked to start a department at Unilever and, unfamiliar with London, he and my mother took advice on where to live. Purley was regarded as a safe, convenient, well-schooled place in which to live and bring up children, prime commuter belt. And that is why we lived there.

I have not been back for a long time, but Purley was nice and quiet. Very nice, and awfully quiet. I remember, aged about twelve, walking down a tree-lined road and wondering how anyone could inject an element of surprise or danger there. A fat cat trotted over a lawn, belly swinging. A blackbird sounded the alarm. Then everything went quiet again.

Off the Brighton Road, Purley is hilly, with lots of trees and some very large Edwardian houses of the kind G. K. Chesterton called ‘villas’, and then smaller twenties and thirties houses. In 1963, I remember my parents were slightly embarrassed to learn that Purley was supposedly rather rich – if I recall, the average salary came in at over 3,000 pounds.

When I originally approached my publishers, I did so with a scheme for a series of books to chart the progress of Britain’s Imperial decline through a Colonial Intelligence Officer called Peter Cotton. The first book, The Maze of Cadiz, set in 1944, showed how Cotton came to join the Intelligence Services. I then planned to take him to Malaya in 1954, and to Ghana (then the Gold Coast) in 1955 - all places I or close members of my family have experienced directly.

But when I finished The Maze of Cadiz, I changed my plan. I saw something in John Maynard Keynes’ frantic visit to Washington DC to get a loan from the USA to keep Britain afloat in late 1945. That turned into Washington Shadow.

After that, my idea was to get to work on the Malayan book – but after various chats with my publishers we decided to keep the novels closer together in time, and work on the continuing development of Cotton’s character (as opposed to snapshots at separate points in his career). It was also suggested that I might think of keeping Cotton ‘closer to home’ for the third book.

So I thought again. And as a starting point, I took ‘home’ literally. Kicking off with a memory of Purley long ago, I produced a book plan and characters within very few days. This wasn’t actually so hard to do. I simply let the memories flow, did some research and checked back against the winter or 1946-47, one of the worst in still living memory. I remember 1963 as a stinker. 1947 was even worse and eventually gave the new book its title – Icelight.

Purley is about three miles south of Croydon, recently in the news for arson and looting. Purley had old-fashioned shops like Walton, Hassell and Port (a high class grocery chain) and Swatton’s (a gentleman’s outfitters that sold school uniforms), but also had a Boots, a W H Smith, and a recently opened Sainsbury’s supermarket. For other shopping however there were the department stores in Croydon, all at North End, called Allders, Grants and Kennards. In 1963, Croydon had begun what would turn into a mini- American commercial office building boom. Bang in the centre of Croydon was a school that was sold in that year to become the Whitgift shopping centre. 

Even in 1963, well before the expression ‘Croydon facelift’ was invented, Croydon was different from Purley. There was South Croydon and West Croydon. I don’t think I ever visited the latter. I sometimes used to pass the famous Christmas Snow White display in the windows of one of the department stores, complete with carved wooden chairs for the dwarves. I also heard gruesome stories about a man who worked in the warehouse there. And I knew the Greyhound hotel was a meeting place for people then called ‘pansies’. All of these found their way into Icelight.

What really convinced me that I was on the right track for this book, however, was a memory from the winter of 1963. In Purley, near the library, there was a dance hall called The Palm Court. It was popular with soldiers at Caterham barracks. One icy morning I came down Foxley Lane to find that a large scale fight had broken out the night before. The Banstead Road was covered in broken glass. Sweepers were waiting to tackle the bottles and pint mugs everywhere. Amongst the ice and glass were splatters of blood.

Naturally I decided to take another route and went by the trees in front of the library. And there, embedded in a tree trunk, I saw a long shard of glass and a fat smear of blood.

Many years later I realized that what I was looking for as a bored twelve year old was already there. Violence had come to Purley. I added a dash of evil in Worplesdon (near Guildford), researched the winter of 1947, and began to write.     

 

  • Published on: 2011-10-13 John Murray, Hardback £19.99  Read SHOTS' review here
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    Aly Monroe



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