By Jane Wenham Jones
“The books that are really valuable,” said Irvine Welsh, “are the books that evoke a sense of place.”
In 1998 when I was writing my first novel, I wouldn’t have known what he was talking about, or – having only managed half of Trainspotting with a cushion over my head – maybe even have wanted to.
I had heard about towns in books having such a strong identity they almost become a character in their own right but I didn’t really get it. That first novel Raising the Roof was about the buy-to-let market and loosely based on shenanigans in Ramsgate, but I set it somewhere fictional called Eastford, and spent many hours working out long it would take the heroine to walk to the supermarket and if this was in the same direction as the ill-fated rental property, or closer to the sea. And if it was coastal – how long would the train take to get to London? It all took time – I drew maps and kept notes but still occasionally realised that the pub opposite the Doctor’s in chapter four had popped up next to the library forty pages later.
I went through it all again with my second book Perfect Alibis – less loosely-based on local extra-maritals – this time creating the town of Edenhurst which had a Golf Club and a lot of ladies that lunched but which I could only ever visualise in patches.
Then came two years of co-owning Harpers Wine Bar in Broadstairs . I knew from the moment we opened I was sitting on a gift. Harpers became “Greens” but apart from that the setting was unashamedly my home town. No more wracking my brains for plausible-sounding road names or wondering what the beach might be called. Characters got drunk during Folk Week and staggered home along Albion Street, walked their dogs on Viking Bay and wandered past Bleak House. It was liberating – and so easy!
Now on my third locally-set novel, I am an old hand. The Big Five O is about four women approaching their half-century. So of course Charlotte throws the party in the Broadstairs Pavilion, Roz works at Turner Contemporary, and when Fay and Sherie gather, it’s for pie night at Reading Street’s The White Swan (a particular favourite). I have amused myself by sprinkling in a few real people among the fictitious. Even the Isle of Thanet News gets a mention!
Looking down the barrel of a seventh novel I can’t imagine writing a book based anywhere else. From arty-edgy to cosy-cute, it’s a writer’s and artist’s dream with its harbours and funfairs and tunnels, historical landmarks and bingo halls, fishing and farming, wealth and poverty, cabbage fields and housing estates, grand mansions and tiny flats, studded with a plethora of blue plaques celebrating a range of luminaries from Van Gogh to Frank Muir, John Le Mesurier to the great Charles Dickens. No wonder there’s a creative vibe in the air.
But above all, inspiration comes from the wonderfully eccentric, diverse, kind, funny, friendly, warm, enthusiastic people who live here, both the born-and-breds and all the brilliant newcomers who have made Thanet their home. Am I in it? is a question I’ve been asked more than once. I always shake my head and aim for an enigmatic smile. But the real answer? Quite possibly…
The Big Five O is published by One More Chapter, a division of Harper Collins, in paperback and e formats.
Jane will be signing copies of The Big Five O at the BroadstairsLit party night on September 12 from 7.30pm. See www.broadstairslit.co.uk for details.