A Sense of Place #10 - Tom Williams - Seven Dials, London
Today I'm joined by a fellow Accent Press author, historical novelist Tom Williams, to chat about his new novel, Back Home.
Me: Hi Tom, and welcome to 'Shelby Writes.' What would be the elevator pitch for Back Home?
Tom: Hi Lynne, My elevator pitch for Back Home is: John Williamson returns from a lifetime of colonial administration in the Far East to discover the division between the powerful and the powerless is just as marked back home.
Me: Where does the story take place?
Tom: The story is mainly set in nineteenth century London, with most of the action in Seven Dials. I’m a frequent visitor to the Seven Dials Club, so it’s an area I know reasonably well. That helped a lot when I came to write about it. I think the first time I came across the area in literature was in Disraeli’s Sybil, in which the heroine is rescued from a mob in Seven Dials, which is depicted as a place of utter lawlessness. I was intrigued by the idea of such a place in the centre of London. Reading about it in other works of fiction and non-fiction, different people seem to describe it very differently. To some, it is just a noisome slum, to others an unspeakably vile place. I’ve veered towards the negative, but my Seven Dials is by no means the worst you can find in literature. Seven Dials, of course, borders Soho. Less than fifty years after the time of this story, my father was living as a child in Soho where my grandfather was a policeman. My father left London during World War II and used to warn me about Soho as “having more vice in a square mile than anywhere else in England”.
In 1859, Seven Dials was a much more dangerous place than Soho ever was. Areas like Seven Dials were known as ‘rookeries’. By the time of Back Home, some of the worst had already been destroyed as developments like the building of New Oxford Street provided an opportunity to demolish them. London was changing and the old, dangerous warrens of narrow streets were going. Gradually the London of the late 19th century was destroying the festering remains of 18th century London. Shaftesbury Avenue nibbled a bit more of the edge of Seven Dials, demolishing Dudley Street. The clearances continued into the 20th century, only stopping in the 1960s when community action put an end to plans for radical redevelopment of the whole Covent Garden area.
Me: What is the area like today?
Tom: Nowadays, Seven Dials is an upmarket area of trendy shops, pubs and eating places, but the narrow cobbled streets and sometimes deserted alleys can give you an idea of what it might have felt like around 150 years ago. It’s still a place with amazing character. The Seven Dials Club hides its slightly Bohemian premises away up a flight of stairs behind an entrance so low-key that after years of going there I can still walk past and have to double back. The Donmar Warehouse offers a rather edgier sort of theatre than the West End predictability of Shaftesbury Avenue. The revolution isn’t about to start here any more and you won’t need troops to save you from the mob, like Disraeli’s heroine. But Seven Dials remains slightly edgy, a bit more exciting than Covent Garden, rather less commercial than today’s sanitised Soho. In Back Home my villains, crooks and swindlers and often not very nice people, are prepared to fight and die for Seven Dials. If their ghosts still haunt the streets there, I think they’ll be happy to see what followed them.
Me: Are you working on your next book? And can you tell us anything about it?
Tom: I’m working on another book about James Burke, my Napoleonic-era spy. This time, he’s in the Peninsula, working with the Spanish guerrillas to help Wellington
Me: Thank you, Tom, for visiting my blog. The setting for Back Home sounds facinating, and I look forward to reading the book.
Tom: Thank you, Lynne, for having me as a guest.
Tom used to write books for business. Now he writes about love and adventure in the 19th century, which is much more fun. It also allows him to pretend that travelling in the Far East and South America is research. Tom lives in London. His main interest is avoiding doing any honest work and this leaves him with time to ski, skate and dance tango, all of which he does quite well.
If you would like to find out more about Tom's writing or purchase his books, here are the links:
The White Rajah: myBook.to/WhiteRajah
Back Home is available to pre-order at: mybook.to/backhome
And here are the stories about James Burke:
Burke in the Land of Silver: myBook.to/LandofSilver
Burke and the Bedouin: mybook.to/Bedouin
Burke at Waterloo: myBook.to/BurkeWaterloo
Tom blogs at: http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/
Facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams/
Twitter handle is @TomCW99