Carol[ine] Hardman’s ‘Bloody Marys and a bowl of Pho’ (Hoxton) is a modern-day, urban take on the vampire narratives so current at the moment. It is well-written and funny. ‘Platform Zero’ (Haggerston) by Michael Zimmer [Trimmer] also offers a quirky version of another, familiar theme – that of the parallel universe. ‘The Beetle’ by Ellie Stewart (Wapping) is also well-paced and moving in its portrayal of a broken relationship. Peter Morgan’s ‘Mr Forest Hill Station’ (Forest Hill) also stands out due to its tender depiction of the bond between strangers, meeting occasionally in the big city.
A common theme the stories share is the sense of locale; all stories give a real sense of London’s enclaves, those small areas threaded together by transport links. In some stories the topography is described in minute detail: ‘ ‘Left out of the station entrance,’ she had said, ‘not far until a sort-of-small-road-kind-of-more-like-an-alley which you need to go down all the way, then through the gap-between-the-shops to cross the big street, then to the right for a bit until you get to a shop with a kind-of-old-fashioned-green-sign and some little writing in the window […].’ (‘Three Things to Do in Surrey Quays’, Adrian Gantlope). It is enlightening to the non-London resident to think of London in such small terms, as described above.
Many stories also focus upon the fragility and fleetingness of relationships. For example, Rob Walton describes an odd kind of love affair in ‘Yellow Tulips’ (New Cross Gate), between the narrator, and John and Alex. The affair itself seems unsatisfactory and temporary, based on hurried meetings. Walton is effective at capturing the instability of the relationship: ‘It is possible to live in a city, a town, a village, an area of a city for a short time and make new friends, close friends, have altogether deeper relationships. Without the shared past or common references you can dive into the here and now, establish a new sort of relationship, one you haven’t tried before. Do all the things you didn’t do in the other places you lived. Then move on and become a new you, or be one of the other yous [sic] in another new place.’
This is where it all gets a bit murky, I’m afraid. What follows isn’t necessarily chronological, and in parts might not even be strictly accurate, but it’s as much of the process of writing the story as I can remember. It will probably make a lot more sense if you’ve already read Bloody Marys and a Bowl of Pho.
Given the varied nature of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies’ clientele, one of my first jobs was to work out what sort of customer my main character was. I brainstormed various monster options, and a vampire seemed like the best choice for lots of reasons; suitably formal and old-fashioned (for maximum contrast with the cool, young hipsters he was going to meet), and he could blend in with normal humans fairly easily. It was never my intention to call him Norbert, incidentally. That was supposed to be a place-holder name until I could think of something suitable but it just sort of stuck. I can’t imagine him being called anything else now.
I thought for a bit, too, about these ‘hipsters’ I knew I wanted him to meet. There would be a group of them, I knew, and they’d be quite young. Perhaps they would be art students, or from a fashion college. I knew that Suzie would be a bit different from the others, but I really didn’t know much more about her – or any of them – than that. I read up on the history of Hoxton , including its transport links, curious to find out what it would have been like when Norbert was first visiting, and brushed up on my vampire knowledge. I knew the basics – garlic, crucifixes, and so forth, but thought it might be helpful to have bit more to work with.
With the exception of the Kingsland Viaduct (the original train line servicing the area, now being used to carry the East London line), hardly any of this research made it into the final text directly. But nearly all of it informed the story in some way. I discovered, for instance, that Hoxton once had links with haberdashery and fabric, which is where the idea of Norbert’s mother being a seamstress sprang from. I imagined him first visiting the shop as a young boy accompanying his mother on her annual trips to London to stock up on material and mapped out the route they would have taken from Brighton to London Bridge, then a short walk over the river to connect with the Viaduct at Broad Street.
I also spent quite a lot of time wandering around Hoxton. I walked the route from the station to the shop, then onto a pub (where I stopped for a drink, purely in the name of research), and back to the station via a Vietnamese restaurant (more research, obviously – their pho was delicious.) I know the area fairly well, but it helped to spend an afternoon soaking everything up and trying to see it all from Norbert’s perspective. Little details like Joel’s striped t-shirt and the magazine reviews plastering the door of the restaurant came from here; I could have invented them, I suppose, but it was easier to describe what I had seen.
I knew that the tension in the story – the question I hoped would keep readers interested enough to keep reading – was to do with whether or not Norbert’s secret would be discovered. Of course all of this relied on readers knowing (or at least suspecting) that he’s a vampire from the start, so I had to plant some fairly obvious clues. I had a lot of fun doing this, and deciding what to reveal when. Early drafts of the story included more obvious clues from the beginning – some of these disappeared altogether while others (Norbert noticing Suzie’s necklace, and crossing a road to avoid garlic) ended up in different parts of the story where they ended up serving quite different purposes.
A trip to the pub part way through the story seemed like a good way to turn up the pressure, and also seemed like a realistic way for a group of twenty-somethings to spend the afternoon. Mainly, though, I just wanted to find out what happens when you get a vampire drunk. Not surprisingly, the slightly tipsy version of Norbert was a lot of fun to write.
I played with ways Norbert might reveal himself accidentally before thinking about what might happen if one of the group did find out. Would they be scared? Would they tell the others? For the longest time, I thought the ending was going to be an accidental reveal by Suzie. It might happen at the restaurant, I imagined, where there was bound to be garlic in some of the dishes. Norbert would nearly eat some, and Suzie would dive across the table to save him, or perhaps he would actually eat it and they’d have to call the paramedics……
As I kept writing, and exploring different ideas, something fell into place, and I realised what my subconscious had known all along. That this wasn’t just a story about vampires, or Vietnamese food, or even about a shop – it was a story about acceptance, and about trying to fit in. Once I realised that, everything else seemed to make sense, including Lucinda, who I had written into the beginning of the story very early on, without any idea of what she was doing there or how important she’d turn out to be. So instead of a big, dramatic finale with Norbert choking on his garlic-laden pho, it seemed more fitting to leave him exactly where we found him – on the outside of a window, looking in.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this is the story I ended up writing – it’s a theme I seem to return to time and time again – but if you had asked me before I started what the story would be about I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. That might sound strange but it’s how a lot of my stories evolve. I’ll start with a place, or a single character, or vaguest of concepts then write and write and write about it until – if I’m lucky – the pieces fall into place and I work out what it’s really a story about. And then I write it, and by the time I’ve finished I can’t remember ever not knowing.
If you’d like to pay a visit Hoxton Street Monster Supplies – and I can highly recommend a trip – the shop (at 159 Hoxton Street, N1 6PJ) is open from 1pm – 5pm, Tuesdays to Fridays, and 11am – 5pm on Saturdays. There’s also an online store . You might also like to visit Ministry of Stories.
Probably very good for authors who have done too many readings too!
This story started with a shop. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies really does exist; it’s the public-facing arm of a wonderful writing charity called the Ministry of Stories which launched in November 2010. Behind a secret door, carefully concealed in the wooden panelling on the shop’s back wall, young people from the local area take part in all sorts of writing projects supported by volunteers. These workshops are offered for free and are partly funded by the profits generated from the sales of items just like the ones I mention in the story – jars of thickest human snot (which tastes awfully like lemon curd), tins of fear, and even fang floss (“Oh! So you’re the place which charges a fiver for a ball of string!” I once heard a woman mutter crossly, missing the point entirely.)
It’s a model inspired by the 826 projects in the US; all over America, volunteer mentors work with young writers in spaces hidden behind shops for time-travellers, super-heroes, pirates… even spies, who can shop at Chicago’s ‘Boring Store’ safe in the knowledge that their super-secret identities will remain intact.
The shop has its own mythology, which I borrowed from extensively. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, so the story goes, really did open in 1818 but closed down for an extensive refurbishment period, during which it went largely un-noticed by the general public (which is probably why you’d never heard of it). It re-opened its doors in November 2010, just – by coincidence – as the Ministry of Stories launched. The ball of string lady would probably be deeply suspicious about this coincidence, but who wants to listen to her?
I volunteer as a writing mentor at the Ministry, and have seen first-hand how the shop fires up the imaginations of the kids who pass through its doors. They (and we) love to play with the line between what’s make-believe and what’s real; I’ve had endless conversations about the invisible cat who sleeps in the corner, the classified advertisements pinned to the walls and the mysterious former shop-keepers whose portraits adorn the walls. So as soon as I discovered Stations still needed a Hoxton story, I jumped at the chance to write it.
At first I thought I’d write about the shop in its heyday – a story about one of the original owners, perhaps, or which explored the lives of their clientele. I soon realised, though, that it would be more fun to play with the contrast between the shop’s old fashioned image and the cool, hipster types people often associate with modern day Hoxton. A contemporary setting would also solve a problem that was starting to bother me; it meant I could write about the shop without removing too much of the mystery surrounding its origins. Lots of gaps have been left – quite deliberately, I suspect – and the longer I spent thinking about the shop’s early years the less comfortable I felt about filling those gaps in. And of course, a modern setting meant I could incorporate the Overground station which was, after all, sort of the point.
Suddenly that opening image came to me, of a customer arriving at the shop to find a sign in the window saying it was closed. Something about this just felt right – if the shop had been closed for all that time, it made perfect sense that a customers might not realise and would turn up one day to find it shut. And then what would they do?
I pitched the idea to Cherry, and was thrilled when she said yes. And then I realised I had to go away and write it, which terrified me.
On the subject of Stations, I was at a ‘reading aloud’ workshop where we all read a short extract and gave feedback on presentation, techniques etc. – I read the first few pages of Bloody Marys from a print-out, and one of the women there said “Wait, I know this story! Isn’t it from a collection? Something to do with trains?” It made my night!
So there you go, complete strangers have read and recognised Caroline’s work. Result!
A well attended event, about a dozen enthusiastic folk, only one of whom we already knew! thank you to Alan and Paolo for their excellent marketing.
Appropriately for a Forest Hill gig, we started the evening with Peter Morgan’s Mr Forest Hill Station, about an eccentric and seemingly eternally youthful man only ever seen in the station’s environs.
Moving one stop north we encountered Rosalind Stopps’ story of aging romantic angst in How to Grow Old in Brockley.
Over (or should it be under) the river we stopped off at Shoreditch for Katy Darby’s drug-and-ego fuelled tale of Bafta wannabe’s The Horror, the Horror.
And our furthest point north, Hoxton brought us Caroline Hardman’s story of a vampire completely out of his depth.