Novel set mainly in WW2 Auschwitz/Birkenau
Talking Location with author Caroline J Beecham – Islington
23rd November 2017
#TalkingLocationWith… author Caroline J Beecham: Why Islington became the setting for Maggie’s Kitchen, a Second World War novel inspired by real events
Maggie’s Kitchen follows the fortunes of Maggie Johnson as she sets up and runs a British Restaurant in Islington during the Second World War. The story focuses on the relationships that she develops with the community and in particular with Robbie, a twelve-year-old runaway, and Janek, a Polish refugee. Together they struggle through government red-tape to open the restaurant and then battle food shortages and community crisis to keep their doors open. These British restaurants evolved during the Second World War from the need to feed those affected by the food shortages. They were set up by the Ministry of Food and run by local governments with set price meals of 9d for three-courses consisting of a soup, meat and veg and a dessert. Below is a photograph of one of these British Restaurants from the Imperial War Museum.
When I heard about the restaurants I felt there was a story there; what could be more important during wartime than providing people with their basic need? And having worked in restaurants growing up I saw how you become like a family, working as a team, building relationships with regulars, dealing with daily dramas—and that’s not even wartime! Through this microcosm, and against the dramatic backdrop of war, Maggie’s story unfolds as she nurtures the community through the restorative power of food while trying to overcome the grief of losing her fiancé.
Islington seemed like the ideal setting for the novel; you might have gone to a British Restaurant during the 1940s but there are lots of great restaurants and bars to choose from now. I lived just of Upper Street for a few years and loved the area for its eclectic mix of shops, and arts and culture; The Kings Head Theatre, the Almeida Theatre and the Screen On The Green, are all part of what makes the area such a great place to live or visit. I also saw the rich history and strong sense of community and imagined this hadn’t changed much over the years—I could see Maggie frequenting the area where her family grew up, the workers from the dairy on Cross Street becoming restaurant regulars, and Maggie’s love interest, Janek, working an allotment in a nearby disused railyard. The dairy workers were inspired by the three dairies that existed as Islington was quite rural before the war. Chapel Market is also featured as a farmer’s market where Janek sells his produce, much as people still do now.
If you are an Islington local, or a visitor, you might recognise the streets that the characters inhabit as well as descriptions of the gardens, canals, and the Victorian terraces and Georgian squares. I live in Sydney, Australia now, but it really helped with the homesickness to be able to anchor myself in Islington and write about a place that was so familiar and that had once been home.
The sense of place in historical fiction is even more important as you try paint a picture of the setting and life at the time, so I wanted to make it as authentic as possible and included detail from the research from the UK National Archives.
“She hurried past the closed shopfronts of Upper Street and closer to the tower and spire of St Mary’s; it was all that remained of the church, its ancient walls now lying around it like the headstones in the graveyard where they had fallen.” (Page 62)
“Turning back along the path in the direction on Duncan Street, Maggie followed the canal around to where the lock separated the upper and lower levels, and where the powerful wooden barriers and metal winches stood idle.” (Page 63)
Research included walking the streets, reading a lot of background information on the area and taking photographs. I also did a Blitz tour and was able to look up at the rooftops and see where firewatchers’ lookouts still existed, as well as the actual buildings that had been destroyed or affected during the Second World War. I could then include the details that were so important in creating an authentic setting:
“Maggie shook her head; with the dairy and the pub next to it now gone, that brought to seven the number of neighbouring buildings and businesses destroyed: the pub on Pheasant Row, the Home & Colonial Store on Essex Road, St Stephen’s Church on Canonbury Road, Daniel Gregg’s bakery. The Prince of Brunswick on Barnsbury Road and not forgetting the Carlton Cinema late last year, its beautiful Art Deco façade reduced to crumbled pillars and fractured mosaics.” (Page 238)
When you walk past churches in the neighbourhood, you can look down and see markings where metal railings had once been before being taken away and melted down for munitions. Islington Green is home to a memorial now but was used as a depot during the war and is featured on a couple of occasions in the novel. It was really satisfying setting the book somewhere I had a connection to and the familiarity made it a little easier to imagine what life would have been like seventy years ago; and it made it even more important to have the book launch in Islington where the novel is set.
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