The TripFiction Book Club July/August ’19 reads ‘A Summer Reunion’ by Fanny Blake
Talking Location With author Gaby Koppel – Stamford Hill, Cardiff and Budapest
20th May 2019
Talking Location With ... Gaby Koppel, author of Reparation, set in Stamford Hill (London), Cardiff and Budapest
A few chapters into my novel Reparation, the protagonist Elizabeth drives into the North London suburb of Stamford Hill on the trail of a murder case she’s been assigned to. A researcher on a crime reconstruction TV programme, Elizabeth lives nearby yet is completely unaware of the Hassidic Jewish community that is crammed into a tight grid of streets radiating out from the main crossroads.
I’ve lived in Stamford Hill for over twenty-eight years now, but I was trying to recapture the moment when I first arrived. It felt like I’d gone through an invisible barrier into a different time zone. One moment you are passing through normal London streets where people wear jeans and trainers, and the next it’s all long black coats, beards and big brimmed hats, with women in a uniform of mid-length skirts and tights with seams. In these days of textile technology, who needs seams? Teeming with children, it’s all got a slight tang of Handmaid’s Tale about it, though of course not nearly as sinister.
Walking around ‘on The Hill’, it’s difficult not to stare at the ringleted ear locks, the headscarves and wigs, and though I’m sure some people do come up to Stamford Hill purely to people-watch, it isn’t exactly my idea of a tourist draw. There are no impressive synagogues because most houses of prayer are crumbling converted terraced houses. If you love salt beef and latkes, you might hope to find some great kosher restaurants. But there are none, partly because this community observes religious laws of modesty that are so strict that seating men and women together in a public space would be problematic. For visitors frankly, Golders Green has more to offer. But if you want to see the real, authentic traditional life of a Hassidic community on the streets without going to Jerusalem, this is the place to find it.
In the book, Elizabeth makes frequent trips back to her home town and mine, Cardiff, where her parents still live. I left the city at the age of eighteen, and in the years since it has taken a step up from being a rather dated provincial backwater to a really cracking modern city. Of course there’s much that hasn’t changed – Cardiff Castle is still the historical focus of the city centre, the Victorian arcades are still a pleasurably elegant place to shop, and the museum still has its astonishing collection of impressionist paintings gifted by a pair of spinster sisters who were way ahead of their time. But the docks which were a no-go zone in my childhood have been made-over as Cardiff Bay with water sports facilities, upmarket real estate and smart hotels, and the jewel in its crown – the world class Millennium arts centre. But for me, home will always be the village of Rhiwbina – a product of the garden city movement of the 1920s, with its pretty whitewashed semis and green public spaces.
As the narrative of Reparation reaches its climax, Elizabeth flies out to Budapest where her troubled mother has got herself into a spot of bother. This was my own mother’s birthplace, somewhere she grew up and where she witnessed some of the horrors of the Second World War. But at the same time, it is for me the finest and most evocative of the European capitals, each paving stone layered with history both good and bad. Perhaps because of that, pleasure and pain are writ large here, the flavours of life and art just like the food are strong, pungent and full fat.
Whatever you do in Budapest, you must eat and even if you have forever forsworn caffeine, coffee is a must, probably at the Gerbeaud Café, though on my next visit I’m definitely heading for the sumptuous New York Cafe where my uncle George and his socialist intellectual friends used to hang out in the heyday of the communist era.
And when you’ve eaten and drunk as much as you can, it’s time to head for the spa – choose your favourite, the Gellert, the Rudas and Kiraly all have their fans but mine is definitely the Szechenyi Baths & Pool. Exhausted from tramping the streets of the city to research Reparation, I made my way to this gleaming yellow and white palace of health, and found myself having to hop through the snow in my bathers to plunge into the steaming waters. What a fabulous place to people watch, and to reflect that the difficult times in Hungary’s history are definitely not over yet.
Thank you so much to Gaby for sharing details about the settings of her novel Reparation (published by Honno Women’s Press) which you can buy through the TripFiction database. Do follow Gaby on Twitter.
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