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Talking Location With… author Sue Clark – Swinging LONDON

15th July 2020

Sue ClarkTalkingLocationWith… Sue Clark, author of Note To Boy, set in 1960s Swinging London (and contemporary)

London, both in the present day and back in the Swinging Sixties, is the setting for my debut novel, Note to Boy. The well-heeled West End, particularly the areas around Hyde Park and taking in Holland Park, Lancaster Gate, Oxford Street, Carnaby Street and Knightsbridge, is where Eloise, one of the main characters, lives out her outrageous adventures. Then as now, this part of London, with its shops, restaurants and bars has an unmistakeable buzz about it.

A much less affluent housing estate in Kilburn, close by geographically but many miles away socially, is where Bradley, her young protagonist, lives out a miserable existence with a bullying brother and neglectful mother.

Mary Quant

Throughout the book, Eloise, a former ‘shock frock’ fashion guru, dictates her racy memoirs of the 1960s. You’ve got to love the optimism and verve of the Swinging Sixties – even if you can’t remember them! Mary Quant. The moon landing. Flower Power. It was an exciting time to be alive, especially if you were young and carefree. And it makes a wonderfully rich backdrop for a novel, particularly a humorous one. Fashion was king and London was the epicentre of the fashion world. Skirts were high and morals low.

I didn’t have to research hard to recreate those days. I only had to remember my own experience of living in London in the sixties, walking down Oxford Street in my white ankle boots, buying my miniskirts in Carnaby Street and getting my hair chopped à la Twiggy opposite Liberty’s. Though I should point out, my behaviour and dress sense were never as extreme as Eloise’s. But then, I was never as rich and famous as her.

I was a lowly secretary working for a big American film company in Fitzrovia. While I glimpsed the celebrity life from the side-lines, I used my experience to put Eloise slap bang in the middle of it. Because Note to Boy is as much about celebrity as it is about fashion, perhaps more so.

Sue Clark

Note to Boy describes, through Eloise’s eyes, the phenomenal rise of the London fashion revolution and her part in it. It was a time when waiflike models became international stars overnight, and designers were gods. Eloise is swept along on the crest of this wave, soon opening one of the first of the new-fangled boutiques in a little known backstreet called Carnaby Street.

As she becomes more successful in business and less satisfied in her marriage, she moves to Knightsbridge – partly to escape her workaholic husband but mostly to be handy for Harrods. Later, her fortune lost and her reputation in tatters after a catastrophic fashion event, she moves to a small mansion flat in Lancaster Gate.

This is where we find the now elderly Eloise at the start of the book, living in reduced circumstances and brooding about her lost fame and fortune. Enter Bradley, a downtrodden but wily teenager from a sink estate in Kilburn. Eloise wants her celebrity life back. Bradley just wants a life.

Research for a book can be a slog, but I must say, this was a pleasure. To check out the modern locations, I would take a train from my home into Paddington Station. A short walk down Sussex Gardens to Lancaster Gate took me past the door of the mansion block I imagined Eloise living in. From there it was a stroll along the Bayswater Road to Marble Arch and then along Oxford Street – retracing a route I used to take as a twenty-something – to Oxford Circus and down Regent’s Street to my goal, Carnaby Street. Carnaby Street and the area round it may have lost some of its distinctiveness and daring over the years, but I still find it an exhilarating place to visit.

Research for Bradley’s home territory was different. Searching online for a suitably grim housing estate in which to incarcerate him, I made a surprising discovery. Estates in the Kilburn and Brent areas apparently have a reputation for being ‘film friendly.’ Since finding this out, I often fancy I recognise Bradley’s ‘low rise’ as the location for a gritty film and TV drama.

London, past and present, is as central to the story of Note to Boy as the characters. In an earlier draft of the book, I experimented with taking Eloise and Bradley out of the capital and giving them a little holiday on the Isle of Wight. It was fun to write but didn’t feel right. Those chapters hit the cutting room floor. Eloise and Bradley belong in London and there they would stay.

Tips for writers:

  1. I may seem obvious but it’s easy to get distracted from the main event by peripherals like writing apps. Get your story down on paper or on screen first. Worry about finangling it into perfection using a fancy gizmo later.
  2. Read, voraciously and continually. Read out of your comfort zone. Read new authors in genres you’re not familiar with. Make notes while you read. I get some of my best ideas inspired by books I’m reading.
  3. Don’t be alone. Writing can be a lonely business. Join a writing group, take a course, talk to people who’re on the same writing journey as you. They may help and, as a bonus, you may make lifelong friends, as I did.

Sue Clark has grilled John Humphreys, quipped with Ronnie Corbett, danced with one James Bond and had a one-sided conversation with another, and penned funny lines for the likes of Lenny Henry, June Whitfield, Roy Hudd and David Jason. She’s been a BBC radio and TV comedy scriptwriter on such shows such as Alias Smith and Jones, Weekending, The News Huddlines and The Jason Explanation, a copywriter, a PR, a journalist, a magazine editor, a writer of guidebooks, a secretary and was, briefly, paid to read books all day long for a film producer. And now she’s written a novel.

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Catch Sue on Twitter and connect via her website.

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