I spent my twenties in a top floor flat in North-West London. From its rickety balcony you could watch the sun set over a particular urban view. In the distance, planes descending on Heathrow. Closer, the bustle and business of Golborne Road. Eye level with the balcony was the raised Westway with its constant traffic. Beneath and parallel to that, the Hammersmith and City line trains rattled across. And in the immediate foreground, Arno Goldfinger’s infamous tower block stuck up, ugly and awesome, far too high into the sky, nearly always blocking the final minutes of sunset. From the balcony railings you could see that all of this view was separated from you by a thick band of water running from right to left. On the far side of the water, a concrete towpath, a skate park and edge of greenery before your eyes reached the road. On the near side you could see, if you leant carefully over the railings, tiny sloping gardens made on the bank of the canal by residents of the ground floor flats, filled with flowers.
Noisy, grubby, never still; it was such a good view. And of all its parts, the canal was the best to watch. I used to go for ‘jogs’ up to Little Venice, which usually meant getting into my tracksuit and not breaking out of a walk. Narrowboats chugged past, some shiny and pristine, some shabby but well organised, with tools, bicycles, tarpaulins strapped to the top. Many colourfully painted, all clearly named. I would see the same boats and their owners again and again. I recognised one man as the compere from a cabaret show I’d been to. He steered his boat wearing a white fur coat. The smarter boats were owned by older couples and would only appear in good weather. Occasionally a wide-lipped rubbish barge would come grinning down the centre of the canal, its pan filled with all the sorts of objects I’d seen floating at the water’s edge: mattresses, cardboard boxes, tyres, bottles, shopping trolleys. The same characters walked the towpath too. Skaters and their spectators. Daytime drinkers looking for a bench or bit of wall. One white-haired man whose Jack Russell terrier rode on his shoulder like a parrot.
This stretch of canal eventually became the place my story would be set. For me it was a good place to think, somehow safe from the nagging thought that I should be doing something more constructive than trying to write a novel. I wondered if it was also a refuge for the people who spent time there. Life by the water seems so much stiller and slower than in the city spinning around it. And you could disappear. In London, canals are all but invisible, hidden behind buildings and billboards. You can be metres from the water without knowing. Off grid, in the middle of an anonymous city, the only thoroughfare not lit or watched by CCTV, the canal would be the perfect place to hide. That became the starting point for my story. I went up to Little Venice again and again and slowly grew characters, some semblance of a plot. I put my awkward heroine onto a battered old narrowboat, and sent a drunk canal warden along the towpath to annoy her. It all took shape from there. It was easy to imagine my cast of misfits populating this most romantic, intriguing and concealed part of London.
By Mave Fellowes
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