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Mave Fellowes on London and the inspiration behind her novel

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A giant fresco of Charlie Chaplin. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

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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Mave Fellowes – Q&A

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Odeline is quite an unusual character, what was your inspiration for her?

I am intrigued by prickly, antisocial characters, especially cantankerous young people. I saw a very bad children’s magician once at a Christmas party. She was moody, looked bored, and moved through her repertoire without enthusiasm. By the end the children were heckling her, and she was snapping back at them and threatening to leave. Furious and ridiculous in her Father Christmas suit, she appeared to think this kind of work was far beneath her. I wondered where she thought she belonged instead. The whole scene stuck in the back of my mind and eventually Odeline grew from that.

What kind of audience do you think would most enjoy this book?

Hopefully a reader who likes character driven stories or who might like to look at London from a different, unusual angle.

Why did you choose to set the novel within the city canal system?

I like neglected, derelict places.  Most of London is so developed but there are sections of the waterways which aren’t seen, lying along the backs of buildings or a few metres below street level and out of sight. I used to live next to the Grand Union Canal where it curves underneath the A40 and alongside the Paddington train line. Life on the canal seemed completely unperturbed by the noise and commotion going on around it. Boats chug along, ducks paddle about; its an alternative way of living that still moves at the same pace as it did a century ago.

What drew you to the mime profession as a key theme for this novel?

My sister introduced me to Charlie Chaplin’s films about ten years ago and told me he was a genius. I think he and Buster Keaton are mime at its best – funny, moving, and graceful to watch, even ninety years after they made those films. But mime artists aren’t considered cool these days: they are retro, outdated, perhaps a bit annoying.  Street performers or bad clowns. As a vocation, it seemed perfect for Odeline. All she knows of the world is from books, mostly second-hand ones or cast-offs from her local library. She is high-minded and solipsistic, and has inherited a theatrical gene from a father she doesn’t know. She is disappointed by her mundane existence and yearns for a more romantic life. I thought mime was exactly the kind of thing she’d pin her dreams on.

What would you like readers to take away from this novel?

Hopefully some affection for the characters by the end, and some enjoyment at having spent time with them. I like reading stories which are a long way from my own life, and I think this is the best thing about reading (and writing) – the process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think it’s why fiction is so important at all ages. If it works, it enlarges our imagination for other people’s experience.

Any plans for another book in the future?

I’ve almost finished a first draft of another novel. It’s a murder mystery, so has been a very different writing experience. With Chaplin and Co I just wrote one thing after the next, and felt my way along. But with a ‘Whodunnit’ the timing of each piece of information is crucial so I’ve spent a long time planning and structuring. Tweaking one scene has repercussions through the rest of the story, and you have to keep the whole plot in your head at all times. We are all so familiar with the shape of Whodunnits from film and TV, I thought it would be a straightforward exercise but it has been extremely challenging!

Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes, Vintage, 2013

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