Like a river, a book must start somewhere. Like a river, it sometimes has more than one source. Bleeding Heart Square had three. The sources didn’t appear at the same time but slowly and coyly. But I couldn’t start writing until they flowed together, mingling so quickly and thoroughly that I find it hard to know when and where one idea ends and the others begin.
One was the Moat Farm Murder of 1899, a real-life case with which my grandmother had a remote connection – I’ve blogged about this elsewhere.
The other two sources came later, but were just as important. In the 1990s, I discovered the staid, terraced cul de sac of Ely Place, with its gates, its medieval chapel and its beadle in his brown top hat and frockcoat. It’s a curious area just north of Holborn, where history and myth lie in confused and fragmented layers beneath the brick and tarmac of the modern city. It was the site of one of the great palaces of medieval London, the town residence of the Bishops of Ely. The bishops’ domain included what is now Hatton Garden to the west. To the north lies Bleeding Heart Yard, which features in several of Dickens’s novels. Nowadays there are restaurants there – and it was while talking to my editor in one of them that much of the setting of this novel arrived almost literally with the coffee. My wife gave me the title.
Another starting point was the British Union of Fascists. Mosley and his Blackshirts are still the almost mythical bogeymen of British politics. We see them with the comfort of hindsight through the lens of history – as fanatics, fatally tainted by their association with Hitler and the Nazis. But if we make the effort to see them as they were in the early 1930s, a very different picture emerges. Fascism was still respectable – or so it seemed, to many well-intentioned people. In Britain, peers and M.P.s were members and sympathisers. The BUF was well-funded and well-organised. Mosley had coherent policies that appealed to many voters. Like so many political leaders, he appeared to offer simple solutions to complicated problems.
Seventy-five years ago, the movement’s appeal – and its tactics and arguments – had a poisonous plausibility. I visited a former jail in Gloucestershire, now a curious museum dedicated to crime. It also contains a display of fascist memorabilia from the UK. It was unsettling to see the actual uniforms the British fascists wore, the posters they put up, the truncheons they carried – and even the odd knuckle-duster. It became abundantly clear that the BUF offered a sense of belonging, and that this was at the heart of its appeal. Its members were proud to march in paramilitary style behind the emblazoned drums. Some of them bought enamelled cufflinks or cigarette lighters bearing the movement’s insignia. The BUF belongs to history, but movements that demand a sinister, quasi-tribal loyalty from their members are unfortunately still with us.
Bleeding Heart Square is set in the past, in 1934. But in more ways than one, perhaps, it begins and ends in the present.
Also, Andrew has kindly provided some of his pictures of the area in London, as it is today. The comments that follow are mine.
1. Mitre Court leading to Bleeding Heart Yard. Note the narrow passage.
2. The upper facade of Mitre Public House on which no. 7 Bleeding Heart Square is partly based. At the risk of sounding like an estate agent: note the well preserved original features.
3. Bleeding Heart Tavern.
4. Part of Bleeding Heart Yard today, a close and claustrophobic environment perfect for the theme of the story in the novel Bleeding Heart Square.