The story and characters of Miss Treadway and her world came to me in a great burst, an avalanche really, as I sat beside an ill child – filled with Calpol and blissfully asleep – watching At Bertrams’ Hotel in the dull, winter days of 2014.
The idle thought ‘why have they made Martine McCutcheon look so 60s and – anyway – why aren’t there any 1960s girl detectives?’ started a train of thought and imagination which became Anna and Aloysius, Brennan and Orla, Ottmar and Samira. I could see the American star Iolanthe Green as clear as day and knew how she disappeared and what had really happened to her. And – being a writer of some long standing – I had the sense to write all of it down on actual bits of paper rather than trusting it to memory.
I was between projects for BBC Radio 4, having just finished abridging Ghettoside for Book of the Week and being about to adapt Early One Morning for the Women’s Hour drama serial. Miss Treadway – the idea of her – was unlike anything I had ever written but I had twelve weeks to play with. And so I set off on my first novel, thinking ‘what have I got to lose?’ Sometimes, at the end of my writing day my husband would ask how it was going and I would whisper to him, not even quite confident enough to say it aloud: ‘you mustn’t tell anyone but I actually think it might be good.’ For twelve weeks the writing of Miss Treadway took over my life. It was all I imagined, all I dreamt of, all I thought about. My desk overflowed with books and theatre programmes, Chinese poetry and copies of the Greater London Bus Map for 1964.
I don’t think it’s unusual for a writer to look at their finished book and think in a moment of puffed-up happiness ‘how brilliantly original, where did that come from?’ And, equally, I suspect I am not the first author to realise over the weeks and months that the book you have made – which has seemed to spring fully formed as if from nowhere – is a hundred little pieces of your own life, thrown into the air and re-arranged.
From my actor parents I took 1960s theatre – a favourite subject of conversation for all actors of a certain age, particularly after a couple of glasses of wine. And from my early childhood – when my parents had no childcare and I was typically left backstage with dressers while they worked – I took the profession of my heroine. The theatre from which Iolanthe disappears is based upon the Phoenix Theatre on the Charing Cross Road which was built by my great-grandfather Victor Luxemburg with Sidney Bernstein. Anna’s landlord shares my mother’s family background – his parents having arrived in Britain in the 1890s as the pogroms drove many Jewish families and unaccompanied children out of continental Europe.
My early reading – the books I devoured between the ages of 10 and 13 – gave my novel a shape. From Agatha Christie I took the idea of an ‘English mystery’ and a female sleuth who can get away with asking questions the police cannot. From Charles Dickens I took the idea of a London novel – a novel which walked the reader past the polished surface of the city and into some of the many hundred underworlds upon which the capital is built. From C S Lewis’s Narnia books, which I loved as a child and had just started to read to my own daughters, I took the idea of movement, of adventure and of quest. For at its heart Miss Treadway is probably more a quest novel than it is a mystery.
And in this whole endeavour I found a way to give voice to something which I had wanted to write about for the whole of my adult life. I am a Londoner and, in part, the child of an immigrant family who – in common with many of you reading this, no doubt – grew up feeling both English and unEnglish (or Welsh and unWelsh, Scottish and unScottish, Northern Irish and unNorthern Irish). In the part of south-west London I grew up in, at my school, hardly any of us were English. We were Irish and Polish, French and American, Indian and Pakistani, Indonesian and Chinese. Being other was the norm. Being unEnglish was what we had in common. But being the children and grandchildren of immigrants in the 1980s and 90s also meant that we belonged to a wave of incomers who had assimilated and assimilated quickly. We belonged to the families who had thrown away their language and religion, who had cast off every vestige of their culture in a bid to succeed. We belonged to generations who had come to this country before multiculturalism was even a term anyone spoke aloud.
And so we belonged and we didn’t belong. We weren’t entirely English but neither did we have our other languages, our festivals, our different ways of being. For some – not all – of us we came to feel marooned. Adept at playing up our Englishness but unsure of what we were beneath that mask. And so Miss Treadway is also a novel about identity, a novel about a journey into Englishness, a novel about the hard road to assimilation and the many things we lose upon the way.
Words from Miranda Emmerson
Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars is out now.
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