I GREW up in Havering, a hinterland-esque London borough where the last of the East End leaches into Essex. As a child, I devoured books about intellectuals behaving badly in north London and as soon as I could I moved there, living in flats in Highgate and Muswell Hill before I got priced out to the edge again. Now I live in Barnet, a hinterland-esque London borough where the last of north London leaches into Hertfordshire.
I love to run and can cover five N postcodes in a single session. I reckon I know the sprawl of north London better than some cabbies. I pound the pavements in the pretty bits that everyone else writes about — Hampstead Heath, Crouch End — but it’s in the ‘nowhere’ streets that my stories truly take flight. After all, the suburbs are where most of us live, and every neighbourhood hides secrets.
My thriller, He Said/She Said, was set in the Harringay Ladder, those Victorian terraces in the shadow of Alexandra Palace where families who can’t afford Crouch End buy fixer-uppers.
On a long, inspiration-seeking run to Alexandra Park I passed an astonishing building I’d never seen before. Princess Park Manor was a wide, low Victorian building as frilly as a wedding cake, with fancy brickwork, a central dome and turrets over elegant windows. I looked it up on my phone and realised that I was in the grounds of Colney Hatch, at one point the largest and most notorious lunatic asylum in London.
We all know about the horrors of early psychiatric care: the straitjackets, the padded cells, matron jangling her keys like a jailer. When I explored the public grounds, I was intrigued and disappointed that all the interiors I could glimpse were as bland and beige as any shoebox new-build. I couldn’t help wonder what tales those stones could tell.
When I thought about a woman with a secret history in such a mental hospital coming to live in a luxury flat here, I had a plot. Then, when I found out that Victorians called their asylums ‘stone mothers’, I knew I had a title too. Researching the grisly history of Colney Hatch asylum, I felt as though I was getting to know a person rather than a place. I once even found myself calling the old hospital ‘she’.
As my story developed, I saw that actually, my fictional asylum didn’t belong in north London. I needed a setting where no one could hear you scream — and without a CCTV camera on every corner. I relocated it to rural Suffolk.
Now I’m writing a new book, once again set close to home, this time on the very edge of London in a house overlooking the M25. When I need inspiration, I lace up my trainers and go. Who knows what’s going on behind those net curtains?
■ Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now