Sarah Waters & The Paying Guest

Kennington is lucky enough to have among its residents the best-selling author, Sarah Waters. Her six novels have been adorned with too many awards to fit into one introduction, and her masterful use of language and story-telling has resulted in her work often being adapted into TV series, feature films and theatre productions. Imbued with themes of love, murder, social shifts and secrecy, her most recent novel, The Paying Guest, is set in 1920s Denmark Hill with beautifully vivid descriptions of South East London throughout. We met Sarah on a sunny morning on the Southbank, and later that week, our photographer Alex Reyto went to explore the corners of Ruskin Park and Champion Hill in which the novel is set.

Why did you choose Champion Hill as the setting for this novel?
I live in Kennington and have a good friend in East Dulwich, so I often do that drive. Way before I thought of The Paying Guests, I’d always been intrigued by Champion Hill, partly because it’s such a great name, and partly because there are still so many relics of an older suburban London there. Those big houses, all tucked away…  the road that actually makes up Champion Hill is very secluded and I always thought it would be a good place for a murder! I knew I wanted a sort of semi-suburban setting, and I’ve always liked Camberwell and known about its history. It had been pretty genteel and then it got filled up with clerks — it was known for having a lot of lower-middle class people and that fitted in with the class dynamics in the novel. Originally the house in the novel was set on Grove Lane, but I began to think that I needed it to be a bit more secluded for the events in the novel, and Champion Hill felt right. Researching it was good, there’s a brilliant local history library for Southwark up on Borough High Street; it’s just a regular library, but at the back they’ve got this local history room which is really well stocked. They’ve got lots of photos from different periods of history with all the streets indexed alphabetically, so I could just look up Champion Hill or Grove Lane. Also they have lots of maps, which was really brilliant.

The novel set in the 1920s, and there are some great descriptions of walking down Walworth Road…
Walworth’s interesting. You can see it now when you look at the buildings on Walworth Road; they’re quite impressive, so I think it was a very respectable shopping street, but just off it were some very poor streets. And actually I only discovered this quite recently from doing family history, but my dad’s mum was born and grew up in some very poor bits of Walworth. So I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about the area and I do a lot of walking around it, and there are these islands of grander bits just stuck in the middle — very London, very mixed. So it just seemed to me, from a story point of view, an area that had a lot of potential with different sorts of people living side-by-side. In the book, the character of Frances’s mum is a sort of genteel relic, and Lilian’s family being this working class family, and then layers of poverty underneath that as well.

Your novels are always set in the past — you have gone from Victorian-era, to the Second World War, then back to the 1920s. Which decade do you think you’re going to explore next?
Well, I’m there already; the book I’m writing now is set in the early fifties, just outside of London. But it’s still early days, so I won’t talk about it!

One of the things I love about your novels is the your attention to the minutiae and loyalty of to the language and descriptions of the era. Frances and her mum have lost their servants and are still adjusting to life in a time of social shift — there’s a great passage describing Frances’s mother putting on the kettle, “She looked like a passenger that had been taken into the engine room to man the guages” and Frances’s everyday battle with dust. Do you think you’ll ever write a novel set in the present day and enjoy it as much?
Well it’s funny, because I enjoy details like that as well. I mean, I have an everyday battle with dust as well – but I don’t care, because we don't have to care so much anymore. But to be genteel in the 1920s, you did have to care about dust, because you had to keep up if you come came from a family background where you had servants to do the work for you. I think it’s really hard to realise how shaming it was, how people felt to lose that sort of status, so there was this continuous effort to keep up appearances that did really carry on until the fifties. But I guess now it’s all about possessions, gadgets and what you own, and I think there isn’t the pressure on people to have their houses spick and span. I mean writing about the fifties is interesting because a lot of people were getting their homes for the first time and it was very exciting, but I think then there was this extra sort of pressure to keep it all sparkling clean with vacuum cleaners and washing powders.

If you were writing a present-day novel, how do you think you’d feel without those historical nuances?
It’s true, I do find things like that really fascinating. I don’t know what would replace that if I went into a contemporary setting, but then again it’s about story — I think if if a story came along that really grabbed me and was clearly a contemporary story… Actually, after I wrote The Little Stranger which is a sort of haunted novel, I thought I’d really like to write another ghost story but with a contemporary setting; it would be interesting because that would be coming at the modern world a bit sideways and linked to the past. That might be something I’d like to do one day. 

That’s one of the great thing about living in old houses in London, it’s always interesting to wonder who’s lived in them before us…
I often think that too. We looked up our house on the census and I think there were about thirteen people living in it in 1901, and now it’s me, my partner and our cat! Swanning around… I mean our cat probably eats better and gets better medical attention than they would have got. What would they think?

What took you to Kennington?
I moved to Brixton in 2000 from Hackney. I split up with somebody and had to move quite far! And I knew Brixton a bit and saw a house advertised; actually it was a squat, one of the last squats. A very well-established women’s squat near the Academy. And it was great, I moved in there for about eighteen months and then I moved to a flat up by Brockwell Park. So I really got to like that area of Brixton and South London. I was living in Brixton and getting the bus up to town, and I’d go through Kennington quite a lot and think it looked nice. So when I was earning enough from the books, I bought a flat. That was in 2002, and then I moved into a house with my partner about seven years ago and stayed in Kennington. I really love it there now.

In your debut novel, Tipping The Velvet, there’s a scene where they go to a thriving East End gay pub; London is currently losing a lot of gay bars due to gentrification… 
I don’t know – I never really seek them out anymore! And partly because I’ve got my gay friends and we don’t tend to want to go to gay bars anymore, or indeed any bar! I think things have changed and there isn’t that urgency there, I don’t know what it’s like if you’re younger. But the excitement of going to a lesbian evening – there was the Angel Bar in Islington, they did a women’s night on a Wednesday and it was so exciting, it seemed to be so important that it was there. There seemed to be hardly anywhere else. And I don’t think that’s so true anymore, partly because of the internet, I suppose, with people meeting online. 

It does feel a shame that a generation has partly missed that though…
It was exciting and you did have a real sense of community identity, and what you wore; you could really spot it back in the nineties, and it was a real culture. It was thrilling and had a real political edge to it. Sometimes I do think, where would I go? 

I guess the argument is that it’s become much more accepted that those spaces aren’t needed as much…
There used to be South London Surfing here at the Southbank, I went once and it seemed huge. So there was clearly a desire for it. There’s still the Vauxhall Tavern going strong, but that’s always been great. 

Tipping the Velvet came out in 1998, and it has become a kind of go-to novel for young girls and women discovering their sexuality. Christine and the Queens recently said in a Guardian article that her dad gave her the book for the strong female characters, but it happened to be her “introduction to gay sex”… how does that make you feel?
I know, I was so tickled when I read that! I was just delighted. It’s a really long time since I wrote that book, well over twenty years. And I’ve written several novels since then, so I’ve slightly left the preoccupations of that book behind. But it was such an important book to me and I was 29 when I wrote it, so very much coming out of stuff that had happened to me when I was younger and discovering your sexuality and finding your place in the world. So the thought that it’s had an impact on younger women and still does is really exciting, it’s brilliant. I felt very honoured to read that actually. And the thought that her dad’s given it to her! 

The hugely popular BBC drama series followed in 2002, and now almost every single novel of yours has been adapted…
There are plans to do the two last ones as well — The Paying Guest for TV and The Little Stranger for film — so that’s nice. It’s been great. And what’s been interesting lately is the theatrical adaptations, that’s the latest thing for me. Tipping The Velvet at The Lyric in Hammersmith and The Night Watch in Manchester — that was obviously very different from Tipping the Velvet, a lot more sombre, and actually really moving. It worked really well in that theatre as it had a revolving stage. The whole adaptation thing has been a delight; when I first began to have the books adapted, it was very exciting. Tipping the Velvet especially, as it felt very much like a ‘moment’ for the BBC. You must have been kids when that was on telly, did you watch it?

Yes, and then I remember secretly buying it from HMV. You feel so closeted in those years, clinging quietly to those things!
So that was true for you too? Because that was certainly true for my generation.

I think the internet has helped. And I think even with accepting parents, you’re still inbuilt with a shame at that age.
I remember buying The Well of Loneliness, I was a student at the time. I was home for the holidays and I’d gone to Haverfordwest, which was the next big town with an Oxfam shop and buying a second-hand copy of it. The old Virago edition has very striking butch-looking women on the cover, and I remember my dad coming in and peering at the book and reading the back!

What are your favourite bookshops in South East London?
There used to be the fabulous Crockatt & Powell on Lower Marsh. It’s a really great old pedestrianised street with a really vintage clothes shop, and a fetish clothes shop – some really weird businesses! And it used to have this great bookshop but they’ve gone, unfortunately. The street’s getting a bit more mainstream now. There’s a great bookshop in Crystal Palace — Bookseller Crow On The Hill — I go there when I can, and there’s Dulwich Books. Review in Peckham is really nice, Evie Wyld runs it. Have you read All the Birds Singing? It’s a really great book, I recommend it. In terms of places, I’m very fond of Ruskin Park; it’s very small but very cute. I also like Nunhead Cemetery. I was looking through your last issue at the photos of the Rivoli Ballroom – I haven’t been there for many years. Also, The Ivy House in Nunhead! My friend did an event there with all sorts of performances – it’s great, I didn’t know it existed and I was really happy to find it. I do love that about South London, there are things tucked away that you can still discover. 

The Local History Library and Archive is based at the John Harvard Library, 211 Borough High Street, SE1 1JA,

The Paying Guests is out now, published by Virago.