I was inspired to write 'Lavender Fields' as kind of homage to my home town of Mitcham in South West London. I grew up around Colliers Wood and Tooting, then various other places, primarily Brixton and Wimbledon. When I moved back to Colliers Wood in 1992, everything had changed so much, and a lot of the industries and factories that I'd known as a kid were now gone.
I'm a bit of an old train nerd, and I do remember the track bed for the disused railway line that ran from Tooting along to Merton Park. That was all gone, and Mertantun Way built on what was the old track bed, and also the paper mill had been demolished and the Savacentre (now Sainsbury's) built in its place.
When I decided to move house in 1997 after a relationship bust-up, gentrification had already taken hold and I couldn't afford anywhere in the SW postcode area, so I was forced to move to the much cheaper Mitcham.
I didn't know much about Mitcham, so being a history nut, I read up on the social and economic history of the area, and had great fun looking at all of the archive photos and depictions. I was surprised to find out that Lavender Avenue, off Western Road, and the Lavender Fields area in general, were named after the lavender grown in the surrounding fields up until the late 19th Century. None now exist, and the last lavender production, carried out by Potter and Moore, ceased when the fields were sold off for property development after the railway arrived in the mid-19th Century.
My mum's family were from the Queen's Town Road and Lavender Hill areas of Battersea, and that too refers to the lavender production which disappeared sometime in the early 19th Century.
As with all my books, the story is related and seen through the eyes of the central character, in this case Emma Padget, a young girl who is born into the poverty and squalor of late-19th Century Seven Dials, an area near Covent Garden in the West End. Her childhood is very much based on my own, and she experiences violence, verbal and emotional abuse from her father, and cold indifference from her mother.
She escapes her abusive parents when she meets Charlie Bateman, a costermonger, the name then given to market stall traders. He was only supposed to play a small bit-part role in the book, but I swotted-up on costermongers by reading Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour and London Poor', which is an absolute mine of information on how working-class people lived at the time, and the character of Charlie just leapt off the pages, came to life, and he then became one of the main characters. Once again, I used my own experiences, as my first sexual shenanigans was with a bloke who worked on Sutton Market and, no, I'm not saying how old I was. It didn't last long, and to be honest, I don't even remember his name!
When I wrote the character of Charlie, I based him on someone I used to work with back in the 1990's, someone who was a typical alpha-male. We were great mates, we got on really well, and we had a laugh together, but we didn't have a sexual relationship (surprisingly!), so I had to base that element of Charlie and Emma's relationship on an ex on mine. Charlie is an anti-hero in that he regularly physically assaults both Emma and his other girlfriends, but he redeems himself in the end, and he's one of my favourite characters.
Emma ends up living in Mitcham and finds work in a lavender field, which is a big culture shock to her, and quite different from Seven Dials. I've used my experience of travelling to various training courses over the years, where I had to drive to remote locations out in the middle of nowhere in all parts of the country, and feeling very much out of my comfort zone, especially the deadly quiet, and the countryside smells!
Emma goes through life making lots of mistakes and bad choices when it comes to relationships, I mean, haven't we all? I've also used my experience of the massive upheaval that Emma experiences when she gives birth to her son. She is very young, only 16 years-old, and I was much older at 34, but it turned my life upside-down as it did hers. Although, I didn't abandon my son and run off with another bloke.
My dad knew a lot of fairground workers from when Battersea Park funfair was still there, as he had the ability to befriend just about anyone, even though he was completely vile behind closed doors. Sometimes I would meet them, and they were a lot like gypsy travellers, in that they were very close-knit and only married or had friendships amongst their own kind, and I've used this in the book to demonstrate how the fairground family that Emma ends up living with are very hostile towards her, and never accept her.
Emma spends a brief spell in a workhouse in Bedford, and I purposely did this to highlight the dreadful conditions, and utter horror of what life was like in one of those appalling places. I did a lot of research, and even visited what was left of Bedford Workhouse, and believe me, anyone who bangs on about how great it was in 'the good old days', should spend a couple of days in a workhouse, that would very much dispel the myth.
When Emma finally returns to Mitcham, she finds her mother suffering from dementia, and this is something I've experienced first-hand, as my mum had Alzheimer's for 10-years. Even though she wasn't the best of mums, it was soul destroying to see her deteriorate over the years, and suffer so much before eventually dying at only 72-years old in a nursing home, after not recognising anyone for years.
I'll leave a list of some of the books I used for research:
Mitcham: A Pictorial History by E. N. Montague
Background: Dudley Street, Seven Dials, depicted by Gustave Dore in 1872.
Mayfield Lavender Farm in Surrey