Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Sense of Time and Place: Ghost Town

By Catriona Troth
Coventry Market and Precinct - a concrete canyon.

Coventry has a reputation as a concrete monstrosity – blighted first by WWII bombs and then by ill-judged post-war planning. Some of that is undoubtedly true. But in the seven years I lived there, from 1976 to 1983, I came to know a different Coventry.

Hidden away behind all that concrete are survivors of the old medieval city – the little pot-bellied houses on Spon Street, the Guild Hall with its extraordinary angel ceilings, the ‘Doom’ painting on the walls of Holy Trinity Church. One of the most beautiful places on earth to stand is on the steps between the old and new cathedrals, seeing the reflection of the ruins of one in the great West Window of the other.

Pot-bellied houses in Spon Street
Coventry in 1981 was the city of Two Tone and Ska. Bands like The Specials and The Selecter, known for their anti-racist stance, reigned supreme. When tensions between skinhead and Asian youths escalated into violence, it seemed in my memory as if it only took The Specials organising a Concert for Racial Harmony for the troubles to go away.

Coventry, then, was a city of light and dark, beauty and ugliness. And when, years later, I had an idea for a story that had an edge of racial tension to it, this seemed the perfect time and place in which to set it.

When I began to do my research, I realised that what had happened that summer was far darker and more complex than I’d realised. Two racially motivated murders – one of a student and one of a young doctor – took place in the space of a few weeks, as did the bombing of a Hindu temple. I realised that in order to be respectful of those events, my story had to be as true and honest as possible, and part of that meant anchoring it in the reality of that time and place.
Ruins of St Michael's Cathedral, looking towards the burn cross

Certain locations in Coventry had always had an emotional draw for me, and I found myself weaving those into the fabric of the story. The burnt cross in the ruins of the old Cathedral, made from two charred roof timbers, became an image I’d return to again and again.

Old photographs captured glimpses of the city that, in the thirty years since, have been swept away: the giant chess set in Smithford Way; the cream and navy WMPTE buses lumbering around Broadgate.

And then there were sounds, like the news vendors calling ‘City Final!’ Or the smells of the night shelter where I volunteered for a few months.

All these gave the novel a solid foundation. Whether you know Coventry well or whether you’ve never been there, I hope they provide a sense of tangible reality. Because those events that lie behind the fiction of my story? They really did happen.

For more background on the time, the place and the issues at the heart of Ghost Town, read Catriona's interviews with:
Sir Horace Gentleman, bassist with The Specials
Bob Eaton, writer and producer of Three Minute Heroes
Sukhbender Singh, author of Concrete Jungle
Jatinder Verma, founder of Tara Arts
Alex Wheatle, author of East of Acre Lane

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