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Sarra Manning’s inspiration behind London, with Love

The Inspiration Behind London, With Love

It’s a question I I always dread when people ask me where I get my inspiration from as there’s never usually a simple, succinct reply. I often just pluck an idea from the ether and mix it up with some other stuff I’ve been thinking about and after a few months of percolating, it becomes a book.

But London, With Love was quite a different story. The pandemic was just about starting and I knew that I didn’t want to set a story during those awful months. (Surely it would be over by Easter?) Then again, it would have felt odd to ignore it so my only option was to write something that wasn’t set in the present day but maybe in the recent past. But what?

Completely out of inspiration, I went deep into my hard drive to the folder of book ideas that never made it and it was there that I found another folder entitled “London Novel.” Inside that was a synopsis, outline and four thousand and five hundred clunky words of an ill-fated attempt at writing my first adult novel to get an agent back in the far off days of 2005.

It was about a boy and a girl who meet as teenagers and follow their lives through the next couple of decades, each chapter revolving around a tube station and a song. Sounds familiar so far? Well, not so much. One of them becomes a rock star, there’s rehab and all manner of melodrama and I didn’t get the agent of my dreams because he thought that it read too teenage. At the time, I was outraged, but as I read back every clumsy sentence and plot points, I cringed and winced. I was writing and publishing teen fiction back then (nobody called it YA in 2005) but this was really sub par.

Still, I loved the bare bones of the idea, that you could meet the love of your life at sixteen and not even realise it. And that, when you live in London, the tube is the bloodstream of the city; keeping it alive. I knew that at certain times in my life, a tube station will have played a major role in my adventures. There was the summer that I worked in the Virgin Retail warehouse and evaded my fare at North Acton tube station every day. There was the boy who lived in Swiss Cottage who broke my heart on a weekly basis, usually by the ticket machines at Swiss Cottage stations. There were nights, so many glittering, gaudy nights, which started at Camden Town station.

As I began to percolate this set in the recent past novel that I was going to write, I also realised that the tube network sets the scene for the beginning and end of so many relationships. How many times in my life had I arrange to meet people at tube stations? Or snogged someone furiously as I waited for an Edgware branch Northern Line train to come? Breaking up with a boyfriend on New Year’s Eve on a tube going into town and getting out at Hendon Central to go back to my parents house in tears. Breaking up with another boyfriend between Caledonian Road and Kings Cross on the Piccadilly Line.

But also, and this is hard to explain to anyone who didn’t come of age pre-mobile phones, pre-social media, in the recent past, when you broke up with someone, you were broken up. Gone. Ghosted. There was no surreptitious stalking of their Facebook or Instagram. Unless you had mutuals, there was no way to know what they were doing with their lives, their loves. However, even in a big city like London, no one can hide forever. I can not tell you of the many, many impromptu reunions, both awkward and joyful, that I’ve had with people who had vanished. There’s no rhyme nor reason to it either. Sometimes, you won’t see a person for years and years and then bump into them three times in the course of a week.

I can even remember sitting on a tube train, tears streaming down my face after an argument with my then best friend (my early twenties were a time of much drama and crying, usually on the Northern Line,) when someone got up from opposite to sit down next to me and hand me a tissue. It was an old teenage friend that I hadn’t seen in about five years.

And so I thought about this novel of two people who meet as teenagers and how they could live their lives together and apart for the next twenty years. By the time, I was ready to write it, we were deep in lockdown and I would be shielding pretty much for the next eighteen months. (Not eating out to help out for this clinically vulnerable person.)

I never imagined when I started writing London, With Love, a novel that has the tube lines running like veins through each chapter, that I wouldn’t catch a tube for the duration of its creation. I couldn’t have known that I wouldn’t venture out of my post code as I wrote about all the places in London that I’ve known and loved and have so much meaning in my life.

But as I wrote and I watched Instagram stories of ghost London: Regent Street completely empty of cars and people, Pall Mall, silent and still, Leicester Square, shuttered and shut, I realised that I was writing a love letter to London. Not the London that would forever be altered by the pandemic but by a London that had long ceased to exist many years before this strange, apocalyptic now.

It’s the London where, as a teenager, I could go anywhere on the buses for 5p or 10p on the tube (RIP, the GLC!) It’s the London of cheap meals at The Stockpot on Old Compton Street. It’s the London of waiting for a nightbus on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Denman Street (where years before Rainbow Corner stood though I didn’t know anything about that or could even imagine that one day I might write a novel about it!) to take me back to my friend’s house in Clapton, jaw clenched, shivering from the comedown.

London, With Love also dredged up memories that I didn’t even know I’d forgotten. Of all those times I missed the last tube and had to walk home along a dual carriageway, hence my constant teen cry of “When I’m grown up, I’m going to live next door to a tube station.” (Reader, I’m grown up and I now live a good bus ride away from the nearest tube station.) Of make up mishaps and over-plucking my eyebrows and really cheap vintage dresses.

Sometimes the memories went really deep. I’d pushed the thought of the July 7th bombings to the back of my mind, but all of a sudden, I could remember my journey into work that morning, the unfolding of that dreadful day, with razor-like accuracy. My beloved grandma died when I was eight, I could barely remember her, but thanks to the creation of Dot, and google and RightMove, I was suddenly there in her duplex council flat in between Kilburn and Maida Vale and the memories came rushing back. And yes, when my domineering grandfather died, she really did buy a freezer and fill it full of ice cream for whenever she fancied a midnight feast!

There are so many other parts of my life, people, places, that inspired London, With Love, but it’s also very much a work of fiction. One of my favourite things about being a writer of love stories is creating two characters who live rent-free in my head for a year then putting them through the what ifs and what the fucks and oh, it’s always been you. So, Jen and Nick seem as real to me as all the stuff I didn’t have to make up.

Unlike so many of my other characters, it took a long time for Jen and Nick to leave. I still miss them almost as much as I miss the London I’ve written about in London, With Love.

And I can only hope that once you’ve read London, With Love, you’ll miss them too.