Linda Grant describes the atmostpheric London flats that led her to a cast of characters living in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war Britain . . .
The road I live on runs down to the main railway line from the north to King’s Cross. The road was built up at the turn of the last century to provide handsome double-fronted brick houses with stained-glass panels in the front doors for better-off city workers. Their first shot at glory was short-lived; in the twenties the houses declined into run-down lodging houses and bedsits but from the eighties they began to be restored by young middle-class couples looking for cheap family homes. Interspersed at odd intervals along my road are unexpected later developments, small post-war blocks of flats taking up the site of two or three former houses and it’s into one of these that that I moved three years ago.
These areas of infill on an east-west axis were caused by stray wartime bombs dropped by Luftwaffe pilots aiming for the railway line. A small spinney marks the site of prefabs which housed the bombed-out residents, only demolished in the eighties and a memorial garden commemorates the remains of the parish church destroyed in 1944. When I got the deeds to my flat I discovered that the small block was built in 1951, the year of my birth (this summer one of my neighbours found the rubble of the old house buried under the struggling lawn). When I moved here I became very curious about the lives of the first residents, presumably young families for each of the six flats has two bedrooms, one the right size for a child. London after the war was a city of homelessness. It was the age of austerity, the continuation of rationing without the glamour and excitement and danger of war, the city – and all the other great cities of Britain blackened and in ruins, grime, poverty, cheap worn-out government-designed utility clothes, bad food. But at the same time this period was one of major wrenching upheaval, laying the foundations for the modern era. New countries were forcing their independence, the National Health Service was created, massive housing renewal was taking place. On the hill above the road where I live the television transmitter at Alexandra Palace was blinking out the first TV programmes. And arriving from the United States WAS one of the most powerful inventions in the history of the human race: antibiotics.
Tuberculosis is one of the world’s oldest diseases. Most families living before the cure would have had some experience of it. I remember in my childhood the white mass X-ray vans driving around the streets of Liverpool in the largest public health campaign the country has ever known, because by then a course of streptomycin could eradicate a life-long, debilitating condition and ultimate death sentence. At the beginning of the decade wealthier TB patients languished in sanatoria, condemned to spend years on icy balconies or undergo brutal surgical treatments that seldom did any good. With the advent of the NHS all the classes were thrown together – the aristocrat and the slum-dweller – but all of them were waiting for the miracle drug to arrive.
I was lucky to meet a local resident who as a nineteen-year-old student, had been diagnosed with TB and sent to one of these institutions. As they waited for the streptomycin, she told me, a sense of rebellion was beginning to take shape among the inmates who were no longer willing to surrender to the indeterminable rest cure or endure the savagery of the surgeon’s needle. Enclosed in their own claustrophobic world, students like her, young officers invalided out from the war, the aristocracy and the mothers of young children were all given each other for company. As we sat at her kitchen table I thought, ‘Now this is a novel’. And so I started to write it. A novel of the lives of people who lived where I live, before me. The times they came out of and their fate.
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant is available now. Buy it here.