Helen Hanff, she of 84, Charing Cross Road, once said that everyone goes to London looking for their very own version of it, and that everyone finds exactly the London they were looking for. I have always gone there in search of books, literary history, and stories. Like Helen Hanff, I found precisely the London I was looking for. On my first visit to Foyles, when I was fourteen years old, I bought a slim volume of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poem. The book has followed me through life since. On my latest trip, I bought Diana Athills Life Class. I once spent three weeks travelling all across the UK visiting some twenty bookshops, and it remains in my memory the best vacation of my life.
It was right before my first novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was about to be published, and it brought me to Hay-on-Wye. As I stood dazed amongst the bookshops (they counted twenty when I visited, a decline, one of them sadly said. But such were the times everywhere). For the first time in my life I asked myself if it was possible to have too many books. I have since answered that question with a resounding no, but it planted in my mind the first gem of the idea for Great Diddling, a village soon to be swimming in books and bookshops.
When I wrote The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, I had never visited the US. It was in a way my love letter to American literature and novels. I’ve always known I wanted to pay similar homage to British literature, having grown up with Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters (I prefer Charlotte), and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, and Stephen Fry … but there’s no point in starting a list that’s impossible to finish (Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Dick Francis, Zadie Smith, and Sarah Waters …). Besides, it’s not just the book, it’s salt and vinegar crisps and warm ale, scones with jam and clotted cream, waiters using more endearments in five minutes than your partner does in a year (“There you go, love”), the cobbled streets, the small train lines with grandiose names (The Great Western, The Great Northern), the manic politeness (saying I’m sorry ten times in a two minute walk), the weather and the conversations thereof. I hope some of that warmth and fondness shines through in my book, even though it might be impossible to capture the entirety of an English village’s quirky charm.