There has yet to be a woman Mayor of London. There has yet to be one of Caribbean descent. That’s why I decided to invent one to be a lead character of my novel Frightgeist. I liked the idea of her. What might she be like?
I imagined a principled and practical politician from Brixton in her early middle age with Jamaican parents and a distinguished but low profile local government background who had taken the race for City Hall by storm. She has a popular touch, a noted dress sense and fabulous hair. I gave her the surname Linton – a nod to eminent Brixtonian Linton Kwesi Johnson – and, because I like alliteration, the forename Lorraine.
When creating a fictional character, it helps to have a picture of a real person in your mind. That person can be well-known, a friend or acquaintance, or someone you don’t know at all but see a photograph of, or just notice on the street.
In Lorraine’s case, a real person I had in mind all along was the great soul singer Mavis Staples. I don’t know Mavis (though I did meet her once), but I know well from years of listening to the stirring, smouldering, righteous quality of her voice, and I like the look she had back in the day. For all I know, Mavis and Lorraine have little in common apart from church backgrounds, but my picture of Mavis and the emotions conveyed by her singing served as fruitful starting points for my idea of Lorraine.
Then, one day last year, when the novel was quite far advanced, I took a train from Paddington. Behind me sat a woman who greatly strengthened my confidence that Lorraine, in terms of her appearance, was plausible. My fellow passenger was an elegantly-dressed black woman of roughly Lorraine’s age with a natural style that caught the eye.
Contriving a way to exchange a few words with her – some minor banter about ticket inspectors – I noted her strong eye contact and easy smile. In my head, she was very Lorraine too. The woman got off two stops before my mine. I doubt I will ever encounter her again, but, because of Lorraine, I won’t forget her.
With the novel now completed and published, I see traces of Lorraine everywhere. I see them when I think about the old City Hall. I see them when I’m near the Covid memorial wall. And, of course, I see them when I’m thinking about Brixton.
To give a specific example, I thought about her while watching the Brixton scenes in Raine Allen Miller’s charming movie Rye Lane (there’s a Frightgeist scene set there too, but that’s another character). During the movie, which I watched at the Castle Cinema in Hackney, I especially thought about her when the old Bovril advert by Windrush Square made an appearance. Windrush Square turns up in Frightgeist too, though not the ad. I have a photo of it though (above) from when I took a walk Lorraine takes too.
I don’t know when I will be in Lorraine’s presence again, but I don’t think it will be long.
John Vane’s novel Frightgeist – A Tall Tale of Fearful Times can be bought directly from him or from Pages of Hackney bookshop, Lower Clapton Road E5. Follow John on Twitter. John Vane is a pen name used by On London publisher and editor Dave Hill.