History Interviews

Sacrifice in the city

Novelist Pony Louder on how stepping out of the rain and into a little churchyard was the beginning of a story that’s been read from Canada to New Zealand.

The cover of the book - and a photo of a young woman smiling

Even with its labyrinthine streets and layered histories, it’s easy to forget the centuries of living that has been done in London. All the stories of human spirit and endeavour that have taken place in this city.

You might look up, as you hurry along a crowded footpath, and spot a blue plaque or the remains of a Roman wall. The realisation that Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf – perhaps even the late great Emperor Claudius – once stood where you’re standing might be humbling and exciting. Especially if you imagine them just as alive, with just as many hopes, dreams, and pressing diary commitments as you. If not more!

But what about the stories, just as historic, just as heroic, that we don’t know about that have happened in London? The ones that might have been lost beneath its layers of time? That’s a question that fascinated London writer Pony Louder after a chance encounter in the city.

“Postman’s Park is well-known, it’s been the backdrop of films like Closer with Jude Law and Natalie Portman and numerous TV shows,” she says. “But when I bumbled across the leafy little churchyard a few blocks south of Clerkenwell, I’d never heard of it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the emotional rollercoaster about to hit.

“It was raining, and I stepped under the awning to shelter. I started reading the plaques. The hand-painted and glazed ceramic tiles that each tell a story of sacrifice and bravery in Victorian London. Harry Sisley who drowned in 1878 trying to save his brother. Alice Ayers who pulled three children from a burning house at the cost of her own life in 1885. Amelia Kennedy who died trying to save her sister. There’s a wall of these plaques and many of the heroes who sacrificed themselves were children. It’s profoundly moving.

“I never forgot those stories. Years later when I started writing The Memory of Blood, its lead character, Mina, arrived fully formed. She came knocking at my door with the kind of extraordinary courage that’s needed to change history, and I know that visit (and many subsequent) to Postman’s Park is threaded into her DNA and where the novel really began to take shape.”

The Memory of Blood is set both in 1900s and modern-day London. And London is much more than a backdrop for the two intertwining narratives. The city itself is a character. Iconic landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral feature large.

“London has a talent for reinvention,” says Pony. “It’s a city that’s witnessed countless transformations, yet managed to retain its unmistakable spirit. There are echoes of history down every cobblestone laneway.

“Mina has been stolen from her farm to work as an indentured labourer in one of the first English cotton mills in 1811. Two centuries later, Evie has just been told her world-famous father is dying. Finding out what connects the two women is exciting. It’s literary, but I wanted it to read like a thriller. London couldn’t have been a more perfect setting.”

The novel has been well received, with readers emailing from cities as faraway as Ontario, Islamabad and Christchurch in southern New Zealand. “It makes me feel so proud that people 11,000 miles away are finding out about roads in Clerkenwell!”

The Memory of Blood is out now. Available from good bookshops and Amazon. For more information go to ponylouder.com

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