When it comes to places to set my stories, I’m a firm believer in writing what you know. My first book is set in an office in London, which is a fairly generic location, nothing special. My second book is set in a house in North Oxford – somewhere very special indeed.
In Having a Ball, Stevie takes on the job of organising a charity ball in the house that Evelyn has been renovating. This house is a beautiful, sprawling Victorian villa. Its front rooms have huge windows and high ceilings. Its corridors are a confusing warren that Stevie can, and does, get lost in. The steps to the garden have metal grillework that clangs when you step on it. This was an easy house to describe because I lived in one exactly like it as a student. And loved it.
11 Norham Gardens in Oxford, usually known to the students (fondly, if irreverently) as ‘the Nunnery’, belongs the Convent of the Sacred Heart. When I lived in the house there were about 23 students (male and female) and 4 nuns living in it. To describe it as a hostel does not do the place justice. It was, and still is, a community. A place where cultures, religions and study disciplines meet and learn from each other. I hung out with people from all over the world, from all faiths (or none). I learned how to make sweet and sour sauce from scratch, how to make Mormon friendly tiramisu (no coffee, no alcohol) and how to bake vegan brownies (nice, but even better if fried in butter!).
If it sounds like I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, that’s because I did. The house has an enormous kitchen and in the middle of it is a long table that could sit 14 people comfortably, a lot more if you squished up a bit. There was always somebody there, cooking, eating or just having a chat.
I’m not good with politics. I stopped watching the news when I was 11 because I was sick of seeing death and destruction (I grew up in Sri Lanka, in the middle of a civil war; there was a lot of death and destruction). I learned what little I know about world politics from talking to other people who lived in the house. In the shattering aftermath of 9-11, we still sat together – Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Agnostics. No matter how strongly you feel about something, it’s hard to hate someone when you’ve cooked dinner for them and they’ve just made you pudding.
I left 11 NG over a decade ago. The friends I made there have grown up, got jobs, got married (some to each other) and scattered all over the world. The threads that bind us are stretched very thin, but they still exist, if only in making us a tiny bit more tolerant of the rest of the world than we would otherwise have been. It’s only now I realise just how special my time there was. I got to live in a house that feels like it should be run by the National Trust. I had access to a beautiful garden and a library with floor to ceiling book cases. I had a room in the eaves where I could look out over Oxford. It all seems so idyllic now.
In my book, Evelyn is turning the house into B&B. It would certainly make a lovely hotel, if it ever stops being home to a community. I hope that never happens.
You can find a description of the house and its history here. My thanks to Sister Silvana Dallanegra for letting me use her photo of the house. Sadly, I have no digital photos from my time there.
Update: The house is now an annexe for St Benet’s Hall.