Being a writer of a certain age has its benefits.
I remember, so clearly, the evening news showing Asians from Uganda arriving at our grey and drizzly airports – their look of bewildered resignation. I tried to imagine how it would feel, how they had lost everything and how they would hanker for the heat and colour of their homeland.
I was fifteen at the time and it was the first time I had witnessed, in a very remote sense, the plight of refugees. The young nowadays learn earlier and harder. Everything seems more extreme these days but then media was slower, and the world more disparate. And up until that point I had been cocooned in my tranquil country childhood.
I also remember Biba. And how I remember Biba! My aunt had an apartment at the end of Kensington High Street and it was an enormous treat to stay with her and visit this wonderful shop, as well as Kensington market.
I recall the smells – the patchouli oil and afghan coats in Kensington market where I bought a tasselled jacket of purple and blue strands of wool, together with a pair of burgundy loons (flared cotton trousers) that I would wear with a muslin smock.
Biba was a cut above Kensington market. Biba was the trendiest place in town. The smell here was of musk and vanilla, the lights dim, the surfaces glossy. In the larger Biba, set up in 1973, there was an exotic roof garden and I seem to remember flamingos and peacocks although I could be mistaken. If there weren’t any then there should have been, for that was the atmosphere.
It was reading Mahmood Mamdani’s book From Citizen to Refugee that gave me the idea of basing The Fortunicity of Birdie Dalal in London. I had no idea that some of the resettlement camps had been based in the centre of the capital, and I found it fascinating reading his viewpoint. Such consumerism and a huge change in status, enhanced by the pace and modernity of Kensington at the time.
And then there’s Birdie. It’s strange how a character comes to you. I first ‘met’ Birdie as an old lady standing on the edge of Hampstead Heath. That was in my imagination, but she was so real and vivid I wanted to reach out and hug her. Initially I was going to write a tale about Birdie in present day London, with a few flashbacks, but then I decided that her backstory was far more interesting, so I went right back to the beginning.
In a way the story of Birdie is a bit of a fairy tale as life isn’t always so kind or neat but then, as I said at the beginning, I’m a writer of a certain age. I’m tired of all the misery in this world and I like to believe in the good that lies in people and the world around us.
You can read more about Fortunicity here.