Did you know there was a popular novel set around Leverton Street and Falkland Road?
Tomorrow’s Past is a 1940s family saga written by local author Emma Dally back in 1995. And its original cover (pictured above) is brilliant: fashionably-clad heroine Annie, in requisite forties dress and hairdo, is pictured leaning against her push bike outside the Assembly House. You can understand how we had to grab ourselves a copy and see what it was about.
Emma Dally has lived in NW5 for thirty years – and it shows. ‘Back in the early 90s we had been in Kentish Town for a decade and I thought both its inter-war and war years would provide an interesting background for my first book,’ she says. ‘I had read Gillian Tindall’s The Fields Beneath, and I spent many happy hours in the Local Studies Library (then in Swiss Cottage) going through the archives of the Ham & High, which provided all sorts of wonderful details about what Kentish Town was like in those days.’
Written strictly in a popular fiction style, it charts the childhood and adolescence of heroine Annie Turner, who lives with her family in ‘probably the only household north of Leighton Road that had a room solely for eating in’ (insert joke here about current property prices). It’s her mother Grace who’s the tricksy one, plagued by persistent illness, an ambivalence for Kentish Town (much to her husband’s horror) – and, yikes, a fistful of secrets. And it all starts with a mysterious brooch…
But guess who’s the real star of the book? Some clues: ‘Thirty five years into the twentieth century Kentish Town was a shabby, run-down part of North London…’ Or: ‘But whatever a person’s station in life, the community spirit was strong in Kentish Town. It gave everyone a sense of belonging…’ One more? ‘Regardless of the shifting population, the shopkeepers of Kentish Town always knew what their customers could afford.’
Yes, the NW5-hungry narrative wraps its tentacles around Leverton Street, The Pineapple, the Falkland Arms, piano factories, the Torriano gang, the Forum cinema and all manner of shops on the high street, from butchers and bakers to former department store Daniel’s. ‘I set the story in Falkland Road, where we lived, and interviewed everyone I could over the age of sixty about life in the old days,’ says Emma. And after a leisurely start, which left this reader wondering where exactly the plot was going, midway through it steps up a gear: near-incest, sudden deaths, murder, domestic abuse, horse castration, mixed identities, prostitutes (on Leverton Street, if you please!), home abortions, secrets and – well, everything from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare – make, in fact, for an unputdownable winter evening’s reading, glass of red in hand.
It’s all set against the real life background of the Second World War too, as the characters are besieged by the bombing, both in Kentish Town and beyond. The account of the Peckwater Street bombs, which killed two people, is particularly moving. Annie takes a diversion on her way home to take a ‘quick look’ at houses ripped apart, their rooms all exposed: ‘Mugs were still on kitchen tables, children’s toys were scattered about the floors, clothes were laid out carefully over the back of the chair.’
Kentish Town colour aside, moments of existential depth leak into the pages too, particularly towards the end when the omniscient narrator seems to take charge of events (earlier on, the same voice exudes the pleasures of Kentish Town). ‘Living is always a kind of battle,’ it says, ‘in which there are only so many blows a person can take before they lose the will to fight on.’
And lines like this are made all the more poignant by the author’s family situation at the time. ‘Just as I was beginning to start writing the book,’ Dally says, ‘my younger brother, John, who had been HIV positive for some years, developed full-blown AIDS, so I wrote it in a weird period of uncertainty and panic. The book was a wonderful distraction and gave me something concrete to hang on to. If I couldn’t control John’s life, at least I was in control of the characters. I have a vivid memory of finishing off a chapter while doing my ‘babysitting’ shift at John’s flat in Islington, waiting for the palliative care team to arrive, and thinking with great sadness that John would never read the words I was writing then.’
But the effort was worth it. Emma tells me the novel was a hit and sold well; she still gets royalties. She followed it up with The Cry Of The Children, also set partly in Kentish Town, as well as Dying Twice: A Sister’s Tale, a memoir about John’s death.
Our advice? Dig out a tattered copy of Tomorrow’s Past from either a local second-hand bookshop such as Walden Books on Harmood Street, or, inevitably, online. For sheer escapism, with more than a bit of local history thrown in, it should be a late arrival on the wishlist of any self-respecting aficionado this Xmas.