‘I could feel it coming. War, I mean. Creeping up on us, into our town, down our street, into our house. Smiling like a friend, like it was Batman come to save us when really it was the joker all along.’
I’d aways sworn I would never write about a dystopia. This world, right now, I insisted, was difficult and interesting enough. But then came Brexit, and Donald Trump, and I had a terrible sense of where the world might be heading – far, far to the right. I also felt impotent. Unable, now I no longer worked in politics, to do anything about the state of society.
But I did have some little power. I had words. Words can and have changed the world, I reasoned. And so, in a state of mainly anger, I wrote the first few pages of what would become this book, and read them aloud at a summer workshop where I taught at Bath Spa. The reaction from the audience was so strong – there were a lot of tears, and I know writers are emotional animals but this level was new even to me – I knew I had to finish it.
And here it is.
With far right Albion on the brink of war with Europe, ten-year-old Alan and his little brother Sam are sent away to safety. Dad tells Alan he has to be brave, like the superheroes he loves, but Alan isn’t sure. He wants to be wherever Dad is, and, anyway – can he really be sure who’s a hero and who’s a villain?
I hope I’ve done justice to the glory of Cornwall and the Tamar valley where my father grew up. I hope I’ve said something worth saying. And I hope, above all, that I’ve shown you some hope. Because that’s the real power of words, I think – offering hope, in a new way to live.
Joanna Nadin is a phenomenal writer, able to move in a shimmering flicker from the intellectually dazzling to the profoundly moving. No Man’s Land is as wise at it is gripping, with deep and profound resonances. A little masterpiece of emotional storytelling. (Carnegie Medal Winner Anthony McGowan)
Wonderful characters, convincing voice, gripping story – beautifully done. (Julia Green, author of The Children of Swallow Fell)
It’s terrific… well conceived and beautifully written. Real characters in an almost real world. (Fleur Hitchcock, author of Shrunk.)
Every young person should read it. It’s not only a page-turning thriller but a prescient – a necessary – story of our times. (Catherine Bruton, author of Following Frankenstein.)
No Man’s Land is out next week, but if you scroll down, you can get a sneak preview of the opening chapters…
Heroes and Villains
I used to think I knew about heroes. That some wore fancy outfits and flexed bulging muscles and had special powers like invisibility or flight or flames from their fingertips. The others wore uniforms and fought for the country with guns and rockets, or carried babies out of burning buildings.
It turns out not all heroes wear capes. And not all heroes carry guns.
It turns out it’s not so easy to tell them and the baddies apart, neither.
’Cause real life isn’t like on the telly or in films. Villains don’t always go round cackling madly and flashing their tattoos. They come in pretending to be your friend and promising you stuff so you’re tricked into thinking they’re the good ones after all.
And the real heroes? They can slip in and out without you even noticing. And fight with their wile and their wits and their kindness instead of weapons.
And they might be skinny as a stick and dressed in a T-shirt and just a kid.
But I didn’t know that then.
I just knew the world was changing.
And I knew I wanted it to stop.
How it Began
It started with Mrs King.
Actually, that’s not totally true. It started ages ago when the Albioneers won the election. Maybe before, even – before I was born. When England decided it didn’t like Europe any more and then there was graffiti on the Co-op wall telling anyone who wasn’t white, or the right kind of white, to go home, even though home was here. Then home changed its name anyway, turned into Albion, and it wasn’t the same for any of us.
That’s what Dad would say, anyway. But Dad wasn’t around for half the story, and he’s not telling it, I am. So I say it started with Mrs King.
Least for Sam and me.
She’d been teaching us about World War One, and the soldiers in the trenches whose feet got rotten, and the rats as big as cats that tried to eat the dead bodies. Ahmed said the soldiers should’ve eaten the rats, and Jayden Nesbitt said he would say that, so Ahmed said, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Jayden said, ‘You know what that means,’ and called him a dirty word.
And Mrs King said that was enough and that no one ate anyone and that this kind of attitude was how world wars started. So Ahmed said actually she’d said some man called Franz Ferdinand getting shot was what started the war.
Mrs King said, ‘Not “some man”. He was the Archduke, Ahmed. And Franz Ferdinand was just the tipping point. The arguing was the build-up. Wars don’t come from nowhere.’
And then no one spoke for a bit and the air in the room felt fat and dangerous because we all knew war might be coming again. It’d been on the news. We weren’t allowed news in our house because of most of it being fake, but Ahmed told me, so I knew too. Sam didn’t; he was only five and he mainly cared about Marvel and DC and dinosaurs, but I was ten and old enough for truth, least I thought so. Like I knew Cassius Barker from our class hadn’t moved school, he’d been sent to his uncle in Trinidad because it was safer there. And I knew that Olivia Mikkelsen who used to work with Dad at Albion Interception had gone back to Denmark. And I knew that the Patels from number forty-four had gone to Bangladesh and all.
And I knew that the war wouldn’t be loud and clattering with guns and bombs and trenches this time, it would be stealthy and silent and sneak in at night when you weren’t expecting it.
It was confusing, too: who was good and who was bad, and whose side I was meant to be on – Albion’s side, or The Rest of the World. I’d asked Dad to explain it and he said it was more complicated than that and that there were good people and bad people in all the countries, and even some people had good and bad inside them, and to just to get on with being a kid, maybe, for a bit.
Finally, Mrs King smiled, wide and real. She said we’d probably done enough war for the day and we should get on with painting our mural of Important Women, which was of a scientist called Marie Curie and a writer called Maya Angelou and a girl called Rosa Parks who had sat in the wrong bit of the bus, which was brave because she was black. So we did.
Only, Ahmed and Jayden argued about where Ahmed should sit on the bus, which Jayden said was in the driver’s seat and Ahmed said was in the bus company headquarters, owning all the buses in the world. And Mrs King was just telling them to pack it in when Paris Metcalfe from next door spilled pink paint all over her shoes, and started crying because they were expensive and her mum would kill her, and Mrs King said she’d clean them up so they were as good as new, and by the time she was done they almost were.
Then it was home time and she said, ‘Goodbye, everyone, see you all tomorrow!’ like she always does. And I didn’t even say bye back and nor did anyone else because we were too pleased to get out and play football or cricket or just eat crisps or whatever.
But I should have; we all should. Because, even though we didn’t realise it at the time, Mrs King was our tipping point. She was our Franz Ferdinand.
After two lockdown moves and much toddlerish impatience on my part, The Talk of Pram Town is officially published today (yes I know some of you already have yours, but only fancy pants writers / spies get actual embargoes, and I am your common or garden kind, although I would be ace in Mi5, just saying). So all that remains now, is for you to go buy the book if you haven’t already, and for me to thank all the people who made it happen, especially those who helped me fall in love with Harlow in the first place…
The Talk of Pram Town is published TOMORROW! (does merry dance) But in case you wanted to quality check contents / spy / be generally a bit beaky (who doesn’t?) then here, for your delight, is the prologue. And if that whets your appetite, you can then click on this link and watch me read the next chapter (and marvel at my lockdown hair).
London, April 1970
She could have used the last of the money to get rid of it. Michelle had said her cousin knew a bloke who knew a woman in Stepney who’d do the deed if she didn’t want to deal with doctors. She didn’t. But she didn’t want to see a woman in a back street in Stepney either it turned out, despite all her Nell Dunn dreams. And, besides, it was too late now.
‘You sure you don’t want anyone, love?’ The midwife, thick-set and florid, offers her a damp flannel. ‘Your mum? Everyone needs their mum.’
Connie, pale and sweating, shakes her head to both. ‘Not me. Jesus Christ.’ She groans as another contraction grips her, quick and vicious.
‘Nearly there, love.’
Nearly there. She hears him grunt the words into the wet shell of her ear. ‘Nearly there,’ he tells her, as if he knows she’s hoping. She sees him too. Sees the whites of his eyes tinged livery. Sees the pores of his nose where a single hair pokes through. Sees his thing, fattened and angry and jabbing at her. Worse, she can smell him sometimes. His too-close breath bitter with coffee and sickly with Polo mints. His still-buttoned shirt Omo-white and rotary-line fresh. How quickly the thrill of being wanted had faded. How had she ever thought him handsome? A catch?
The rest of it is blurred, faded at the edges by time and distance and sheer determination. Did she say ‘No’? Maybe not. And if she said ‘stop’ it was weak, or in her head. And she’d flirted with him, hadn’t she? Led him on like her mother said she always did, so it was no more than her just deserts.
This was no more than her just deserts.
The midwife doesn’t flinch – heard it all before, perhaps. But the mother in her head tuts and ticks her off. ‘And you can bugger off as well,’ she thinks.
And yet, fifteen minutes later, as the baby crowns, threatens to stretch and snap her wide open, it’s her mother she calls for, red-eyed and desperate.
A year to the day, broke and alone, she goes home. Baby in a borrowed pushchair, all her world in two carpet bags, back to Pram Town she slips only to find the car gone, the curtains drawn, the front-door double locked.
They’ve actually bloody gone away! To the lakes, she presumes. Same as every year. As if nothing has happened. As if she – they – don’t even exist.
Perhaps they don’t. Not like she’s been in touch. And their names don’t even match now. The Earnshaw chopped off and replaced with Holiday; half of Constance rubbed out and tweaked for effect. She’s a different person now. Not that girl – their girl – anymore.
The baby gurgles, the chips of mirror in Connie’s skirt twinkling in a bright slice of sunlight.
She smiles. ‘Well bugger them, Sadie,’ she says aloud. ‘Or bugger her, anyway.’ And she pushes the buggy down the side return, roots around under a stone Cherubim, and lets them in with her father’s secret spare key.
She doesn’t take much: her diary, two dresses, five pounds from the Pinnacle Biscuits tin in her father’s study. Just enough to get them to their next stop, wherever that might be. Wherever there’s a cheap bed and bar work and an open mic. She eats two digestives, takes a belligerent piss in the downstairs lavatory and deliberately omits to flush. Then, baby on board, she’s out and down the road before anyone can catch them. Before her parents get back from their tedious road trip and ask what she’s done. Before Martha gets back from tedious school and asks where she’s been. Before Mr Collins gets back from tedious work or tedious choir and asks why she did it and where the devil is his money?
‘Thief,’ he barks after her for that night in sixty-nine.
‘Thief,’ her mother shrieks for today and for ever.
But, fingers in her ears, ‘Tralalala, I can’t hear you,’ she replies, and she’s off like a rocket, little Connie Holiday, sweet Connie Holiday, the singing gymslip mum.
The bus is almost empty, a fact she cannot fathom. Why anyone would stay in Harlow when London is on the doorstep? A vast dance floor waiting to be waltzed through. A diamond, waiting to be plucked. She picks up the baby, grizzling for milk now, pulls up her top, not bothering to wonder if the two other passengers might glimpse and glower and grumble. It’s only skin after all. Nothing to be ashamed of, whatever she’s been told.
Sadie sucks, satisfied, her eyes wide, and green enough for cricket. Despite them, Connie can’t see him in her at all, thank God. There’s her father’s freckles, her mother’s moue of irritation, and her own hair, a surly brunette, though hers is dyed now, platinum as sand, only the roots revealing her inheritance. It was Michelle’s idea, and bathroom handiwork. ‘You can’t be a star if you don’t stand out,’ she’d said.
Turns out it takes more than a bottle of bleach to turn Connie Holiday into Marilyn Monroe or Marianne Faithful. But she won’t be deterred. She is dogged, if not really qualified. Bloody-minded, her father would say. And she daren’t think what words her mother might come up with. But so what if she never got her A levels? So what if she never even finished school? It’s not like she’s stupid. She could have shone if they’d let her try. If she could have been bothered. But she didn’t need to. She bets Mick Jagger never passed a single exam, after all. Or if he did it would have been art. She’ll be fine, she tells herself. More than. Has to be. Because it’s not like she can ask Sadie’s father for anything. Not like she wants to.
She kisses the sweet fust of the baby’s head. ’This time next year, I’ll be on top of the world,’ she promises.
The Talk of Pram Town is, at its heart, a book about family, and what that meant in the 70s and 80s, and about the potentially fraught mother-daughter relationship. But it is also a book about a single, special place. The town my father worked in for decades at Gilbey’s behind the giant glass windows and glimmering gin distillery, and where I went to sixth form for two brief, brilliant years.
‘They told us they were building this town for Jack and his master. Well, who wants to live on the boss’s doorstep, I ask you?’ (Laurence Clarke, Harlow joiner, Daily Mirror, 7th January 1955)
Born from the rubble of the second world war, Harlow New Town was conceived in the late 1940s by visionary architect Frederick Gibberd, who seized at the opportunity to ease London overcrowding and create his own socialist utopia in rural Essex: managers and workers living side by side, albeit in two classes of house: Standard One and Standard Two. Front gardens would be outlawed, and kitchens would instead overlook communal pathways, ensuring a sense of community and encouraging conversation. It would be, the architects declared, a ‘New Jerusalem’.
By 1951 the first citizens – almost all young couples – were being bussed in from North East London to their brand new homes in Mark Hall and, later, The Lawn, and the place was quickly dubbed ‘Pram Town’ by the press, for the burgeoning number of mothers – a symbol in itself of hope; of the future. But, by 1955, the daring experiment seemed to be failing when, under the headline ‘Snobland’, the same paper – the Daily Mirror – ran an article revealing that neither workers nor managers appreciated their proximity, while Len White from the Harlow Development Corporation admitted they’d ‘realised just in time it doesn’t work’ and declared that, from then on, they would be adopting a ‘segregation policy’.
But jump forward thirty years and, for this teenager in the mid-1980s, Harlow was a fat, enticing slice of air-dropped America: expansive avenues with numbers instead of names; brash and dank nightclubs on elevated walkways; all the pubs named after butterflies; and everywhere glamour, glamour, glamour. It seemed to me to be everything my Saxon market town was not: modern, multicultural, and with a music venue that hosted actual bands, as well as boasting fellow Essex boy and then cub NME reporter Steve Lamacq among its Saturday night crowd. So, while Jean may have been one of those doubting young mothers, and Connie desperate to run to London, I was as goggle-eyed as Sadie, and am thankful for my two very happy years spent there.
‘We don’t like it. The children are so noisy, rollerskating up and down the street all day. Then there’s the washing hanging out behind the Standard One houses. It isn’t a very nice sight, particularly when some of the washing isn’t even really clean.’ (Harlow manager’s wife, Daily Mirror, 7th January 1955)
The Talk of Pram Town is published by Pan Macmillan on 4th March 2021. You can buy the book here.
The lockdown-delayed novel is almost out in the world, and, while I can’t have the much-anticipated bookshop party with Twiglets and Wotsits and Panda Pops, I can still celebrate, and even better, with fellow Essex girl, Jenny Quintana, whose new book The Hiding Place shares not only strained mother-daughter themes, and the 1960s beginning, but a 17-year-old called Connie. Great minds, I believe…
Please do join us for our chat on Tuesday 9th March, and to raise a glass of warm Blue Nun or Piat D’Or. Tickets are £21 including the book, or £5 without, but that money goes to help the lovely indie bookshops that really need our custom right now.
There’s something special about getting a letter. There’s something really especially special about getting a letter that says something fancy about you or something you’ve done. There’s something super duper special about 23 letters all saying something fancy and drawing highly accurate and hilarious pictures too.
Because here’s the thing – writing a book is fun, and seeing it on the shelf in a shop is funnerer, but hearing from someone who actually got that book off the shelf, paid with it with (possibly someone’s else’s) money, and then went home and read it and laughed until they were nearly sick, well, that’s the absolute bee’s knees about this business. So if you do like what you’re reading, and you have the time, and possibly drawing skills as top notch as these (which almost rival Rikin’s), please do get in touch. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get your grown-ups to tweet me (@joannanadin). Or even better, send me a letter, just like Red Class…
Firstly, a confession: until I came to be offered the opportunity to rewrite Sense and Sensibility, the closest I had come to Jane Austen was TV reruns of Mr Darcy emerging wet from a lake, and a reluctant trudge around her house with an obsessive friend. Not even my grandmother’s entreaties to the 13-year-old bookworm me that ‘it’s feminist, it’s funny’ could persuade me away from my pony novels and into the pages populated by the Bennets, the Elliots, the Dashwoods. ‘Too old-fashioned,’ I am sure I whined. ‘Too uncool,’ I am sure I thought.
Well, it may have taken more than three decades, but I quickly realised the folly of my own pride and prejudice, and have now eaten my ill-chosen words, for Austen is modern and relevant, as well as being funny and, yes, feminist. Though the world she paints is markedly different to our own, the heroines of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne and Elinor, are recognisable and endearing. We root for them in their endurance of the customs of the time, and in their pursuit by various men; we boo as Willoughby snubs the impassioned Marianne, and cheer as patient Elinor gets her Edward. There is something to learn here, about the predicament of women in the late Regency period, but more importantly, much to love. I hope you fall as hard for Jane Austen as I have done. Because there are many more treasures to read after this one.
Schools might be closed for most of us, but for one long-suffering teacher, Mr Nidgett, the classroom is packed with shenanigans. That’s because he’s in charge of 4b, who are LITERALLY The Worst Class in the World, at least according to headmistress Mrs Bottomley-Blunt (who makes a noise like a horse when she is annoyed, which is a lot).
Worst of all (in her eyes) are our heroes Stanley Bradshaw, who is fond of footling, fiddle-faddling and shilly-shallying, and not too fond of work, and his best friend Manjit Morris, who wants to be the first human boy to swim faster than a shark, as well as the first human boy to do a lot of not very possible things. The thing is, Stanley doesn’t think they’re the worst class in the world. Manjit doesn’t think they’re the world class in the world. I don’t think they’re the worst class in the world. They’re just having fun. Something we all like to do.
The first in the brand new series is out today, with two madcap adventures in each book including the smelly death log, ghost pigeons, a hamster skeleton, and plenty of sick.