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 email@example.com 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.
Whenever I write a new book, I get the luxury of choosing who to dedicate it to. My child, of course (several times, as she has a habit of checking), my friend’s children, and my friends as well. But when I finished writing The Worst Class in the World, I had someone different in mind to thank. Someone who reminded me of both lead teachers in the book – the fearsome Mrs Bottomley-Blunt, who thunders down corridors in pursuit of foolish children, and the loveable Mr Nidgett, who secretly believes his class are the best of all.
You see, when I was at school, eighty bazillion years ago (yes, there were dinosaurs), our world was ruled not by our headmaster, Mr Cousins, who was so invisible we weren’t actually sure he existed, but by his deputy, Mr Pett.
Mr Pett was very much visible. He would appear from behind lockers, around corners, as if from nowhere on the school field to make sure you weren’t footling, shilly-shallying, or generally doing anything stupid. We lived in fear of his roar: ‘You, girl!’ But here’s the thing: we also adored him. He couldn’t resist a joke, at his or our expense, and he took great pride in helping those of us who needed a little extra push to reach our potential.
Very sadly, Mr Pett died not long ago, to an outpouring of memories from his former students. I like to think he’d be proud of me now (and be satisfied he was right in giving me that detention). I hope he can see how appreciated he was with a whole book dedicated to him, and his best moments inspiring a whole series.
The Worst Class in the World is out tomorrow, May 14th 2020. Dedicated in memory of Nigel (Nick) Pett. January 13th 2019.
Isn’t the world weird? The prospect of being holed up in our homes is daunting, especially for those of us with kids. Mine’s grown now, but many years ago, she was a menace, who would have destroyed the house in a matter of days with her shenanigans and tomfoolery. In fact, she was so small and sneaky, I wrote a whole book series about her and her friends. And to entertain you and your smalls, I’ll be reading a story a day from the seven-books series, from Monday, for the next however long it takes.