Mike Gayle and All The Lonely People.May 23, 2021
From the Desk of Mike Gayle.
It used to be the case that whenever anyone asked me about the research I’d undertaken during the course of writing one of my novels I’d say something debonair like, ‘My life is my research!’ I’d raise an eyebrow as if to make it clear what an incredibly interesting person I was, constantly having adventures and living life to the full. The truth of the matter however is that I’m actually quite boring really, and even worse I prefer it that way. I like my drama to exist only inside the pages of the books I write. Real-life drama isn’t really my thing, at least if I can help it.
I’m telling you this as a preamble to what I’m going to say next which in short is this: All The Lonely People took a lot of research. When I first came up with the idea for this story one of the things I knew I wanted to explore was a long life lived from beginning to end. In the past I’ve tended to write stories about particular key moments in a character’s life: the weekend of a particularly tricky birthday, the months following the reintroduction of two old school friends after a long absence, two siblings coming together having spent a lifetime apart. But in All The Lonely People I wanted to examine a character’s story from beginning to end as a way of thinking about how people become lonely.
To start with I had an image in my mind of a home. At first, that home only has one person in it, then that person falls in love with another and there are now two. From the love of those two people comes another person, and yet another, until finally there are four people in a house where once there was one. But the story doesn’t stop there no matter how much we’d like it to and so for Hubert (because of course, it is Hubert I’m talking about) the home gradually begins to empty. First, Rose leaves to go to university, then David follows to live his life, and then finally (and, most heartbreakingly of all) Joyce leaves too until there is only Hubert left.
I knew this was the story I wanted to tell, the story of how someone’s life fills and then empties again. But to tell that story would require me to dig deeper than I ever had before, to push myself far outside my comfort zone. I’d never written a historical novel before. The farthest I’d ever gone back to was the Seventies, the decade in which I was born. To write this story I was going to have to travel back twenty years before my birth to a time I had no direct experience of. In short, I was going to have to do some research.
My first port of call was my parents. That said getting any relevant information out of them wasn’t the easiest of tasks. They were consistently vague about all manner of questions and it was quite hard to pin them down. They were good at the early days, telling me wonderful stories of life in Jamaica, but they seemed to falter when it came to talking about life in England. At first, I wondered whether it was a memory thing, after all, they’re both in their eighties now but having spoken to friends whose parents are of the same age as mine and also immigrants, I’m beginning to think that something else might be at play. I get the feeling that this haziness is simply down to the fact that from the moment they arrived they were so busy working, struggling to make ends meet, make a life and survive in a strange and often hostile country that much of those early days is just a blur to them.
Thankfully, however, there were plenty of other rich resources available. Mother Country (Edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and published in the UK by Headline) was particularly helpful. Subtitled, ‘Real Stories of the Windrush Children’, it’s a wonderful collection of first-person stories told by the children and grandchildren of those that came from the Caribbean to England in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Other useful references for me were novels covering the period of Hubert’s arrival in the country. Particularly helpful was The Lonely Londoners by Trinidadian author Sam Selvon (1956) telling of the experiences of Moses Aloetta in post-war London and Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning tale, Small Island, offering as it does a fascinating insight into the lives of people like Hubert.
If my children had informed me they were watching YouTube videos for ‘research’ before I started writing All The Lonely People I would’ve been highly sceptical but it turns out that the online platform is another superb resource for research. Where else for instance would I have been able to find footage of rural Jamaica in the 1950s, a blue beat dance from the same era and Pathé newsreels created for UK consumption about the Empire Windrush, the ship which carried the first arrivals from the Caribbean who had been called to “the mother country” to help with England’s labour shortfall following World War II? Pathé newsreels entitled, “The Jamaica Problem,’ and ‘No Colour Bar Dance,’ are particularly eye-opening about the blatant racism faced by the newly arrived West Indians. The films are at once hilarious and depressing which is no mean feat, take a look and you’ll see what I mean.
The four-part documentary series, Windrush, produced and directed by David Upshal and originally broadcast on BBC2 in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush is essential viewing. Its scale and depth greatly informed the creation of Hubert and his environment and I urge you to track it down and watch it. It really is worth your time.
While the majority of my research shocked, saddened and angered me, there was a lot that put a smile on my face too. Listening to the Windrush generation talk directly about their experiences in their own words, I couldn’t help but notice how despite all the difficulties they faced they never seemed to let things get them down, they always found a way to keep going. And it was this spirit, more than anything that I wanted to capture in Hubert Hezekiah Bird. I wanted to create a character who, though he faces sorrow, pain and problems, finds a way through it all and ultimately leaves the world a better place than he found it.
With our thanks to Mike Gayle who is joining us as our guest for the Live Q&A with our members on Monday, June 7th at 6 pm BST. See you there!