ON his regular walk to work, teaching creative writing at Goldsmiths College in south London, Francis Spufford passes a memorial to the 168 people killed by a V2 bomb falling on a Woolworths store in 1944. Sixteen of them were young children, brought by their mothers on a Saturday shopping trip. Prof Spufford began thinking about those children: what if they hadn’t died, what would their futures have been? He imagined five of them, gave them names and characters, and dropped in on their lives every 10, 15, 20 years to see how they were getting on.
The result is his second novel, Light Perpetual, published earlier this year and a palimpsest, you might say, of the latter half of the 20th century. ‘It’s about how, close up, no life is ordinary,’ he explains, ‘and how the destinies of children born in the 1940s exploded in all directions, with opportunities drastically different from anything their parents could possibly have imagined.’
We are talking in the garden of his home, which comes with his wife Jessica Martin’s job as a canon of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire; above us hang the creamy, scented lobes of a false acacia tree, itself dwarfed by the Gothic west tower of the cathedral only a few yards outside the garden wall. Behind us are the choristers’ boarding houses of the King’s School; beyond, parkland and a meadow grazed by cattle, all circled by the unseen city below: very rus in urbe.
The author came to novel writing late, aged 52, after producing several highly regarded works of non-fiction, none of which was anything like its predecessors. Did he always plan to write? ‘No, I thought I would read. My first job after university was as a publisher’s reader; I sat for three years in the stuffy attic of an austere Georgian house in Bloomsbury with a gigantic green typewriter that looked like a piece of war loot.
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