The Darkening Hour is the story of the relationship between Dora, a professional Londoner and the domestic worker who comes to care for her elderly father. It opens with Mona, dressed in a blue overall, taking her charge for a walk through Deptford market to the river. The following morning a body washes up against the steps of the Thames, its bloodied head wrapped in the very kind of overall worn by Mona, and Mona has disappeared. The story traces the conflicts that arise between the two women until one is bound to snap.
I chose to set The Darkening Hour in Deptford for several reasons.
The movement from wealth to poverty, from high to low status, visibility to invisibility is a theme in the book, and this is reflected in an area like Deptford.
Deptford Dockyard was once a wealthy ship building and naval base, vestiges of this past can be seen in the one or two elegant Georgian streets that remain and in St Nicholas’s church where lists of ships are displayed on the walls. Beside the river are the majestic arches of Paynes wharf which overlooks the Thames and is now being redeveloped.
In the 19th century the ship building industry declined, due to Deptford’s location upriver, which hampered navigation of the large new warships. The area continued to suffer economically with the reduction of its docks. In the seventies when old families who had lived in the Victorian terraces for generations, and ran the shops and stalls on Deptford high street, were moved out; whole streets were deemed unfit for habitation and were knocked down to be replaced by soulless concrete blocks and council housing. There is a moving documentary about this in which families bewail the breaking up of what was a close knit and supportive London neighbourhood. As a result the area became a repository for those requiring social housing, and attracted a diverse population of immigrants, as well as students and artists.
I also chose the area because of its colourful feel. The market that takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays retains a Dickensian feel; stall holders shout out their wares to crowds of all ages, backgrounds, and social means. The shops lining the street are as diverse as the stalls, from Halal butchers, Vietnamese minimarkets, African fabric shops, Thai massage parlours and nail bars to shops selling religious icons. Behind the high-street under the railway arches is a massive recycling textile depot. The working man’s cafï¿½ where I wrote up my notes serves the best breakfast for miles around!
The market provides camouflage for Mona. She melds into the crowds and is one of many asylum seekers and immigrants, ‘some legal some illegal’ Sayed in the newsagents tells her. But for Dora who feels she belongs in a more salubrious part of London, the area represents her burgeoning sense of inferiority -she looks down upon the less privileged community who might in fact support her if only she gave them a chance.
Deptford holds secrets in its corners- fantastic wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons in the church, little statues and figure heads above the doorways on one of the streets, artists studios along the Creek, where the tide leaves mud banks when it goes out, strewn with intriguing deposits.
And Deptford also has a history of deviation, Christopher Marlowe was famously murdered in the area, his unmarked grave can be seen in St Nicholas’s churchyard; Dickens Our Mutual Friend (from which I took the title) opens on the stretch of water just West of here, with the dredging up of a body.
And in Victorian times when the docks were declining, so called ‘gut girls’ were forced to work grueling hours for a pittance butchering cattle for ruthless employers. Eventually they were rescued by a local philanthropist who set up an educational establishment on Dora’s street to teach them domestic work- a strange foreshadowing of Mona’s life and a hint that for some people, things haven’t improved all that much since Victorian times.
The Darkening Hour is published by Simon & Schuster