Even the Smallest Life can Leave the Loudest Echo
Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and worked as a hospital doctor, before specialising in psychiatry. Her first novel The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was a top ten bestseller in both hardback and paperback and was a Richard and Judy pick. You can read more about the book and an exclusive interview for Foyles with Joanna here. She lives in the Peak District with her family and her dog. Whereas her debut centred on two young girls, her new novel, Three Things About Elsie, looks at the other end of life: it centres around 84 year-old Florence, who has had a fall in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light... Below, exclusively for Foyles, Joanna introduces her book and discusses how no matter how long we are here, and no matter who we are, the world will always be ever so slightly different because we once existed.
Having worked in psychiatry, I have always been fascinated (and more than a little disturbed) by the fact that one of the many reasons people were once admitted to asylums was ‘nostalgia’ (along with other gems such as laziness, novel reading and bad company.) Nostalgia, as a form of melancholy, was seen as a flaw. A weakness. The word itself is a combination of the Greek names for ‘home’ and ‘pain’. Now of course, in a fickle, throw-away world, we crave nostalgia, and whole industries are founded purely upon our need to reminisce, albeit only briefly.
Set in the 1970s, my first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, is filled with nostalgia and I knew with my next story, Three Things About Elsie, I wanted to continue exploring my fascination with the past. However, this time around, I decided to revisit my own personal history, which is why I chose to set part of the book around Whitby in North Yorkshire - the destination of our summer family holiday for as long as I can remember.
We all have pockets of memories stored in the unlikeliest of places. Sometimes, the memories are hiding in a certain smell or in a song that instantly takes us back to our childhood. Sometimes, it’s a particular kind of food (Angel Delight, perhaps?) or the sound of a distant ice-cream van. Very often, though, we leave pieces of our childhood within a landscape and for me, that landscape will always be Whitby. As a baby, I was pushed around Whitby in a pram. A few years later, I toddled along the sea front, holding my parents’ hands. Many years later, as a moody teenager, I sat in the grounds of its famous abbey, listening to David Bowie on my prized Sony Walkman. I don’t remember all the details of the last summer holiday we spent there, but I know, even now, whenever I revisit, those memories are waiting for me. The hours spent wandering around Woolworth’s, choosing posters and stuffing myself with pick n mix. The benches where I sat with people long since gone. The beaches I walked, filling my pockets with pebbles I just couldn’t bear to leave behind. From the arch of the whalebones to the elegance of Botham’s Tea Rooms, from the cry of the seagulls as they circle the harbour, to the tiny path that ribbons its way to Sandsend, Whitby holds on to my childhood for me and keeps it safe.
It’s important, I think, to keep the past safe. Three Things About Elsie is all about how we view the past, and how it can help us to understand the present. It’s main narrator, Florence, is eighty-four and she has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As Florence lies on a wipe-clean carpet, waiting to be rescued, she thinks about her own past and the decisions she’s made, and she starts to wonder – as we all do from time to time – whether her life had any value at all. However, as Florence tells her story, we realise that she has, in fact, made a very big difference to the world. Far more than she could ever imagine. Florence’s journey to understand the past takes her on a weekend away, and – along with her friends Elsie and Jack – she visits Whitby, which is where Florence’s past and my own past join together.
Taking my characters to Whitby was such an easy decision. Not only was it fun to write about such a wonderful place, but I have never met anyone who has visited Whitby and not fallen in love with it. Perhaps it’s because the town itself is so rooted in history and so we all feel a wave of nostalgia as we walk its streets. Despite the scattering of amusement arcades and candy floss stalls, Whitby hasn’t given itself up to the tourists. It still keeps its feet firmly planted in the past. Perhaps it’s the statue of Captain Cook, staring out to sea from the majesty of the West Cliff. Perhaps it’s the cross of the whalebones, reminding us of long-ago sailors, who left the harbour not knowing what dangers lay ahead. It might even be the ghost of Bram Stoker and the whisper of Dracula, echoing around its many snickets and alleyways. I think it’s more than that, though. I think there is a certain magic about Whitby, and soaked into its cobbles and the stone of its buildings, everyone’s past waits to be remembered.
In Three Things About Elsie, when Florence revisits Whitby, she also revisits her own childhood and she realises something I have always strongly believed: no matter how long we are here, and no matter who we are, the world will always be ever so slightly different because we once existed. At the place where the Yorkshire cliffs meet the North Sea she discovers - as I did – that even the smallest life can leave the loudest echo.
* Read an exclusive interview with Joanna about her debut novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep