When in London recently I found myself with an unexpected day on my own. There were so many choices and old haunts to revisit, it was hard forcing myself to go somewhere different. Not to the Tate or the National Portrait Gallery then, followed by hours whiled away in the bookstores of Charing Cross Road or prowling through Soho. Not shopping (not quite yet), and not stomping over the grounds of past neighbourhoods. It was too chilly to brave the Heath or Hyde Park and the Serpentine, and I was too excited to eat.
Almost without thinking, I hopped off the Tube at Bond St, an area I’ve barely explored before, because it’s the workplace of Maggie, the protagonist in my novel. I made my way to her offices at about the right hour, observing the people around me and listening in to their conversations, before ordering a coffee and watching some more. It was quite surreal feeling her world become more solid than my own in that moment. I felt very much the stranger there – an invisible visitor in my old home town.
It was Maggie later, too, popping out to grab a bite for lunch and slipping in, unnoticed, to the Royal Academy of Arts (Amy Tan talks about this ‘transparency’ between herself and her characters here in this brilliant TED talk). I let her take me along for the ride, and we saw a photography exhibition on Dennis Hopper: the Lost Album.
I wasn’t aware that the actor wrote and directed Easy Rider, or was a sculptor with connections to the civil rights movement, Andy Warhol, the Vietnam draft dodgers and Hells Angels, although I probably would have been if I’d given him much thought at all. In retrospect Easy Rider was such a political film, but my teenage memories of watching it are all about the quaint idealism of the sixties flower children and Timothy Leary’s LSD casualties.
I got lost for hours in this exhibition, thoroughly immersing myself in the counter-cultures, upheaval and violence of a decade in which the world changed so dramatically. I/Maggie tore myself away sometime in the early afternoon and gravitated towards the familiar.
If you’re in London soon, you must visit the Royal Academy and take a look for yourself. It was very inspiring.