On Golden Hill with Francis Spufford

Posted on 21st June 2017 by Sally Campbell
It has been immensely satisfying over the months to watch Francis Spufford’s first excursion into fiction Golden Hill hoover up the literary prizes. We saw its potential back in the autumn and crowned it our Fiction Book of the Month for October, and since this rollicking tale of a nascent Manhattan has gone on to nail both the Costa First Novel Award and the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the latter fittingly awarded to works that particularly evoke the spirit of a place. Now winner of the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize 2017, Francis Spufford – both in words and his own video, shot on the city’s streets – takes us to the very heart of New York.

The strangest thing was ignoring Ground Zero. Most of my on-the-spot research for writing Golden Hill required me to walk round and round the hole in the ground where the World Trade Centre had stood, paying it no attention. I had a photocopy of an 18th-century street map of New York in my hand, showing Manhattan as a small colonial town that ran out into farmland just north of what is now City Hall Park, and was then the Common, where the locals grazed cows and played cricket in the summer. A lot of the other visitors, understandably, were paying their respects at the site where thousands died on September 11th, 2001, and a tide of white dust blew out from the falling towers to coat St Paul’s Chapel at their foot like a sarcophagus. I, on the other hand, was trying to feel my way into much older layers of time: to wind back history way past the triumphs and horrors of our century, and the one before, and the one before that, until all the towers faded into empty sky, and the megalopolis shrank away into a few streets of English brick and Dutch gables. So I tried to treat the hole as a blank space. Nothing to see; move along.

Frances Spufford takes us on a tour of 18th century Manhattan

It worked, kind of. I kept my eyes down on the pavements, and followed lanes not named after kings and queens since 1776 but still following the same courses, and asked my feet to tell me the story underneath the asphalt and the concrete. Instead of the dead of 9-11, I thought about the dead who lay in the graveyard of Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street, and their counterparts in the ‘Negro Burial Ground’ three hundred yards north. I thought about the merchants, and the labourers, and the wig-wearing grandees, and the chancers and the thieves and the coffee-drinkers of the place, when it was provincial instead of cosmopolitan, tiny instead of gigantic, suspicious instead of open to the world; when instead of anonymity, it offered small-town gossip, and everyone knowing everyone else’s business. I thought about the lives of the women who lived here, and what might happen to you, when family shaped so much of a woman’s destiny, if you didn’t fit your family. And I thought about the slaves, only a little while out of Africa at this point, still speaking African languages, and living their servitude in the kitchens and attics of their white owners. 

It was, I could see, a place where secrets would be very powerful. What if I brought a stranger to town, someone from a genuinely huge 18th-century city like London, who would therefore share that much more of our outlook, reading about him? New York wouldn’t know him, and he wouldn’t know New York. They would get to know each in mutual puzzlement, and if I planned the secrets right, there would be shock, captivation and disaster on both sides. My stranger would have the world’s most anonymous name. He would be Mr Smith.

A lot of the lure for me in peeling away the skyscrapers was the way this ancient New York I was imagining, only just on the doorstep of modernity, reversed so many of the qualities the later city would be famous for. I like irony. I’m a glutton for it.  But Manhattan’s later self would not be so easily banished. It wasn’t just that the 21st-century city put up visual resistance as I walked it – that the site on what used to be called Golden Hill Street where I planned that Mr Smith would receive the greatest shocks to his heart and his pocket-book, was actually occupied by a tanning salon; that in fact, I couldn’t quite scrub the skyscrapers out of my imagined sky, and lingering afterimages of them, pale as ghosts, stained the air above the tiled roofs and church steeples of my Manhattan. It wasn’t just that. Instead, I realised, it was that the memory of what hadn’t happened yet inevitably informed almost every aspect of the story I wanted to tell. Unnamed, never looked at directly, the Manhattan that was to come loomed over the whole thing. Because it had to: because a historical novel is never ever simple time travel, no matter how vivid it might manage to be, but always and every time a conversation between then and now. And a good historical novel introduces the strangeness of then to the familiarity of now, and entangles them, to the shock and captivation of both.


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