Sutton Coldfield has appeared in the pages of books a surprising number of times, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1, to memoirs by Sarah Millican and AA Gill, via references in poetry by Pam Ayres, a play by George Bernard Shaw and a book that Phillip Pullman described as being “one of the indispensable books; for my money, it is the best of all.” But twenty years ago a novel was published that eclipses them all in terms of really having Sutton Coldfield at its lyrical heart, and that book is Pop by Kitty Aldridge.
This funny, eloquent and moving novel about a teenager who, in 1975, goes to live with her grandfather, a regular at the Fox and Dogs on Little Sutton Road, following the death of her mother is full of poignant and witty observations. Whether it is drinking in the Pint Pot or Plough and Harrow, walking in Sutton Park, or exploring the shopping delights of a new Gracechurch centre, Pop oozes Sutton Coldfield in wonderful, authentic detail, only adding to the delight any local resident may have when reading this brilliant, down-to-earth yet poetic novel which was one of the Sunday Telegraph’s Best Books of 2001.
To celebrate 20 years since its publication, and to inspire more fabulous writing set in Sutton Coldfield as part of FOLIO’s current Flash Fiction competition, FOLIO’s Chair Zoe Toft recently interviewed Kitty Aldridge about her life and how she came to set her debut novel in Sutton Coldfield.
Kitty Aldridge was born in Bahrain but writing about Sutton Coldfield came about due to a family connection. Her grandfather, Arthur Aldridge, on whom the eponymous Pop is based “loved Sutton Coldfield with a passion” having been born and bred in Four Oaks. Kitty, as a child, had been “impressed by his swagger, his abundant general knowledge, and by the glamour and irreverence of his copious smoking and drinking, not to mention his exotic-sounding accent. He seemed to me in those days to be an otherworldly figure: swashbuckling, rakish, stuffed with songs and stories from his time with the RAF’s 110 Squadron,” and so when Kitty decided in the mid-nineties to move from acting (her credits include appearances in ‘A Room with a View’ and ‘Cadfael’) into writing, she took inspiration from Arthur and his life.
“Arthur was regularly appalled by something or other which, in his opinion, ought to be put right: this or that was a disgrace. It was easy to imagine him clanking about in rusted armour with a lance and indeed, years later, I thought of moustache’d Arthur and his mongrel dog, Blowbroth (not re-named in the novel), as West Midlands versions of Don Quixote and Rocinante.”
Arthur’s son, Kitty’s father Peter Aldridge, accompanied her on several research trips spending long mornings in Sutton pubs, walking around The Parade and Sutton Park with its Roman road and pools. “I felt at home in the West Midlands during this time and I came to love Sutton Park in particular. Pop would famously grow wistful when talking about Sutton Park, he was very proud to be a Sutton man.”
“When writing I always research the local geography and history of a place: it’s helpful and always enriches and informs the writing. I am preoccupied by rural landscapes that have been altered, developed, transformed, and what that does to the identity of the people who live there.
I walked around Sutton Coldfield until I felt the place in my bones. My father had many personal memories of his father, Arthur, and of the area. When you start to write a novel it is important that you feel as if you own it, the place, the characters: it must belong to you (even if it doesn’t). I keep researching until I run out of questions and then I often return to the research later. Eventually, if you spend enough time in a place watching and listening, you begin to hear the voices speaking – you smell the fields, the beer, the hot tarmac. And off you go.”
Although researching her debut novel proved immensely enjoyable for Kitty, reading and writing have not always been as pleasurable; at school Kitty struggled with learning to read and write eventually deciding to leave at 16. “I chose, instead of A’ Levels, to live and work in London, doing various ordinary jobs – a far better education for an actor or a novelist than A’ Levels. No A’ Level will teach you about real characters, serendipity, human struggle, colloquial language: all the things you need as an actor or novelist.”
After various jobs in London restaurants, bars and shops Kitty was accepted into drama school. Following graduation she paired up with fellow acting student Esther Freud, and together they wrote and performed a two-woman show, the success of which opened doors leading to fifteen years working as an actor in film, theatre and T.V. After a stint working on screenplays, and around the time she became a new mum, Kitty made the leap into writing fiction.
“People quite often ask about the parallels between acting and writing – and there are parallels, of course, in terms of narrative story telling and development of character, but they feel to me like very different disciplines. When you are acting you are not thinking about the arc of the story at all – you’re not supposed to – you are focused entirely on responding to the characters around you; remaining truthful in the moment.
Being truthful is important to a novelist too but you are also preoccupied with the narrative as a whole, and a cast of characters, as well as considering what took place twenty pages back and how that might affect what follows twenty pages on. It is necessary to have an overview as a novelist that as an actor you must avoid (when acting it’s not helpful to know all about other characters’ hidden motivations or what the outcome of the scene will be, for example). The self-doubt is the same, however! The ability to imagine other worlds. And the stillness.”
Thinking about what advice Kitty might offer anyone trying to write an entry for FOLIO’s Flash Fiction competition, reading other writers and finding inspiration from them is perhaps a good starting point. Kitty, drawn as she often is to write “about ordinary working people leading apparently unremarkable lives”, has been particularly influenced by the writing of British novelists like Alan Sillitoe and the Black Country poet, Liz Berry. “I hadn’t understood that you could take liberties with English, write in dialects, use idiomatic expressions. At school we were punished for that.”
Deadlines (24th of October for FOLIO’s Flash Fiction competition!) and finding a writing peer group can also help, as well as being prepared to take a risk and try something different. Kitty completed a Masters in Creative Writing aged fifty eight; “it offered something new: in particular the fellowship of a writing group and supportive tutors. I found the numerous deadlines helpful. I was encouraged to experiment and I was required to avoid writing another novel, having published four, so I wrote a collection of short stories, which I am currently completing.”
But one project that, sadly, may never be completed, is the planned film of Pop.
“The actor, Richard Harris, read Pop the novel, and was keen to play Arthur. His son, film director Damian Harris, hoped to direct his father in a film version, which was to be shot locally in Sutton. Producers bought the film rights, and Damian approached me to co-write the screenplay with him, which I did in early 2002. The budget was in place and they were looking to cast the role of teenage Maggie when, very sadly during pre-production in October 2002, Richard died suddenly. Damian did subsequently consider other actors for the role, but as the budget was dependent on Richard Harris and therefore the production stalled and never revived.”
It’s tantalising to think what might have been!
Pop’s depiction of Kitty’s grandfather is rich, sensitive and such fun to read. He is buried in Mere Green, where, long before his own death he was walking past the churchyard one day and “spotted an elderly man leaning on the wall, surveying the unusually tall grass that had grown to the height of the gravestones. Arthur liked to share the old man’s comment: ‘’Some of these poor buggers could use a haircut.’’ Irreverent, surreal, it was a remark Arthur could easily have made himself. He was a Sutton man all the way to the tip of his cigarette.”
Kitty’s latest book The Wisdom of Bones, described as “a real tour de force from a supremely talented writer” can be borrowed through the Birmingham library system and delivered to any library in Sutton Coldfield, or ordered through Waterstones Sutton Coldfield.
Entry to FOLIO’s Flash Fiction competition is free. The deadline is 24th of October, and full details can be found here: https://foliosuttoncoldfield.org.uk/flash-fiction-competition-2021/