Veronica Thornton (BEd Art and Design, 1974) taught art throughout southeast London for 30 years and is currently based in Cambridge. She tells us about her time teaching and her first novel The Screaming Alice (rhyming slang for the Crystal Palace).
I was inspired to write The Screaming Alice based on my experiences as an art teacher in 1970s southeast London. A pupil from the school went missing for three months that generated national interest and introduced a police presence. The body of a child was eventually discovered and had been murdered by a student in my class. The whole event from the disappearance of the child to the discovery of the body was publicised on national television and in newspapers.
During this time, another art teacher in the school alerted me to an article in the Burlington Art Magazine about the mistaken location of a Pissarro painting. This awoke my interest in a disused railway that had run from Greenwich to Crystal Palace via Nunhead. It fed my interest in local history as there was still evidence of the railway at various locations on my journey to work. At the time I lived in Blackheath and taught near Crystal Palace.
Since leaving teaching I have had time to put the novel together with the help of a writers mentoring scheme, GOLDUST. This involved a series of one-to-one sessions that helped to structure my novel.
I like to read Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift, Margaret Forster and Sebastian Faulks. Authors that have inspired me are Richard Cobb and Gillian Tindall for their concern with ‘sense of place’ and Kate Atkinson for her juggling with stories from history. Characters and plot in a novel are equally important, but the main interest for me is the location, whether it is a city or a landscape – this also feeds my love of maps.
My advice to aspiring writers is to read widely and write often. As an art teacher and sometimes artist, I have been inspired by various Goldsmiths alumni from Graham Sutherland, Mary Quant, Steve McQueen, Fiona Rae and Yinka Shonibare.
Since publishing The Screaming Alice, I have given an illustrated slide talk of the local history, sites on the railway, referenced in the book. This includes old photos of the area, then and now, the bridge that Pissarro painted from and a film clip from an early Ken Russell film shot inside the demolished Crystal Palace railway station.