I was reading Tom McCarthy’s book, Remainder, and early on he mentions Coldharbour lane, a long street in Brixton, south London. It’s an area I know well, having lived near there for a few years. It’s not an attractive place – lively, yes – but it can be grim in parts. Seeing the name again had many associations, memories, and I was again located in the place, in the entire neighborhood that McCarthy’s character inhabits. It vaguely resembled my own time there. That added another level to the story.

Someone who doesn’t know that street will have no feeling for the place. They may search it online and see photos to get a sense of the place; maybe they have heard the name in connection with the riots of thirty years ago and it will be a stereotype of a ghetto; maybe they will read government statistics on the social and economic character of the area to learn the facts. It will fill in the background and the texture of where a novel is set.

Novels and stories come with a feeling of place, of the locale; it is another character, almost, that shapes the people in the novel and the plot. In fact, it’s such a critical point of context, of the compass of a story that without it questions arise as to the setting and the reality of the characters. It must be a place in the world with all the dimensions duly accounted and fixed. The place sets what is possible, the limits of action and character motion.

When I first read Beckett the thing that intrigued me was that he removed all sense of place. The work didn’t say, this is set in County Waterford, or the Macon country, but it was there in the background and in the words which hinted at a place and history without telling the reader, the audience, where it was all happening. It as if you had to go through the whole story, the play, and that the action was universal, independent of this or that town and country. It is a signature of his work.

It’s a technique that can be effective because it removes distractions such as, where is Coldharbour lane and what is the area like; does the Victoria line from Brixton go to Angel direct? (No, it doesn’t).

Guy Cranswick
18 May 2012