While reading the final proofs of These Fragile Things, I am reminded of the process of writing the book and the may sources of inspiration I drew on.
To me, the devil is always in the detail. One of the reasons that I love Peter Jackson’s film-making is that he will build an intricate set only to burn it down.
I wrote in the references Graham makes to Dr Johnson’s mulberry tree after watching Beryl Bainbridge’s 2001 documentary, which was repeated after her death. In it, Bainbridge visited a Council Estate in Streatham and saw a blue wall plaque with the inscription, “Streatham Society On this site stood STREATHAM PLACE the villa of the Thrales in which Dr SAMUEL JOHNSON frequently stayed between 1766 – 1782.”
Bainbridge also spoke to Streatham locals, few of whom knew the history of Thrale and Johnson’s friendship. She saw the mulberry tree left from Streatham Place where Johnson liked to sit in the shade, and under which Hester Thrale’s pet Spaniel dog – Belle – was apparently buried.
I also changed the name of the church that Graham and Elaine occasionally worshipped at to St Leonard’s, where Susannah Thrale is buried.
These things might seem inconsequential. But to those few who remember the history, they matter immensely.
Rocking to a halt at the traffic lights, it was the tree that captured Graham’s attention first. Magnificent in the morning light, taller than he remembered, its trunk was fully displayed. Far more impressive than the ancient mulberry he had been forbidden from climbing as a boy because it was said to have belonged to Dr Samuel Johnson. No clues were provided as to Dr Johnson’s identity in response to his enquiry, simply an exasperated, ‘Oh, you know: the Samuel Johnson.’ Their own family doctor was a friendly man who, Graham felt sure, would have let him climb the tree if it were his, but it didn’t appear to be something that came with the job.