There’s a song I love by Jeffrey Lewis, which describes the feeling of finding yourself in a place that you’ve encountered before, from being vividly described in a piece of prose, poem or a song that is dear to you. Singing about walking past the setting of one of Leonard Cohen’s songs, Lewis describes “how his lyrics were cool and how he sang so sincere – it must have been true, and it happened right here”.
To me, finding myself right there in real life where something happened – something conjured up by a writer so brilliantly that it feels it must have been true – is a delicious meeting of the real and the imagined.
I don’t mean books where the places are almost characters themselves; I’m not talking about visiting Cephalonia to relive Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I mean those unexpected moments where you suddenly realize you’ve been there before – but in your imagination, the writer’s imagination.
Here is a top ten of places where this has happened to us.
10 – The Ten Bells
THE NAME OF THE STAR by Maureen Johnson
Ever since reading THE NAME OF THE STAR, it’s all I can think about when I walk through Whitechapel. It might be a bit creepy, but it’s fun to feel like you’re in the middle of a story. I haven’t gone into the pub yet, so I might have to do that at some point! – Sanne
9 – Ellis and Middlebury College, VT USA
THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt / RULES OF ATTRACTION by Brett Easton
Although Hampden and Camden College are both fictional New England colleges, when I was in America for a year of my degree I couldn’t stop seeing both books everywhere I turned at the leafy Vermont campus of Middlebury. There really was a graveyard on the campus which always reminded me of Rules of Attraction, and mountains surrounding the square, white campus buildings, and the snow really did fall day after day, foot after foot of the stuff. The most spooky and unnerving part was that a student actually went missing one night and we all spent days looking through the snow, not really wanting to be the one to find anything, hoping he’d taken a flight of fancy off campus a la Bunny.
It wasn’t until the day before we all left for the summer, as the snow melted and the creek became green again that they sadly discovered his body – preserved by the ice and snow and still a mystery as to how he got there. They decided it was an unfortunate drunken accident in the end, but I couldn’t help wondering if there really was a Classics study group somewhere falling apart… Horrible but true! – Rosi
8 – Butcher, Grassmarket, Edinburgh
COMPLICITY by Iain Banks
I was reading Complicity by Iain Banks when I went up to visit Edinburgh University. I’d just read a part where the victim of a grizzly murder had been discovered, his body parts on show on the slab in a butcher’s window on the Grassmarket. The main character discovers them early in the morning when his car lights happen to illuminate the shop window. That same day I was exploring the city with my Mum when we found ourselves in the Grassmarket – and there in front of me was the butcher. *shudders* – Jenny
7 – Clapham Common
THE END OF THE AFFIAR by Graham Greene
When I first read THE END OF THE AFFAIR I had no idea that Greene had a link to Clapham Common – the area I’ve lived in my whole life – so to find Clapham Common at the centre of the action was a very nice surprise. The protagonist, Bendrix, lives on the south side of Clapham Common and meets Henry, the husband of his ex-lover on a rainy, cold, windswept, typically-London night as they’re both walking across the common. In fact the common features quite a lot in the book, as does a pub and a church, both on the common – each so brilliantly evoked by Greene that I could see wartime Clapham as I was reading. A few days after finishing the book, I got the bus past the common, and when I passed the church my 21st century summer day morphed into a dark, mizzly winter’s night during the war, with two overcoated figures tramping their way across the common to the pub. It was, as Jenny says, ‘a delicious meeting of the real and the imagined’ – the real Clapham was reimagined for me. However, I found out a few weeks ago that the church I had always thought to be the church in the novel isn’t it. The real church is a 5 minute walk away – and is so uncannily the church in the novel that I did a double-take; I’d been there before without being there. – Livs
6 – Greektown, Detroit
MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides
We had gone to Detroit in search of Robocop, which turned out to have been filmed in Dallas. Oops. And although I knew Middlesex was partly set in Detroit I hadn’t expected to find much evidence of it in the post-riot-era, post-white-flight downtown. But one of the few areas of the city that still has a street buzz is Greektown, and I like to imagine this café as like the one Cal’s grandparents ran. – Jenny
5 – Le Rosebud, Montparnasse, Paris
THE TIME OUT BOOK OF SHORT STORIES
The sadly now out-of-print collection of wonderful short stories had a tale about a girl studying for a year in Paris, living in Montparnasse and getting to know the characters lurking in her local bar, Le Rosebud. I lapped this up, wishing it could be me gradually assimilating to Parisian life over the course of a year. I presumed Le Rosebud was a product of the author’s imagination but I couldn’t help but go to check it out. And when I found it was there I couldn’t help but go inside. And once inside I couldn’t help but order a martini from the white-suited barmen and sit at the low-lit bar and look around at the characters that I believed I knew so much about. – Jenny
4 – King’s Cross Station
HARRY POTTER by J.K. Rowling
This might be an obvious one, but when I got on a train from King’s Cross to Scotland, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the Hogwarts Express. (Btw, Platform 9 3/4 is an excellent ‘meet up spot’ when you’re meeting someone you’ve never seen before). – Sanne
3 – Launderette, Kentish Town, London
RED INK by Julie Mayhew
I have spent ages trying to work out where Melon’s launderette from RED INK is in Kentish Town. AGES. I even wrote a previous blog about it.
And then, when we moved house recently, I discovered a launderette that I’d never come across before, as it was in the opposite direction from the tube that I usually walked… and now I have a feeling – the strongest feeling – that I’ve found it, and it is the one now almost directly opposite my house. – Naomi
2 – The Globe Theatre
I’m cheating a bit, but whenever I walk past The Globe, it takes me back in time. Even knowing that it’s a reconstruction doesn’t take away anything from the experience! Seeing it there somehow makes history feel a bit more real. – Sanne
1 – Woodstock Road, Oxford
THE SUBTLE KNIFE by Philip Pullman
Will has been walking north out of Oxford and reaches the ring road when he finds the window that takes him through to the other world of Cittagazze. Just a patch of air that looked slightly different from a particular angle.
Some years ago, I was in a car driving out of Oxford and, while waiting in traffic to cross the ring road, I idly looked out the window to realise that . . . here was a row of hornbeam trees, and comfortable houses set back from the road. Here – here must be Will’s window! And before I could look for it properly the car pulled off again and we left it behind.
But Pullman’s whole His Dark Materials trilogy rang so vividly and possible to me that part of me feels sure it must have been true, and that it happened right there. – Jenny
Has this ever happened to you? Let us know in a comment or on Twitter @HotKeyBooks!