Many years ago I bought a horse, fulfilling a crazy dream I’d had since childhood. I live in London and I needed a place to keep him, so I found my way to the Surrey Hills, and a livery yard near the National Trust property Polesden Lacey.
I didn’t know the area, indeed I didn’t even know how to drive a car. I’d commute there by train, walk to the stables, then set out on horseback with a photocopied piece of the Ordnance Survey Map.
I discovered the woods of Norbury Park, Polesden Lacey, Ranmore and Mickleham, and intriguing remnants of the area’s former glories – a weathered gatehouse, a sunken road, a stone bridge, a fancifully named waypoint on the map.
I became aware of how much I was treading on the past, and of how these fields, woods and paths were ancient byways or the estates of great houses, some of them long vanished. I had long been fascinated by abandoned places, especially grand ones. Going back through old diaries I discovered Lifeform Three had been brewing a lot longer than I suspected. More about that here, and my travel diary Not Quite Lost.
As I looked across the hills I wondered what this landscape would be like in the future; how we’d treat it and whether anyone would even be aware of the kinds of lives that were once lived here.
If you’re expert in the area’s history you might recognise a few sources. Roaringhouse, named as a landmark in Lifeform Three, is a farm on the Norbury Park estate. Greville, which in Lifeform Three is the surname of the Harkaway Hall family, is the name of a former owner of Polesden Lacey. If you really know the landscape you might recognise features of the Thomas Cubitt mansion that used to stand at the top of the hill at Denbies. Do you remember when Tickets is describing his beloved Harkaway Hall as Paftoo writes in the cement? The bricks made by hand, the seashells between the floors for soundproofing? Those were from accounts of Mr Cubitt’s grand house at Denbies. This loving detail, this care and grandeur … I had to include them.
I took a geographical liberty too – by including the underwater ballroom at Witley Court near Godalming. I put this into the book as Paftoo’s room of dreams.
As for Harkaway Hall itself? That was a nod to Siegfried Sassoon and his Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. Harkaway is the name of one of the narrator’s hunting horses, but of course that book is special for more than just its equines. The narrator’s foxhunting days become an elegy to a way of life being swept away, a generation trying to come to terms with vast change. In Lifeform Three, horses are a connection with the vanished past and what we have lost.
They are also a reminder that we are part of nature. As we increasingly rely on algorithms to filter the world, we are losing our other senses – essentially becoming like the machines we have built to serve us. This can be benign, as machines certainly solve problems for us. But it can also be sinister. In a world of uniformity, where does the outsider fit?
Many writers – and probably many readers – are familiar with being the odd one out; the shy one; the thoughtful one; the one who doesn’t follow the herd and instead seeks their own truth. There’s a tradition of these themes in science fiction. Ray Bradbury and George Orwell both explored how individuality and independent thought can be erased from us – and Philip K Dick likes to question how human we are compared with machines and artificial constructs. Indeed, isn’t there a piece of the outsider in every one of us?
If I were to identify general themes in my work, they would be memory, identity, what the soul might be and what makes us unique. I like to explore unusual conditions of haunting – but not the paranormal territory of ghosts and the supernatural. I puzzle about people who are made unstable by a buried past, a secret they shouldn’t inspect too closely, a future they can’t face – and crises that unravel the very roots of who they are. You’ve already seen this in Lifeform Three, with Paftoo’s submerged memories. I also play with these ideas in My Memories of a Future Life, where a character is taken by hypnosis to her next incarnation – and confronts the traumas she is storing up in her life now. But that’s another story.