I started writing Queen of the May, which I published Monday, towards the end of September 2011, a week or two before Kevin and I were due to leave our flat in Arsenal for the quieter (and cheaper) environs of Woking. Kevin was working abroad and I was packing up the flat on my own, though we did hire movers to do the easy bits. The place became a mess as I tried to throw out as much stuff as possible and pack the office so that I would know which boxes to undo first in the new place. It was a week or two before Ada Lovelace Day and I couldn’t afford to spend time trying to figure out where the contents of my desk had gone.
I had walked past the entrance to Gillespie Park countless times as it was on the way to the Arsenal Underground station, and almost every time I had thought to myself that I really ought to poke my nose in and see what it was like. With less than a fortnight to go before I left the area forever I took advantage of a lovely, sunny autumn day to explore the park.
Rather cheesily, I now have to invoke the spectre of Led Zeppelin. I’ve always found Stairway to Heaven to be a serious earworm, but back when I was playing bass and writing for the Melody Maker, it was deemed passé. Plenty of guitar shops would ban anyone who came in and played even the slightest hint of the opening riff or solo. But the song is still a classic and it gets played a lot on the radio. I’d heard it that week and the two lines that had always bugged started bugging me even more:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Who was this May Queen? I mean, yes, she’s the girl at the centre of the May Day parade, in her white dress and crown. If my memory serves, when I was very little I was chosen, once, to be in a May Day parade, not as the May Queen but as one of her attendants. And yes, she’s a personification of the Spring, but what does it mean to be the May Queen? To be Queen for one year, and just one year?
Furthermore, why is she bustling in your hedgerow and what is she cleaning? And why should I be alarmed?
These questions had circulated through my brain for the best part of twenty years, and whilst I was packing I realised that the May Queen was most likely a faerie, not least because may is another name for hawthorn and hawthorn is well known to be a faerie tree, marking the ‘entrance to the otherworld’ as Wikipedia puts it. It also has hermaphrodite flowers but we shan’t talk about tree sex here.
I had a feeling that Gillespie Park might be rather different to the nearby Clissold and Finsbury Parks and, when I finally visited, it became obvious that it was a soft place where the city overlaps with faerie territory. The idea of the May Queen as a human captured from the women visiting the park began to coalesce, and I started writing.