#TalkingLocationWith… author Caroline J Beecham: Why Islington became the setting for Maggie’s Kitchen, a Second World War novel inspired by real events
Maggie’s Kitchen follows the fortunes of Maggie Johnson as she sets up and runs a British Restaurant in Islington during the Second World War. The story focuses on the relationships that she develops with the community and in particular with Robbie, a twelve-year-old runaway, and Janek, a Polish refugee. Together they struggle through government red-tape to open the restaurant and then battle food shortages and community crisis to keep their doors open. These British restaurants evolved during the Second World War from the need to feed those affected by the food shortages. They were set up by the Ministry of Food and run by local governments with set price meals of 9d for three-courses consisting of a soup, meat and veg and a dessert. Below is a photograph of one of these British Restaurants from the Imperial War Museum.
When I heard about the restaurants I felt there was a story there; what could be more important during wartime than providing people with their basic need? And having worked in restaurants growing up I saw how you become like a family, working as a team, building relationships with regulars, dealing with daily dramas—and that’s not even wartime! Through this microcosm, and against the dramatic backdrop of war, Maggie’s story unfolds as she nurtures the community through the restorative power of food while trying to overcome the grief of losing her fiancé.
Islington seemed like the ideal setting for the novel; you might have gone to a British Restaurant during the 1940s but there are lots of great restaurants and bars to choose from now. I lived just of Upper Street for a few years and loved the area for its eclectic mix of shops, and arts and culture; The Kings Head Theatre, the Almeida Theatre and the Screen On The Green, are all part of what makes the area such a great place to live or visit. I also saw the rich history and strong sense of community and imagined this hadn’t changed much over the years—I could see Maggie frequenting the area where her family grew up, the workers from the dairy on Cross Street becoming restaurant regulars, and Maggie’s love interest, Janek, working an allotment in a nearby disused railyard. The dairy workers were inspired by the three dairies that existed as Islington was quite rural before the war. Chapel Market is also featured as a farmer’s market where Janek sells his produce, much as people still do now.
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