Certain cities are dreamworlds. For me, Tokyo, Bangkok and New Delhi fit the bill, although I haven’t been to Shanghai, which I imagine would really do it. London has a special sense of otherness, because it is still a collection of boroughs, villages and wards, despite what developers try to do to it. There’s no homogeneity, and it feels wilfully confusing. Cheapside is rich. There are three Camdens and two Finsburys. The South Bank, on the south side of the Thames, is North of Big Ben. And Euston, West of King’s Cross, is labelled North both from North and South directions. No wonder even Londoners get lost.
The rich areas are boring – Chelsea is like a Wedgwood pottery version of itself – and the hip areas are still properly risky, just as New York’s once were. Dalston and Hackney epitomise this, still rough enough to be ‘true’ and cool enough to charge more for a Great White (a double-flat white, apparently – who knew?)
There are several of us working this field of writing about the London Otherworld. Ben Aaronovitch and Guy Adams both write about alternative Londons where the supernatural and magic exist. Contrary to popular belief, I use no supernatural elements in the Bryant & May novels, but I tap into the rich world of London’s eccentrics.
Some could always be found right on the streets. From Stanley Green to the Tuba Man, and the mime who dresses as a cockney dog in a kennel and shouts at people, we’ve always had plenty of unusual characters to draw on. Many of them, like Banksy, remain invisible. Right now someone is leaving elephants around London. If you walk up York Way to King’s Place and look on the other side of the road, on top of a brick pillar, you’ll find these beautiful carved stone creatures quietly proliferating. A new one appeared yesterday.
So it makes sense to write about an ‘other’ London where all the things you’d like and wish can happen. In my case I take the kind of crazy murder mysteries you’ve read and superimpose them on real events. It helps keep corporate mundanity at bay.
In case you didn’t think many people still remembered Stanley (the board he carried about most of his life is now in the Museum of London) here’s a sign I saw in a cafe a few weeks ago…it’s a very good joke.
My next novel, ‘Bryant & May: Wild Chamber’, is due out on March 23rd and features more London eccentrics than ever before, as Bryant sets out to interview anyone who understands why and how the parks of London were built, and what they mean to people. For the book I spent a year researching and visiting every main London park (and there are a lot).
During this process my favourite one changed to Green Park, in many ways the most understated, untrammelled and un-messed with central London park. If you go early on a summer’s morning starting from Piccadilly, you have a treat at the end; Buckingham Palace free of crowds, gleaming gold in the sunlight.
Charlton Park is familiar from the film ‘Blow-Up’ and Regent’s Park features at the moving end of ‘Withnail & I’, but the maintenance of parks is now under threat from rapacious councils like Westminster and Camden. We won’t realise what we had until it’s gone. With any luck the tourist trap of the Garden Bridge, which would bring ruinous numbers to the Inns of Court gardens, may never get built.