Bryant & May: World-Building For Beginners Part 2
As we saw yesterday, world-building comes in all shapes and sizes, from the epic to the miniaturised.
Which brings me to the Bryant & May novels. There was a little controversy in this site’s comments about proofing which has a direct connection to world-building. I base everything on known historical facts – often there are direct quotes from London figures incorporated in the text – and despite book being proof-read three times the odd discrepancy still creeps in.
Some discrepancies are, however, entirely deliberate. Bryant & May exist in a London that’s simultaneously real and not real. It’s the London I remember and extrapolate into an idealised form. Imagine a 1950s British film like ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ or ‘The Ladykillers’ and blur the most desirable elements into the present day reality of life in London, and you have something approximating what I aim for.
Once you’ve chosen and established the rules of your world, you have to discard or reduce the elements that don’t fit. You can’t put scenes of husbands at work into ‘Big Little Lies’ without diluting its impact. Instead the creators went in the opposite direction by adding Meryl Streep’s mother-in-law from hell to the already claustrophobic mix. Each eccentric character I add serves the same function of intensifying the strangeness, and the controlled madness of London allows me to get away with a lot.
For example, here’s the reality of London life. The day before yesterday I went out for a packet of chocolate digestives and bumped into my mother-in-law’s family. What makes this remarkable is that it’s their first visit to London from Australia – they were stopping for one night in London on the way to central Europe, and in a city of almost 9 million people happened to see the only person who could recognise them. Taking them out last night and looking at London through their eyes was a revelation. Perhaps a dozen strangers spoke to them in the course of the evening. By the end of the evening they were goggle-eyed and now think London is the friendliest, quirkiest city in the world. They live in a tower block with a strip mall and the idea of arguing politics with strangers in a candle-lit Dickensian pub seemed to be straight from one of my books.
So my world-building extrapolates that sense and magnifies it slightly. The Harry Potter books have created – largely with the aid of Warner Brothers art directors – an alternative London that harks back to the post-war years. It’s a place of boarding schools and uniforms, pillar boxes, steam trains, cobbled streets and wooden-fronted shops. Hardly any of this exists anymore but it creates links from the past to the present that warm the heart.
One more example; One of the old Soho buildings where I had my film company was very run-down. One day a Hollywood executive came over to see a cut of a film. She wore a pink skirt-suit and matching heels, and as I led her into the depths of the angled, rain-leaking building the lights failed, as they did sometimes. When I got them back on I found her on her hands and knees with her hair all over the place and one foot through a floorboard. This is where the idea for the permanently collapsing PCU building came from.
London is incredibly atmospheric – but unusually this is not confined to an ‘Old Town’ area as in most other old cities. It’s everywhere. I took the photograph at the top a few months ago, but it feels like a scene from Bryant & May’s London.
Fictional worlds start as seeds of truth that you grow, watering them with your own personal concerns until they blossom with stories.