Where London Began

The Arts

It must unfold like a half-remembered legend

When you’re denied interactive activity with others and have no face-to-face conversations or see no new sights, how do you keep ideas fresh? 

Perhaps by looking into the London of the imagination, of China Miéville, Ben Aaronovitch, LaVie Tidar and Kim Newman. London is a springboard for myths. As I’m about to be even more tethered at home for the next three to six months I’m planning to continue on a big project, an adventure set in early London.

When I ran the outline of ‘The Foot on the Crown’ past author Jake Arnott he asked me to explain its religious background, and I was unable to answer him because I had studiously avoided understanding Dark Age religion. As we talked I saw that he would take a deeply researched approach whereas I would fly high to the borders of fantasy, closer in tone to TE White’s ‘The Once and Future King’.

I read up on the theosophy of the time and found it uninteresting – to me at least. I had already evolved my idea, which would be more like a fable than a history, a story discerned from stitches in an unreliable tapestry.

The trouble is, this once again places me in between genres, not quite fantasy, not quite historical adventure. If I have a young protagonist, does that automatically kill an adult readership? I read the adventures of the Borribles and Alan Garner and Little, Big and young King Arthur and Ursula LeGuin all at around fourteen. After that I preferred a light dusting of the fantastical in books by marvellous and too often overlooked authors like Graham Joyce.

I know that the tale I want to tell is about the refounding of London after the Roman departure, but I don’t want it to be realistic. It must unfold like a half-remembered and over-embellished legend. I can do this because so little is still known about the Dark Ages. We think the Londoners who remained after the Roman departure occupied old villas but eventually became too scared of living in the ruins, and moved outside the city walls. But we really don’t know the truth. I’ve read a dozen research books on the subject and am still none the wiser.

The story should have the classical structure of a legend. But I’d quite like to include flying machines. If anyone remembers my ‘Tales of Britannica Castle’, well, that’s the root of it.

Hm. When I first discussed this with the artist Keith Page he excitedly drew sketches, which made me think that the fantastical approach would be more appropriate. TE White was working with a known legend, of course; he had the bones of the King Arthur story to provide him with structure. I don’t have that, but I’ll take a run at it.

With everything now assembled around a central theme, the unchanging nature of the city’s spirit, I’ll be starting the second draft in the next few weeks. We’ll see what happens. If there are any fantasy writers out there with tips, bring ’em on. I’m not going anywhere so I’d better get started…

25 comments on “Where London Began”

  1. Melinda says:

    Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book uses a time-travel troupe, but also the theme that there were some caring people (a monk in this book) who would help others inspite of the fear and chaos. Might be a reason someone would invent a flying machine?

    Sorry, I’m not a fantasy writer, but just a thought of a way to inject some hope/reasons for inventions into the plot. Take care and good luck!

  2. Gary Hart says:

    I can’t wait. Sounds right up my street.

    For a little background in the Last of the Romans in Britain, I can heartily recommend Jack Whyte’s series. He puts the Arthurian legend here and is reasonably convincing in his ideas.

  3. Jan says:

    The tussle (which I outlined to you a bit back) between long held Pagan beliefs and the establishment of Christianity in the remains of the Roman C of L which resulted in a long period of flipflopping between local (Essex + Kent) Pagan and Christian “kings” during the early Anglo Saxon period might produce some interesting fantasy material.

    Also there are some very interesting locations which deserve mention here the existing springs the Romans find are harnessed into being wells, and subsequently define the locations of the gates in the City walls. The “Roman Roads” are turning out to be more often than not just efficiently straightened out interpretations of pre existing prehistoric tracks.

    Then there’s CrippleGate. The conventional interpretation of the name being that King Alf dispensed permission for disabled and blind beggars to legally gather alms/beg in this location but there’s alternative ideas concerning the height of this gate it was very low so the average man (not woman) needed to bow down or creep to enter or leave the city through this gate I think the A/S spelling is Creipel (not 100% – don’t bank on.it!!!) Which can be interpreted as to crouch, or creep. This is reminiscent of the entrances to many prehistoric structures (West Kennet LongBarrow being a good e.g.) Where to enter you needed to bow down at point of entry as if to pay homage to the site. Or alternative to that it could have been a defensive device slowing physical entrance down and putting the man entering the Citybhere at a disadvantage.

    Then there’s the MASSIVELY interesting legends surrounding the site of St Paul’s I really can’t remember if we’ve been through this before. When Wren’s cathedral was being created he decided new deep foundations needed to go in below the Old St Paul’s – a substantially bigger structure by the way. The rumour being that large stones a menhir or Stone circle was discovered beneath the Old Medieval St Pauls. Later accounts dismiss this but there’s something in that the Romans found a temple here and they have a way of latching into and appropriating sites already sacred to indigenous populations. They do this all over UK. “Covatinas” well for which they divert Hadrians wall, the temple of Mithras @ Maiden Castle, Dorset. They have a lot of form for this!!!

    Also remember Tower of London is at a site of prehistoric tumuli…… AND THE LONDON STONE. This forthcoming epic of yours should have a firm base in the LOCATIONS it’s all about place Chris everything comes down to PLACE.

    Hope all good. Would have emailed all this but Hotmail is still knackered. I am pretty sure I sent you a load of guff about the early Essex and Kent Kings. Also remember that stuff about the areas close to the City which is let’s face it Is ABSOLUTELY AWASH with churches and religious institutions. Why this Mega concentration of churches? Cos it’s already a special semi sacred place before Christianity gets a grip. The Fleet Wells become Holy wells (particularly St Brides whose Waters were used in cleansing coronation routes of the kings of England for centuries) but they are already important. The Romans and A.Ss build there at that site! All this stuff is that old. You know The pics I sent you of those Friars? Well the pope owned land lying just outside Moorgate. There’s bit of interest in there i reckon. I realise the land grip of the church is an extremely knotted and complex topic but the sheer amount of lands owned by the church in Europe is gobsmacking. The first true multi national corporation wasn’t it the RC church? Responsible for developing infrastructure, Medieval technology parks otherwise known as monasteries! Also in charge of Education the lot.

    Hope this all makes but of sense. Am in hurry working today it’s early on about 0645. Play with all this here but that’s where your book.should be. Also you do a chalet on Bryants perambulations through prehistoric London.
    Take it steady
    Jan x

  4. Jan says:

    Your not going to write about this at all are you?

    I might as well have cooked myself a proper breakfast before work!

    Have a good day Chris.

  5. Jan says:

    Meant chapter not chalet.( Obviously )my day not starting off 2 great

  6. Andrew Holme says:

    Two thoughts: if Leonardo was doodling helicopters and parachutes in the 1490s, it’s more than likely that previous generations were having similar flights of fancy. ‘The Whispering Swarm’ by Moorcock lands between at least three genres and is all the better for it.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Have you read the ‘Rotherweird’ stories, by Andrew Caldicott? They’re a lot of fun, and quite peculiar – in a good way.

  8. Theophylact says:

    That’s TH White, Chris. And have you read Mistress Masham’s Repose, his riff on Lilliputians in hiding in modern (well, 1940’s) England?

  9. admin says:

    I tried Rotherweird but couldn’t get into it.

    I’ve dug deep into the history of the London Stone and there’s no evidence in any direction.

  10. Roger Allen says:

    Three Six Seven: Memoirs of a Very Important Man by Peter Vansittart is an entertaining look at post-Roman Britain: Mr. Pooter in the Dark Ages, you might say.

  11. Roger Allen says:

    Off-topic, but I don’t think Admin has mentioned yjis: https://crimereads.com/funny-how-why-comedy-is-crucial-in-crime-writing/
    Afriend who share my admiration passed it on.

  12. brooke says:

    Why do we care about the “religious background” in a mythical history of London? Surely the migrations and conquests, with underlying pressures for land, resources and trade would be more interesting. Besides, there was a swirl of belief systems going, even among “christians.” Perhaps like living in parts of Africa before Europeans can, with various cosmologies, Benin, Yoruba, Senufu, dominating community rituals but tangetial to trading, war, etc. And you see the swirl of ideas in the art– Only in retrospect is there a “religious background.”

  13. Helen Martin says:

    I agree about Jack Whyte’s King Arthur, absolutely love that series. The only problem is that he makes it all so logical and down to earth (except for the Skystone, obviously – although it landed on earth) that fantasy loses its grip.
    Jan is right about the gates and wells. Those springs and wells have to be there prominently. London is all about its sites.
    I know you stay away from religion and it is one of the reasons some people are drawn to your books, but if ou want to write about those early periods you’re going to have to face up to belief structures. In those pre-historic times people thought about all that and the one who came up with the strongest ideas and the most forceful way of presenting it won out. You can structure it any way you want, make people who can’t be bothered but outwardly conform to norms and why not? It’s what obtains in every century.
    Low entrances: Biblical- the Eye of the Needle gate at Jerusalem, NW American coast – longhouse entrances were deliberately low so people had to bow to enter, although there was a protection intent there as well. I thought I had a couple more examples but they all came down to protection and nothing more.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Mistress Masham’s Repose! I read it in high school and loved it but haven’t seen it since. I must see if the library has a copy so I can find out if it still attracts.

  15. brooke says:

    Follow up to Helen. Longhouse entrances makes one think of Mine Howe and crypts on Iona for the kings of Scotland. And from there to Roden Crater and similar modern land art works with magical and mystical connections. Each example has underlying beliefs, creative energy and technology. Forget christianity–what do peoples in your story think about the world around them and how do they explain it to themselves? What rituals do they use to bind community and generations together? What bright shiny things make their world? .

  16. Jan says:

    Brooke the “religious” struggle between Pagan v Christianity. IS basically the story of migration and conquest. The Anglo Saxons and more obviously the Vikings are both from areas of Europe that functioned under Pagan /magical belief systems for some centuries beyond Southern Europe. The flip flopping between the Kings of Essex and Kent reflect this swopping over between Pagan v Christian choices very well. Also play in with the main theme of a “specialises” about the square mile of the City of London.

    If you read and appreciate the history of St Boniface /Wynfrith who many historians believe to have been the most important Englishman in European history you twig (!) that Bonifaces destruction of the Donar Oak/ Jupiter oak. was essentially a zealot’s missionary ending of a long and really interesting history concerning a nature based Pagan world view.

    The world tree Yggdrasil symbol of an old Norse belief that filtered down being reinterpreted across Northern Europe. Boniface Christianises BAVARIA ultimately by his alleged physical destruction of a sacred oak. (God helped by sending a miraculous wind just as Boniface went at the sacred oak with his axe. ) BTW according to a Victorian reinvention as a side effect of this tree felling he created the Xmas tree. I reckon that was Victoria’s hubby – a Bavarian- getting his 4d worth in!

    Boniface also dodges about in Frisia (where the black and white cows come from!) The Frisians are the immediate neighbours of the A.S.s in fact they are part of their set up.

    Looking at this in a Pagan v Christian way just seems to me to be a good fit with Mr Fs early concept of this book of his “The Foot in the Crown” . I reckon this fella Arnott had a point.

    Dunno so much about flying machines and suchlike Sir Christopher of Fowler but its your book Guvnor ….if I went on to make comment it could only be “The foot in the Gob”!!!

    Hope u r having a proper good day.

  17. Jan says:

    That above should read SPECIALNESS

    (Not meaning that the City was full of Specials you understand!!)

    No entirely take your point about The London stone. But its a survivor you’ve got to give it that!!!
    I love the idea that its a remnant of a much larger marker stone or megalith.

    I also love the story about the Sports Direct Manager v the enthusiastic Polish builders!!( London could have fallen) . When me and Bernie first went to visit the stone it was in a grille in the wall of The Bank of China. The present setting is so much better. Beautiful really.

    Did I tell you I wondered / played about with the idea that it could have been the stone Arthur pulled the sword from? There are some details ‘re it’s earlier location(s ) and the stone being much larger I think.

    But in.your novel it can be it can be owt you want can’t it?

  18. Jan says:

    You know in an odd way the very structure of the City of London it’s boundaries, it’s
    Central Hill(s) The presence of the Fleet and Walbrook plus the ditches dug ancillary to the boundary wall like ‘the Houndsditch where eventually all those(sacrificial?) Dogs skulls are found

    Well that geography is to your book what Arthur’s Legend was to T.H. White..

    If you play about with this idea of Place and ‘the people who perhaps defined why specific locations are important well the story can hinge around that.

  19. Jan says:

    I’ll shut up now

  20. brooke says:

    Jan, I don’t disagree with you. I was simply–perhaps not clearly or concisely– offering other views of how cities/civilization evolve that doesn’t require (old) religious paradigms. Again, we read “religious background” from our vantage point.
    I’m reading an exciting book about fabric–cloth, weaving, etc.–as the basis for societies and cultures. Cloth, from sheep to consumer, has spawned so much innovative technology, hardware and software, shaped trade and wars, helped make slavery profitable and so forth. Narry a mention of “religous background.” But the stories are rich with cultural beliefs, politics and intrigue.
    Carry on Mr. Fowler.

  21. Paul C says:

    Good to see a mention for Graham Joyce – his eerie novels The Limits of Enchantment and Memoirs of Master Forger are deeply absorbing reads. Strongly recommended.

    If you’re interested in strange beliefs and religions try Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas – one of the great history books.

  22. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Rosemary Sutcliffe did a series of novels, not all YA, in this realm. The Eagle of the Ninth was even a movie a few years back. I loved them as a teen. Might give a sense of how a realistic reimagination of London history might work. For more magical approach recognizing alternative time lines, the work of Dianna Wynne Jones are well worth revisiting.

  23. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Rosemary Sutcliffe did a series of novels, not all YA, in this realm. The Eagle of the Ninth was even a movie a few years back. I loved them as a teen. Might give a sense of how a realistic reimagination of London history might work. For more magical approach recognizing alternative time lines, the work of Diana Wynne Jones are well worth revisiting.

  24. Ed DesCamp says:

    Oh joy! Am in receipt (finally) of Oranges and Lemons! Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been a long wait but well worth it.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Read a trio of Rosemary Sutcliffe recently and found them just as appealing as when I first met her books. These three were all new to me and The Eagle of the Ninth wasn’t one of them. She respected her readers and did not over simplify issues. She’s well worth reading now.
    My library system has 4 copies of Mistrress Masham’s Repose and they are all in use. But, then, our system is one of the heaviest used ones in Canada, or so I was told at one point.

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