The Never-Ending Story

London

Imagine writing a book on a subject that fascinates you – a famous sports ground, vintage cars, town planning, movie stars. You research it for years, write it, rewrite and edit and proof it, and after you’ve finished and the book has just gone to press you discover that a new piece of information – one that’s crucial to the story – has come to light for the very first time.

This new information makes part of your account – or perhaps all of it – irrelevant and dated overnight. And there’s nothing you can do but accept it.

This was how I felt the whole time I was writing ‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’. There are thousands of London books on thousands of different aspects of the city, and information is constantly being updated with newly unearthed information, so I spent much of the last year amending my text. Revisions and additions from writers new and old tumble in every day, so that after a while I threw up my hands and stopped worrying about keeping up.

But I’ve written a very odd hybrid. Part fantasy in the characters of its fictional tour guides, part fact in the details of its true London history, I’ve realised it doesn’t go far enough and that there are a thousand more points I should have included.

I’ve taken some of the obvious facts for granted; that London is built around a river valley and a ridge of hills, that it began its life as a trading town and continues to be one, that its fragmentation into distinct boroughs, districts, zones and wards each with its own look and feel makes it unique among world cities, that planners made little effort to control density, usage or social mix.

Those planners defied their own rules and regulations about how the city should be experienced, and appalling mistakes were made, so that virtually everything that was startling and original has been callously thrown away, but if I started including all of the disastrous decisions (how Covent Garden almost became Barbican 2, for example) the book would never have been finished. Besides, out of all the decisions good or bad grew a strange bastard child, a portrait of a patchwork city that creates a uniformity of its own.

I want ‘Peculiar London’ to be a celebration of oddness, not a long whinge about mistakes that can’t be undone. And by writing it in the voices of different London characters I was able to head off arguments. Anyone who writes much about London reveals how they would like to have seen the city.

In ‘A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital’ Simon Jenkins – opinionated, conservationist, right-thinking, fair-minded – lays into the corporate thuggery and official vandalism that has ruined some neighbourhoods. He comes up with some good new points I wish I’d been able to reflect in the text – but I’ve only just drawn a line under the final addenda today. The London story cannot end because London is its people.

With that, the next despatch will be from another country.

 

12 comments on “The Never-Ending Story”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Well — that’s what comes from being Punctilious rather than a Tory. There’s obviously nothing for it but a ‘More Peculiar London.’ But just to make certain you capture as much of an amoeba-like London between now and then, my suggestion is that ‘The House That Jack Built’ come first. Then perhaps more short stories. By that time, London should be close to its most peculiar.

  2. BarbaraBoucke says:

    I hope that you and Pete have a wonderful time wherever it is you’re going. “Despatch from another country” makes it sound like the Orient Express or maybe not – I’ve been out pulling weeds so my thinking is a bit foggy. Hopefully you will
    include a photo or two for those of us not going any further than the grocery store – well, myself anyway. Looking forward to the next post from wherever you are.

  3. Helen Tippins says:

    I absolutely love Bryant’s Peculiar tours of London. In fact I would read the books for the history and quirkiness of London without any of the other marvellous back ups of plot and characters. Well, maybe not the latter, since that is fascinating and carries on the Dickens tradition of characterisation where we all know people even more strange. If only there were actual tour guides like Arthur!
    Thank you Christopher Fowler- the humour in and sheer delight of your books have kept me going throughout the last few difficult years.

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    I’m with Barbara – pictures, anecdotes, Orient Express or not.
    Someone has just suggested that usage zoning was perhaps not the best idea anyone had and that our neighbourhoods would be healthier with fewer single family houses and more mixed use buildings. For one thing, we could go back to being able to send “the kid” to the corner for a loaf of bread or bottle of milk and our streets could be narrower. We never did have pubs the way London did and our coffee shops are probably a good thing but the occasional pub would be good. Our “local” burned a few years ago.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    H-m-m Another country is it ? Very mysterious. My three guesses are: France, the US and Rutland (might just as well be another ‘country’ considering your well-known view of ‘foreign’ life outside of London — although ‘outside’ London is getting closer by the day thanks to rapid conurbation).

  6. Richard says:

    And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
    Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
    (Cecil Spring Rice, ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’)

  7. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘that there are a thousand more points I should have included.’

    Sounds like several more books are required.

  8. Jan says:

    I liked that Simon Jenkins London book he weighed the situation up very well I think.

    It’s an interesting topic in itself looking at some of the major plans for London that were considered after the 2nd world war. Considering really how completely crackers some of these ideas were!

    I mean it’s easy to fall into the “London has been completely ruined” frame of mind and personally I think that’s crap although places like Victoria although they have been radically changed have certainly not been much improved! It could have have been a very different capital that arose from the ashes of WW2 and certainly much of it would have been in the changed not necessarily improved category.

    Looking at the developments over the past few decades apart from the massive projects to do with infrastructure the supersewer and Cross Rail for e.g we seem to have drifted back into an era of piecemeal “for profit” developments once more. When you look at what local councils managed to achieve in places like the Elephant+ Castle this is likely no bad thing but surely there’s a middle path a better way than this building incorporating conservation and cohesion of neighbourhoods alongside making a few bob.

  9. Helen+Martin says:

    Jan, you would think so, wouldn’t you, but planners look at the space covered by their city/district/province, etc. and immediately their brains flash with massive son et lumiere productions which lead to attempts at building “the tallest”, “the most massive”, “the most expensive” housing project, office complex, highway/bridge there has ever been and their citizens spend the rest of their lives creeping around the bases of these structures hoping there will be a seat on the bus or worse hiking the two miles to the gigantic multi-story car park which had the only spot for miles around, to say nothing of mortgaging their hopes of ever having a permanent home because all their spare cash is going into taxes to cover the grants and rebates given to the project developers.

  10. Helen+Martin says:

    (One would think I’d have stopped for breath somewhere there, or at least for a semi-colon.)

  11. Alan R says:

    London is really defined by the billions of different “London Memories”, that millions of people keep in their heads. And every day, millions of people add more fantastic “London Memories” while visiting, working or living in the city. As a 9-year-old, a stranger gave a mate and me tickets to the Trooping Of The Colour while we were hanging around Horse Guards Parade. He said his son was not well and they had to go home. To this day, two “guttersnipes” standing in the front row, within touching distance of soldiers and horses, is likely my best “London Memory”. I have never forgotten the noise, the colour, and the beauty of that London day.

    All things change – as they must. But London remains a massive magical stage on which fantastic new memories can be made. I wish Filthy MacNasty’s at the Angel did not close, I really loved it there, but there are dozens of other pubs and venues in London offering the opportunity to hear good new loud music. Old is not always better. I wish Arsenal had not moved from the old stadium to The Emirates. The memories of my old Dad and me standing with peanuts in hand, on the North Bank, in the 50s and 60s are magical to me. I now have special new memories of flying to London with my son for weekends to watch Arsenal in the new stadium.

    I cannot imagine that a book about London Town can ever be finished. Most old pubs could have an interesting book written about just them. There is just so much to write about. I can’t wait for ‘Bryant & May’s Peculiar London’ and the stories – behind the stories. And who is better to create “London Memories” for us to share than B&M. And I hope our old friends remember even more Peculiarities to share with us in the future.

  12. Jan says:

    That’s really lovely stuff Alan.

    I left London when I left The Job but memories of the place will be with me forever(hopefully!)

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