London Otherworld


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.

B&M 16 WC

13 comments on “London Otherworld”

  1. Brooke says:

    When “Wild Chamber” is launched, which London bookstores will be likely to have it? March 23 is the UK date?

  2. Jan says:

    I always had a fondness for the borders between Kensington gardens and Hyde park. The Albert memorial is a beautiful thing when you catch it in the very glittering 0430. 0530 hour of a sunny morning..I used to have a good mooch round there when I was working or on my way home. There’s a plane tree to the west of the shocking Queen mother gate heading toward Hyde Park corner in fact just about on the corner and that tree has been there since the Crystal Palace was there at the time of the Great Exhibition. A few trees grew through the glass exhibition halls. Much to the delight of the birds in the park and to the umbrella salesmen who pitched up nearby!

    Is it Bonnington Square on the way down toward Brixton when you have crossed Vauxhall Bridge it’s not strictly a public garden but they welcome visitors. As you enter the garden from Bonnington Square there’s a boat above the entrance a little rowing boat.(well there was b4 storm Doris put in her appearance) this boat celebrates the river Effra that flowed past this location one of the “Lost rivers of London” The gardens are really lovely particularly in spring. The Effra enters the Thames just to the west now via a pipe.

  3. Jan says:

    I might pitch in with a couple more locations l8r (Unless Chris turns me off for my constant chirping) this is part of my specialist subject!!!

  4. Jan says:

    Afternoon Mr. Fowler sir! Did u see those fantastic photos of those kids who got onto the roof of that skyscraper in Canary wharf and abseiled down the side? Were brilliant pictures …..
    You should have a look at them. Look at the new City skyline you KNOW you should … know you want to …..

  5. Jan says:

    One quick one then I will stop blathering. Did u know in Green Park just past The Boris bikes on top of Green Park station about twenty odd yards to the SW – maybe bit more. When it really rains very hard there a a long section of the grass that get completely waterlogged you can see it most clearly from the top deck of a bus travelling west you can see this watery area running through the park. What you are looking at is the route taken by the Westbourne another tributary to the Thames a ‘lost river’. Originally the waters of the Serpentine were from the Westbourne now they keep it topped up from mains water.
    Am shutting up now.

  6. Roger says:

    In fairness to the councils, it isn’t their rapacity that threatens London’s parks – and all the other public parks in England – but the government’s steadily-growing restrictions on their incomes and expenditure.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    I’ve always loved the village culture of London. Lots of northerners view Londoners as unfriendly and too much in a hurry but that’s because they only know the tourist traps. Some years ago I and a group of colleagues visited Toyfair at Olympia for 3 days and stayed in a lovely little B&B just two streets away. On arriving we went to a tucked away boozer that seemed to mainly serve the local GPO depot and we were immediately invited to the quiz night that evening; they loved the geordie accent. unfortunately we didn’t make it because at tea time we went to another pub where they invited us to stay behind for a lock-in because there was a fight on TV featuring a local lad. Good fun and just what you want every local to be. The local Eastern Mediterranean restaurants served excellent food and were quite happy to let us drink and chat into the early hours because the owners were eating and chatting to family. Magic stuff and the exact opposite of the experiences of friends who stay at faceless hotels and spend their evenings in Covent Garden and other central ‘hot spots’.

    Mind you, a couple of years later Toyfair was in Docklands and we stayed in Canning Town. The whole area had a curfiew at 7.00pm and it was like a ghost town with Eel and Mash shops. Happily we discovered a Chinese restaurant that was happy to serve us until everyone with a shotgun was tucked up in bed.

  8. Mark Baker says:

    What I love (or rather loved, as cultural homogenization erodes London’s diversity) is that feeling, not of boroughs, but villages and invisible borders. When I lived briefly in Maida Vale, I was less than a hundred yards from a massive Kilburn Housing estate, but one that was almost invisible until you turned a corner. Once that corner was turned, you could have been in a different city. I love the way you can still walk beside luxury riverside developments and come across a knot of working boatyards at Brentford, the smell of diesel mingling with and slowly overcoming the scent of cappuccinos from the waterside restaurants a few minutes away.

    Looking forward to the new book as ever – as you recognize, parks (like the Thames in ‘Strange Tide’ and other public places) are liminal spaces – in their location but not necessarily of it, or at least not as it is now, and with so much hidden history. Having worked nearby I’ve a soft spot for St George’s Gardens, just north of Coram’s Fields, a still consecrated area that housed the dead for St George’s Bloomsbury (a lesser Hawksmoor) and St George the Martyr. A pleasant oasis built on bones. I also worked in a building overlooking the Quaker burial ground at Bunhill Fields, where schoolchidren would play unaware that the lack of monuments didn’t mean that it wasn’t the last resting place for hundreds of Londoners.

    Oh and by the way, thanks for the erudite entertainment as always, from @1630revello

  9. Chris Webb says:

    The defining characteristic of London parks to me is that they are the only places where people are stationary for any length of time. You therefore see and experience things that could never happen when hurrying along a busy pavement. I once tinkered with writing short “word sketches” (sorry for the pretentious phrase!) of things I had seen out and about in London, and many of them were in parks, particularly Green Park strangely enough, as well a Golden Square & Soho Square which you might think of as mini-parks.

    Blow Up is one of my absolute favourite films, and I’ve been meaning to go to the park for years but never got round to it.

  10. admin says:

    Brooke, Wild Chamber will be in shops on the 23rd I believe.
    Jan, never stop giving us these details, they’re new things to look out for.
    Roger, I agree but why is it always parks & libraries when they can always find the budget for an LGTB festival attended by the same handful of people each time?

  11. Bill says:

    I am looking forward to “Wild Chamber”! What fun!

    New York once has/had public eccentrics who were quite famous. Rollerena was/is a diva boy who dressed up like Tinker Belle and roller-skated throughout the Village in a tutu. She’s still around, doing good works. When I was a boy, we were told she was a Wall Street exec by day, and an heir to very old New York money. Not so, as it turned out.

    Moon Dog was a huge blind man who dressed as a Viking and produced odd sounds that eventually drew him to Paris, where he was idolized as an avant-garde composer and musician. He wended his way back to NY; at some point I saw him after his return on a street corner, and I thought, oh my goodness, I haven’t given him a thought for years. Then, the NY Times covered him, and not too soon after, the poor man died.

    The Lavender Lady, who dressed in lavender, applied lavender cosmetics to her dear old hide, dyed her hair- what else- in lavender, choked anyone who came near enough in lavender aromas. And that was all. But she was ours.

    Mercury, in his fool’s costume. He put on shows for children in Central Park! Where is he now?

    And Shakespeare. This elderly gentleman, in freakish hot pants and doublet opened to his navel, caparisoned in plumed hats, went scampering about downtown flaming mightily. I was once working in a liquor store on Fourth Street when he came in with a pal who was his double, in dress and attitudes! Don’t know where that guy went.

    Shakespeare, according to an article in the Village Voice, lived in a dive in the Bowery, and painted on cardboard with makeup. These art works were eventually shown in a gallery, but how long ago I do not recall. Like Rollerena, an august pedigree was devised by Shakespeare’s fans- the scion of an antique Boston family. Hope that was true.

    Around ten years ago I came across another interesting individual who drew crowds in Central Park. A stalwart fellow who sang in a contralto voice as he sawed over the strings of his violin, all the while conducting mild acrobatics. Seemed to favor garments reminiscent of American Indians of old. Never found out what his moniker is/was; no idea if he has persevered. Though sequestered not too far from NYC, I hardly ever go there. Too tiring for a fellow going gray.

    Some time ago I was gazing out a window overlooking Hell’s Kitchen, once a dangerous place now gentrified and re-christened “Clinton”. I realized how ordinary people seemed. Cargo pants and T-shirts. Rather just like me. At one time, you could walk down a sidewalk and see people who dressed as their fantasies of themselves. And they were not stand-outs! They just looked as they should! Because once, for a while, at least, that was NY!

    They were not hoping to become famous on You Tube. They didn’t care what you thought, good or bad. They were just strange people living their lives. Are they all gone?

    Just what happened? High rents? No room for oddballs?

  12. David says:

    I saw Blow Up when it came out and remember the park scenes vividly, especially the night scene which I thought was genuinely scary. After several decades of procrastinating I went to Maryon Park where it was filmed a few one Sunday morning a years ago and was astonished to find the place almost unchanged, still with a very eerie atmosphere. On the way back, going through Charlton Park I stopped at a seriously good cafe run by some Thai ladies, something else I’d never have expected to come across in a London park.

    I’ve a recently developed soft spot for Victoria Park which notwithstanding the 2012 Olympics deserves to be better known, I’m sure if it was in central or west London it would be world famous, up there with Luxembourg Gardens or Central Park.

    Chelsea’s not that bad really, well parts of it, south of Kings Road to the west still has some atmosphere.

  13. Marc says:

    Surely it is The Green Park?

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