Bryant & May: World-Building For Beginners Part 2

Christopher Fowler
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.


Roger (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 15:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How did your... unconventional, shall we say?... sales technique work with the Hollywood executive?

Christopher Fowler Thu, 11/07/2019 - 18:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

She was game. Pretended it was no big deal even though she'd laddered her tights. She'd have made a good Londoner.

J F Norris (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 19:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That absurdly nitpicky, all too literal minded, comment calling you out for "bad proofreading" is typical of the anal retentive, humorless nuisance comments I get on my blog. Many of which I refuse to publish. And it reminded me of that amazing play about fact checking gone haywire that I told you about several months ago. Did you ever read the book the play was based on? Both of the works are titled The Lifespan of a Fact. I hope you get a production of it over there. It was mindblowing and eye opening all at once. Very funny too, as you might imagine such a play would be dealing with the contentious relationship between a creative writer and a literal minded person who cannot understand artistic license.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 22:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks J F Norris for drawing attention to your blog. I very much enjoyed it and will keep an eye on it.

During reading the relentlessly dreary but nasty tirade you refer to, I noticed the pungent smell of sour grapes.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 00:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

J F, "what he said", [about your blog that is]. Your latest about the postcard, love it, just the sort of discovery that I find endlessly fascinating.

[If you ever happen upon another old company that you want to track down, may I suggest The British Newspaper Archive and the old Postal Directories, [Kelly's Directory, Pigot's Directory et al.], all online - as worthy additions to your research toolbox.]

Roger (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 01:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

J F Norris:
...but when does creative licence become untruths and eventually lies?
With a US president who has problems knowing what is true and a likely future prime minister of the UK who became successful as a journalist by deliberately telling lies and has never abandoned the practice, checking facts looks much more important.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 08:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have just read Film Freak, which includes the story of the unfortunate visitor and the hole in the floor. It's a brilliant image, and I'm so glad it gave rise to one of the idiosyncracies of the PCU building. Living in Leeds, I find most people will respond to a conversation if you start one, though I suppose they may feel they are humouring an elderly, and probably batty, lady. Or woman, as I prefer to be known.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 08:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Having seen the stage production of The Life of Pi recently, I am reminded that the same facts can produce more than one story, and that we probably want the best story ( in fiction anyway, in real life it can lead to difficulties, as described above).

Christopher Fowler Fri, 12/07/2019 - 09:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I read the book and loved it, JL, and recommended it to my agent.

Snowy, if I venture into the British Newspaper Archive I'll never come out!

snowy (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 10:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You and me both, I want to read around the Great Exhibition, but I know if I start down that path I'll never get back to the real world.

[But it is so, so tempting... so much stuff to know... and so odd... who knew that the 'SheWee', [which they claim to have invented in 1999], had a Victorian ancestor that won a medal for innovation at the exhibition.]

Peter Dixon (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 10:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Interesting comment about bumping in to people in London.

I visit the capital rarely these days but in the past I've several times bumped in to people I've never seen in years.

About 30 years ago my wife visited London and bumped into a married neighbour who (unknown to my wife) was having an affair with her boss, who was with her. Interestingly her boss is Magnus Mills' brother.

They are now happily married.

Eliz Amber (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 10:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I see no reason to apologise for inconsistencies. Arthur has an established history of, erm, embellishing upon the history of their cases, not to mention that he has a rather unique angle on life. What his camera captures might not match the final cut. Fortunately, we have John to call him on it when he strains credibility.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 10:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I feel an irresistable need to add a technical note about the BNA, in case people suddenly flood over there and wonder why it doesn't seem to find... stuff, please forgive.

Searching the BNA is a bit of a trial, eg. you can put in a name and get no results even if you are looking at a page that has that exact name in front of you.

Here is the explanation, they turned the physical pages images, AND THEN ran those images through optical character recognition software to build the index they use for searching. The index isn't 100% accurate/complete, if you are absolutely sure what you want is in there, it probably is, you just need to use 'old-school' skills and a ton of patience to find it.

Right - the bell has rung, lesson over, you may now go outside to play in the sun.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 11:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)


"...they turned the physical pages <b>into</b> images, AND THEN ran those..."

[If you detect a faint hum that's probably Ruaridh rolling his eyes 'gainst another assault on "English as She is Spoke".]

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 17:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The comment calling you out on proofreading - when I read it, I could hear the voice of it's creator. It's the voice of a pub know-it-all, whose preferred way of starting a sentence is with the words:
"I think you'll find...", or, if he's a really experienced pub bore:
"Au contraire, mon ami".
In my part of the world, these people are often known as 'Fist magnets'. The sound of that voice is a cross between Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty, and Harry Enfield's 'Only Me!' characters.
Whatever, the comment struck me as being written by somebody who finds reading well written and entertaining fiction, a joyless task.

Kevin Pearce (not verified) Sat, 13/07/2019 - 13:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Great stuff. As is The Lonely Hour which I am now reading, and thoroughly enjoying. Speaking of London details, real and unreal, your passing mention of Maison Maurice the hairdresser plunged me straight back into childhood when the local cinema always showed the local ads (cue the Pearl &amp; Dean music) and featured Maison Maurice the hair stylists, at the top end of Welling if my memory serves me well. Confusingly there is now a Maison Maurice drinks wholesalers locally. I have no idea if this is coincidence, but knowing your eye for detail i suspect not.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 13/07/2019 - 14:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Respect to you, Kevin. Maison Maurice was indeed in Welling (I went to school in Lee Green). Nearly all of the shops and services I use for the books are (or were) real.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Mon, 15/07/2019 - 13:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

To be fair a lot of the British Isles seems cobbled together especially the cities, even when councils tried grand experiments like Birmingham they only did parts, so you walk round a corner and there sits an old building looking quite out of place.


Lauren C (not verified) Fri, 19/07/2019 - 08:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I missed the proofreading snark - when was it posted? I'm in the mood to be indignant.