“When we return nothing has changed”: on the joy of fictional places

Hogwarts, a largely fictional place. Image: Warner Bros.

A fictional place is a wonderful, singular thing. It has no history, beyond what has been invented for it. Its hands are clean. Life is distilled into the essentials: there are no murderers, corrupt politicians or natural disasters, unless they service the plot. There are no real life politics to instruct it and, unlike real life, everything in a fictional place happens for a reason.

Some exist as a frozen microcosm of wider society, where its inhabitants do not have to age or be held accountable (see: The Simpsons’ Springfield). Others are an entirely different universe unto themselves (see: Game of Thrones’ Westeros). Either way, we can neglect to visit them for years, and when we return nothing has changed. You might think Westeros is one of the exceptions, but revisit it in five years, and you’ll see what I mean. By its very nature, it promises stability.

JK Rowling recently announced the release of four more Harry Potter universe books. As a lifelong reader, watcher and devotee of Harry Potter my reaction was: “Christ on a bike, really?” Hogwarts is a home to me. It is to a lot of us. When Rowling demonstrates how much she knows about it, she is really informing us of how little we do. That is not the point, and not what we want.

The idea of a second home is that we know it as well as our first. In his classic essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes asserted that the writing and creator of a text are unrelated, and that reading and criticism should not rely on the author’s identity. With her constant additions and revisions, Rowling does not permit this. Our ownership, and therefore our comfort, is tested.

Hogwarts aside, two of the safest places I retreat alone to when under stress are Stars Hollow, home of the Gilmore Girls; and Pawnee, Indiana, the fictional town in which Parks and Recreation is set. They only exist to me for as long as I am in them. They feel sacred to me because it is not possible for anybody to walk around and disrupt them. I know everything that has happened in them. Even though they were built for mass consumption, I feel autonomy over them. (This is, I am realising, perhaps part of the appeal of video games.)

Fiction set in an existing place rarely achieves this for me. Even regarding fantasy or science fiction, it is more complex than mere escapism. For some, space itself is arguably more familiar as a work of fiction than reality. A “galaxy far, far away” is nearer and dearer to them than the nothingness that encloses us.

I didn’t watch Parks and Rec until I was in my twenties. I didn’t grow up with it the way I grew up with Friends, where perhaps my allegiance should be. But New York exists, and I cannot claim it as my own. It has also been shared: so many films and shows bled into each other and created a tangled web of landmarks, establishing shots and cultural touchstones into which I cannot comfortably retreat.

In Pawnee I can relax. I am a benign visitor, soothed with light entertainment, but I am omniscient. In Stars Hollow, the fictional place is so absurdly small I could give you a guided tour. I know the townsfolk better than the neighbours I soundly ignored while growing up in rural Cheshire. Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has gone on to create the far superior The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. It’s set in New York. It’ll never be the same.

Are my sanctuaries examples of great art? Yes, in their own small ways. For me, the fictional place has to be widely and elaborately developed. (I do not feel this way about Jay Gatsby’s West Egg, for example, despite being a frequent visitor. I don’t know enough.) Are they a bit childish, or twee? Perhaps. Crucially, I don’t care. So are our childhood bedrooms, and first email addresses.

My fictional homes are not perfect: they are, by and large, very white and heteronormative. I hope everybody has a fictional home to call home.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.