“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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.