Flames Dancing in a Glass

Flames Dancing in a Glass chronicles Mr. Wingrove’s reflections regarding the inception of the Chung Kuo franchise. Full text, OCR-proofed for the first time on the web, after the break…

It was 7:35 pm on Wednesday, November 18, 1987, and I was standing at the top of the concrete steps behind escalator number four at Kings Cross Station in North London. I had just come from Baker Street and was changing to the Northern Line to get to Angel Station and then home. The “down” escalator, however, had stopped and two London Transport policeman stood at the top of it, blocking the way. I stood there for a moment, looking down. At the bottom of the escalator, an officer in a cap was trying to draw a tape across, a man and woman standing just behind, talking to him. The presence of the policeman made me think there had been an incident in the tunnel below — a mugging, maybe — but there was also a strong smell of burning in the air, like the smell of a malfunctioning electrical trans- former. I went down.

At the bottom of the steps, I turned to go to the right. But before I did, I remember turning and looking up the escalat- or, past the official. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I saw nothing. Still, the strong burning smell stayed with me, haunting me all the way down the remaining steps. And as I stood there on the Northern Line platform, waiting for my connecting train, I played a game I often play — that most of us play, so I believe, but writers especially — of imagining my worst fears had come true and that I was trapped beneath the earth while a fire raged above me, cutting me off. It was quite a strong impresion, I remember, because instead of standing where I normally did, I had walked down to the far end of the platform, where the tunnel connecting Kings Cross to the Midland Line was situated.

It was eight or nine minutes before a train finally came. It stopped and the doors opened. I got on, passing four black people — three men and a woman — on the way into the carriage. They went on up, into the heart of the station. Later, outside Angel station, I turned and watched two fire tenders race down Pentonville Road towards Kings Cross and frowned, wondering.

It was about 25 minutes later that I got home. The first thing I said to Susan was “I think there might have been a fire or something at Kings Cross tonight.” I settled down with a drink and at nine we switched on the news. It was then that I found out. I went downstairs into the kitchen and almost fell over. My legs, as the cliche goes, had turned to jelly. Thirty-one people died in the inferno at Kings Cross. And I had just walked through it.

For months afterward, I could see those four people who had stepped off the train, and I still don’t know, to this day, if they were caught in the fire or not. What I also learned after the event was that the tunnel to the Midland Line was closed off, and that all Northern Line trains had been told to go straight through. That it actually stopped was my good fortune, as was the fact that I left work 10 minutes early that evening. But what do you make of such an event? How do you weave it into the tissue of your life? For a long time afterwards, it seemed both too real and wholly unreal. I knew it had happened — dammit, I even gave evidence to the enquiry months later — but it affected me like a fiction. After all, I had been untouched by it. I had just walked through…

Some four years earlier, in December, 1983, I was walking across a fenced-in park just off Holloway Road, on my way back from visiting the Fantasy Centre, a local SF bookshop, when an idea occured to me. The afternoon was icy and my breath was pluming out in front of me as I slowed, considering the idea. I took a few more steps then stopped, actually laughing with delight. It was perfect. A lovely little story. A slick little talle about the perfect artform and a wife who has been cuckolded by it. And about an attempt to murder the artist for revenge. There was much more, too, and it came to me clean and cold, like the icy air surrounding me. A gem of a story. I went home and began it.

Several days later and five chapters in, I called a halt. It was already more then a simple short story. There was this stuff about a web linking the stars, and a lot of background material about a Chinese world state. There were five good, strong characters and a whole engaging, if rather precious, debate about God and creativity and “copy humans”. It looked as if I might have a novel on my hands, and it was a week to Christmas. I put the forty-odd pages in a file and decided to think about it.

A year later, after I had written the novel, I realised I had tried to put too much in it. It was broken-backed — too slight a vehicle to carry the vast weight I had insisted on placing on it — but the idea was still good. And I was fascinated by my characters. They seemed to have pasts. Soon I had skipped back fifty-odd years and was writing about their childhoods. I gave the resultant book the provisional title A Spring Day at the Edge of the World; three drafts later it was to be renamed Chung Kuo. But by then it was massive. A whole world. And all of it like breath, conjured from the icy air.

Let’s go back even further, to the years 1962-1963. Back then I was living in North Battersea, overlooking the River Thames, a place very different from the North Battersea of today. Then it was a rough area, heavily working class, and a good half of it bombed flat and left untouched after the War. I I was eight, coming on nine, when I used to play in those dank, abandoned houses. Whole streets of them, boarded up and rotting. I still remember the particular smells of them, vivid, like a pallet of colours in my head. Lives had been lived in those houses, people had been born and grown up, had died and made love in them — though how little we considered that at the time, caught up in our childish adventures! — and now they were empty, waiting only for the local council to bulldoze them into oblivion and build monstrous, impersonal high-rises where they had been. They were history, a thing of dust and crumbling brick, of broken slate and rotting wood. Little else survived.

Back there — that’s where my Clay and City come from. Not from some fantastic vision of a future Utopia, but from something concrete and real in the world. Likewise, the men and women that populate the great Cities and estates of Chung Kuo. They’re real. At least, to me they are. And yet they’re also breath. Like all imaginings — like memory itself — they have an insubstantial substance in the mind. Like those houses I played in, like those people I passed moving down the stairs of Kings Cross Station on that fateful evening, where are they now? Gone, many of them, as if they had never existed. So where does that leave us when we try to talk about fiction? What can I answer when I’m asked, “Where did the idea for Chung Kuo come from?” but to say “From the world. From things I’ve seen or heard or imagined. But always from the world.” And if Chung Kuo has substance, it is because it is a reflection, a distorted image, of the world as it is. Its reality is grounded in this reality, its passions and concerns. For I have in actuality walked in the ruins of the Clay and sat at an upstairs window at the Shepherd house, staring out at the woods on the far side of the bay. These things are true. They have an objective reality.

And yet such a fiction is different. The very scale of the imagining makes it different. For it is not by its parts that one judges a world, but by its totality, and the totality of Chung Kuo — the rich interaction of its distorted elements — is different. Very different.

To be so strange and yet so familiar. In that, perhaps, lies the magic of Chung Kuo, and the germ of my fascination with the world and its people. But one further element needs mention. At the beginning of the novel, Kao Jyan, an assassin, stares into his drink and contemplates the flickering dance of firelight in the glass. “Perhaps that’s how the gods see us,” he thinks, “as mere traces, too brief for the eye to settle.” It is that perspective — the long perspective of history, in which lives are brief flames, soon spent — that dominates the overall conception of Chung Kuo, for set against the vast perspectives of Time and Space we are all frighteningly small and our lives humiliatingly insignificant. And yet…

And yet what gives Chung Kuo its life is that very sense of transience — that brief flicker of human passions — that makes us so very different from the inert things surrounding us. The rocks remain, but it is the brevity of individual human existence with which we are and must be concerned. So it is in Chung Kuo, whether we are concerned with the highs and lows of romantic love or the moral responsibilities of power, the problems of creativity or the simple pulls of greed and desire. Chung Kuo draws upon all of these rich strands of human existence. As it must if it is to have the kind of substance in the mind I was talking of earlier. But the larger perspective is there always, like ice to fire, or like the great, glacial, globe-spanning City itself, surrounding all of human life.

Flames dancing in a glass. Chung Kuo is such a thing. And yet real, I hope. To you, as it has been to me these last five years.

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