12:00 AM, July 30, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 30, 2016

Fiction and the unconscious

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In February I wrote a short story in which an eccentric 13-year-old boy called Luke made an appearance. Intrigued by this character I decided to follow him 30 years into his future, which took me to London in 2046. In this second story, which I wrote in March, I pictured Luke in his 40s travelling on the Thames on a river boat. The roads are so badly maintained that the river has become a major transport link between one part of the city and another. Passing the Houses of Parliament, now derelict, Luke reflects on the decision of the national government to relocate to a more secure site, safe from random attacks by disgruntled citizens and above the rising tidal waters of the Thames. 

I imagined Luke's home as a studio flat in a luxury apartment building. His district of London, the home of global corporations and their employees, is privately guarded and policed. Its inhabitants have access to expensive imported goods and exclusive clubs and restaurants. Luke's daughter, whom he is visiting for the weekend, manages a run-down hotel or rooming house a stone's throw from St Paul's Cathedral in the old financial district, now a lawless slum abandoned by public services and overseen by distant drones. From here Luke and his daughter travel together through pot-holed streets to a third section of the city, where religious laws are imposed on docile inhabitants, and lives are peaceful and orderly but oppressed. Unexpected conflict in this quiet neighbourhood brings the story to a climax. 

When I wrote this, I wasn't thinking of Britain's referendum on the European Union. A date for the vote hadn't yet been set. It hadn't occurred to me that a majority of voters might decide to leave. I'd hitched my ride into an imagined future on the life of a character I wanted to know more about. But perhaps, in envisaging the city I love divided by a multiplicity of fault lines, I was unconsciously entertaining this dismal possibility. 

The outcome of the referendum seems certain to divorce us from the European Union. But Britain itself has already been internally fractured by an angry campaign full of dishonest threats and promises. The leading promoters of Brexit were mainly responsible. Denying the benefits of EU membership and exaggerating the costs, they cloaked their desire for a deregulated free market in promises of enhanced social spending that they had no hope or intention of fulfilling. Worse, their campaign gave legitimacy to racist sentiments. Among poorer British voters suffering from austerity and neglect, they deliberately inflamed resentment of EU migrants and fear of non-European refugees. 

Written in a burst of creative optimism, my story now seems horribly prophetic, not of an outwardly fragmented city but of my own internal sense of alienation and distress. For some fiction writers, intellectual certainty coupled with strong feeling may be a good starting point. I prefer open-ended questions to which various answers are equally plausible and, in Wordsworth's phrase, “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. 

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