The Clifton Suspension Bridge is not only the most prominent Bristolian landmark in tourism promotions but also a ubiquitous name-drop in Bristolian fiction. From Julian Barnes to MR Hall, it is a synonym for Bristol in a most dramatic way.
Yet, when I recently took part in the Bristol Central library’s literary walking tour from the centre to Clifton and back, we didn’t go to the bridge. Just a few hundred feet from Brunel’s design, we stopped at the little green next to Pro Cathedral Lane and near the Clifton Triangle while our narrator / actor read to us a scene from Nathan Filer’s the Shock of the Fall. The protagonist’s mother had tried to find the bridge to jump off but got lost and wandered around Clifton instead.
In Barnes’ Sense of an Ending we are told that the postcard perfect bridge is known for its suicides and in Hall’s the Coroner we are greeted with the sign from the Samaritans reaching out to anyone who may want to think again before taking their very final step.
Associating high bridges with suicide is not unique to Bristol, however, the two different meanings placed to the same landmark is interesting when you want to think about place as a space not only inhabited by its citizens but also created by us: “suicide spot” or “tourist destination” or “Brunel’s masterpiece” [explore]. There are three types of space: absolute space which is the physical presence around us; social space – the way we live in our surroundings; and conceived space – the space we create through art and representation. [The Production of Space]
The Bristol which writers create in their fiction inhabits this conceived space and all three spaces work together to create the actual city we know. But how well do we know fictional Bristol? When I first started searching for novels set in Bristol there were only a handful that would be offered as suggestions. These include Christopher Wakling’s the Devil’s Mask, Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade, Jeffrey Acher’s Clifton Trilogy, Angela Carter’s Bristol Trilogy, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall which had just won the Costa fiction award, Hayder Mo’s grisly tales and Chris Brown’s Guilty Tiger.
A year later I have tracked down 64 novels or sets of novels that are Bristolian in some way. They help create the conceived space of Bristol and they don’t seem to be much acknowledged for this.
I will review them one against one in 32 initial bouts to eliminate half and then proceed in this manner to find the winner of the tournament: that most Bristol of novels. The benefit won’t be in just discovering the final triumphant selection but in exploring what fictional Bristol tells us and others about our city and what elements the authors have taken and used. This is an examination of how writers create Bristol.
I find this a fascinating endeavour and I hope you will gain something from it as well. Many readers of this blog have helped me identify a lot of these works and it is due to you that I can do this.