Unreal City: Making a Fiction of Leeds by Wes Brown

Wes Brown tells us about the five settings in Leeds that inspired his new novel When Lights Are Bright.

lights-are-brightVladimir Nabokov would create floor plans of fictional buildings, map routes of characters, draw items of clothing or furniture when teaching a novel. The thinking was it would uncover the structures of a novel. I’m similarly interested in the topography of fiction. I’ve spent days walking the streets of Leeds following the story of my next novel. It’s a day in the life of contrarian journalist James Oisin. The English Defence League and anti-globalisation protesters are clashing in the streets. A schoolgirl is missing from a council estate and her parents are on television. James is haunted by her face on posters. He suspects her mother is behind it.

The novel, taking place over a twenty-four hour period, is split into two parts of two chapters. Two chapters in daytime and two at night. Setting the whole thing in Leeds City Centre gave me an opportunity to write about the new and the old Leeds, the way the centre has been transformed in recent years.

Granary Wharf

James, originally from Langston View, now lives in Candle House. From the privileged distance of the twenty-third floor, he can survey the city. The more ‘successful’ he becomes, the higher he lives. Class is now vertiginous.

The novel occurs in the time-space between him leaving and returning to his tower. By the time he comes back, everything has changed.

James wakes with his editor’s girlfriend and gazes out on the city at the protests below. Candle House is built on land that was formerly a candle-works. It was designed to literally look like a giant candle. This sort of artistic recasting and the symbolism of light made it the perfect place for James to live.

The tenement sits on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Once one of the busiest trade routes in the world and now a regenerated enclave for city living. At street level, James looks admiringly at his building reflecting on “[the] calm luxury of self prophesied in the twisted brick facade.”

City Square

There are protests and demonstrations going on through the day. There is an EDL-like group but elements remind him of Class War and it’s multi-ethnic. There are also Unite Against Fascism and ant-globalisation demos going on. James can’t help himself and plunges head-first into the kettle, feeling a savage unity in the crowd. It unsettles him and alienates him from his colleagues on his arts magazine, The Contrarian.

Langston View

The only fictional setting in the novel. An inner city enclave somewhere near Holbeck and a cross between Burley, Armley and Little London snug in the shadow of the towers of the city centre.

Langston View is where James was raised and his family lives. The missing school girl, Chantelle Bailey, is also from the area and James levels tirades against her mother in his publicly funded magazine, The Contrarian, published in offices that were once hubs of industry. Is the mother guilty? Do James’s tirades amount to class hatred? Is James himself the enemy?

Clarence Dock

“White clouds in a conspiracy of height.”

At the heart of the new Leeds, Clarence Dock lies largely unused. A mausoleum to capital. A monument to the future.

James loves to discuss ideas here in the restaurant overlooking the canal basin. Meeting one of his acquaintances, he sees a swastika tattooed in prison ink on a man smoking outside. His world, clean, stylised and soulless, always teasing and edged with violence.

The Trinity Centre

During the novel, the Trinity Centre is still under construction but broken into by protesters. At first James thinks some kind of massacre has gone on until he realises it’s a “die-in”, a demonstration where people lie down as if dead.

“There were dead people in the Trinity Centre. Or playing dead. The street party had evolved into full-scale theatre with dissidents, hundreds, laying facedown in body bags, sloganed t-shirts, their death poses outlined in chalk.”


“”They stood, raving, whitened by Volvo flames.”

Towards the end of the novel, the protests have turned into riots. It’s difficult to tell who is making violent protest and who is simply looting and enjoying the elective primitivism. Leeds gives into its darker impulses and shops are trashed. Thugs drink champagne and pillage food in Harvey Nichols. There are street parties and orgies around burning Volvos.

James had always dreamed of ‘divine violence’. The kind of political violence that could liberate people from capitalism. But over the course of the day, he faces a number of reckonings with himself and his past. The consequences of his contrarianism, self invention and bad faith will reach a climax when the missing schoolgirl is found.


Book Launch

When Lights Are Bright will be launched on Tuesday 26th April at Dock 29, Leeds Dock.

Wes will be in conversation with Dr Rachel Connor, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett University. This event, part of the (Re)Writing Yorkshire series, is run in partnership with the Leeds Big Bookend. Full details can be found here.

Wes Brown‘s debut novel, Shark, was published by Valley Press in 2013.

He is the young writers’ Co-ordinator at the National Association of Writers in Education and Editorial Assistant at Magma Poetry.

He has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme and was a visiting lecturer in creative writing at the University of East London.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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