Image courtesy of http://www.jamiemckelvie.com
“London is one of the capitals of my imagination. It elected itself. Tokyo and New
York are some others, and I have a hunch that Berlin is on the way. London was
the first European city that I ever visited, when I was 23. It’s so different now that
sometimes I can barely believe it’s the same place. There used to be gaps in the
buildings on major streets filled with wild flowers, and enormous timbers bracing
buildings up, that had been there since the Blitz. That was arriving very much at the
tail end of hippy London — after swinging London. There was a kind of bubbling thing
that would turn into the Bowie glam rock, but that just consisted of people wearing
what I considered were absurdly comic-strip like clothing in public. I had that first
glimpse, and then in the mid eighties I started coming back on publishing business. I
was having a very different sort of career here.Initially in the United States because
I was writing science fiction I received no serious attention: the New York Times
didn’t mention me for the first decade of my career, yet Neuromancer was reviewed
favourably in the London Times. I’ve been a more regular visitor to London than to
any other country on this side.” William Gibson, interviewed by Wired UK
Welcome to London.
More specifically welcome to London as portrayed as a major setting, some would
say character, in William Gibson’s linked series of novels Pattern Recognition, Spook
Country and Zero History – known informally as the Blue Ant trilogy.
Blue Ant is the high-speed, low-drag, advertising agency with a penchant for sending
Gibson’s protagonists off around the world cool-hunting for various neat MacGuffins
like viral filmmakers, secret jeans brands and mysterious cargo containers. In other
words, the kind of specialist contracting role you’re unlikely to find advertised on
Monster.com anytime soon.
While firmly post-geographic in its staffing policy, we all know secretly that Blue
Ant’s real base of operations is in London..
Rumour has it that a hapless intern accidentally left their copy of the agency’s own
staff guide to London on an iPad in a cab somewhere between Soho and Portman
Square after an unsuccessful Olympic Legacy pitch meeting with LOCOG, and now
through the strange and secret back-channels of the science fiction community we can
share that copy with you.
Here then, exclusive to Vector, is a choice selection from Blue Ant’s own travel guide
to William Gibson’s London – A mirror world city so close to our own you could
almost think his books aren’t really about the future at all.
The Blue Ant Guide to Bill Gibson’s London
Blue Ant does a lot of its cool-hunting here, and it’s a great spot to do a little
clandestine people-watching if you’re of that persuasion.
The area can get incredibly crowded though with what Gibson calls The Children’s
Crusade – the weekend swelling of Goths and Punks who habitually descend on the
markets in search of new tattoos, bootleg music and the kinds of leather jackets made
popular by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.
The astute watcher of people will notice that many of the young rebels are actually
not that young anymore. Loudly pointing this out to the people involved though
is a mistake akin to wearing your studded leather jacket inside out, and thus not
William Gibson characters don’t do public transport unless they absolutely have to.
It’s hard to imagine a properly Gibsonesque protagonist heading to some cool
Shoreditch media-haunt via the 214 bus from St Pancras International.
No. The only way to navigate London while simultaneously conveying the proper
sense of urban alienation is to travel everywhere by cab.
For extra points you should try and avoid the standard issue black cabs from central
casting and look out for ones like this from the beginning of Zero History instead:
“Pearlescent silver, this one. Glyphed in Prussian blue, advertising something
German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black
ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.”
That’s the kind of cab a William Gibson character makes sure to travel in.
Oh, and don’t forget to get a receipt so you can claim on expenses.
Caffeine is essential if you’re to experience London the William Gibson way e.g.
dark, textured and slightly gritty. The best place to get a coffee in Pattern Recognition
is definitely the espresso bar on the top floor of Harvey Nicks, however if you’re
under deadline it might not always be possible to expense a cab across town just to get
a shot, and anyway, while Gibson takes artistic license and portrays the space with an
ennui-inducing sense of emptiness, our own experience is that it’s usually rammed,
especially at weekends, which makes it hard to recommend unless you happen to be
in the area.
This is one of the main reasons Blue Ant installed its own permanent barista in
the reception area of its office, but as every employee knows one of the rules of
working for Blue Ant is you should try and spend as little time actually in the office
as possible. This is why, by the time Gibson reaches Zero History, large parts of the
action take place in various branches of Caffè Nero.
No, we don’t know why Gibson picked this particular chain over, say, Starbucks
either, but he did and so it must be important and we’ll be camping out there every
opportunity we get until such as time as its semiotic codes are revealed to us.
Shopping in London? You need to head to Harvey Nicks.
Now, as noted above, your real-life chances of getting a decent coffee here in a hurry
are rather limited, but if you want to have your central character wander about the
aisles to make a cryptic point about 21st century consumer society this is the place for
Exhibit A: William Gibson on Tommy Hilfiger
“My God, don’t they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A
diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks
Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile
Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental
stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some
Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative,
more removed from the source, more devoid of soul. Or so she hopes, and doesn’t
know, but suspects in her heart that this in fact is what accounts for his long
ubiquity.” Pattern Recognition, Chapter 3
Our advice is, that on leaving Harvey Nichols, one is careful to avoid the slow slide
down Knightsbridge towards Sloane Square. Laura Ashley is down there, and that can
Media territory. London’s home of the high concept, the elevator pitch and the long
Some people still mutter into their flat whites about how the edge is now moving
eastwards towards Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout where the rents are cheaper and
the graffiti is less manufactured, but the smart money knows that this is surely just a
temporary fling, not a permanent outpost, and Soho’s gravity will ultimately win the
As with Camden, Soho is ripe territory for people watching, only here the prey of
choice is the creative director, the graphic designer and the trend-setting secretary
hoping her self-published 50 Shades of Grey knock-off will propel her to international
If you feel so inclined you might want to keep an eye out for Blue Ant’s own Bernard
Stonestreet. A chameleon-esque creative who rebrands himself every time he flits
between the London and New York offices:
“In London his look seems to be about wearing many thousand pounds’ worth of
garments that appear to have never been worn before having been slept in the night
before. In new York he prefers to look as though he’s just been detailed by a tight
scrum of specialists. Different cultural parameters.” Pattern Recognition, Chapter 2.
Tottenham Court Road
“My first impulse, when presented with any spanking-new piece of computer
hardware, is to imagine how it will look in ten years’ time, gathering dust under a
card table in a thrift shop.” William Gibson
Tottenham Court Road is the happy hunting ground for anyone equipped with some
spare hours, a fully charged credit card and an unbridled tech-lust.
Here you will find a long parade of computing, photography and hardware shops, all
pushing the kind of offbeat also-ran technologies you’d more usually expect to find in
a low-end Chinese marketplace for quasi-legal knock-offs.
One of our fondest memories of Tottenham Court Road was the time we recently
spotted the fading box of a first generation iPad sitting quietly gathering dust in the
corner of one shop window. The pristine white glow of its Apple branded box slowly
wilting to a deadened yellow in the sunlight while the ghost of Steve Jobs hovered
futilely nearby, hurling empty invective at the hapless shopkeepers.
This not only neatly crystalizes the truth of above quote, it also leads us neatly on
The Apple Store, Covent Garden
No modern Gibsonian hero should venture forth without a full complement of Apple
products to assist their mission.
Such was the ubiquity of brand mentions in the Blue Ant trilogy that some reviewers
even began to speculate that Gibson might even have been receiving some kind of
kickback for product placement.
The real answer is somewhat more prosaic:
“…some people are quite pissed off about the ubiquity of Apple products. I got going
with it purely out of a literary naturalism; it’s the choice of the milieu of the people
I’m trying to depict. Then I sort of rolled with that because I wanted to capture the
tedium of the ubiquity of a given brand.” William Gibson interviewed by Wired UK
And finally, if this mini guide to all things Gibsonian has properly whetted your
appetite, we thoroughly recommend at least one research trip to the Forbidden
Planet Megastore on Shaftesbury Avenue to pick up supplies and seek out further
information; and indeed here’s three suggestions for future reading you might want to
seek out -
So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld: Hip YA thriller full of brand-name intrigue, hyper-
cool trends and the downfall of consumerism as we know it.
Halting State by Charles Stross: Shows us that Edinburgh is quite possibly even
weirder than London. Warning: Contains internet porn, spam marketing and second
Distrust That Particular Flavour by William Gibson: The first collection of William
Gibson’s non-fiction includes his classic travel essays on modern Singapore,
Disneyland with the Death Penalty, and Tokyo, Modern Boys and Mobile Girls.