Welcome to Buxton Park: or, the joy of world-building

As a fiction writer, I get to indulge in many… erm, indulgences.  Fiction is magical, and there are several private pleasures when creating something out of thin air.

The first pleasure is character building.  To create a character, give them a name, a birthday, and define their looks, mannerisms, and styles… It is great fun, and with the aid of invaluable resources like The Conflict Thesaurus and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, creating a character is playing God over fictional people’s lives.  Great fun!  (almost as great fun as turning your character into a Southpark creation!)

The kids of Felicity Street as Southpark characters
Belinda, Celeste, Percyn & Kevin

 

But I want to go down a different avenue today: world-building.  This is usually the domain of sci-fi writers (or, as it is called these days, “speculative fiction”).  Winterfell, Westeros, the Iron Islands, Dorne…  George RR Martin had a lot of fun with that, I’m sure.

The events of The Felicity Street Annals needed to take place somewhere, and while my first two novels (Discovering Leigh & Defining Giulia) take place in actual geographical locations, I needed to create a fictional place which I could shape to my will to suit the story.  And so, Buxton Park was born.  It is by no means as expansive as Game of Thrones lore, but I had my fun!

Firstly, the name:  “Buxton” is an homage to Shawshank Redemption.  Andy Dufresne’s iconic oak tree was in Buxton.  Then, to my utter surprise, I learned of Sydney Charles Buxton, 1st Earl Buxton, who was the second Governor-General of South Africa from 1914 to 1920.  Bingo!  The name stuck.  I added “Park” to it because it just sounded better.  The Governor General lived in his official residence in Cape Town.  Still, with a bit of imagination, he could have also had a small residency in Johannesburg.  The farm he resided on before returning to England in 1920 was named Buxton Park in his honour, and the suburb was proclaimed in his name.  Gotta love creative revisionist history!

I placed this suburb in a non-specific place about five to seven kilometres from the west of the Johannesburg central business district.  It obviously overlaps with real locations, but if we can believe in faster-than-light travel in Star Trek, we can believe in a fictional ‘burb west of Joburg.  But how fictional is it really?  In one of those paradoxes where two things can be true at once, Buxton Park is both fictional and real.  It is a fictional amalgamation of the all-to-real suburban streets where I grew up.  I combined the aspects of two rather run-down suburbs of my youth in the 80s and 90s and married them as Buxton Park.  I did not grow up rich; in fact, I grew up on the poverty line!  The suburbs where I grew up were not full of mansions, sports cars, and first-world niceties.  Neither is Buxton Park.  The people were poor but friendly and solid (with the poverty-induced habits of domestic violence and alcoholism thrown in), and so are the residents of Buxton Park.  Real people.  Authentic people.  No pretence, just good people trying their best to get by in a world which seemed to have forgotten about them.  Some inevitable bad apples abound; the kids are rough, the adults crude, but they are good people.  Mostly.

Buxton Park’s history starts around the nineteen-thirties.  It was proclaimed pre-war but expanded post-war.  Johannesburg itself was proclaimed in 1886, which means Joburg was ‘only’ about 50 years old when Buxton Park came to be.  The suburb was meant for mine workers, as Johannesburg was, and is, ‘the city of gold’.   The houses themselves were not large.  Mainly one- and two-bedroom houses, many without even a toilet.  This was my grandmother’s house: they had a bathroom with indoor plumbing but no toilet.  The loo was an outhouse located on the back of the property.  The last time I set foot in that house in the late 1990s, the main house had a toilet put in, but the rather spooky outhouse with its hole-in-the-ground loo was still there!

The erfs were relatively large, as there was plenty of space available for township proclamations in 1936, and the large erfs allowed the residents some subsistence farming.  As a result, Buxton Park is a community of small houses on large properties.  This is not too far removed from the truth, as I lived in the original farmhouse of the ‘Florida’ farm as a boy.  It was a teeny-tiny two-bedroom house on an erf large enough to build a hangar for a fleet of 747s.  Mowing the lawn took all weekend.  No, I mean all weekend.  Gen Y onwards may not quite grasp the seemingly contradictory world of tiny houses on large properties.  Not when suburbs today seem to be houses crammed on top of each other with such density as to become ridiculous!

The point being, Buxton Park was, is, a poverty-stricken hell hole.  It was never meant for the elite of society, the upper crust.  It was built for salt-of-the-earth blue-collar workers who feared God and worshipped government.  It was never fancy.  The residents were lower class without much spare cash.  As was the habit at the time, until the late 90s, Buxton Park may have been poor, but it was neat.  The residents took care of the place, and even though it was a poor man’s suburb (“the last step before homelessness”, as Freddie Sutherland, proprietor of Sutherland’s Hardware, put it), it had a certain sense of pride.  It may be ramshackle and run down, but the lawns were mowed, hedges clipped, and windows washed.  Sadly, it turned to shit in the new millennium, as so many of these old poverty-stricken suburbs do.

South Africa has quite an infamous history of segregation (As some political commentator said: we did not invent Apartheid, we just gave it a name), but it was not just around the racial lines.  There were — and to an extent, still are — English areas, Afrikaans Areas, Jewish areas, etc.  Buxton Park is an English area, one of the few this side of Joburg.

 

In Buxton Park, I created (almost) all of the amenities.  Two schools – Coronation Primary, built shortly after the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and the super-imaginatively named Buxton Park High School, which came a few years later — form the anchor for Buxton Park, and border on the western edge of the suburb.   There’s an auto repair shop, Sutherland’s Hardware as mentioned above, and a community centre which closed down in the mid-90s.  A small shopping mall (Officially The Earl Sydney Buxton Mall, but just called ‘Buxton Park Mall’ by the locals) marks the eastern border.  The mall contains your average everyday needs, such as fast-food outlets, diners, a grocery store, banks, etc.  Everything an author would need and did not make provision for could be handily placed in Buxton Pak Mall.  Moreover, there are police and fire stations, a small community library, a public pool, and a park: the redundantly named Buxton Park Park, which confused the hell out of my spell checker!  The park, for some reason unknown to man or God (or author), has a baseball diamond on it.  This reflects an actual park of my youth.  Nobody ever played there – I think I saw maybe two baseball games, ever.  South Africa worships rugby, soccer, and cricket.  What a baseball diamond is doing in South Africa, hell alone knows!

The only things Buxton Park does not have are a hospital and a cemetery; the medical needs of the ‘burb being served by the real-life Helen Joseph Hospital (Previously known as the JG Strijdom Hospital) and the massive 120-hectare Westpark Cemetery, which hosts such notable people as Nelson Mandela’s first wife Evelyn Mase, singer Johnny Clegg, novelist Herman Charles Bosman, and boxer Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala.  Several members of my own family (including my mother and all four grandparents), not to mention a few friends, are now permanent residents in Westpark, and it suited my personal agenda to have Buxton Park’s little pre-war church graveyard with 120-odd graves give way to Westpark Cemetery; it’s the dead centre of town, you know!  A very popular place, actually.  People are dying to get in.

My buddy Martin - back right - with his tuba at the Roodeoort theatre.
My buddy Martin – back right – with his tuba at the Roodeoort theatre.

Some places mentioned in the Felicity Street Annals series, like the Green n Gold pub, the Roodepoort Theatre, and the strip mall where the offices of Dr Laura Malherbe (the same Dr Laura as found in Discovering Leigh) are real locations.  My dad and I had many beers at the Green n Gold where my name is immortalised in a bronze plaque on the wall.  I was at the Roodepoort Theatre just last week to watch my pal Martin play the tuba for the Rand Symphony Orchestra.  It’s been a while since I went to an orthodontist’s office, thank the heavens!

The street names of the suburb were great fun to invent.  There are fifteen streets which run east-west, and they are all named after women (real and fictional) who had a significant influence on my life.  The handful of north-south avenues are named after people who had also played a major role in my 49-odd years on the planet, including a few dead friends who would never read this.  It is my honour to name these avenues after them.  If I was the town planner of a new town, these are the names I would have named the streets.  Who needs boring shit like “First Avenue” and “Second Street”?  So, as this is my suburb, these are my names!  And do I even need to tell you how much fun I had building it in Cities Skylines?  I’m sure I don’t…  Heck, I even used my Chief Architect Home Design software to lay out the kids’ houses and bedrooms!

The result is I’ve got a 380-acre suburb with everything I need to play in.  And I played in it for over 600,000 words in The Felicity Street Annals.

So, is it done?  Have I washed my hands of this quaint little suburb now that The Felicity Street Annals is written?  Hardly.  I had so much fun here, I’m already busy on another series that takes place in the same place.  Stephen King has Castle Rock.  I’ve got Buxton Park.  It ain’t Westeros.  But it’s mine.

And I’ve never felt more at home.

I hope you enjoy reading about the world of Buxton Park as much as I enjoyed writing it.