August 12, 2016

London of Neverwhere

An advertisement for Neverwhere - where else? - at a Tube station.
If there was any doubt of my bookgeekery - the fact that I organized my entire trip to the United Kingdom around books should banish said doubt. In fact the initial reason for my trip was a literary one.  Of course England is the setting of my favorite novels.  I immediately think of Dickens, Austen, and Harry Potter.  Like many a bookworm, I already feel like I've lived in England through the many books I've devoured over the years. But no other novel conjures London for me as much as Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.  

If you haven't ever had the pleasure of diving into this wicked tale of an ordinary bloke suddenly being plunged into the dark and fantastical London Below, Alice-in-Wonderland-like - then get it, stat! Only Gaiman could have conceived this novel, so brilliant and scary and wondrous yet at the same time so fitting that the reader thinks - why hasn't anyone else written this before?  

"Young man," he said, "understand this: there are two Londons. There's London Above- that's where you lived-and then there's London Below - the Underside-inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world."

Underground literally means an underground world.
Richard Mayhew has been living in London for three years when a kind gesture to an injured homeless girl leads him to discover the terrifying and magical world that exists beneath London streets, a world called London Below which ordinary people do not know exist.  Richard discovers that the mundane details of life in London Above actually have extraordinary meaning in London Below.  

If you live in London or have visited London, the clever ways which Gaiman uses ubiquitous facets of London life to fashion London Below will delight and astonish you. 

It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortable, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkable unpalatial palaces... a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city ... When he had first arrived, he had found London huge, odd, fundamentally incomprehensible, with only the Tube map, that elegant multicolored topographical display of underground railway lines and stations, giving it any semblance of order.  Gradually he realized that the Tube map was a handy fiction that made life easier, but bore no resemblance to the reality of the shape of the city above...

Most of the story revolves around the subway system or the Tube as it is called in London. It's as if one day Gaiman was riding the Tube and started wondering about the meaning behind the names of Tube stops then decided to create a fantasy based on them. Not only is most of the story set in the subway and other unlikely locations in London, but characters as well.  

For instance in London Below, there really is a an earl holding court at Earl's Court. There actually are Seven Sisters. There is a bridge (Night's Bridge) at Knightsbridge which is the setting for a very dangerous scene, all the more startling because Knightsbridge is a posh area in real life.  And a major character is an actual Angel.

So of course when I was planning my trip to London, I HAD to visit as many of the places mentioned in the book. I couldn't visit them all but here is the bulk of them. 
Quite a few pivotal scenes occur in nameless, yet dreadful Tube platforms.
Richard Mayhew walked down the Underground platform.  It was a District Line station: the sign said BLACKFRIARS. The platform was empty. Somewhere in the distance, an Underground train roared and rattled, driving a ghost-wind along the platform, which scattered a copy of the tabloid Sun into its component pages...
You'll never look at an empty subway carriage the same again.
The train slowed and stopped.  The car that had pulled up in front of Richard was quite empty; its lights were turned off, it was bleak and empty and dark.  From time to time, Richard had noticed cars like this one, locked and shadowy on Tube trains and he had wondered what purpose they served.  The other doors on the train hissed open, and passengers go on and got off. The doors of the darkened car remained closed... Richard was just wondering if the train would now pull out without them on it, when the door of the dark car was pushed open from the inside ... Through the opening, Richard could see flames burning, and smoke inside the car.  Through the glass in the doors however, he still saw a dark and empty carriage.

If you hear it once, you hear it a hundred times "Mind the Gap." It doesn't think what you think it means...

A voice came over the loudspeaker, that formal, disembodied male voice that warned, "Mind the Gap." It was intended to keep unwary passengers from stepping into the space between the train and the platform. Richard, like most Londoners, barely heard it anymore-it was like aural wallpaper ... And then it erupted over the side of the platform. It was diaphanous, dreamlike, a ghost-thing, the color of black smoke, and it welled up like silk under wanter, and, moving astonishingly fast while still seeming to drift in slow motion, it wrapped itself tightly around Richard's ankle ... the thing pulled him toward the edge of the platform.

Buskers and the homeless, those people that most hurry past and do not give a second glance to are prominently featured in London Below. In fact, London Below is peopled by the invisible ones, those who have fallen through the cracks in society.

British Museum

Richard and Door (a magical inhabitant of London Below with remarkable powers) are trying to get to the Angel Islington, who they hope will help them in their quests. To do so, they crash a party at the British Museum, looking for the Angelus - the portal which will lead them to the Angel.

The British Museum was on the other side of some high, black-painted railings. Discreet concealed lights illuminated the outside of the high white Victorian building, the huge pillars of the facade, the steps up the front door.  This was the repository of so many of the world's treasures, looted and found and rescued and donated over hundreds of years.

"This just says it's got a picture of an angel on it. But it can't be that hard to find.  After all," she added hopefully, "how many things with angels on them are there here?"

"It's a long story," she said, solemnly. "Right now we're looking for an angel named Islington." It was then that Richard began to laugh.
Blackfriars Bridge

Yes, there are actual black friars guarding a very important key at the end of Blackfriars Bridge.

There was a bridge ahead of them, rising up out of the marsh. A figure, dressed in black, waited at the foot of the bridge. He wore the black robes of a Dominican monk. His skin was the dark brown of old mahogany. He was a tall man, and he held a wooden staff as tall as he was. "Hold fast," he called. "Tell me your names and your stations."
Harrods - high-end shop by day, Floating Market by night.

One of the more wonderful twists in Neverwhere is the Floating Market, which is held at a different location in London each night. To get there, one must cross a perilous bridge.  It somewhat brings to mind a surreal, exotic place such as the Night Market of Marrakech only infinitely stranger.  All sorts of services and goods are sold at the Floating Market - bodyguards, garbage, dead bodies.  The first time Richard goes to one, it is being held in the most unlikely of places - the very posh Harrods.

Stalls had been set up all throughout the shop, next to, or even on, counters that, during the day, had sold perfume or watches, or amber, or silk scarves. Everybody was buying. Everybody was selling. Richard listened to the market cries as he began to wander through the crowds.

"Lovely fresh dreams. First class nightmares. We got 'em. Get yer lovely nightmares here."
HMS Belfast - the site of the next Floating Market.

HMS Belfast is a gunship of 11,000 tons, commissioned in 1939, which saw active service in the Second World War. Since then, it has been moored on the south bank of the Thames, in postcard-land, between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, opposite the Tower of London. From its deck one can see St. Paul's Cathedral and the gilt top of the column like Monument to the Great Fire of London erected, as so much of London was erected, by Christopher Wren.
Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park

Serpentine stood in the doorway. She was wearing a white leather corset and high white leather boots, and the remains of what looked like it had once, long ago, been a silk-and-lace confection of a white wedding dress, now shredded and dirt-stained and torn. She towered above them all: her shock of graying hair brushed the door lintel.  Her eyes were sharp and her mouth was a cruel slash in an imperious face. She looked at Door as if she took terror as her due.
If nothing else, Neverwhere inspires one to look behind the surface, to take a second glance at those things or people that we take for granted. Behind, or below, the ordinary just might lie a most extraordinary world...