Underground, overground...

This article first appeared on Foyles’ website.


Some years ago, I wrote a piece on subterranean London, and the subject has half-haunted me ever since. All manner of clandestine ventures have been engineered beneath our feet: the secret mail train which ran from Whitehall to Paddington; the Kingsway Tunnels, on which the capital’s communications systems once depended; the “protected crisis management facility”, Pindar, which lies way below Whitehall. In fact, it’s been suggested that there’s as much of the city under the surface as there is above it, and if this isn’t true, it ought to be. And while I’ve no particular hankering to explore these urban caverns – though that’s an increasingly popular pastime – it delights me to know they’re there: some of them as glistening and shiny as a super-villain’s secret hideaway; others dank and mouldering, concealing nothing more than their own forgotten existence.

And because they are there, there’s no harm in adding to them. This is literally happening already, of course, as Crossrail inches its way across the city, ploughing up the tarmac in its path, but fiction has its own underground architecture, and it’s a lot less expensive to construct. There used to be a common belief that the root systems of trees mirror the pattern of their branches, as if the earth were every tree’s dark, private mirror. The nether-London of my imagination does much the same thing: beneath every Shard and Gherkin poking skyward, there’s a matching shaft plumbing the depths; below every quiet mews, a row of cellars. Just as there’s no reading the mind’s construction in the face, so you can’t know a building by its façade. Which means I can happily look at an elegant Georgian parade and imagine the sleek modern complex its graceful demeanour hides; or construct, for the sheer hell of it, a vast subterranean complex beneath a dilapidated industrial estate – stretching way beneath the railway lines – because if there isn’t one there, there easily could be, and there’s certainly one somewhere else.

And that’s one of the ways in which London caters for the imagination: the centuries of story lying beneath its pavements grant permission for the contemporary author to do pretty much as he or she pleases. You want a network of tunnels built during the Cold War, under cover of “Tube maintenance”? No problem. A sealed-off crypt that’s lain forgotten since the plague years? Dig away. London’s foundations are there for the taking, and run as deep as any writer wants. If you run out of space on the streets, there’s plenty more beneath them. And of course, there are all those other secret chambers: on the upper storeys of skyscrapers you’ll never get to visit…

My latest thriller,
Nobody Walks, slinks around in London’s shadows: some of them cast by tall buildings, and others leaking up from below. In noir, darkness falls from all directions – the only thing you can be sure of is the pavements beneath your feet. There’s nothing you can invent that will shock us, they seem to say. Sometimes, that’s just the nudge a novelist needs.

April 2015