“I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining.” (Groucho Marx)

As a companion piece to my last blog post where I looked at the London Underground in novels, this time I’m looking at alternative portrayals of the London Underground.  Those of you who know the London Underground may feel its alternative enough in itself – I certainly think the experience of using it is most accurately represented by David Shrigley’s map:


Fantasy is sometimes the best way to capture reality, and certainly the two novels I’m going to look at capture the same  experience as Shrigley’s map. Firstly, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I am soooo late to the party on this one.  Neil Gaiman is a hugely popular writer who is adored by his readers.  I knew he was wise and engaging because I’d watched this:

but I’d never read his novels because I thought I didn’t like fantasy. Neverwhere appealed due to the London setting and now I’m a total convert. I now know what Gaiman’s legions of fans know: that he is a wonderful writer, funny and perceptive, with something to say. Richard Mayhew moves from Scotland to London – a perfectly recogniseable, ordinary London:

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them and despised them…a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind”

However , when Richard helps a slumped figure on the pavement in front of him, he finds himself in the alternate universe of London Below:

“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. Now you’re one of them.”

The idea of ‘people who fell through the cracks’ is the most pervasive idea in Neverwhere. These people are ignored and marginalised in London Above, barely recognised and overlooked by the inhabitants they come into contact with. London Below is a warped reflection of London Above, a violent place where the warning to ‘Mind the Gap’ on the Underground is ignored at your peril, for the gap will drag you under:

“It erupted over the side of the platform. It was diaphanous, dream-like, a ghost-thing, the colour of black smoke, and it welled up like silk under water, and, moving astonishingly fast while still seeming to drift almost in slow motion, it wrapped itself tightly around Richard’s ankle.”

Gaiman has great fun with this, taking the everyday in London Above and twisting it slightly, like the random empty carriages you sometimes see: “from time to time Richard had noticed carriages like this, locked and shadowy on Tube trains, and had wondered what purpose they served”; in this instance the carriages hold Earl’s Court (other characters include the Angel Islington and the Black Friars), a medieval court complete with log fires, bugle players and  jester.

Richard offers to help the Lady Door, a young woman who can open any door to any place, and whose family have all been murdered, while she tries to evade capture. His learning curve is steep, as London Below is filled with the familiar, and the deeply disconcerting:

“there are little bubbles of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber…there’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere – it doesn’t all get used up at once”

Smog, fogs, alley ways, cobbled streets…all fall between the cracks and end up Below.  Probably the most terrifying characters are the hitmen for hire who track Richard and the Lady Door through London Below:

“there are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar apart: first, Mr Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr Croup; second, Mr Croup has eyes of a faded, china blue, while Mr Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr Vandemar fashions the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr Croup had no obvious jewellery; fourth, Mr Croup likes words, while Mr Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike.”

There are some utterly beguiling characters too, and the Marquis de Carabas may have succeeded in usurping Will Ladislaw as my literary-crush- of-choice.  He’s brave, loyal, charming, self-serving, untrustworthy and a master of ironic detachment.


(Rufus Sewell as Ladislaw and Patterson Joseph as the Marquis in the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and Neverwhere. Yep, it’s safe to say I have a bit of a type, which I like to call Byronic kitsch. Images from here and here.)

Neverwhere is perfectly paced, emotionally affecting and politically engaged without being didactic. Highly recommended.

Secondly, Whispers Underground by Peter Aaronvitch (tagline: “Using the Underground is a killer…”). This is the third in Aaronvitch’s Peter Grant series, about a detective constable seconded to the Folly, the division of the Met which deals with supernatural occurrences.  Grant isn’t the most accomplished apprentice wizard:

“I barely knew four and a half spells and you couldn’t have got me to give it up and that’s despite close brushes with death by vampire, hanging, malignant spirit, riot, tiger-man and the ever-present risk of overdoing the magic and getting a brain aneurysm”

His mentor Nightingale despairs, but Grant is a good police officer and by following vestigium “a pocket of residual magical effect” he is able to recognise crime scenes that may have a slightly broader cause-and-effect than usual.  The novels are essentially police procedural, but with an extra dimension:

“Nightingale can put a fireball through ten centimetres of steel armour and I can singe my way through a paper target nine times out of ten but really, in the interests of community policing, it’s better to have something a bit less lethal in your armoury”

So it’s not magic galore – Grant identifies suspects, follows up leads, takes part in stakeouts, it’s just that these activities might lead him into weirder circumstances than his Met peers. In this instance, the murder of a young American with a piece of magical pottery leads him deep below London, into the abandoned tube network and sewers:

“In a film you would be able to open the door by pushing a false brick. I picked a brick at convenient waist height and pushed it, just to get that stupid notion out of the way. The brick slid smoothly in, there was a click, and the door cracked open.”

Whispers Underground is a light, easy read, well-paced and with much humour derived from the intersection between magical phenomena and the demands of modern policing:

“Six whole days on the Murder Team and I’d only managed to fulfil about two and a half actions. Not only was it not going to look good on any performance review, but I also doubted that being engaged in a supernatural sewer battle with an underground Earthbender was going to serve as much of an explanation.”

To end, the song which gave the title to my previous post.  Well, it is a classic, and I’m terminally unimaginative:

21 thoughts on ““I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining.” (Groucho Marx)

  1. It’s way more fun to ride the tube in London after reading Neverwhere! I didn’t realize that Whispers Underground had to do with the London Underground…now I’m going to have to read it. I remember liking the first one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Confession time: haven’t read any Gaiman (started one but didn’t get into it…). Like you, I’m a bit weird about the fantasy element but it seems from this post that I really ought to rethink my position.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a lovely man, as well as an engaging writer. His curiosity about it all and his heart makes you want (as a reader) to listen to his voice. As does, despite his evident experience, now, his humility. You kind of get the sense that he is not wasting energy in maintaining the self-protecting mask.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a fairly recent convert to Neil Gaiman too, but haven’t read this one yet. I have an audio dramatisation of it that I downloaded after someone else recommended it – must get round to listening to it. The other book sounds like fun too – generally I can only take magical stuff when it’s combined with a healthy dose of humour.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another fab London post! I’m also a bit allergic to fantasy fiction, but I love the idea of Gaiman’s London reimagined. I’ll never hear ‘mind the gap’ in quite the same way again!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read three of Gaiman’s works and I loved them all. I am a huge fantasy lover, so I can pile on the heavy, but there is something about his subtle magic that I really enjoy. Great post! I’ll have to check out Neverwhere, and I must make it to London someday!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not sure why I’ve never read any Gaiman, as I quite like a bit of fantasy. It’s odd how we sometimes are late to books and films. I am also seriously damn late to E.T and Mary Poppins, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Neverwhere | The Random Book Review

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