Friday, April 11, 2008

London under London

I’m a bit of a sucker for the tunnels of London. There’s the space-age aluminium and toughened glass all through the Jubilee line extension that I put into The Time Travellers. Compare that with the hand-made feel of the oldest Tube stations, where the tunnels themselves have kinks in them because horses would freak out if they saw the whole corridor in one go. There’s the echo of the Greenwich foot tunnel and the strangeness of London’s ancient rivers – the various prefixes of bourne, Effra or the Fleet – having once been the highways of the boating city and now all packed up in pipes.

There are few enough opportunities to explore these strange places – a few guided tours, sometimes just tracing the route above ground. And so I’m rather envious to read Neil Gaiman’s description of the brickwork in the Victorian sewers, which he got to explore while researching Neverwhere.

Neverwhere was, originally, a BBC TV series. I must admit it’s not one I remember well – neither fully nor fondly – and I don’t even know how much of it I stuck with. As I recall, it had an awkward, stagey and video feel to it, at a time when telly drama was otherwise all coarse-grained and gritty. It’s not just that it was of its time; it was failing to keep up. The theatricality of fantasy seemed retro in the late 80s when the BBC produced their Chronicles of Narnia. That had featured animated (e.g. cartoon) special effects, like your watching pre-viz placeholders.

Which I suppose just shows the amazing affect digital grading and CGI has had on telly. And in some ways I’m glad there was no Droo in the 90s because it could only have looked cheaper and worse.

The book version of Neverwhere is not constrained by the production values, nor by budgets or regular episode lengths. I don’t know how much Gaiman has expanded or revised the plot but it doesn’t feel like a novelisation – there’s too many characters, too much strange incident, too much you couldn’t pull off in telly. Or, perhaps, it’s very faithful to a script that would have been a huge headache to realise.

The basic wheeze is that a bloke called Richard finds himself in an underground London which mirrors and warps our own. There’s a real Earl at Earl’s Court and Hammersmith is a bloke with a hammer and anvil.

Structurally, it’s very like Gaiman’s later – and, I think, better – Stardust. In both, a rubbish bloke is punching above his weight in the girlfriend department, getting all attached to some posh, demanding girl. She has him jump through all kinds of hoops to please her – but really she just doesn’t like him being him.

I can’t imagine why this bit early on struck a chord:

“Richard found himself, on otherwise sensible weekends, accompanying her to places like the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, where he learned that walking around museums too long hurts your feet, that the great art treasures of the world all blur into each other after a while, and that it is almost beyond the human capacity for belief to accept how much museum cafeterias will brazenly charge for a slice of cake and cup of tea.

‘Here’s your tea, and your éclair,’ he told her. ‘It would have cost less to buy you one of those Tintorettos.’

‘Don’t exaggerate,’ said Jessica, cheerfully. ‘Anyway, there aren’t any Tintorettos at the Tate.’"

Then, being a bit naïve and well-meaning, rubbish bloke ends up on the wrong side of the divide between the real world and the fantastic. It’s all magic and dangerous strangeness, and he’s hardly equipped to survive it. But his well-meaning naivety and all sorts of chance events and encounters mean he gets by okay. And everyone’s after this sulky, gothy girl for her her special powers. But our rubbish bloke comes slowly to realise that he just wants her for her.

(Four years ago today, I married the sulky, gothy girl what drags me round museums…)

The book is a mish-mash of warped London history and elegant flights of fancy. It kept reminding me of other things – Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld is in many ways this book on its head, while the visceral feel of the undercity is very Perdido Street Station.

It’s goth and nasty and people abruptly die or disappear, all shackled to strange and terrible rules that don’t quite meet with logic. It’s also brimming with vivid images and smells – curries and sewer-folk, leaking wounds and vomit. I’d be tempted to mention Bakhtinian ideas of “grotesque” body horror, if I could remember those bits of my degree.

(I must also point out to the ladies of fandom that on page 260 there’s a shopping trolley that goes “squee, squee”.)

There’s candles and mirrors like in lots of Gaiman’s work, and some elements like the angel could have been lifted straight from Sandman. Like Stardust, for all the not-as-random-as-it-seems violence and viciousness, the easy-going nature of the protagonist rubbish bloke and his desire for no more than an easy life gives the whole thing a warm and enthusiastic feeling. Very RTD, I thought.

What’s also like new Doctor Who – and still rare in other fantasy telly – is how good it is on roles for black actors. London Below is just as much a cultural melting pot as the London upstairs. I guess that’s down to the TV version being produced by Lenny Henry’s production company, just as Gaiman admitted Anansi Boys came about because Henry bemoaned the lack of black characters in horror movies.

It’s an atmospheric and enjoyable book, but sometimes the narrating voice is too knowing and though there are great set pieces it never quite surprises. Perhaps it’s merely lacking an edge that’s there in Gaiman’s later novels. Perhaps if it hadn’t first been written for telly the reveals could have been wilder. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this very good book had one better just under the surface…


Le Mc said...

Squee! Squee!

You might also be interested in Beneath the Metropolis which has a chapter on London.

Matthew Cochrane said...

China Mieville did something similar in his novel-for-young-people "Un Lun Dun" to the point where the author acknowledges at the end Neil Gaiman (amongst others).

However some of the actual writing seemed odd to me, but that could have been a result of writing from a child's perspective. Anyway, it covers similar themes.

Anonymous said...

Oh my bloody hell, was it really only four years ago ? Well congratz to both of you, just hope you are out doing something good, bad or romantic depending ou your fancy.


Unknown said...

I believe that their is a whole sub-genre (or maybe sub-sub-Genre)concerning the fantasy world hidden under our feet. It's something I've been trying to do my own reseach into. Certainly there are the books you mentioned, but going back to the very roots of myth the underground has always played a very important part in literature from the outset.