Neil Gaiman has an uncanny knack for picking out the essence of a place.
In American Gods, Gaiman weaved the battle between ancient gods and modern greed into an epic tale of contemporary America. Neverwhere, in my opinion, should be read by everyone who lives in London. Richard, the protagonist, moves south from Scotland to work in the city, but by a stroke of fate entangles himself with London Below, an alternative London where the night is dangerous on Knightsbridge and monks clad in black roam through Blackfriars. The monthly ‘floating market’, where the myriad characters of London Below sell and exchange their wares and services, was held on the HMS Belfast.
London Below is inhabited by talking rats, assassins and bodyguards for hire, and a girl called Door that Richard saves, who can, well, open doors to the remotest of places. The jealous villain is the majestic Angel called Islington.
At first glance, one might think that this is a cheesy fantasy story that takes tube stations literally and makes a story out of puns. In fact, Gaiman’s genius is in distilling the heart of London from lighthearted references. After three years in London, Richard observes that the city is ‘filled with colour’.
‘It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect…a city of hundreds of districts with strange names - Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch - and oddly distinct identities.’
London Below is simply the essence of this incredible juxtaposition and diversity blown up in a fantastical setting. But, as Richard observes after he chooses to return to London Above, which world is, in fact, reality? The monotony of his life in London Above, the one with work worries, relationship troubles and the eternal struggle to hail a black cab after midnight, stood out more strongly than ever after his adventures in London Below. As he passes by an elderly homeless lady on the street, he tells her:
‘I thought I wanted a nice normal life. I mean, maybe I am crazy. I mean, maybe. But if this is all there is, then I don’t want to be sane. You know?’
Indeed, for the reader, Neverwhere is an adventure that one does not come back from unchanged and unmoved. For one, every stop on the tube map now holds a special significance. As I pass through Earl’s Court, I cannot help but think of the scene of Richard meeting the Earl in his tube ‘palace’ at the station, or the shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. There is magic in seeing stories beneath everyday places and people, that extra sparkle that keeps us connected and wondrous of our surroundings. London’s diversity, its amalgamation of the old and new, is fertile ground for imagination. To the freshers, take your time to explore this vibrant city, and may you be touched by the magic around you. And don’t forget to give Neverwhere a go.