Finding London Below

According to Twitter, it’s World Book Day, a holiday I’m keen on celebrating. It looks like there are people who dress up as favorite characters, but instead, I will share the story about a book I lived — before I read it. This is a tale about the time I found myself in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, visiting London Below.

It was the fall of 2001 and my second trip to England. I was visiting a friend who was spending a year as a pastor there. A rather large house in a London suburb came with the job, so she invited friends to come stay with her. When I arrived at Gatwick early in the morning after an overnight flight, the people at the ground transportation desk gave me an itinerary for the trip from the airport to the train station closest to my friend’s house, with a listing of which trains to take and which stations to go to for changing trains. They sold me a ticket for this trip that would work within the travel zones on the itinerary. I set out, a bit jet-lagged, but with great confidence, as I’m good with public transportation and had been to London before.

Things hit a big snag midway through the trip when the subway train I was on stopped abruptly between stations. After a few minutes, they announced that this line was being closed. They backed the train up to the previous station and made everyone get off.

I wasn’t sure what to do because my itinerary didn’t give any indication of alternate routes, and the maps didn’t show where else the train to my friend’s town would stop. I had to get to the station they gave me for that, but with the line they’d told me to take closed, I had no idea what to do. I was studying the map outside the station, trying to figure out what other combination of trains would work, when a man approached me and asked if I needed help.

I hadn’t yet read Neverwhere, but he was basically the Marquis de Carabas in “civilian” clothes. His mannerisms were right out of that book, and he even looked a lot like the way he was portrayed in the BBC miniseries version, though perhaps a bit shorter. I explained my situation and showed him the train station I was trying to get to, and he gallantly offered to escort me there. I hesitated, because putting yourself in the hands of a stranger in a strange city in a foreign country isn’t always the best idea, but he turned to the other commuters around us and said, “They’ll vouch for me. You can trust me.”

The funny thing was, they did. Busy people in central London stopped and said I could trust this guy. So I did, though I insisted on carrying my own luggage because I’m trusting, not stupid. And thus began a journey across London that I haven’t been able to replicate on any map. I know there were a couple of different trains involved, one high above ground, one below ground, with walks through neighborhoods in between. It was a very different London than I’d experienced in my previous trip, almost like I’d gone back in time. At times, it was like being in the 1940s (but without any bombing), at times more Victorian.

And everywhere we went, people knew this guy. It was like being escorted by some kind of popular king who was out and about in his realm, greeting his people with noblesse oblige. He spoke to everyone he passed, and they responded. It wasn’t even just generic greetings. He knew details about their lives and asked them about their families, knowing that one woman’s daughter had been sick, another woman’s mother was doing better after an illness, etc. We were apparently outside the zone where my ticket worked, since it wouldn’t open the turnstile in one of the Tube stations. This guy waved at the guy in the booth, who came over and opened the employee gate to let us in.

He got me to the entrance to the station I needed, and I thanked him. Then he said, “I knew I needed to help you because I could tell you were a lady — your ears aren’t pierced.” While I was still puzzling over that, he disappeared into the crowd and I went into the station to wait for my train.

About a year later, my book club read Neverwhere, and I had an eerie sense of recognition. It may have been a fantasy novel, but I felt like I’d been to that place and among those people.

I ended up using that sense of being a tourist in a strange city and falling into another world after a chance encounter when I wrote Make Mine Magic, though I went in a different direction with what that tourist discovered and the world she fell into.

One Response to “Finding London Below”

  1. Renske

    What a special story. And I just started listening to Make Mine Magic, so it is nice to know a bit of the background.

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