Sunday, 21 April 2013

London below: the urban fantasy world of 'Neverwhere'

London Underground. No, sorry, I meant 'London under ground'. Add a single space and we're no longer talking about the city's track-based transport system, which frustrates locals and baffles foreigners.  We're talking about the city beneath our feet, below the pavements and roads and buildings on the surface.  A world of tunnels and tracks - not just those belonging to the Tube - and twisting stairs and jerking lifts, and tiles and bricks and hidden bunkers. For someone on a Tube train, rattling along in the dark, catching flashes of empty platforms and tired, waiting commuter faces, this London beneath London proper may seem rather dull and depressing.  But for someone with a little imagination this 'London Below' can become a whole new realm of magical possibilities.  
Turns out there was someone with such imagination.  Or rather a pair of someones.  'Neverwhere' was a 6-part dark fantasy drama first broadcast on television in 1996, created and written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry.  It introduced another dimension to the city of London as its regular inhabitants knew it.  Our familiar London was 'The Up World', a place of deeply 90s power-suits and estate agents, but hidden beneath it was 'London Below', a shadowy, dripping mediaeval land filled with silent ladies clad in alarming amounts of crushed velvet, sneaky rat messengers and flamboyantly dressed marquises.  Rather like J.K.Rowling's muggles living in blissful ignorance about the wizarding community which coexists besides them, the up-worlders have no knowledge of London Below.

Pity then, Richard Mayhew, the protagonist of Neverwhere - an affable Scot with an awful (and somewhat unlikely) fiancee - who stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a pavement.  She turns out to be from London Below and life is never quite the same for poor old Richard.  The wounded girl, 'Door', is blessed with the magical power to, er, open things, and she's on the run from a pair of murderous henchmen, Croup and Vandemar.  ('Croup & Vandemar' actually sounds like one of those slightly pretentious East London basement speakeasies which are so popular right now...get working on that tie-in merch, BBC/Mr Gaiman.) 

In coming to Door's aid, Richard gives up his London and his unexciting life within it, finding himself in limbo, belonging to neither world as he explores 'London Below'.  He visits 'Earl's Court', an actual court overseen by an actual earl on a moving train.  He meets 'the angel, Islington' (Peter Capaldi doing sinister crazy long before Malcolm Tucker came along), a group of 'black friars' and 'Old Bailey', an ancient, crusty pigeon keeper.  The stations and iconic buildings which many of us hurtle through each day here in London are transformed by Gaiman and Henry into a mystical cast of characters who inhabit this parallel world.

Gaiman also turned the script of Neverwhere into a spin-off novel of the same name back in 1996. Almost 10 years later a DVD box-set of the original television series was released.  The script became a play in the US and then Ireland, before finally making its way back to the UK, but not quite London, last year.  Having been developed into almost every imaginable art-form, Neverwhere is one of London's most referenced and recognised fictional forms.  All that was left was a radio dramatisation, but the BBC recently remedied this, assembling a cast of the stalwart and stellar (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okenedo, James McAvoy, Bernard Cribbins, hell, even Christopher Lee was on board!)  to record a radio version of the drama, broadcast over the past few weeks.   

In an interview given to the LA Times, Gaiman describes how the original concept of Neverwhere was developed from Lenny Henry's desire to make a television series that featured the homeless of London, those who dwell in the city's dark, marginal spaces.  Those who see a very different urban world to the average Londoner.  Isn't it said that fact is stranger than fiction?  Much like the probability that there is life on Mars, what is the likelihood that in these gloomy, transient spaces life goes on right under our noses in ways and places we might never imagine?  (Those of us who are not Neil Gaiman that is.)  Watch, read or listen to the spooky and intriguing Neverwhere, and then head down beneath London to hop on the Tube; it may never feel or look quite the same again...

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Going to the toilet...for coffee

Anyone who works in an office knows the feeling.  That mid-afternoon slump, where lunchtime seems like forever ago and the end of the working day feels far beyond your tiring brain's grasp.  Try as you might you just can't focus on your work, and the urge to fritter away the rest of the day watching amusing cat videos rises to uncontrollable levels.  So you go and make a cup of tea in the office kitchen or bother a co-worker or two, before returning to your desk to try and engage again.  But still I often find my mind drifting once more at this time of day.  And when that happens, there's only one thing for it - decent coffee.  Ok, two things; decent coffee and a breath of fresh air.  Oh fine, three things; decent coffee, fresh air, and someone to break out of the office with you.
My coffee missions are usually accompanied by a friend from work, someone who has on a previous occasion come over all shy when he was almost featured on this blog so let's just say he knows his americano from his espresso, is always up for ditching the office for a wee while and he is infinitely patient when I waste our fifteen minutes of freedom whingeing about the terrible day I'm having.  Some weeks he even puts up with this several days in a row; he's the perfect partner in caffeine-hunting crime.  One thing which neither he nor I is particularly good at however is making a decision about where to go to grab a skinny cappucino or two.  And as our office is in Fitzrovia, we're somewhat spoilt for choice in regards to decent bean-grinders and milk-frothers.

Two of the three branches of the wood-lined Tapped & Packed are within a ten minute 'Gah! why isn't it Friday yet?' stroll.  Slightly further away (with added 'Eurgh, I just can't seem to concentrate today.' moans) is the Antipodean Kaffeine, which makes a gloriously smooth flat white, and where I once had an embarassing moment involving a freshly brewed coffee, a slippery plastic lid and a messy spill that my Accidental Escapee pal has never let me forget.  (I still get twitchy around plastic lids when he's watching...something he exploits ruthlessly for his own seemingly never-ending amusement.)   Obviously there is also the usual smattering of Neros, Costas and sundry Pret a Mangers nearby as well, but we tend to shun those in favour of the independents who make far better coffee and don't aggressively demand 'You wanna cwa-sante, wiv that?', when if we did we'd have asked for one.

Currently however, we're not finding our afternoon coffee venue of choice such a dilemma.  A new player on the London coffee scene has popped up (or rather down) and we are a bit obsessed with it.  And only partly because our inner children love the novelty of being able to suggest 'Let's go get a coffee from the toilet!'.  Attendant has taken over a disused 19th century public lavatory beneath Foley Street, and transformed it (hopefully with the aid of a hell of a lot of disinfectant) into a surprisingly light and lovely new coffee shop.
Heading down Attendant's steps you vanish beneath the street, your way lined by those white bevelled tiles which scream 'public convenience' in a way that has become suprisingly popular in home decor of late.  (Honestly, you should see the Accidental Father's garage loo, which appears to have been decorated in homage to a Victorian railway lavatory.  And knowing him I think that's probably the exact look he was going for.)  But step off the bottom step and enter the main cafe and you are in a cosy, bright space that entirely belies the feeling of cold porcelain and drafts under cubicle walls that one might expect from a former public toilet.

Illuminated bulbs and preserved citrus fruit in large mason jars make a jolly backdrop for some seriously tempting looking cakes and biscuits.  The friendly staff happily fire up their enormous coffee machine and produce your caffeinated beverage of choice, using super-tasty Caravan coffee from the equally cool Caravan roastery across town.  You can take it away (in a paper cup stamped with an 'A' for Attendant), or enjoy a more relaxed coffee and a sandwich where once cisterns hung and Victorian gentlemen, er, yeah...maybe it's better if you don't think too much about what used to go on down here.  Just enjoy your thoroughly modern coffee from this secretive little cafe, and make the most of your precious minutes out of the office...    

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Monday, 1 April 2013

A snowy Easter interlude

And so it is Easter. Which means a few days out of the office, and out of London. Which in turn means an encounter with my least favourite train provider, London Midland. In the past I have whinged so much about old London Midland that they now follow me on Twitter, checking in with a tweet or two whenever I rant about the lack of functioning toilets on my latest train or an unscheduled half an hour mystery stop at Rugby. 'Oh God,' I imagine them sighing, '@accidentalldr's on board again. Better see what she's berating us for this time...' (Sorry, guys!)  But my pre-Easter journey was only marred by a few unsavoury travelling companions, and I really don't think I can blame London Midland for them.

Fortunately, back at the Accidental Homestead things were a whole load more pleasant. Deepest, darkest Staffordshire is still looking pretty snowy after the past fortnight of extended wintery-ness the UK has experienced.  Sailing along the country roads, cosy inside a car, one could not feel further from London's drizzly grey streets, within their unique microclimate of 'perpetual end of autumn'. Fields are ornately frosted with persistant snow, with a few chilly sheep and their new lambs grazing on exposed green patches. Long icicles dangle from bare hedgerows, created by the splash thrown up from a thousand tires spinning through nearby iced puddles. Great carved paths snake through the patchwork fields where snow has been cleared but piled high by the roadside.
Reunited with the family, but a man down as the Accidental Brother was sadly absent, this Easter break was spent much like the Accidental Christmas; eating, drinking, cooking yet more tasty things to eat, teasing the Accidental Felines, and teaching the Accidental Mother how to use Twitter (oh, what have I done...).  On Easter Day we took a chilly but sunny walk through the remaining snow, throwing ourselves onto the great drifts that remained. They bore our post-chocolate-egg-indulgence weight with ease, the density of the packed snow explaining why even the warm Spring sunshine had not melted these great banks away. Walking through head-high snow walls, it's odd to think of London just a couple of hours back down South, miles from this Narnia-esque wonderland. It becomes a lot easier when you're warm inside, contemplating tea and Easter eggs though...
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