Saturday, 09 March 2013

A Sense of Place – London

My most recent historical thriller, London Underground, grew out of my love for the city of London. I'm an Anglophile to my core and have always been fascinated by British history, which is the most interesting and all-encompassing of virtually any other country. That history ranges across the globe and has included confrontations among many nations, great wars and the development of empire, the Raj, as it's called in India.

I've used this extraordinary history in many of my books, from Victorian England to the Boer War in South Africa to the world wars. One of my thrillers is set in Africa, following the life and career of Winston Churchill from his time as a 25-year-old journalist in the Boer War through the second world war and into his post-war retirement. One of my young adult novels is set in London and London Underground also has scenes with Churchill in his underground war cabinet rooms.

I first visited London when I was thirteen and on my way, via a long summer driving across Europe with my parents, to Istanbul, where my father had a Fulbright Lectureship at the university. My London highlight of that trip was getting to see the just released film "Cleopatra" on a huge screen in the heart of the city. The scene with Elizabeth Taylor in her bath made quite an impression on a thirteen-year-old. Not a bad way to get introduced to London.

In my twenties I made several visits, staying for six or seven weeks each time. This was when I really fell for the city, for its history, museums, the mighty Thames River, the markets, opera and theater and the wonderful parks. I had a brief infatuation with an English girl, wandered the city on foot for days and sat on a stage just feet behind the great cello player, Pablo Casals. The house had oversold tickets and as a result put a row of chairs on stage immediately behind Casals. I doubt many ever got to see the great master perform from behind at a distance of about six feet. I rented a car and somehow managed to drive out of the center of the city, for the first time ever driving on the left and toured past Stonehenge and on into Wales. There is history around every corner in Britain and especially London. I later made trips with my wife right after we were married and again with our eight-year-old.

I loved riding the tube, accessing the trains via those old elevators that dropped like stones with rattling noises as though Lucifer were shaking his chains. I grew enamored of the long, wooden escalators that carried us down into the depths. The sounds of screeching trains and the whoosh of air at any train station today still evoke those early memories from decades ago.

I love a mysterious underground and have exploited this in many of my books: the ice tunnels of Greenland, the volcanic tubes of Iceland, the mysterious passageways beneath an ancient African hillside or a Buddhist monastery in central China. It's a funny sort of fixation, especially given my mother's claustrophobia, which I saw her deal with on many occasions. We once lined up to take a tour into the Lascaux Caverns in France to see the ancient cave paintings. My mother didn't make it past the first quirky turn into the depths, and she sent me on by myself. Given her interest in history and archaeology, which she used as the basis for a series of mysteries she published, it always surprised me she still loved to write about places she could never visit.

Whether it's spies, vampires, aliens or serial killers, writers seem enamored of long underground chases through dark, forbidding tunnels. One has to admit, it's a wonderful environment for suspense, though sometimes the reader must be willing to suspend his disbelief. I always marvel at those many police procedurals on TV, where some beautiful, lone woman is chased down long corridors, often in a big city hospital that is, miraculously, utterly deserted. When have you ever visited a big city hospital, even in the middle of the night, that wasn't full of people?

I've written books that take place during WW II, 10,000 years in the past, in ancient Egypt and Victorian London. Alas, I am unable to visit these times. I would definitely visit ancient Egypt if I could figure out a way to do it. The same is true of London during the Blitz and Africa when it was still largely unspoiled.

But that's why people write books: to transport themselves. Is it possible to have a sense of place for a place and time that no longer exist? I think so.

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