Monday, 21 May 2012

Neverwhere group read - week 1

"Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts and sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day." (Peter Ackroyd, London Under)

In his introduction to the group read, Carl explained how this book is special to him, not because it's tremendously well-written work, but because it exemplifies his dreams and reaches back into his past, connecting his adult and childhood selves. I've joined in because it does something similar for me, although I actually met it first as the BBC TV series, which although flawed, had an irresistible pull for me, reconnecting my wide-eyed childhood impressions of London to my love-hate relationship with it now - my fascination with its unexpected corners, the way you can suddenly come across something bewitching amongst the grime, the way that place names evoke a forgotten and impossibly romantic past.

1.  What do you think of our two villains thus far, Messrs. Croup and Vandemar? 
This pair seem like supremely nasty villains to me, they are so sleazy and creepy. At the same time they are utterly believable because they "fit" so well with what I've read of those thoroughly unpleasant, real-life London criminals, the Kray twins. I'm sure Gaiman had those two and their equally unsavoury associates in mind when he wrote Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar. At the same time, with their London Below speech, especially at Richard's first meeting with them, they have a timelessness about them - they could easily be Shakespearean villains, or out of a Victorian melodrama.

2.  Thus far we've had a small taste of London Below and of the people who inhabit it.  What do you think of this world, this space that lies within or somewhat overlaps the space the "real world" occupies?
I so wish that I could find myself in London Below, I absolutely believe in it (except that I'm pathetically timid and wouldn't cope at all). But so often in London you can feel that it's almost within reach, it's so much the city Gaiman describes in Chapter 1, that you can't help but be aware of its age, that its layers of dirt are encrusted with history:
It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names – Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch – and oddly distinct identities
My own favourite London placename is Dead Dog Basin, an inlet off the Grand Union Canal. I think it's a name which describes its history pretty well? I had to read up on the deeper-level tunnels Gaiman mentions - there were eight deep-level shelters built during the war, and lost of people may have seen the Camden one in Dr Who where it was used for the tunnels under Pluto (the link takes you to a good site with lots of Underground history - including the one and only spiral escalator! - and pictures).

3.  What ideas or themes are you seeing in these first 5 chapters of Neverwhere?  Are there any that you are particularly drawn to?
What draws me most, I think, is the way that the London Below characters are archetypal - that this is urban myth at its most powerful. When I first discovered the work of Jung, it was with a real sense of "rightness" - this explained, finally, all those inexpressible ideas I'd had about mythology and why, every now and again, why I'd read a work of fantasy that seemed to reach a deeper level in me than any number of Anna Kareninas, that seemed truly universal. I'm not expressing this well, I should go and look for a quote from Ursula Le Guin (she's bound to have said it precisely), but I've got a feeling that quite a few of my fellow bloggers know exactly what I'm talking about. But I'm sure it's something I'll come back to over the next 3 weeks, so I'll try to put it better in a future post.

4.  We've met a number of secondary characters in the novel, who has grabbed your attention and why?
Well, I do like the rats (which makes me rather uncomfortable because we live on a farm and I'm waging a battle against the local population, who are the fittest, best fed rats in Britain, I think!). I think going against convention and not having them on the side of villainy was inspired. So I have to like the rat-speakers too, of course, and felt more than a slight pang for poor Anaesthesia.

5.  As you consider the Floating Market, what kind of things does your imagination conjure up? What would you hope to find, or what would you be looking for, at the Market?
Oh dear, I'm the world's worst, and most indecisive, shopper. I doubt if I'd have a clue what I was looking for, and I'd end up being totally ripped off or, even more likely, coming away overwhelmed and empty-handed. But it was one of the best things about the TV series, for me, that I have a picture of what it might be like - chaotic, fascinating, frightening, both hideous ugliness and great beauty side by side, sleaze and squalor and wealth and delight...have I mentioned that I hate crowds? I do think it's possible, though, that I might come away from it with some article of very grunge-y clothing, something of velvet and patches, perhaps.

6.  If you haven't already answered it in the questions above, what are your overall impressions of the book to this point?
I think people have probably guessed by now that I'm on a re-read because I love this book! But it's a very long time since I read, and then it wasn't the author's preferred text, so some of it will be new to me and I'm really looking forward to loving it even more by the end.


  1. I saw the BBC miniseries a long time after I'd read the book and kept thinking that somehow Gaiman was thinking, "I can't wait to write the novel and get this exactly right." Not that the miniseries isn't good, but as you say it's flawed. I think reading the novel first where the effects budget is unlimited, really created certain expectations that no movie or TV show, no matter how huge a budget, could live up to. That said, I've heard Henson Films had the rights to the book and I'd love to see what they do with it.

    1. You're right about expectations, I think - I always feel like that about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I heard first on the radio. Not an unlimited budget admittedly, :-) but the pictures-in-the-head thing worked fine. But I was so predisposed to love the BBC series of Neverwhere from the moment I heard about it that I kind of did, despite the flaws. I think I'd been craving that kind of darkness, and there wasn't a lot of it on television at that time. I'm not sure how I knew then that I loved Gaiman - I think maybe one of my sons might have shown me Black Orchid.

  2. I enjoyed the fact that the rats are the good guys. It reminds me of how fairy-tale characters often make friends with mice/rats/animals.

    I'm a huge fan of Ursula K. LeGuin. I've been known to buy books periodically just because she's reviewed them. :D

    1. I quite like rats anyway, if I'm not sharing my living space with them. They are very clever. And according to something I read while looking for various stuff on London for my post, probably not responsible for spreading plague.

      I really like Le Guin's essays on fantasy - I would certainly buy books if she recommended them!

  3. Until recently, I didn't know that a TV series to this great book existed. I read it many years ago, when I was still working as a librarian, and loved so many bits about it. Back then, my local library only had it in German. I'd love to read the original, though, and think I will try and find it as an e-book.

    1. I'm reading it on my Kindle, but I don't know if it's available in Germany. Gaiman is such a wizard with words and images - in an ideal world one would always read a book in the original, I guess. Babel fish, anyone?

    2. Usually I try to do that, read a book in the original. And the settings on my Amazon account allow me to purchase ebooks from the US and UK as well; I made it that way, because the choice of free ebooks is very limited in the German Kindle store.

  4. I was unaware that there was a BBC production of Neverwhere ... perhaps I'll see it after reading the book ... I always find film adaptations difficult because I form such strong images of the characters in my mind's eye. The Lord of the Rings productions were such pleasant surprises ... perhaps this adaption ofgaimon's work will please me too. The jury's out ...

  5. Have you been to Dead Dog Basin? I wonder if it has been beautified since it was named - so now you would have that incongruity of a rather depressing, even disgusting, name and a lovely park.

    I can get stuck in an indecisive shopping pattern too. If I have something specific, like a shopping list, then i do OK. But if I am just 'browsing', I have a hard time picking out something that I really want to take home.

  6. Someone just told me about the BBC production of Neverwhere on twitter when I mentioned having finished the book. For those of you in the US, it is available to rent on Netflix. I hope to watch it in the not so distant future.

    I, too, "felt more than a slight pang for poor Anaesthesia."
    She was such a brave young girl.. :(

  7. I haven't heard of the Kray twins, I'll have to be looking them up, especially if they might have been an inspiration for C&V.

    I doubt I would actually enjoy the dirty griminess of London Below, but the idea seems very romantic to me and I'd hope I could buck up a little faster than Richard and get to the business of having an adventure.

    I thought you expressed your ideas in Question 3 very well and so I'm looking forward to you delving more into that in the next few posts. I love discovering others who have had this book mean something special to them as it certainly has meant a lot to me over the years.

  8. I think you put that well - Croup and Vandemar do seem timeless. They would fit well in an ancient setting as well as a contemporary one. Nice observation!