Having written novels set in West Africa, Lisbon and Seville, I was asked recently why I had chosen to set my latest thriller, Capital Punishment, in the ‘less exotic’ location of London. I was amazed as, over the years, London to me has become increasingly exotic as its population has expanded, sucking in people from all over the world.
Being an outsider for many years helped me to look at London with fresh eyes. As an insider, in the 1980s, I only connected with the ‘village’ where I lived, my office, the pubs and restaurants where I met friends.
So I set about discovering new parts of London, taking lengthy bus and tube journeys to all corners, while watching and listening to other passengers. I walked the streets noting the architecture, shops and food outlets, taking in ancient monuments and churches and the unexpected marvel of the Gherkin suddenly looming incongruously over a Bangladeshi street market.
I took long walks in northern parks, around the Docklands and along canal towpaths with their waterborne communities. I looked at faces and wardrobe, sat in unreconstructed Victorian pubs, groovy coffee shops and the murkiest of greasy spoons, trying to sniff out an atmosphere.
Even in the most rundown areas I found a strong sense of commerce and, in every neighbourhood, layers of society which, like air traffic stacked over Heathrow, never converged, except perhaps when buying milk in a convenience store.
This is what writers do. But apart from giving me scenes and dialogue, was it helping me to capture London? The difficulty here is that there are no unique experiences that all Londoners have. Londoners use London in their own particular way.
But everybody is a Londoner. You ask anyone where they live they don’t name their ‘village’. Whether they’ve been here for three months or six generations they say: I’m from London. To them it’s the only worthwhile show on earth. So what binds these disparate groups together?
Nobody cares why you came and nobody will give a damn if you leave. But while you’re in London…you are a part of it. You wear the invisible badge of someone who has stepped into the bear pit. There’s the camaraderie of the survivor in being a Londoner.
This was the revelation: Londoners aren’t here because of the Shard, White Cube and the Donmar Warehouse although they contribute. They’re drawn here by the energy and energy comes from people and I’ve never seen London in more interesting shape, stretched as it is in all directions by a multicultural, multi-ethnic population.
Its layered history, constantly evolving cityscape and its vastly striving and always changing population make London more a state of mind than a describable place. It’s friendlier than I remember it. It seems louder, but that might be because I’m no longer young. Humour is still very much a part of the landscape as is cynicism (briefly defeated by the Olympic spirit). And the one thing that we all need to get through a day in the capital: defiance.