One of the great pleasures of the writing life happens very early on in the process, sometimes even before a word has been written. It’s the research and may include historical investigation, checking scientific facts or going to scope out locations for pieces of action. I love doing all of those things but location work is probably my favourite. In the past this has taken me to the crack houses of Detroit, the monasteries of the Mesopotamian Plain and into the locked graveyards of the London Borough of Newham’s almost vanished Jewish community.
But recalling past triumphs is not something that I really do. I always like to look to the future. I also think that a girl should have ambition in her life. And so in a spirit of endeavour, future enquiry and boundless curiosity, I’d like to present to you my top ten London locations to find a dead body that I haven’t used yet. Next week I’ll tackle ‘my’ other city, Istanbul. In the meantime however, sit back, relax and enjoy this exercise in (possible) future homicide.
1) The London Sewers. Call me a flaming weirdo if you must, but I love the London sewers. Built by the famous engineer Joseph Bazalgette in response to The Great Stink of 1858 (when MPs in Parliament fainted from the awful smell of the Thames) it’s a massive Victorian cathedral in praise of hygiene. Gothic in places, just plain spooky in others the London sewers provide almost endless fat and rat soaked places to hide dead bodies and I would love to go down into them with the men who clean them out, The Flushers. Noxious gases and Weil’s Disease be damned, I want to go down there and poke about.
2) 10 Downing Street. Not just to piss PM David Cameron off but because I’d genuinely like to set a murder in the home of the Prime Minister. Preferably underneath the portrait of Gordon Brown. That someone so chronically ineffectual should witness, albeit by the proxy of his portrait, something so proactive as a killing, pleases me.
3) Gallions Hotel. Not many people will know this place. Sited in Newham at North Woolwich it is a vast Victorian pile of a building (now empty) that once served as accommodation for travellers waiting to leave England from the Royal Docks in the 19th and early 20th centuries for distant, far fling parts of what was then the British Empire. Now surrounded by blocks of ‘executive’ flats, when I was a child, Gallions was a wild and deserted place where fights happened over prostitutes and cigarettes. But to me it was magic mainly because I knew that it possessed not only subterranean stables but also a tunnel that led from the building to the shores of the Albert Dock. So much sinister potential it makes my head swim.
4) Anywhere in Neasden. Nothing ever happens in Neasden. The model Twiggy was born there, but that’s it. I’d like something weird and scary to put Neasden on the map. I’d also like to go there, because I never have.
5) Buckingham Palace. It’s almost like sacrilege but having a dead body found in the home of the Queen does appeal to me. Maybe it could happen as a result of some sort of inter-servant dispute – I am told by someone who knows that it is one of the bitchiest work places that there is. Exploring how the authorities would deal with such a thing would also be very interesting.
6) The British Museum. Preferably in the Egyptian Gallery amongst the mummies. Suddenly a perfectly wrapped modern mummy appears, as if by magic, in their midst. How would that go? And if I got in there, then maybe I’d be given access to the store rooms underneath the museum too. I once met a woman who claimed to have been down there and seen arcs of blue lightening emanating from the crated mummies. But then she might just have been making that up.
7) Old Ghastly Grim or rather the Church of St Olave, in Hart Street in the City of London. Dickens called this church St Ghastly Grim mainly because of the many memento mori or ‘remembrances of mortality’ that are carved into its walls. Hemmed in on all sides by office blocks, St Ghastly Grim is a wonderful little oasis of peace and gruesome contemplation in the heart of the City. If a body turned up there it would be truly shocking (and delicious!)
8 ) Elephant and Castle Tube Station. This is a deep, echoey and quite horrid underground station in south London. It has no escalators and so to get down to the platforms one has to either use an ancient creaking lift or take the stairs. These are of the narrow, frightening, spiral variety. I once had the terrible experience of being chased down those stairs by a man whose intentions were either to rob me or do something awful to my body. If he’s still alive and out there – ‘if you saw me now, you’d run a mile and I’m still not worth robbing, bastard.’
9) 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. Once the home of American Anglophile and eccentric Dennis Severs, 18 Folgate St is an 18th century Huguenot house which is furnished with appropriate furniture and ‘things’ that Dennis found over his years in Spitalfields. It has no electricity and it lit by gas lamps and candles. Once inside the modern world goes away and you enter a space where you may just see ‘something’ from the past out of the corner of your eye. It reminds me very much of my grandparents Victorian flat in Plaistow. A body in 18 Folgate Street would present all sorts of problems, not least of which would be the veracity of its existence.
10) The Circle Line. This is the underground line that has no beginning and no end because it is indeed a circle. Theoretically a body, sat upright, could travel the Circle Line for many hours undetected. I’d like to put that to the test.
Next week: Istanbul.