I love Neil Gaiman. And I’m of the age where I can still remember the BBC TV adaptation of his debut novel ‘Neverwhere’. The story of London Below, full of magic and impossibility and things that are similar but different, and people who are both old and young, good and bad, modern and ancient, everything standing simultaneous.
I won’t spoil the novel if you haven’t read it, but you should, it’s awesome!
What I loved the most was the concept of a world behind the one we see, and that anything that possessed history contained a beneath, areas that only a fraction of the workforce or the public are privy too. These ‘beneath’ areas were only present in the old buildings, buildings over 30 years old who were either riddled with asbestos or created in an age when society was not obsessed with HAIs, (Hospital Acquired Infections) and where space wasn’t something that had to be utilised 24/7 otherwise it was considered wasteful. This was before technology had created 100% fireproof structures, so fire escapes were necessary. Which was great, because where else could nurses smoke?
Smoking rooms smelled. 😉
I’ve always enjoyed the thrill of going where I shouldn’t. Trespassing, the police call it. Those PIFs/PSAs back in the day, telling kids to stay away from farms and construction sites? They were aimed at me. Climbing is something that comes natural, even today, put me in an 8 year olds body and pump me full of sugar and of course I can scale that fifteen foot high wire fence. 🙂
I think I was attracted to the difference. In highschool the music rooms used to sit above the music cells. There was no direct passage between the two, you had to cart your instrument back down metal steps and down another concrete flight before reaching the cells. Which looked like they sounded. Cold, dark, soundproof places with a perpetual smell of mould and an eerie feel. I think there were about eight or ten, the two at the end utilised as perpetual storage lockers. Full of music stands, seat cushions (?) and atypical cardboard boxes holding “stuff.”
I didn’t play any instrument so there was no reason for me to be there, but I went there a few times. Just to get away from everything on lunch breaks. It was like the rooms were frozen in time, some time way back in the late sixties when music was more popular, and pupils played more instruments than they did when I was in school.
I don’t know what our generation had? We had television, but the Internet was flaky and computers weren’t really a thing. I guess we weren’t a very musical year.
I didn’t trespass any further until nursing college. Some London hospitals in Zone 1 predated WW1, and the four main ones in central London were interconnected by tunnels that ran underground. It enabled patients to be transferred from one to another without braving the elements, as well as offering any staff that lived in hospital accommodation a quick scamper to work, by way of the hospital kitchens for some free food, if any happened to be available.
The one I was assigned to had a wonderful chapel from the 1880’s, which was popular with staff and relatives alike. Many of us admitted sitting in there, multiple times. It was beautiful, like an old Eastern Orthodox Church. Icons, candles, regular service for those who could attend. For us it was both the courage to endure and the absolution of the guilt if a day had gone particularly badly.
[Do the best you can, do the best you can]
It’s one of the few Christian places where I haven’t felt intimidated simply by being. And it was cool when I started watching the show Nurse Jackie, when both Jackie and her friend repeatedly hang out in the chapel, stretched out on the pews, pillows under their heads, looking up at Mary and talking about how shitty ‘them breaks’ can be.
The trespassing in question came in my third year. Working long hours in winter can leave you longing for oxygen and sunlight. The ward where I was stationed had a fire escape, and at the end of the shift, 12 hours long, with everyone settled and the staff waiting for the night crew to come and relieve us, three of us would sneak through the firedoor (alarm circumvented) prop the door open with a towel and sit on the fire escape, smoking. Nipple-freezingly cold, we’re all in our tunics, spewing frost breath, along with the nicotine smoke. The escape is wet, iron, icy cold and I can feel the damp seep through my trousers, so resort to squatting.
This is the sixth floor, the top of the hospital. A surgical ward adjacent to theatres. We can see the traffic spewing in lines down Tottenham Court. The neon lights and the people walking. Can’t hear a thing though, we’re too high, so we finish up and get back to work. It’s a nice memory, and I now understand how a pigeon feels in winter.
Nothing happened again until 2012. I’d just transferred from one hospital to another within the same trust, and became assigned to an offshoot unit, attached to the main corps. Shooting lasers and driving robots, jobs I still do today.
This little 2-theatre unit was THE BEST!!
And I learnt in 2012 that because it was an offshoot it had its own attic. You can imagine my eyes lighting up when I heard that news.
It was accessible by ladder, by a genuine metal ladder! Which led up onto a catwalk system, running above both theatres. The first time I went up it was during the day, and apparently you can hear people walking above if you’re in theatre. As a senior surgeon did. And lectured me accordingly. 😉
But during the evening shift, with all the work done, why not go for a clamber? I often scaled the ladder and sat on the catwalk during my lunchbreak. The catwalks led through doors and all the way down into the plant room, where the generators where. This incessant rumble both soothing and unnerving at the same time. We’re all afraid of darkness and things that move in the corners of our eyes, and I can’t count the number of times I frightened myself silly, turning round and expecting monsters or ghosts or whatever. Only to find the same blackness looking back at me.
Just once both I and my partner in crime, when it came to these little adventures, sneaked up into the deadspace. The same attic, only outside the closed ventilation area we were both used to. We managed to scale another ladder into a gangway that ran above the roof tiles. There was nothing but the ceiling joists to walk on, and spots of bird poo to avoid. It was dusty and cold but it was cool to be somewhere foreign and private.
Nothing is the same these days. Everything is carded, and security is drum tight. The college I’m currently studying at was the same one I did my undergraduate degree at. The dorms are SO different now. what I remember as huge open complexes where you walk where you chose, see friends, meet up, sit and talk and sometimes sing, (seriously, I came home one night in undergraduacy to find an American acapella group belting out Stand By Me on a landing) they’re all gone.
Everything is carded, and you can only get to your specific assigned area.
It’s like prison. Back then I found myself on a rooftop twice, and the only way off was to shin it down a drainpipe. The students in block 5 actually had a party on the rooftop of their block (again, by circumventing the fire door alarm), all disposable BBQs and cold beer.
I’m sure the university have their reasons; student safety, security, etc. But I can’t help but feel sorry for those students currently, who don’t have the opportunity to sneak about the place at night, if only for the love of exploration and curiosity.
The hospital I currently work in is the same. Secure, very. And all the lights have motion sensors so they never go off if you’re there. I once had to go to A&E at midnight and found myself walking to the chapel as well as to the coffee machine during the wee hours. It felt like I was the only person in the hospital, the lights flickering on as they precede my presence, and receding behind me like an invisible force field.
I’ve descended into the bowels of the building, down to the morgue and the loading docks; it’s all concrete and plaster and swipe glass, robots pootling along, doing what they do.
It’s okay, it’s all 1970s industrial sci-fi, but it’s not as Neverwhere as the old places. They had magic and age, suffering and solace, tears and laughter imbued within their brickwork.
At the end of the story, the protagonist, Richard, realises what he’s lost by leaving London Below behind. He goes to a random wall and beats on it with his hands, desperate, wanting to see everything that he’s seen, again. In the end he drops his blade and turns away, despondent and resigned, finally accepting his Above life.
So much so that he almost misses the Marquis standing behind, the wall now open.
‘Coming?’ he says, one eyebrow raised.
And Richard does.