Going Underground

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I’m fascinated by what lies underground, especially underneath cities. I don’t know whether this comes from my childhood reading of Robin Jarvis’s ‘The Dark Portal‘, later followed by watching Neil Gaiman‘s ‘Neverwhere‘, or whether I found those things appealing because they were in a setting I liked. Perhaps it all comes from exposure at an early age to Roland Rat and his ratcave, in retrospect a screaming example of just how weird children’s television is. Maybe it’s something innate to the human psyche, something reflected in legends of hell and journeys into the abyss.

Either way, I find myself drawn to the underground. Mrs K and I spent the least romantic afternoon of our honeymoon in the Paris sewer museum, enjoying the unique smell of a museum that is what it says on the tin. And I’m equally unable to resist books that look at the city beneath the city. So my heap of bedside reading currently includes ‘Subterranean Cities’, David L Pike’s fascinating exploration of the nature and meaning of life beneath 19th century London and Paris; ‘Secret Underground Cities’ by N J Camley, about the underground factories and storage shelters scattered across Britain during the Second World War; and ‘The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste’ by Rose George, a charity shop impulse buy that half fitted the theme. Given my distractability they’ll probably still all be there in a month, as slowly but surely, a chapter here, a few paragraphs there, the tube trains and sewage pipes take over my brain.

So why the fascination? I think that it’s about finding a world that’s close to ours, that’s fundamentally connected to it, and yet is full of mystery and darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Like the Victorian planners who feared no-one would use underground trains, I picture a world of secrecy and skulduggery inches beneath our feet. A place for rats on four legs and on two. But I also see a place full of potential. Somewhere for the objects and people that have been cast aside. A world of renewal, as in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. And that’s where adventure resides – somewhere with danger, somewhere with potential, somewhere with the tension between darkness and light.

I’m not working on an underground story at the moment, but I always have one waiting in the back of my brain. Whether it’s Victorian adventurers hunting Da Vinci’s head through the sewers, Enlightenment scholars exploring the classical underworld, or robbers fleeing through the belly of a moving city, there’s always something there. And after a recent trip to the Manchester Museum my notebook’s filling up again with ideas around sarcophagai and tombs. It won’t be long until I’m going underground again.