Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Talking Location with author Simon Michael – London
22nd November 2016
#TalkingLocationWith… author Simon Michael
London runs through my blood rather like the Thames runs through London. My father’s family came to the city in 1492, refugees from Cordoba and the Inquisition. A family that clearly believed in staying put, thereafter they remained for the next twenty generations within a couple of miles’ radius of where they landed in the East End. Unlike all those previous generations I am not, strictly, a Cockney, having been born at University College Hospital in Euston – only within the sound of Bow Bells if the wind is blowing exceptionally hard from the East – but I was schooled, went to university, married and practised at the Bar in London until 2001.
Accordingly, when I decided to start writing full-time, the choice of London to set the novels was obvious. I knew it, as the cliché goes, like the back of my hand. Furthermore London in the 1960s was the inescapable period. When I started practice as a criminal barrister in the late 1970s, many of the social and cultural changes ushered in by the 1960s – the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the rebelliousness against authority and the pre-War establishment – were still working themselves through. Racial, religious and class prejudice were rife; there was significant corruption within the police, especially the Metropolitan Police; and much of the judiciary was so firmly pro-prosecution as to produce daily injustice. In the 1960s London came very close to being like Chicago in the 1930s – controlled by gangs like the Krays, the Richardsons and the Messina brothers, each fighting for their slice of the underworld, with powerful people in their pockets for protection. I knew I wanted to write gritty noir thrillers set on the streets of London, in the same way that Raymond Chandler wrote about the streets of Los Angeles thirty years before, and the backdrop of London was, simply, perfect.
The Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers is therefore set in the streets, courts and prisons of London where I have lived, walked and worked. Holborne’s Chambers in the first book The Brief and a chase scene are located in the courtyards in and around Middle Temple Lane, which will be familiar to anyone who watches period drama on television, as it is used so frequently for film sets.
Most of the court scenes are set in the Old Bailey, either in the courts themselves or in the cells and the judges’ chambers. The third book in the series, The Lighterman (to be published by Urbane Publications in May 2017) has a scene in Middle Temple Hall, built in 1563, which is redolent with English and London history. For example, it’s “cup-board” is constructed from the hatch of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind and the Hall was home to the first known performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1602.
The Hall (think Hogwarts but with less magical catering) is open for very reasonably-priced lunches to non-members if you book in advance, and the Inn offers superb guided tours. I recommend it to visitors to London as one of the most historic landmarks missed by many.
The Lighterman is set on the River Thames during the Blitz and the 1960s.
Charles Holborne, then a teenager, runs wild on the bombed London streets and works for a period as a lighterman, a profession dating from Roman times which has now largely disappeared on the Thames but which, at the time, employed thousands of men who were integral to keeping Britain fed during the War.
The Charles Holborne books place an East End boy in a West End world (“Brick lane vs Berkley Square”), and their central theme is of dislocation. Charles comes from a poor East End family. Yes, he did a bit of boxing and a bit of crime, but he fights his way out of the East End to join the most establishment of professions, being “called to the Bar” of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. Once there however, there he finds himself the victim of religious and class prejudice; he will never be accepted by the scions of the British Empire who populate the legal world but, at the same time, he no longer fits in in the East End. He has to steer his own moral course through the sea of corruption and dishonesty all around him.
Thank you so much to Simon for sharing his London, a city that he knows like the back of his hand.