Written by Penny chrimes, illustrations by Levente Szabo, published by hachette childrens
London and the Gutterling Chronicles
Stick wasn’t used to the silence of the city at night. It was the silence of many hundreds sleeping, but it was also the silence of many thousands dead …
The dark dome of St Paul’s loomed down over him as he stole up Sermon Lane, through Angel Court and around Amen Corner and past a dozen churches. There was a fusty smell from the dank graveyards, more noticeable at night when there was no spicy breeze from the sleeping pickle-factories across the river in Bermondsey.
I love London. I am not a Londoner-born – there are still times I claim to be a Northerner, and I still take a ‘bath’ and never a ‘baaaath’. But the truth is that I have lived in South London far longer than I ever lived in the sleepy Wirral village where I grew up beside the marshes of the River Dee.
My first job was on Fleet Street, where you could smell the ink that ran black in the gutters and where journalists had caroused and gossiped (and worked) for centuries. My children might almost qualify as Cockneys – if you listen hard enough, with the wind in the right direction, maybe you might hear the sound of Bow Bells from Camberwell? And I could never resist reading a blue plaque, no matter how much those children tugged me impatiently on.
So it’s no surprise that London – particularly the rumble-tumble of Georgian London and the energy and inventiveness of Victorian London – has seeped into my children’s books. It is as much of a character as any of my gang of street children – Fly and Stick, Spud and Sparrow, Tree, Cess, Bandy and Squinty.
London is the backdrop for the gutterlings’ larks and wheezes. Its twisting alleyways offer them refuge after they’ve prigged food from enraged stall-holders; its dark corners and river steps (like Pickled Herring Stairs) offer them shelter at night, shivering or sweating according to the season.
Tiger Heart opensclose to the River Thames, where Jamrach’s menagerie once stood, full of poor beasts imported to entertain the Victorian’s fad for exotic animals. There is a statue there now, at Tobacco Dock, to remind people of a tiger that escaped and seized a small boy in its jaws, before Jamrach wrenched its jaws open and freed the child. (I feel sorriest for the tiger). This is where Fly the sweepling falls down a chimney into her Tiger’s cage and her adventure begins.
The Dragon and her Boy starts in Smithfield, London’s oldest meat market, where it is blood, not ink, that runs in the gutters.
This is where the blood-thirsty Londoners executed those they called traitors, and also let their hair down every year at Bartholomew Fair in August. It is here that Stick and his fellow-tumblers are entertaining the tossicated crowd when Spud and Sparrow get snabbled and disappear:
The holiday crowd are all over sweat and full of grumble …
‘It was the summer of the Great Heat. And the word on the street was that London was being roasted alive for its sins …’
My favourite walks are through these oldest streets around the City; round one corner you come across a courtyard with the oldest coffee-house, round another there’s a pub that claims – like many others – to be the oldest pub. And there are dragons everywhere.
It was the tiny dragon at the foot of the Monument to the Great Fire of London that gave me the idea for The Dragon and her Boy. She has such a wicked glint in her eye – was it her who started the Fire, back in 1666?
I love to follow the City’s meandering alleyways, sniffing around the churchyards, feeling a shiver as I am jostled and shoved aside by the ghosts of sharp-elbowed Cockneys going about their business. Their ghosts are as impatient with my dreaming and my dawdling as any modern-day commuter scurrying up and down the escalators on the Underground. ‘We ain’t got all day, love …’
There are layers of time here; reflected in the gleaming glass of the latest outlandishly-shaped sky-scraper are the crumbling remains of walls built by the Romans. The dome of St Paul’s, that rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666, still defines the courage of the fire-fighters who fought to save the city from the German bombers and the defiance of Londoners who refused to abandon their homes in the Blitz.
I can take a few steps down into the earth and there is the Walbrook river, buried for centuries but still defiantly babbling down to the Thames. A long-lost Temple to Mithras where I can hear the whispers of worshippers hanging in the thick air; I could cut the smell of the past with a knife and spread it on toast.
But it’s always the London of Dickens that I return to when I write, a place peopled by monsters in human form, larger-than-life characters that spring from the energy and spirit of the ancient city.
It’s a London I love to imagine as I tread the same pavements as they trod. But I hope my books never forget that the real children who lived on the streets of Victorian London lived neglected and terrible lives – hungry, filthy and grubbing a desperate living from the gutters.