It’s been said that London is more a state of mind than a city. Orion crime author Robert Wilson lets us in on the pull of being a Londoner, not just for those who live there, but for Charlie Boxer, his brilliant yet conflicted hero.
I’d always wanted to set some novels in London, but it’s a difficult place to write about, especially when it comes to convincing Londoners that you’ve understood their city.
The first thing you learn about London is that it’s the only place to be. You start talking about what a great city Leeds is, or Bristol, and any Londoner worth their salt will walk away, because clearly you don’t understand anything. You might be living in some poky bedsit in Harringay, or sharing a room in Arnos Grove, but you still come from London.
London is a global city. You don’t have to be a corporate broker, feet up on the desk at the top of One Canada Square, with a clear view all the way down the Thames to Tower Bridge, the Gherkin, The Shard and St Paul’s, and talking to Shanghai in the morning, New York in the afternoon and LA at night. It doesn’t matter that you’re not that film star being escorted down the red carpet under an umbrella to the doors of a Leicester Square cinema. It’s enough just to live in the city to feel that kind of reach and attraction.
But CEOs, oligarchs and commodities traders don’t live in the city. They live in a ‘village’ in Greater London. It might be that they go home to a four-bedroom house in Chiswick, a duplex apartment in Knightsbridge or a loft in a converted warehouse in Southwark, but that’s almost all they know of London: the village where they live and the centre of commerce where they work.
It’s all changed now. Those villages used to have all sorts living in them. But these days, the prices are such that most of the ordinary people have moved out. There are still parts of London where the rich, the middle class and the working class all mix, but the current property boom is putting an end to that.
There are some apartment blocks in London that aren’t even marketed to Londoners. The whole complex has been built for Chinese or Malaysian investors. There’s an eerie silence to these unlived-in places where wealth has been profitably parked. They seem to me to herald the death of a place where life should be teeming, rather than resembling an exclusion zone in an embattled city.
This is the world my hero, Charles Boxer, inhabits. He has access to all the elements of the city. He’s as comfortable sitting in a £10,000-a-night hotel room on Piccadilly talking through a kidnap negotiation with an Indian billionaire as he is facing down the bleak, raw-faced toughs on the Bemerton Estate off the Caledonian Road.
It’s what I wanted from him: the ability to move seamlessly between the bizarre echelons of London society – classless, vigilant, absorbing, comprehending and always acting decisively – even if it meant becoming the ultimate executive.
Is London really all it’s cracked up to be? If you’re a Londoner, is there another city you’d like to live in – any city in the world? If so, which city and why? Leave us a comment!
Robert Wilson has lived and worked around the world, including spells in shipbroking, tour-guiding and exporting bathrooms to Nigeria. Eventually he settled in Portugal and turned to writing novels. Since then, he’s written many acclaimed crime novels including the CWA Gold Dagger award-winning A Small Death in Lisbon and the Falcón series, recently adapted for television. The latest Charlie Boxer novel, You Will Never Find Me, is out now and the series continues with Stealing People, which will be published by Orion in June. Find out more at Robert Wilson’s website or follow him on Twitter.