When I saw the recent news that part of the Central Line on the London Underground had been flooded, I took to Twitter to say: “Didn’t realise the Central Line had flooded. Bloody reality trying to steal part of my storyline.” I was referring – albeit flippantly – to my new novel, Baptism, in which Christian fundamentalist terrorists hijack a London tube train and breach an underground river in order to flood a section of the Northern Line. It’s a high concept plot device that hopefully makes for a terrifying and above all plausible scenario for a thriller.
But I didn’t realise quite how plausible the scenario might be. Although the river in the novel is a fictitious one, there are a number of underground rivers in London such as the Walbrook, Fleet, Effra and Tyburn. There is also an intricate labyrinth of sewers and water mains of various sizes and states of repair that weave in and around the tube network. The Central Line flooding is not the first and will, unfortunately, probably not be the last such incident. Since the 1960s, water levels have been rising in London due to a number of factors such as the inexorable rise in sea levels generally and more specifically the closure of industries that in the past had extracted huge volumes of water for processing, cleaning and cooling purposes. Prior to the building of the Thames Barrier in 1986, many tube tunnels were fitted with floodgates to protect stations in the event of the Thames breaking its banks and they are still maintained in the event of flooding caused by heavy rain or other factors today.
Entering an underground environment, especially one so vast and intricate as the Tube plays on our darkest fears. It’s not just flooding that might give the Tube traveller pause to think about their mode of transport. The London Underground has also played host to murders, fires, crashes and most recently – and most terrifying of all – terrorist attacks. In 2005, I happened to find myself in the tube train behind the one in which Jean Charles de Menezes was tragically killed by armed police who mistook him for a terrorist. Trapped in the tunnel for nearly an hour, I witnessed the unravelling of tube passengers’ carefully constructed social façades. It was a frightening experience but one that, as a writer, I knew I could use.
The London Underground is a place that evokes polarised views and opinions. Some love its ease of use and quaint architecture; to others, it is a place that makes them feel nervous, dislocated and claustrophobic, locked in some of the deepest and narrowest underground railway lines ever built. It is this fear and discomfort that I wanted to play upon when I wrote Baptism. Readers of thrillers want to be scared and in that regard, I don’t think I’ve held back. I just didn’t realise how close to reality the events of the book might become.