Turn off High Holborn onto Furnival Street and you will pass a black door set into a windowless building. It is easy to miss; thousands pass it each day without a second glance. Few are aware that it leads down to a nuclear-proof telephone exchange 200 feet below street level, big enough to house 10,000 people, a closely guarded government secret until a few years ago.
My second novel, Deep Shelter, sees the wayward Detective Constable Nick Belsey drawn into London’s subterranean mysteries. When I began to write it I had only the faintest idea what a world I was opening. Like every Londoner, I had a heard a bit about the shadowy goings-on beneath the ground: government walkways under Westminster, Post Office tunnels connecting depots, abandoned tube stations requisitioned, bunkers beneath office blocks. My own interest had been piqued by the entrances to Second World War deep shelters in Belsize Park and Camden: odd, round turrets that survive behind the high street, silent and ignored. I decided to open the novel with them: Belsey is chasing a joyrider who vanishes into thin air. Closer inspection reveals that this vanishing act occurred right above the Belsize Park shelter. Belsey, for whom curiosity is always the most self-destructive of vices, feels compelled to descend. And the shelter proves be a gateway to a lot more than he suspected. When a young woman he invites down there goes missing, seized underground, he is forced to explore the labyrinth below the city with increasing urgency.
Deep Shelter is a work of fiction, of course, but there was a pleasure in treading the line between history, rumour and truths that remain classified. Structures like the deep shelters were incorporated into that most secretive area of government activity: contingency plans for the event of nuclear war. This planning was a feat of imagination as much as militarisation, in which almost anything had to be considered possible. And it was not just the underworld that was pressed into service; intriguingly, preparations for the atomic bomb remain across the surface of London, evident in several landmarks constructed in the 1950s and ’60s. These include Centre Point, mysteriously empty for its first ten years of existence, and the BT Tower, somewhat absurdly covered by the Official Secrets Act until 1994. This is not to mention the concrete municipal buildings commissioned at the time: schools, town halls and libraries, beneath which lie a network of hardened Civil Defence centres and Regional Seats of Government still waiting for a war that never arrived.
I wanted Deep Shelter to combine the grit of a contemporary police procedural with some of the atmosphere of the best cold war conspiracy thrillers. I wanted to find out what happens when a detective whose dissolute escapism reflects 21st-century London is forced to do a little virtual time travel; how he reacts when the paranoia of another age intersects with his own. In researching it, the city I thought I knew became more cryptic than ever.
Oliver Harris’s DEEP SHELTER is published by Harvill Secker