MI7's London

London is at the heart of Tales of MI7. All the usual tourist haunts make an appearance, but also some of the lesser known locations. Let's start at the beginning ...

Let's imagine there is such a thing as "the Tales of MI7 walk", a kind of tourist trail of London, designed to cover the most important locations in the novels. Rather like a ghost walk, but with spooks (ho, ho). In that case, it would have to begin and end at Thames House. There are lots of pictures of that building on this website, but here's another, just for good measure. You can just about see the double red lines outside - no parking at any time. If you're foolish enough to disregard that, Colin Bale, MI7's chief receptionist - according to The Eastern Ukraine Question, "a bumblebee-shaped man with a bald head and protruding ears" - will deal with you. In Tales of MI7, Red Department is located deep (literally) underground, with sleeping pods for lockdowns and a high speed shuttle to a "secret exit" at Pimlico tube station, just over a kilometre away. The visible part consists mainly of rooms for briefings and inter-departmental conferences. There is also a canteen where, according to Mordred, in World War O, personnel can be often be found sitting in front of their own laptops, penning fiction. "People often came to work here for two or three years – or sometimes, only for a couple of months – so they could pen a spy thriller and sell themselves to a literary agent as ‘someone who once worked at MI5’, ‘an insider’." Life and fiction are inextricably intertwined.

The SIS Building at Vauxhall Cross also plays a part in the Tales of MI7 novels, although not as much as you might think, given that it stands for "British spy HQ" in just about every modern espionage film or TV show. It appears as the headquarters of White Department in The Kramski Case, and this conceit is continued in The Vengeance of San Gennaro, where, in the first chapter, Gavin Freedman is described walking along a long corridor at the rear of the building. "A rain-stained landscape window to his right framed the Albert Embankment and, beyond that, the railway line." The well-worn discussion question - "Is the SIS Building attractive, or is it hideous?" - is a great way of frittering your life away. Answer: it probably is attractive, but not yet. Rather like the "walkie-talkie" at 20 Fenchurch Street, it will be attractive, one day, providing we don't build too many other things in that style. It certainly isn't hideous. As, hopefully, the accompanying picture shows.

Of course, you don't necessarily want to be in the office all day long, especially if it's a nice day. In the fifty or so feet between the building and the river Thames, there are benches under trees surrounded by a thin strip of lawn. If you carry on walking along the road pictured above - Millbank - (in the same direction as the taxi), you quickly come to Lambeth Bridge - on your right - and Horseferry Road on your left. Just off Horseferry Road is Saint John's Gardens (left), where Annabel and Phyllis meet for a working-lunch-discussion about John Mordred at the beginning of Libya Story. And where we also learn something about Annabel's preferred choice of sandwich: “Cucumber. Always the same. Three slices each. And a tiny little film of butter.” (How to keep a conversation about cucumber sandwiches going, Phyllis wonders, and we might well agree.) Just off Horseferry Road is a pub called The Marquis of Granby, where Mordred goes to meet Roy Bardsley in Little War in London.

We might as well carry on in order of the importance of the location, since Mordred and his colleagues get just about everywhere in London. He spends a good amount of time in the Palace of Westminster in both The New Europeans and Little War in London. In the latter, he's driven there, from Thames House, by a chauffeur. "They entered the Houses of Parliament precincts via St Margaret Street. Lots of tourists as usual, and some peered through the window as the police logged the car in and raised the barrier. Clive drove into the grounds at a crawl, and stopped in front of the members’ entrance just to one side of Big Ben. He pulled to a gentle halt and let himself out to open the rear door for Mordred." Mordred also has a important source of insider-information amongst the 650 MP's in there: a man called Mike Hignett, whose links to Private Eye magazine regularly make him indispensable.

Just across the road from Westminster Palace is Portcullis House. Very few people in Britain probably recognise it, but it's essentially a posh extension building. According to Wikipedia, it was "commissioned in 1992 and opened in 2001 to provide offices for 213 members of parliament and their staff." In The New Europeans, Mordred pays several visits there to meet suspicious MP, Charles Planchart. "Mordred’s first impression was of a coal-burning power station, though Planchart later said it was meant to evoke a ship. On the ground floor, he counted four shops around a courtyard with two parallel rows of trees in concrete planters in the middle. The roof was glass." Sounds chipper, but it has been dogged by controversy.

The Shard appears in both The Eastern Ukraine Question and Little War in London. In the former, it is the scene of one of Mordred's great escapes. "Yulyanov’s bouncers would be in one or more of the other lifts now, heading for the lobby. He tried to picture them, get a sense of how close they were. Pushing through the crowd on floor fifty-five, then waiting till they were all aboard, double check, then a quick discussion before pressing the button … Possibly thirty seconds difference. Although distance-wise, thirty seconds was a lot." In Little War in London, the Shard is where he comes face-to-face with the assembled cast of Private Eye's "Street of Shame": the editors of the Britain's biggest-selling newspapers and executive officials of its most powerful media outlets. In Libya Story, John's sisters, Hannah and Charlotte, pay a visit to the Shard when it is raining. Some of London's landmarks are impossible to make attractive in a photo. The Shard is naturally photogenic: in many ways, it is London's Eiffel Tower. However, as is only to be expected, not everyone likes it.

Tower Bridge appears in Chapter 1 of World War O as the venue for Annabel Gould's reception, after her marriage to MI7's IT manager, Tariq al-Banna. "Including the bride and groom, there were fifty people at Annabel’s wedding, the exact capacity of London Tower Bridge’s North Lounge, as advertised in the brochure. A solemn three-course meal followed a no-frills civil ceremony in front of the room’s main gothic window. The bride’s mother wasn’t there because, despite the best efforts of a private detective, she couldn’t be found; the bride’s father was in prison, and hadn’t been informed; the bride’s boss, Ruby Parker, was at an official funeral. So most of the guests were from the groom’s side: Mr and Mrs al-Banna, their three grown-up daughters, and twenty-seven extended family members. The remaining attendees comprised six of Annabel’s work colleagues – not primarily friends: she didn’t make those easily – and ten of Tariq’s. Because both bride and groom worked in the same building, there was the occasional overlap: usually someone who knew and liked Tariq a little more than he or she did Annabel." For anyone who's wondering, Tower Bridge really does host wedding receptions.

Nelson's Column appears on the front cover of Libya Story in the aspect in which John Mordred encounters it in Chapter 3 of that novel. "After leaving Charlotte behind in Oxford Street, his bus had taken him all over London. He decided to cut his losses at Trafalgar Square. As he alighted, he got the odd impression Nelson’s Column looked slightly awry. A kind of divine comment on something, maybe, he didn’t know what. As usual, the place was packed. Easy to blend in, and easy to get elsewhere. He strode to Charing Cross and caught the Underground to Brixton via Stockwell." A short time later, Charlotte and Hannah repair to Trafalgar Square to work out where their brother might be. "The two women sat on a bench with a view down Whitehall. Hannah crossed her legs and checked the download chart on her phone. Next to her, Charlotte ate a cranberry and brie baguette and tried to ignore the pigeons and seagulls." 

Here is a place most people won't recognise at first sight, although it should, in theory, be one of the most visited places in London. Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor. It is central to two Tales of MI7 novels: World War O, and (to a lesser extent) The New Europeans. In the former, inspired partly by Nicholas Shaxson's 2012 book, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, it is associated with suspect city financiers. In the latter, it is the scene of a reconciliation between MI7 and the Mayor, William Chester, Lord Willoughby de Vries. Later on, Mordred gets the notion that there is something decidedly odd about the building and its surrounds. "Weird, weird part of town. Eight and a half million people in this city. Even looking around now – you could have counted the passers-by in all directions on your fingers." Mansion House is one of those places that it is very difficult to take an attractive picture of. In 1962, the architectural historian, Sir John Summerson wrote that, it "is a striking reminder that good taste was not a universal attribute in the eighteenth century." Worse than that, though, it looks as if it needs a good wash.

Mordred visits a particularly unpleasant character on the top floor of One Canada Square, Canary Wharf in Encounter With ISIS. After a narrow escape, he makes his way out by the stairs. "He bounded down the steps two at a time. Not very JamesBondlike, but at least he was being true to himself. Maybe it’d be quicker to slide down the stair rail - like a Beano character? He started laughing with the adrenalin, and the breathlessness, and the mental picture of himself and Farole zooming down the bannisters in hot flight and pursuit, a kind of 20mph car-chase equivalent in one of the City’s most prestigious piles. Bet the architect never envisaged that. Be great in a film. Suddenly, he was in the zone. Laughing at your enemies, yes, that was JamesBondlike." Ten minutes later, however, he is sitting in the ground-floor restaurant, opposite his pursuers. Yet once again, things don't go particularly well. For them.

Oxford Street (and here, Oxford Circus, on the junction with Regent Street) appears continually in Tales of MI7, from The Girl from Kandahar (where Marcie pays it a flying visit) to Libya Story (where Mordred stands his two older sisters up, and where Charlotte has a momentous misunderstanding with a middle-aged Chinese tourist and his family). The photograph opposite was taken on 20 February, 2014, a split second after the one that now adorns the cover of The Girl from Kandahar.

 

Oxford Street is also one of the settings for a frenzied chase in chapter 9 of The Social Magus, after a mysterious assassin tries to gun down a politician, and Mordred goes after him. Things take an interesting turn when the shooter takes a detour through Selfridges and a detective "crashes spectacularly on his back in a pool of Chanel and broken glass." There are virtually no car-chases in Tales of MI7. In real life, such things tend to involve carnage. Physical running allows for close contact, and is always more exciting. Unless you really, really like cars, of course. Or hate running. 

This is the view from St James's Park across Horseguards Parade to the buildings that comprise the rear of Whitehall. In The Social Magus, Mordred has to go there to meet his sister, Julia, and her lover, the radical politician, Chapman Hill. "He finished his scone, took a bus to St James’s Park and walked briskly across the green to the parade ground. It was busy but not crowded. The sun reflected glaringly on the vast expanse of white gravel and the surrounding Georgian piles, on whose summits five or six Union Jacks flapped cheerfully in the breeze. Pigeons sat on balustrades and black chain railings. He caught sight of Julia and Chapman when he was about halfway across. But she'd seen him first. The couple were arm in arm, but it was obvious something was wrong. He looked crumpled somehow. As if he was drunk or dead beat. With her free hand, she carried their travel-bag." And St James's Park is where he encounters two (understandably) belligerent American spies in Little War in London

In the same novel, Mordred accepts an invitation to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. "Embassies in general, he’d supposed, were jam-packed with kitschy mementoes of home, halfway between shrines to national pride – all flags and marble busts and glowering portraits – and teenagers’ bedrooms: just a little the wrong side of obsessive. But this one was gigantic, modern, cuboid and, inside, very much like a spaceship ... No sign of homesickness here. No one he saw looked like it wasn’t their ideal place to be." As he is leaving, a diplomat hands him a revolver in a plain paper bag. As a rule, Mordred is not keen on guns, but this one comes in surprisingly handy. 

The Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane makes two major appearances in Tales of MI7. The first showing, in Encounter with ISIS, occurs when, in the course of duty, Mordred and his then girlfriend, Gina Fairburn, meet a Muslim family for afternoon tea. "Once the formalities were complete and pleasantries had been exchanged, the group followed a smiling young man called Alexis to a narrow pair of sofas facing each other with a low table in between. He gave them the list of teas. Everyone chose something they’d probably never heard of before in an attempt to make the most of the occasion. Alexis smiled, deftly retrieved the list and actually clicked his heels before departing." Several years ago, to celebrate a special occasion, the author and his family went to the Dorchester for just such an occasion, and this description is based on that. Mordred's second visit to the Dorchester occurs under more strained circumstances in Little War in London. The final occasion involves a battle to the death. Not to be melodramatic, of course!

As might be expected, there are quite a few public houses in Tales of MI7. We have already mentioned The Marquis of Granby in Romney Street. But there is also The Counting House, at 50 Cornhill, where Phyllis first asks John Mordred on a date (in Chapter 1 of The New Europeans), and there is The Bear and Staff, where Mordred meets the deputy leader of the "Real Alternative Party", Morgan Smith, in The Social Magus. And then there is The Red Lion in Westminster, whose website says it has been, "the favoured watering hole of the political elite for centuries." Chapter 13 of The New Europeans is actually named after the pub, and describes a thirty minute work-break in which Mordred and Annabel enter the pub in search of refreshment. She gets an orange juice. He orders an American Cream Soda, but quickly changes that to shandy when the barman looks flummoxed. Actual facts about the availability of American Cream Soda in London pubs are difficult to come by, but it is probably a niche preference.