Posted on 25th May 2016
CC Humphreys and the Great Fire of London
Though I wasn’t born there, London is my city and I know it. After school my ‘gap year’ of 1974-5 was spent as a motorcycle messenger. Based in a Soho that was still very much ‘sin city’, I learned all sorts of interesting things; the naïve schoolboy grew up fast. Paid by the ride, to earn a larger wage packet required speed. And that meant learning London – each lane, alley and cut-through – really well.
I believe all novels, however far back in time or exotic the setting, are very personal to the novelist. Life inevitably creeps in. And I do have one ‘fire’ event, an early and clear childhood memory: waking up in our house in Los Angeles, joining my mother at a back window. ‘What’s that?’ I asked, staring at a huge column of smoke, coiling from the Hollywood Hills. ‘Fire,’ she replied. It was the start of the Bel Air Fire of 1961. We were evacuated, excitingly we spent a couple of nights at a motel (with a pool!) and the flames passed within 400 yards of our house. Hardly Cheapside in 1666 but…
Telling the story from multiple viewpoints, heroes and villains, allowed me to encompass a fairly large chunk of the fire’s extraordinary detail. And I was most fortunate to find, in a second hand bookstore in Hampstead and just when I needed it, ‘the’ book. There always seems to be one that arrives at the right time and though I’d read a couple of others, perfectly good in their own way, none came close to the massively detailed handling of the subject I discovered in ‘The Great Fire Of London’ by Walter George Bell, first published in 1923. Mr Bell not only gave a superb pre-fire study of the city, he filled the pages with anecdotes and characters, gleaning the best of all the observers at the time, distilling Evelyn and Pepys but above all taking me street by street, church by church, hour by hour through the four days and the aftermath, in prose always clear and often witty. (‘One mistrusts a versifier’ he said of one poet’s over-egged take on the destruction.)
Something especially puzzled Bell as it does me: the death toll. The official tally in the Bills of Mortality was six. Six, of which the first and most reported was Thomas Farriner’s maid! This seems impossible given the speed and totality of destruction and is disputed by many. It seems more an error in addition – or a deliberate under-reporting. Evelyn certainly disagreed, testifying to the stench of the many bodies coming from the ruins.
Another myth that people always bring up is: ‘Oh, but the Great Fire was a good thing in one way because it got rid of the filth that the plague-carrying rats thrived in.’ Uh, no. Though black rats love dirt, it was not its absence that diminished them but the growing strength of their cousin, the brown rat. This relative newcomer to these isles breeds in a shorter amount of time. So it outbred the black, killed them all, replaced them… and the brown rat doesn’t host the plague flea that did the actual infecting. The Stranglers were quite right to celebrate this hitherto unsung hero in their album, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’.
(Peaches from The Stranglers ‘Rattus Norvegicus’.
This conference opens on September 2nd – 350 years to the day that the Great Fire began. So please everyone, make sure you know where the exits are – and be careful with your butts!
CC Humphreys is the author of Fire, a thriller centred on the Great Fire of London. The novel is out now in trade paperback and will be released as a mass market paperback in August this year, just before the anniversary of the Great Fire and HNSOxford16. He will be speaking at the conference on Saturday 3 September 2.30-3.30 on ‘The Great Fire of London – Disaster and Inspiration’ with JD Davies and Andrew Taylor.