Crime Traveller by William Sutton
I used to envy modern linguists swanning off for their third year abroad. I studied Classics; I wished I could take a sabbatical in ancient Athens or Rome. Years later, when I ran away to Brazil, I never imagined that immersing myself in São Paulo would bring Victorian London to life: stark inequalities, irrepressible urchins, stinking river.
DOING A GEOGRAPHICAL
Living abroad has pros and cons for a writer. You are lonely, so you might as well write; everything is new, so you must explore. You stand out, your identity overwhelmed; yet you talk to people on buses, licensed to reinvent yourself. David Greig writes about the futility of ‘doing a geographical’: thinking everything will change just because you’re somewhere else. Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel laments the moment when you realise you have inadvertently brought yourself on holiday.
But place does change us. That feeling of strangeness is invaluable. If nothing else, it opens your eyes and ears to characters and events. The acrobatic binmen. The self-educated laundry owner. The dignified streetsweeper who lugubriously blessed me each morning. The woman cursing the World Cup for obscuring the real problems (and this was 2002). The drug squad policeman with bad habits. Keen-eyed thieves on Rio beach. The broomseller creaking our gate, that infuriating summons with which I began my Victorian tale, Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square.
And language. Being an outsider makes you hear language afresh. The gulf between phrase book language and spoken slang opened my eyes. In streetsellers’ clandestine communications, I heard echoes of East End dialects, bamboozling ‘straight’ people with backslang, coster-slang, argot and polari.
CRIMES LARGE AND SMALL
A city with over ten murders a day, São Paulo deserves its reputation: sprawling megacity, crawling traffic, modernity endlessly erasing colonial elegance. The wealthy live in gated communities; the favelas lack basic amenities. At night, drivers don’t stop at red lights lest they’re carjacked, and cashpoints don’t function so kidnappers can’t demand cash withdrawals. Yet the life I lived there felt peaceful. They only kill their own.
In Rio, though, a kid snatched my friend’s necklace from round her neck. So bold a theft, I could barely believe it. A British army platoon went swimming at Copacabana, their valuables guarded by two imposing squaddies; two runners materialised from the crowds, snatched it from between their knees, and vanished, to the squaddies’ fury.
What can drive such audacity? Two factors: inconsistent rule of law, and inequality. It is worth the risk.
But it wasn’t the small crimes that surprised. At a recent panel, I was asked why crime novels focus on individuals rather than corporate crime. Brazilians know the big abuses that cripple their country. They have vast resources, diversity, dynamic workforce. How does such poverty persist?
Because it has always been thus. They accept that corporations are corrupt (but inevitable), that politicians exploit (why wouldn’t they?), that the wealthy elite control the nation (but do great work for charity). It becomes unacceptable when people can’t eat, despite international festivals; when people live in boxes by the insanitary river; when honest workers with two jobs can’t support families, despite vast infrastructure spending.
My studies of Victorian London came vividly alive. The Metropolitan line was built to whisk workers into the City. Bazalgette’s sewers tackled cholera the Great Stink. International exhibitions stirred protests over persistent slums. You could tour Jack the Ripper’s East End, just as you may visit favelas. A riot by Pacaembu Stadium sounded just like one I’d read of in A Tale of Two Cities.
São Paulo, London.
NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF
My landlady was from a wealthy Anglo-Brazilian family fallen on hard times, a cross between Rigsby and Blanche DuBois. When our maid’s mother was killed in a car accident, I asked her advice on how to express my regret. She told me the phrases, frowning. “There’s really no need to say anything. These people – they don’t feel such things.”
A shocking sentiment, for us. But not surprising in Dickens’ London. Nor in my landlady’s Brazil. Nor in many circles of privilege. One thinks of certain corridors of power closer to home. As Douglas Adams put it, some may be extremely rich, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of, because nobody is really poor – at least nobody worth speaking of.
Wherever the super-rich neighbour the desperately poor, there is danger. Brazil remains a tinderbox. This made Victorian London alive with threat. São Paulo’s street crimes followed directly from systemic injustice. Travel made history real in a way no research could.
Quite how Britain averted revolution is still under debate. Certainly enfranchisement, unionisation, education, housing and healthcare reduced the wildest inequality; yet some would say real change was subverted by bread and circuses: department stores and mortgages, sports and patriotism.
Where do you go to revisit the past? For my second novel, Lawless and the Flowers of Sin, I have drawn vital lessons from my two years in southern Italy in sexual hypocrisy, organised crime, political reinvention and moral bankruptcy (there being such a shortage of these vices at home). I’d love to hear where other novelists find their history coming to life.
First published in Red Herrings.