Most people can remember what they were doing when they heard the news of the 7/7 bombings. I was working as a receptionist in an office in Bloomsbury, and heard a bang from several streets away of a number 30 bus exploding on Tavistock Square.
No More Heroes, by Hackney-born author Stephen Thompson, takes us closer still to the events of 7/7. The reader returns to the day of the attacks through the character of Simon Weekes, a man who miraculously survived one of the blasts on the London Underground.
Simon, an unambitious man who wants nothing more than a quiet life, is catapulted into the media spotlight after saving people’s lives in the aftermath of the bombing.
But attention is exactly what Simon doesn’t want, for he is harbouring a dark secret. The book goes further back in time to Simon’s childhood in Hackney during the Eighties, where we find out about the life from which he has long since escaped, but is now threatening to catch up on him.
Judging from accounts of survivors, the book’s fast-paced prologue is a realistic and extremely vivid portrayal of what happened that day, to the extent that at first I thought the book was autobiographical.
But Stephen Thompson is not in the business of autobiography. The 44-year-old author, who has published four other novels, was not even in the country at the time of the bombings, though recalls them having a profound effect on him.
“The event itself rocked me as a Londoner even though I wasn’t in London at the time,” he says. “It took me a long time to filter it and to understand what had had such a strong impact on me, and what if anything I wanted to say about it.
“I realised what I wanted to say was that we can come back from something like that. Only seven years later we had the Olympics here, which around the time of 7/7 no one could have imagined actually happening.”
Simon’s parents are African-Caribbean immigrants, and ethnicity is not incidental to the narrative. Freeing himself from the bombed out carriage, Simon in his shock identifies each person by their skin colour.
For Thompson, writing through the prism of race is an “inescapable thing” for any black writer who works within established literary traditions.
“The consciousness [of race] changes your approach and the fabric and whole aesthetic of the piece. You have to make up that mind: do I want to go down that road or do I want to write for a non-ethnic or non-colour specific audience? I chose to concentrate on race because I thought race and racial identity, and religion and religious extremism, are important components of the novel and give it another dimension.”
Like his protagonist, Thompson grew up in Hackney during the 1980s to working class parents of African-Caribbean immigrant stock. But any similarities end there, as Thompson stresses that Simon Weekes is a “fictional composite” and that the book’s tales of squatting and of school and family life, are the result of rigorous research into the period.
“Good fiction does have some kind of autobiographical underpinning,” he says. “But I’m keen to stress that I am a writer who uses the tools and trade of his imagination to create fiction.”
That said, the decision to set part of No More Heroes in Hackney was, Thompson admits, a case of writing what you know.
“Many of the bombers were from the north and I toyed with the idea setting it in the north of England,” he says, “but I thought I’m from Hackney so it just made sense to set it in this part of the world.”
No More Heroes is published by Jacaranda Books. RRP: £7.99 ISBN: 9781909762121