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Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Gollancz, 2011 (and limited Orion author party edition, 2014)

For a number of years, in the days when we did such things, every February the Orion Publishing Group held a glittering party for authors and agents in the Floral-aka-Paul-Hamlyn Hall at the Royal Opera House. It was a particularly welcome feature of the annual round of publishing parties for being held at an otherwise gloomy time of year.

During lockdown, rediscovering this specially-produced edition of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London for the 2014 party goody bag felt apt. It brought back memories of the parties of yore whilst serving as a reminder of those to come. But it also brought back memories of London itself, which, as a world-famous stage deserted by its actors, has been heart-breaking to witness for the last year.

I'm afraid that I didn't read Rivers of London back in 2014 so decided that to do so now would be a good foil to these times, whilst the city sleeps. Ben Aaronovitch – son of economist Sam and brother of journalist David – was originally best known as a scriptwriter for Doctor Who in the ‘80s, before making the move into fiction. Rivers of London, first published in 2011, is the first in the bestselling series of urban fantasy police procedurals featuring Peter Grant, published by Orion’s Gollancz imprint and represented by the incomparable Zeno Agency, both world leaders in spotting and developing writers in this genre. The eighth in the Peter Grant series was published last month, February 2020, so it’s still very much going strong.

Peter Grant is a rookie officer with the Metropolitan Police. In his first few weeks in the job, he’s assigned to assist in investigating a series of gruesome murders, which appear to involve ordinary people becoming possessed and subsequently committing horrific crimes. Early on, Peter encounters and convenes with a ghost outside St Paul’s Covent Garden, and is subsequently assigned to a particular unit of the Met which deals with the supernatural – as part of which, he receives training as a wizard, and gets to live on Russell Square with another wizard (and probable ghost) and a vampire.

And there’s an all-pervasive backdrop to this: the ongoing feud between Mother Thames and Father Thames and their respective clans – all named after various tributaries of the river – between whom Peter must broker peace.

Thus, we have the layers of history, human stories and different cultures across time, which make a great city what it is, played out against the eternal presence of the river; shaped by, but ultimately impervious to, our actions. Although this novel is fantasy, we're all aware that the footprints of the many who have gone before us is part of the excitement of living in a city: “Maybe all ghosts were like this, a pattern of memory trapped in the fabric of the city like files on a hard-drive - slowly getting worn away as each generation of Londoners laid down the pattern of their lives.”

As we go about those lives, pushing the world forward on a template created by generations of our predecessors; constantly adding layers but not extinguishing those previous layers, we become one of the ghosts even before we’ve passed to the other side.

My own 28-year relationship with London was inextricably woven into the story in my head as I read: crossing Russell Square, where Peter lives with said wizard/ghost and vampire, every day to attend lectures as a student; popping to the Tesco in Covent Garden close to where the murder takes place, and eating my lunch in St Paul’s churchyard where Peter digs up a body when, 20 years later, we had an office on Bear Street – and lots more between. Other readers’ lives will lend their own lens.

Something else which comes out loud and clear in the book, and is apt to reflect on whilst London is out of action, is the saying that Londoners are made, not born - and the resulting sense of fierce pride and unwillingness to disentangle oneself from the juggernaut of the great story which is playing out, no matter how you came to be there. In finding himself trapped with some tourists in an emergency situation, Peter reflects: “Strangely, I found I wasn’t frightened. Instead I was embarrassed - that this nice family of Von Trapp impersonators had come to my city, and instead of being gently relieved of their money they were facing violence, injury and bad manners at the hands of Londoners. It pissed me off no end.”

At some point, we become not only part of the story, but responsible for the story.

As everything is connected, there were pleasing parallels with the previous novel I read and wrote about, Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River – intersections of time, place and human lives told against the backdrop of the River Thames, including a supernatural element. In order to resolve the tensions between Mother Thames and Father Thames, Peter travels to Trewsbury Mead, source of the Thames, and alludes to the folklore of the Thames Valley – travelling the same path and subject to the same forces as the characters of Once Upon a River. Human stories are intertwined, and the natural world is immovable.

I’m not generally a fan of fantasy fiction so wouldn’t normally have picked this up. But really, it’s not fantasy: Rivers of London is a metaphor for one of the world’s great cities in all its wonderful complexity. I see that rights have been optioned to Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Stolen Picture, so hopefully it’s destined for life in a new medium soon.

Full disclosure: I’ve spent lockdown in the country, which I also love, but not in that same compulsive, inextricable way. So it remains for me to mis-quote Samuel Johnson: “He/she/they who is tired of London, is tired of life.”

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