Sweet Thames Flow Softly

There is a remarkable section at the beginning of Chapter Three of Peter Ackroyd’s Blake, his biography of the radical poet and print-maker, William Blake, in which Ackroyd describes the walks that Blake would have made through eighteenth-century London, in particular a walk north from Soho, up the Tottenham Court Road to a place called Willans Farm. I thought when I first read it that Ackroyd’s true subject was  London – it showed already in his choice of subjects for his novels: Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem – and I wasn’t overly surprised when Ackroyd produced a book called London: The Biography, shortly followed by Thames: Sacred River and, this year, London Under. However, if truth be told, I’m not sure Ackroyd has ever really improved on the description of Blake’s walk when it comes writing about London’s history. Over the years, his non-fiction about London has become less a commentary about the city he clearly loves and more a recitation of facts: he has research assistants and one has a sense he is now regurgitating what they feed him rather than meditating on his own knowledge and experience. Thames: Sacred River was oddly repetitive in places, while London Under is a slim book of observations ranged under various subterranean headings, touching on the sewers, the underground, the archaeology of London and, of course, its lost rivers, such as the Fleet, the Walbrook, Tyburn, the Westbourne, and other lesser known rivers, such as the Effra. It is enjoyable but, frankly, slight.

Yet, for all the carelessness, for all the sense of recapitulation of knowledge gathered by others and already used elsewhere, Ackroyd nonetheless understands some fundamental truths about London, the city where he has lived all his life, not least that it is a fantastically storied city, above and below ground. Lives are layered upon lives, in the here and now as people live surrounded by strangers, and reaching back in time. As Ackroyd says, in London Under:

You are […] treading on the city of the past, all of its history from the prehistoric settlers to the present day packed within 24 feet of earthen fabric. (1)

It is an unknown world. It is not mapped in its entirety. It cannot be seen clearly or as a whole. [..] So the world is doubly unknowable. It is a sequestered and forbidden zone. (2)

The subterranean world can be a place of fantasy, therefore, where the ordinary conditions of living are turned upside down. (5)

‘Underworld’ has more than one meaning, of course. It is not just about physical subterraneity; it is as much about that world that exists beyond the gaze of people going about their everyday lives, a world filled with characters and things they choose not to notice, or sometimes simply can’t see because they don’t know how to. We think, inevitably, of the criminal underworld, with its manors, turf wars and gang fights, or perhaps of the world of the lost and homeless, or on occasion of the just plain magical. In London, they all seem to have their place, in reality and in fiction.<

There is a long tradition of fiction which deals with the irruption of hidden London into daily life; to Ackroyd’s work we could add Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and King Rat, while Michael Moorcock’s Mother London is perhaps the quintessential work on the fragmentary intersection of London lives. And there are many others. Only recently I reread Margery Allingham’s More Work for the Undertaker, with its extraordinary evocation of the remnants of an old-fashioned London community, fragile but persistent in the face of rapid post-war change, and threatened by murder and blackmail. To these novels and others we should now add Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. It is a novel that has taken London’s storied nature very much to heart, to the extent that it appears to be trying to incorporate every London trope you can possibly imagine, from police procedural through ghost story to magical London, into one book. The result is intermittently pleasing, often confusing, and sometimes downright exhausting.

The story is narrated by Peter Grant, a probationary police constable in London, awaiting his first assignment, and fearing the worst, that he will be sent to an admin unit rather than out onto the London streets. Grant’s problem is that he has an enquiring mind, and is as likely to be found reading historical information boards as he is to be catching criminals. Rational, sceptical, he likes answers but he also wants to know the reasons behind those answers. On the other hand, complexity is not a thing that sits well in fictional representations of policing; it gets in the way. Likewise, Peter Grant’s curiosity, the wrong sort of curiosity, gets in the way.

Yet it makes sense to have a police officer as a viewpoint character in this narrative; the supposed detachment of an officer making an official report must surely counteract the irrationality that London exhibits. To take an example, the novel opens with a murder in Covent Garden, in which a man is found beheaded in the portico of St Paul’s Church, in the piazza. Grant finds himself guarding the crime scene and, shortly after, taking a witness statement from the ghost of Nicholas Wallpenny, who saw the murder. This is a deliciously matter-of-fact encounter between the rational and the uncanny. One might wonder what was going through Grant’s mind as he interviewed Wallpenny and took down the details. ‘Right, I thought, just because you’ve gone mad doesn’t mean you should stop acting like a policeman’ suggests either that Grant is not that imaginative or, if he is, that he is very good at putting it to one side until required. Or, as his new boss, Inspector Nightingale puts it, ‘you understand the scientific method […]? […] Because I need someone with some objectivity’(35–6). Or, as Grant himself says later, ‘I want in, sir, because I’ve got to know’(73).

What Grant wants into is a mysterious police unit comprising Nightingale and no other, which deals with precisely those irruptions of the mysterious into daily life that we discussed earlier, particularly when they affect the smooth running of daily London. Not only is Nightingale a police officer, he is a wizard; Grant will become not only his leg-man but an apprentice wizard as well. On one level, that the Metropolitan Police should have its very own X-Files and a small covert unit to investigate them is entirely plausible in fictional terms; that its operatives should apparently possess an assortment of supernatural powers is tenable within those same terms, but Diana Gabaldon’s rather vacuous cover puff does regrettably hit the nail on the head when she describes the novel as ‘What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz’.

Alongside Grant’s laboured narration of police procedures – I don’t doubt that Aaronovitch’s research is impeccable but his use of it is, alas, also implacable, making Grant possibly the most self-conscious police officer in fiction – we are obliged to watch him going through elements of wizard training. Here, Aaronovitch is equally self-conscious but less secure in what he is writing. Grant’s position in the novel as the voice of reason, the upholder of the scientific method, requires that he query every aspect of his training, or at any rates the bits of it that we see, rather than give into the intuitive. This is problematic because, on the one hand he is being told that magic is intuitive – he needs to feel his way to what already exists – whereas on the other hand, he is needed for that scientific objectivity. At the back of it all, Grant is a true London copper, in that nothing really seems to surprise him, and he takes it all in his stride, whether or not he can explain it, which is useful for what comes later, but it does undermine a central tenet of the novel. However, this is not, I think, what Aaronovitch is actually interested in.

Indeed, all of this is nothing but scene-setting; were this a television series, Aaronovitch’s more usual beat, this novel would be the difficult first episode that no one really likes but which is jam-packed with necessary ‘how we got here’ explanations that set up the subsequent episodes. As it is a novel, one wonders why Aaronovitch didn’t simply go down the route of ‘in medias res’ and let the reader figure it out. [1]

Having stripped off the surface layers of explanation, we finally reach the meat of the story. In the fully corporeal world, someone is committing a series of grisly murders around London. On the liminal side, Mother and Father Thames (unrelated, even by marriage) are conducting a turf war across Teddington Lock (the highest reach of the tidal Thames) for control of the city. It’s here that Aaronovitch really gets down to business. Again, he’s obviously done his research (and thoughtfully scatters snippets of bibliography throughout the novel) but because he’s so much more deeply engaged with these aspects of the story, he wears his knowledge a little more lightly, and concentrates more on the characters and what they’re doing. Of the two plot strands, the battle between Mama and Old Man Thames is more insubstantial, alluded to rather than visibly enacted, inevitably perhaps, given that we are talking about genii loci. To be frank, it is all about envisaging what Mama Thames and her river-children would look like in 21st century London, and it is clear that Aaronovitch has had some fun with this, drawing on the rivers’ various geographical dispositions to shape their physical appearances. His characterisation of Old Man Thames is, I think, less successful, perhaps because it seems to reach into some non-existent bucolic past and owes more to The Darling Buds of May and the Larkin family than to any fully-apprehended notion of the lives of contemporary rural itinerants. Indeed, this may be half the point – Old Man Thames lives in the past – but if it is, it’s more crudely done than seems proper. The most effective moments in Grant’s engagements with the various members of the Thames family are when he goes to beg a favour from Mama Thames – a Nigerian immigrant who came to London in the 1950s – and draws on his own mixed-race background (his mother is from Sierra Leone) to properly conduct the transaction, and in his general attraction to the ever-resourceful Beverley Brook. Perhaps because he is a city boy himself, Grant is always more comfortable in his encounters with Mama Thames’ people.

The other narrative strand reaches to the more recent history of London, into the lawless Georgian era of pickpockets and strolling players, centred on Covent Garden, and most particularly on the story of Punch and Judy. It’s an elaborate confection and I’m not entirely convinced Aaronovitch is always entirely in control of it. Again, given that he is in part dealing with the spirit of riot and rebellion, this is perhaps not inappropriate, but there are sequences late in the book the plausibility of which strain to be excused by explanations of mob psychosis. They were not entirely believable when I first read the book, and now we’ve just spent a week refreshing our minds as to the insane actions otherwise law-abiding people commit when the mob rules, not even the fact of the novel’s mob being middle- and upper-class can entirely get us past the fact that Aaronovitch occasionally requires us to not so much suspend our disbelief as truss it up firmly and toss it in a cupboard for a couple of hours. Ironically, he is rather more successful in his portrayal of what one might call the collateral damage which spills over from some of the main events; the random moments of inexplicable violence which seem to erupt without reason but which here have a pattern and an explanation.

The novel’s denouement is complicated yet a little too neat in some respects. Grant resolves the difficulties that have accrued throughout the novel, yet there is something a little peremptory about it, as though Aaronovitch had worked so hard to reach that point he was no longer quite sure what to do once he got there, so long as he did something! It is all tied off neatly enough, with sufficient loose ends left hanging for the sequels that are already coming after, but somehow it is not quite as satisfactory as one might hope for. I’m not sure why this is other than that the novel turns away from the liminal weirdness of London and takes refuge once again in the daily routine of police work. It may be that the reader needs that moment of ordinary life, as a reminder of just how peculiar Grant’s new job is, but it seems unnecessary. Grant has penetrated the top layers of London and delved deep into its history and mythology and it’s hard to see how he can ever truly be satisfied with the ordinary ever again. It rings false to suggest he can be. This is nothing to do with his rationality, his scepticism; those he applies to understanding how he can reconcile magical powers with being able to use a mobile phone without destroying it in the process. The point, I think, is that a whole new underworld is visible to Grant and he cannot refuse to see it.

>One sequel, Moon Over Soho, has already been published. I’ve not yet read it but I’m hoping it will give less attention to procedural detail and instead concentrate on a greater engagement with the weirdness of London itself. And while we are thinking about the rivers of London, let me also commend London’s Lost Rivers by Paul Talling. It’s a small book, filled with beautiful photographs, which traces out the old rivers of London, reminding us that in reality, as in fiction, ‘[t]he thirteen rivers and brooks of London still flow. Once they passed through fields and valleys, and now they run through pipes and sewers, But they have survived through the human world. They are buried, but they are not dead’ (Ackroyd, 2011, 38).

Aaronovitch, Ben Rivers of London (London: Gollancz, 2011)
Ackroyd, Peter Blake (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995)
_____, London Under (London: Chatto & Windus, 2011)
Talling, Paul London’s Lost Rivers (London: Random House, 2011)

[1] This does actually raise an interesting issue as to the perceived audience for this novel. Externally, the novel is entirely at home on the adult shelves in any bookshop. Inside, it looks much more like a children’s novel with 11 point leading making the 11 point typeface seem enormous. When I first opened it I did wonder if I’d accidentally bought a large-print edition.