Review: Rivers of London

I’m scandalously late to the Peter Grant series from Ben Aaronovitch. As I write there are five books, and after making short work of book one – Rivers of London – I plan to read them all.

When Rivers came out I remember spotting it on the shelves and thinking, like everyone else: it’s Harry Potter in the Metropolitan Police (“The sorting helmet has assigned you to the Vice Squad, Peter”, “Buy your truncheon from Inspector Wallander’s on Letsby Avenue”, etc). I suppose I labelled it as interesting but likely derivative-bordering-on-knock-off, and lengthy calculations indicated it didn’t then merit a place in my teetering stack of unreads.

Since then, something has changed. Perhaps it was the end of the Potter hype cycle, perhaps the sight of multiple sequels to River. Most likely a sneaky read of the first few pages in the back of Waterstones: it’s effortless, funny first-person writing, with the protagonist Peter Grant – a newly qualified police constable – finding himself deep into the plot within a page or two, interviewing a ghost after a gruesome murder in Covent Garden.

I plonked it onto my Christmas list, top of the pile for 2015. And here we are.

There’s no denying it: from 10,000 feet it is Constable Potter – just as from the same height, Poirot is Sherlock. There’s plenty of room for both. Aaronovitch’s world of magic is vastly different than Rowling’s. It’s more grounded in reality, if that doesn’t sound perverse for a book where the Goddess of the River Thames is real and Nigerian. As in Potter, magic isn’t common knowledge in Rivers – but those at the top of the Met certainly know it exists, even if they don’t like it. It’s a handy source of extra tension, though I couldn’t help thinking the secret would never be kept with so many people in on it.

Essentially Rivers of London is a police procedural with wizards. The usual pie – violent crime, bunny suits, grizzled old coppers driving classic Jags the wrong way up one-way streets – with a creamy topping of spells and haunting. The plot’s engaging and coherent, and I suspect much shoe leather died in the service of its research. In brief: Peter Grant must come to terms with this new reality, start on the path of wizardry with the help of his mentor Nightingale, and solve a murder or two – while keeping on good terms with London’s bickering waterways.

London is a strong supporting artiste in the book. Aaronovitch clearly loves the place. If you’re a fan of geography in books, Rivers is for you. Descriptions are true-to-life and vivid, albeit marginally too generous for my tastes on occasion – though never approaching get-on-with-it levels.

Our hero Peter is nicely drawn and feels real: a decent but inexperienced copper with a brain and a ready wit. And, great to see, he’s mixed race. In my head he’s Samuel Anderson (The History Boys, Doctor Who) or Daniel Anthony (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Casualty). (On that topic, Rivers adapted for TV could be damn good. The internet tells me it was optioned for TV a few years ago: hopefully it’ll turn up on screen at some point.)

In summary, I’m a fan. Book two will drop onto my unread stack in a couple of months (I don’t want to binge-read all five).

PS One day I’ll review books published recently. I fear this day will not come soon.

PPS The next book I’m reading is non-fiction: Scatter, Adapt and Remember, by Annalee Newitz. If you want to giggle at what else is on my shelves, here I am on Goodreads.

Nemo scit aliquid

When I was young, my dad worked for the family business. So did my uncle. Until I was about ten years old I thought that’s what happened: you followed in your father’s footsteps. I distinctly remember the conversation with my mum where she told me I didn’t need to do that: I could do whatever I wanted when I grew up.

It was a revelation. The earth shook, and when the dust settled I saw that normal had shifted.

Normal is what you grow up with. And normality shifts.

It shifts slowly, perhaps, and subtly, but shift it does. Normal for a seventies kid (flares, choppers, strikes) wasn’t normal for an eighties kid (ghetto blasters, BMXes, ZX Spectrums) or a nineties kid (consoles, CDs, slow internet). And normal for today’s children, like my two young nephews, is unimaginably different again. Only Blue Peter has remained constant, the unquenching spirit of Biddy Baxter straddling the generations.

This shift, the result of grinding techtonic plates, is unavoidable. You’d be a fool to try to deny it, or to resist it. Times change. Nothing lasts forever. And this, too, shall pass away.

* * *

The screenwriter William GoldmanButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, etc — famously wrote in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade what he said was the single most important fact in the entire movie industry: Nobody knows anything.

Despite decades of experience and armies of accountants and consultants and advisers, studios still commission expensive flops, and still reject what turn out to be blockbusters. Universal passed on Star Wars. Columbia passed on E.T. And every studio in town rejected Raiders of the Lost Ark before Paramount said yes. (Of course, after Star Wars was a success, space films were commissioned by the galactic ton.)

Goldman’s book was written in 1982. The world was different then: cinema normality has shifted. But Hollywood still operates the same way. Nobody knows anything.

Not just Hollywood. Not just the movie business. The Beatles were rejected several times. Harry Potter was rejected several times. Good TV shows aren’t commissioned, and poor ones are.

Across the creative industries, nobody knows anything.

And yet for the last century the studios and music publishers and book publishers and TV companies have been creativity bottlenecks, cultural gatekeepers. They have been the sole arbiters. They have decided which proto-stars to anoint with their dollars and pounds and which to turn away from like a leper on a street corner. And since they know nothing, those organisations that still remain must simply be the lucky ones. Somehow they have retained enough cash to hold onto their gatekeeper crowns, or sold out to someone who did.

* * *

The media companies began their scramble to dominance in primeval form in the late nineteenth century, and they did so because normality shifted: technology advanced to allow the mass production of culture. What had been a singsong around a piano or a topped-and-tailed trip to the theatre — live performance — could now be a recording, and later a broadcast. Shellac, vinyl, film, radio waves, magnetic tape, shiny discs, and so on. Cultural normality shifted.

And the costs of mass production and the risks of mass failure favoured those with bigger pockets, who became luckier and luckier, until by the end of the twentieth century they stood dominant: a landscape of media leviathans, which we see today as normal.

And it became, to a first approximation, impossible to make a film, or to sign a music contract, or to become a published author. The leviathans were in control, the cultural gatekeepers, because they took all the risks.

Even though they knew nothing.

* * *

The internet came along, and normality shifted again. It is no more an inviolable truth that we have a small number of large, lucky cultural gatekeepers than it is that I must work in the family business, or wear flares, or ride a BMX, or listen to the shrill whistles of a 14K4 modem. The internet has democratised, disintermediated, and revealed an untapped human desire for an infinite number of cat videos.

Of course normality will shift again, in a way nobody can foresee. But today’s cultural gatekeepers won’t remain in their present form. They will crumble into separate services like editorial and marketing, or wither away completely despite extensive lobbying of governments to legislate to preserve their business models, like a monk squatting on a squire until he agrees to buy his illuminated manuscripts and put that nice Herr Gutenberg to the stake.

* * *

Normality shifts, and — across the creative industries — nobody knows anything.

How else can you explain the decision by HarperCollins, upon the book’s 75th anniversary, to publish a new hardback edition of The Hobbit in Latin?