Of magic, rivers, and laughter

Of magic, rivers, and laughter

Ben Aaronovitch by Jenni Frazer April 2022

Were it not for the fact that he is now a fully engaged writer, Ben Aaronovitch might have been a stand-up comic. Or, should I say, a sit-down comic. Because even on Zoom, the youngest of the three Aaronovitch brothers (our own David, JC and Times columnist, and actor Owen) is a torrent of funny voices, mimicry and swooping asides. It is an enjoyable challenge getting him to stick to the subject, but I did my best.

We are talking because Aaronovitch has just published the latest in his wildly successful Rivers of London series, whose main protagonist is a mixed-race policeman, Peter Grant. Amongst the Weapons is an at times riotous ride through the high life and low dives of the writer’s beloved city, with a couple of detours to Manchester and Glossop.

Oh, and there’s magic. Lots of it. Grant has been taught all kinds of spells by his patrician mentor, Thomas Nightingale, who is, nominally, a senior policeman, but is actually (I think) Wizard-in-Chief of a deliciously alternative Metropolitan Police.

This is Peter Grant’s ninth outing and the books are more entertaining each time, supplemented by a growing number of novellas and graphic novels. It’s almost as though the term “book” is not sufficient to contain Aaronovitch’s glorious imagination: because the rivers — from the Thames to Peter Grant’s own partner, Beverly Brook — are all characters in their own right, flowing and flooding whenever possible.

Aaronovitch, like his brothers, was born in London, famously the son of a mixed marriage between the Communist Jew and later academic Sam Aaronovitch, and the upper-middle class non-Jewish Lavender, who became a committed Marxist herself. Both Sam and Lavender had daughters from previous relationships.

Sam’s family, he thinks, came from Vilnius around the turn of the century. “His parents arrived and worked in sewing buttons on second-hand clothes”.

“After school”, says Aaronovitch, “instead of going to university I basically faffed about. I had a series of terrible jobs, the kind you get when you have no qualifications”. The worst, he claims, was working as a store guard for Securitas, a job whose only good point was enabling him “to understand shoplifting a lot better, we were taught what you could and couldn’t arrest someone for. So it did come in quite handy later, for work”.

During one of the short-term jobs he submitted some scripts to the BBC. It enabled him to write some Doctor Who stories, though Aaronovitch tends to pooh-pooh this, saying he did them “before it was fashionable. Doctor Who was a sort of anti-credit in the 80s, basically despised by the television establishment”. After that, however, he could barely get arrested, saying now that “it was made clear to me that I was never going to be allowed to write another TV script as long as I lived.”

Finally — while working at Waterstone’s — Aaronovitch published his first Rivers of London novel, which rapidly became a word-of-mouth success, and he’s now been a full-time writer for just over a decade. Though there has been intermittent TV interest in his books, he is pragmatic and doesn’t really believe it will ever happen. “This would be a very expensive show to make, filming in central London, blowing up Covent Garden [as happens in one novel], the magic”.

Amongst the Weapons, besides bringing all the cast of the previous books together again, has a surprising Jewish element. The book opens in Chancery Lane’s legendary Silver Vaults and meanders over to Bevis Marks Synagogue, and a fascinating discourse into the Inquisition, Marrano Jews and Cromwell’s determination to readmit Jews into England, after the 1290 Expulsion by Edward I.

Aaronovitch is a fierce practitioner of extensive research, veering wildly off-subject at one point to tell me that New Malden, of all places, is home to North Korea’s largest community in Europe. “The live in New Malden, where Beverly Brook [one of his rivers] runs through, that’s how I found out about them. That’s the way these things happen, a couple of Koreans were working for big companies, picked a suburb, and then others joined them. That’s how communities start — when they’re not actually being herded into ghettoes.”

Had it not been for Covid, Aaronovitch would have spent even more time investigating the re-origins of the English Jewish community. To his regret, he says, he didn’t manage to visit Bevis Marks, though he hopes to rectify this. But though he takes great care to get the policing details right (and says he has improved since his first book), he is equally happy to put out requests on Twitter, once asking whether “Alona Silver” was a viable name for a Jewish woman in her 30s. Twitter approved and she can now be found in one of his graphic novels, working for the National Crime Agency.

“My basic idea [for Amongst the Weapons] was nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”, he says, laughing. “I wanted a religious conflict from the past that had spilled over into our present, and I didn’t want the Nazis, too obvious. So I thought about the Inquisition, and the fact that it was there to root out secret Jews; and then began to wonder about the Sephardic diaspora”. He spent time listening to the audio version of Simon Schama’s masterwork on the Jews, occasionally shouting “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that!”

And he learned that, due to Cromwell’s desire to bring Jews back in order to convert them, they did not live in England “under licence, as in other countries, only allowed to work in certain professions. Jews were like non-Conformists or Catholics, and it was that ambiguity — which I thought was very London — which I liked. You know, an attitude of ‘well, they’re here, now’”.

He is a somewhat Dickensian character who seems to find amusement in most situations, not least that his own first name is just three letters and, coupled with his lengthy surname, gives the graphic designers of his book covers endless headaches. Additionally, he is amused by the idea that since neither he nor his brothers ever changed their surname, “the only Aaronovitches in London are a bunch of atheists!”

Talking of Dickens, Aaronovitch’s website shows a glimpse of his secret passion, rewriting lyrics to well-known songs. His latest offering is “You’ve Got To Write A Sequel Or Two”, which begins: “In this life, one thing counts/On the shelves, large amounts/I’m afraid these don’t grow on trees/You’ve got to write a sequel or two”, with a roared chorus of writers singing “Large amounts don’t grow on trees/“.You’ve got to write a sequel or two”.

Now, he says, he’s hoping to come up with new lyrics for “If I Were A Rich Man”. Can’t wait.

Amongst the Weapons, by Ben Aaronovitch, is published by Orion at £13.50.

  • 9 May, 2022