Flights of Angels

Evangeline Jennings writes about author Mike Ripley and his Angel series

Rule of Life #277: Always park a car facing away from where you are, to facilitate quick exits.

If you want to be a licensed London taxi driver, you have to take The Knowledge, a demanding test that can take as long as four years and as many as twelve attempts to pass.

The Knowledge requires drivers to master more than three hundred routes – or “runs” – within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. It’s designed to teach them all about the twenty five thousand roads and twenty thousand landmarks and places of interest contained within that one hundred and thirteen square mile circle.

Mike Ripley’s Angel drives a decommissioned London cab. As he’s quick to tell us, he’s not a proper cabbie and he’s never done the Knowledge. However, he seems to have plenty. His specialist subject would probably be pubs but his general knowledge leaves little to be desired. Especially when it comes to the underbelly of life. Any fool with a screwdriver can barrel and steal a car, but Angel can teach you how to hotwire a plane.

Rule of Life #2: Don’t be a mug.

The average Mike Ripley novel goes something like this. Angel is drinking in a noteworthy pub or other interesting venue. He meets someone who gets him into trouble. We’re introduced to one or more eccentric and appropriately useful characters. Fun and games ensue. A running joke is established. The culture of the day is poked with a sharp stick. We learn a little more about Angel’s life. Everything works out all right in the end – though there’s often collateral damage – and the whole shebang finishes on a punchline.

As formulas go, it’s a good one. Made infinitely better by the characterization and jokes.

Just Another Angel
Just Another Angel

When we first meet Angel – Just Another Angel (1988) – he’s drinking in a pub called the Gun, enjoying his first drink of the day or the last of the night before depending upon your perspective. The Gun, he explains, “is that rarity in England: a pub that opens when the punters want it to.” On the south side of the old Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market, the Gun had a dispensation to open at six in the morning to serve all bona fide market traders.

Not that Angel is or was ever a market trader.

He does, however, have an encyclopedic knowledge of the pubs and clubs and restaurants of London. From Spitalfields to Soho – the French House, opened by a German, taken on by Belgians – to the Palace of Westminster, closest pub the Red Lion, and on to God knows where.

And he came by this knowledge honestly. No market trader, Mike Ripley is a bona fide beer expert. If I have this right, he worked PR for a brewery and eventually became a beer journalist. Which sounds a lot like a tautology to me.

I like Angel a lot. And I said as much right here on this very website when a parcel arrived from the UK last summer stuffed to the gills (where else?) with my family’s vast collection of all but one of Mike Ripley’s books. The question I asked then, was how well have they aged?

The answer, happily, is very well indeed.

They have aged, of course. You can see it happening book by book. In the early volumes, for example, Angel was very proud of his ability to con office receptionists into letting him make phone calls for free. By the fourth or fifth story, everyone has cell phones, often cloned. But the underlying concept remains entirely the same. Angel is more than a walking, talking London What Pub Guidebook, he’s the epitome of the streetwise Jack the Lad who never goes looking for trouble, but stumbles into plenty.

Cultural changes are also reflected in the Angel canon. In the first book, he refers to his neighborhood corner shop as the local Patel’s. You don’t see that kind of casual racial stereotyping later in the series. Ditto the attitude to homosexuals.

Now Ripley and Angel are clearly not racist or homophobic. In fact, I would put them both very much on the side, forgive me, of the angels because there’s a clear anger in some of this writing about, for example, the way society treats the homeless and the racism of others. Ripley simply makes fun out of everyone and everything. But what was acceptable “banter” in 1988 soon became otherwise and that is reflected here.

One of my other favorite literary characters is Andrew Vachss’ stunning creation, Burke. In some ways, Angel is a boozy and irreverent English equivalent. Show Angel a grid, for example, and he’ll run a mile to stay off it. On second thoughts, he’ll probably drive.

Rule of Life #23: Don’t give out your phone number or address after just one date.

Angel likes life off the grid. If people can’t find you, they can’t ask anything of you. That’s probably one of his undocumented Rules of Life. He takes advantage of his name, Fitzroy Maclean Angel, to create a seemingly infinite number of alternate identities – or seven – and he’d much prefer the world to believe he still lived south of the river in a house that blew up before the first story began. He doesn’t. He lives in Hackney with a houseful of characters who offer further reasons to like Mike Ripley’s books.

My favourites, obviously, are the unlikely lesbians, Lisabeth and Fenella, who are every bit as unworldly as Angel isn’t. But there’s also Mr Goodson, the quiet civil servant who isn’t a Grand Vizier but plays one at the weekend in a cave. And when the buppies in the top floor flat move out after their storyline – Angel Touch (1989) – they’re replaced by Celtic Twilight, a Welsh local journalist and a Scottish chef-cum-street-fighting-heid-the-ball.

Angel Hunt
Springsteen

Ripley also does animals.

First among equals, there’s Springsteen, the homicidal cat.

The rest of the mental menagerie appears in parallel with Angel’s own family.

In Angels In Arms (1991), for example, we meet Angel’s inevitably eccentric Aunt Dorothea and the evil kitten spawn that Springsteen fathered on a pedigree Siamese neighbor: Ella, Billy, Sarah, Louis, Dizzy, and Miles.

A landmark book in the series, Family of Angels (1996), introduces us to Angel’s father, mother, and brother – revealing the secrets of his past – and also to Elvis the potbellied pig and Springsteen’s own father, Chuck Berry.

… I suddenly remembered the time my mother had built a duck pond at the old house. It had taken Chuck Berry exactly one month to kill and eat the ten original duck residents. Two of them, he’d taken while swimming.

And then, of course, there’s the Werewolf, who – strictly speaking – isn’t an animal. In Angel Touch, Werewolf is a mad Irish Angel-equivalent with the given name of Francis and knacks for the ladies, music, and guns. In Angels In Arms, he needs rescuing and so Angel reaches out to his brother, Gearoid – it’s pronounced Garrodth – who also knows a thing or two.

Rule of Life #59: Get your retaliation in first.

Music and animals play a big part in the Angel stories. They’re two more of Ripley’s hallmarks. As the series evolves, and the plots become more complex and less grounded, the song remains the same. Wit, characterization, and the Knowledge.

When Angel moves out of Stuart Street to live with Amy, his eventual wife, in palatial Hampstead comfort, he retains the old address and visits regularly. This isn’t only Fitzroy Maclean Angel clinging to his old friends and off-the-grid independence, it’s also Mike Ripley hanging on to the foundations of his writing and his own favourite characters.

This becomes even more clear in the last Angel book, Angels Unaware (2008), which takes our hero home to his Hackney basics and brings back many of the old characters to tie a clear and deliberate final bow on the series.

This is how it starts:

I was in The Gun on Brushfield Street, having the first drink of day.

There was a time when that could have meant the first drink of the day or the last drink of the day before, and the specific time in question would have been a few minutes either side of 6AM. That was in the days when …

Angel and Ripley are back where it all began. Everything has changed. The times, the city, the people. The bar staff are Polish and Angel is a father. That market is long gone. But the pub itself is still there.

Do I have to paint you a picture?

Mike Ripley Angel Books
My Angels

That Angel Series

  1. Just Another Angel (1988)
  2. Angel Touch (1989) Insider trading and racism
  3. Angel Hunt (1990) Animal rights, terrorism, and daddy issues
  4. Angels in Arms (1991) Sex, drugs, rock‘n’roll, and Breton separatism
  5. Angel City (1994) Environmental waste and homelessness
  6. Angel Confidential (1995) Property scams and girl power
  7. Family Of Angels (1996) Dysfunctional families, drugs, and European subsidies
  8. That Angel Look (1997) Fashion and fascism. The rag trade, the drug trade, and race war.
  9. Bootlegged Angel (1999) Smuggling and cheap continental beer.
  10. Lights, Camera, Angel (2001) Hollywood and the Millennium celebrations.
  11. Angel Underground (2002) Archaeology, genetically-modified crops, and a very cold case.
  12. Angel on the Inside (2003) Ex-husbands, the London Eye, and Welsh gangsters
  13. Angel In The House (2005) Botox, househunting, Cluedo, and Trabants.
  14. Angel’s Share (2006) Obsession and respectability
  15. Angels Unaware (2008) Hackney Redux and retirement

British publisher TELOS is midway through republishing the Angel series.

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