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By John Vane
Reviewed by James Thacker

In late July 2023, posters appeared across several of London’s trendier boroughs. Professionally designed and marked with the logos of the Metropolitan Police and the borough’s logo they declared ‘CRACK AND HEROIN ZONE – the sale and use of Crack and Heroin is permitted in this area’. Shortly after the flyposting was spotted by street sweepers, while most Londoners were asleep in their beds, council teams began to tear them down, just another part of the day job of removing the graffiti that scars, and only very occasionally charms, the city. But not before the early shift had started to move across London, not before images had been shared on social media across London and the world, and not before the WhatsApp groups that weave disparate parts of London together had begun to crackle. It transpired, according to the Ham and High, that the QR code on the poster led us to a page promoting ‘Pattern Up’, a Brighton-based ‘collective of artists’ which aims to ‘raise awareness of the widespread criminal exploitation of local children and vulnerable youth’. 

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Welcome to the world of ‘Frightgeist’. The story follows the fortunes of an East End Dandy, Mohammed Miah who becomes haplessly drawn into the various goings-on that surround a fictional Mayoral election, a bare-knuckled fight between the incumbent, Brixton girl Lorraine Linton, and challenger tycoon turned reality TV star Saint Devine. From the first page, the story cracks along at pace flirting with the unbelievable and then coming back down to earth in the real politics of London, as one might expect from an author who spent over ten years as London correspondent of the Guardian. He knows what he speaks, and it tells in much of the detail around Mayor press conferences, political panic and police confusion. The various protagonists flit across the length and breadth of London avoiding and chasing each other armed with a variety of Dickensian last names. Veterans of London’s political scene will recognise Petra Standwith, the inveterate middle-class ally, the nice version, and Celia Bray, the inveterate middle-class ally, the nasty one. Colin Sockman is the right-wing keyboard warrior who dreams of a London of pearly kings and queens from his sad desk outside the city while nastily whipping up hate within it from afar. It starts with a bomb and ends with death from the sky and we’re kept guessing till the very end about who is going to win the election to be the next Mayor of London, or which of the candidates will make it out alive.

Frightgeist is the name of a fictional artists collective in the novel which creates mayhem through its ‘happenings’ and ‘zaps’ across the city while real terrorists threaten. Pattern Up is the name of a real collective of artists that caused a little stir in some streets of London this summer. Frightgeist in one reading is simply a cracking yarn set in the political world of the Mayoralty, but author John Vane laces a sense of anxiety about what is real and unreal in the city, its places and its politics from beginning to end. It’s a distinction that for some actors in the novel – and not just the politicians - simply does not matter. A welcome addition to the London bookshelf.

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