Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Ugly Bus by Mike Thomas

This is the author’s second book, after his impressive debut, A Pocket Notebook. I reviewed that book here: While a book not without its flaws, A Pocket Notebook was good enough and original enough for me to wonder how, and indeed if, Thomas would be able to follow up. I needn't have worried, for Ugly Bus is an even better read.

Ugly Bus offers the reader an insight into the mind of officers serving with the Territorial Support Group (TSG). As someone with friends in the police, I'm familiar with the public order unit; indeed a running joke amongst other officers is that the TSG is made up of knuckle dragging Neanderthals. Their public image is also not exactly rosy. The TSG replaced the controversial Special Patrol Group (SPG), officers of which gained an unsavoury reputation for violence. Indeed it was SPG officers who were implicated in the death of Blair Peach, a cause celebre of the protest movement of the 1970’s. While the TSG are undoubtedly an improvement on their forebears, they've courted controversy in their own right. Ian Tomlinson the newspaper seller who died in 2009 during the G20 protests, did so after a confrontation caught on camera with a member of the Met’s TSG. So the TSG are viewed with suspicion in many quarters, dismissed as thugs in others. They are rarely portrayed in fiction and when they are, it's as little more than bit parts. I was intrigued by what Thomas would do with such fertile territory.

One of the niggles I had with the author’s first book is that it promised an insight (however twisted) into the mind of a firearms officer, only to snatch it away by demoting the main character to that of beat Bobby. Ugly Bus does no such thing. The author clearly knows more of this world than he did that of the firearms teams. He writes here with real authority and passion. The characters are well drawn and three-dimensional. The series of events, each steadily worse than those which have preceded, are viscerally drawn. The denouement when it comes is shocking in the truest sense of the word.

The author’s biography tells us that he’s an ex-police officer. What it doesn't say is whether he ever served with the TSG. Ugly Bus leaves me in little doubt that he has. What's interesting is that he appears conflicted about the squad. Few of the officers he portrays in the novel are sympathetic; some are quite frankly repulsive human beings. In this sense his portrayal lives up to the image held by the TSG’s detractors. But he also shows the real and almost impossible challenges officers serving with the TSG face. There's one scene where they're stuck in the middle between far right activists and anti-fascists, many of the latter middle class and seemingly respectable, and yet the vitriol this group turns on the police is breathtaking.

This is a brilliant novel, flawless in every way. It's not as funny as his first book, but what it lacks in humour it more than makes for with humanity. The only question is what Thomas write next? How does he top this? I for one can’t wait to find out.

A well deserved five out of five stars.

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