Monday, September 12, 2016

Review of An Unreliable Guide to London ed. by Kit Caless & Gary Budden

There is a handful of world cities that even though a person may never have been, there are enough novels, news events, magazine articles, history texts, and various other forms of media available that a person feels like they know the place.  And London is for sure one.  Most everyone in the Western world knows Big Ben and Sherlock Holmes, red phone booths and the Queen, double-decker busses and the Thames, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace.  But what of the unknown streets of the vast city?  What of the neighborhoods and everyday places not seen in crime novels and fashion magazines?  And what of the little secrets, even if a step or two beyond reality, that linger in its nooks and crannies?  Featuring twenty-three stories, An Unreliable Guide to London (2016, Influx Press) gives a glimpse of such places, and is one of the surprise anthologies of 2016.

Divided into the compass points: west, north, south, and east, An Unreliable Guide is a bric-a-brac account of London’s locales and people rarely, if ever, seen in the news or fiction.  Generally written in quality prose, the stories cover material from local legends to quotidian street scenes, surreal wishes to existential quantity.  Most stories only a few pages in length, the overall result is a patchwork of architecture and style, culture and society that feels more like what London really is.  Or least I guess so; I’ve never been there.
A ruminative setting rather than dramatic story, and thus a representative note upon which to open the anthology, “Beating the Bounds” by Aki Schilz is a glimpse of the suburb of Hanwell—a glimpse whose quirky details provide flavor.  A character study rooted in the thoughts of a man jogging, his culture, and a knapsack he finds while on the trail, “The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs” by Courttia Newland is an interesting experience in that the bare minimum is provided to actually have a plot, but when the final paragraphs click into place, result in a very satisfying tale.  The daring to address pertinent cultural and social issues should also be commended.  A Nessie albeit more feathered, “In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait” by Eley Williams tells of a local avian legend in colorful fashion.  “Staples Corner (and how we can know it)” by Gary Budden is (perhaps) a work of self-professed landscape punk.  A personal experience with a particular London street corner, the reader can feel a reaching for significance beyond.

Dynamic for the zip-zap of dialogue, “Corridors of Power” is a sharp story working with an inorganic (and therefore realistic) group of characters involved in the art scene in London.  "N1,Centre of Illusion" by Chloe Aridjis is another piece descriptive of setting, but an abstract one via land and water.  One of the best pieces in the anthology, "The Black Cap's Revenge" by George F. tells of a renovated bar, and the social deviants who make it their own, from clothes to attitudes, which seems a good representation of contemporary Bohemian/counter-culture.  "The Camden Blood Thieves" by Salena Godden is the straight-forward (relevant to the other stories, at least) tale of a young musician who gets in a little (just a little) over her head drinking at a bar one night.  “Notes on London’s Housing Crisis” by Will Wiles starts off as realism—a newspaper article even—but quickly becomes a parallel take (satire?) on the state of housing in London.  Science fictional in mode, however, the commentary remains fully political. “Soft on the Inside” by Noo Saro-Wiwa is a simple tale of the stuffed animals in an evil taxidermist’s shop coming alive to see London, but is not much more.  A funny little story, “Rose’s, Woolwich” by Paul Ewen tells of an annoying barfly and the sofa he calls home for a moment.

Anyone who frequents M. John Harrison’s blog Ambient Hotel knows that the man is more than capable of firing off a paragraph or two of highly esoteric yet strangely tangible thought.  Almost a mini-collection of such material, “Babies from Sand” is a cycle of vignettes that spin tighter and tighter into meaning.  (For the record, Harrison remains his immaculate self prosaically.)  Landscape as music, “Heavy Manners” by Tim Wells gives us a tour of a neighborhood through its musical acts, and subsequently cultures—more than any physical description of concrete or brick might offer. Nominally about a restaurant, as Nikesh Shukla’s “Tayyabs” progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious the story is as much about one of its patrons, and the inspiration it has.

Ostensibly a work of the paranormal, Stephanie Victoire’s “Nightingale Lane” is not, however, the latest Twilight spinoff.  Working with the idea of sylphs, their presence complements rather than gives reason to this gentle, descriptive piece of a London suburb.  Similar to the Shukla story but encompassing a neighbourhood rather than restaurant, “Broadgate” tells of a corporate-minded banker, the people in his part of the world, and the personal transition that occurs.  Living up to its name, “Warm and Toasty” is a personal take on charity that, who knows, may represent a reality, but should.  “There is Something Very Wrong with Leyton Mills Retail Park” by Gareth E. Rees is an existential piece trying to come to terms with commercial development in a retail zone.   The final story featuring a collection of mini character/setting vignettes, “Market Forces” by Kit Caless, caps the anthology, and feeds back into the first story.

In the end, An Unreliable Guide to London is a smorgasbord of peeks and views, speculation and imagination, on the London most people never see.   There is an amazingly wide variety of material drawn from an equally diverse group of writers.  While a couple older, established writers like M. John Harrison are featured, the majority are newer voices in the field.  Writers like Koye Oyedeji, Salena Godden, Yvvette Edwards, and several others lend a strongly contemporary view to the wide city.  Not your grandmother’s Victorian England, or even a retro steampunk take, Caless and Budden have pulled together a very interesting selection of stories that probably won’t set bestseller lists afire, but is certainly worth the time for the discerning reader—no first-hand knowledge of London required.  The only thing I lament is no story appears from China Mieville, whose “Reports of Certain Events in London“ is highly ‘unreliable’…

The following are the twenty-three stories contained within An Unreliable Guide to London:

Beating the Bounds — Aki Schilz
The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs — Courttia Newland
In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait — Eley Williams
Staples Corner (and how we can know it) — Gary Budden
Corridors of Power — Juliet Jacques
The Arches — Stephen Thompson
N1, Centre of Illusion — Chloe Aridjis
Mother Black Cap’s Revenge — George F.
The Camden Blood Thieves — Salena Godden
Notes on London’s Housing Crisis — Will Wiles
Soft on the Inside — Noo Saro-Wiwa
Rose’s, Woolwich — Paul Ewen
In the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens — Sunny Singh
Nightingale Lane — Stephanie Victoire
Babies From Sand — M John Harrison
Thy Kingdom Come — Koye Oyedeji
Heavy Manners — Tim Wells
Tayyabs — Nikesh Shukla
Broadgate — Tim Burrows
Warm and Toasty — Yvvette Edwards
There is Something Very Wrong with Leyton Mills Retail Park — Gareth E. Rees
Filam — Irenosen Okojie
Market Forces — Kit Caless

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