Anyone who lives within or has visited a major city will have an opinion about its character. Each individual point of view will present a different picture no more or less true than the next. London, with its population nearing nine million, has more perspectives than most cities. Yet it's rare that we see the landscape that real Londoners inhabit in the films we watch or the novels we read. I’ve lived in this city for over 16 years and seldom have I seen or read stories set in the capital which feel like my recognizable home. Even when my local tube station of Oval appeared in the entertaining film Attack the Block the characters instantly turned down a street to arrive at a council estate that doesn’t exist. A rare instance of recognition I had was reading the recent novel “I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo featuring the street Chapel Market in Islington (which I know very well.) In this case, I felt pleasurably disorientated like I was able to see it from a wholly new perspective. How to further represent the city of London in fiction to make it recognizable to its hugely diverse range of inhabitants while also making it powerfully individual?
The new anthology of short stories “An Unreliable Guide to London” from Influx Press isn't a corrective for how we view the city in fiction so much as a broadening out to encompass a wide range of points of view showing you the city as you've never read about it before. In these stories you'll feel the uniquely strong gust of wind which ushers you out of a South London tube station, smell the toast sold by a trendy charitable cafe, see bizarre reflections on canal waters, hear the shouts of protest at the closure of a historic landmark and taste the complex flavours in a lunch box from a local Thai stall. You can then travel around London in reality having these sensory experiences for yourself. Or maybe it’ll be different for you because as editors Budden and Caless note in their introduction “London is an unreliable city, always changing” from the endless constructions and flow of people moving in and out of the city. So this book acts as a kind of historical document while also telling evocative and entertaining stories. More than anything it encompasses a variety of diverse personal takes on this fascinating and ever-evolving city.
The book is divided into geographical sections of London with stories usually focused around a particular borough. The stories vary widely in their style, subject and tone. There are starkly realistic accounts such as an ex-drug user/seller encountering a suspicious rucksack in Courttia Newland’s 'The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs' and a homeless boy who is given shelter by a black American mechanic in Stephen Thompson’s 'The Arches'. Then there are wildly fantastic tales such as 'Soft on the Inside' by Noo Saro-Wiwa where dead animals that have been immortalized with stuffing by a villainous taxidermist in Islington are given a short lease to live again and take their revenge. Or there is the ambitious, fascinating and outrageously inventive story ‘Filamo’ by Irenosen Okojie where an abbey of monks battle and break through the fabric of time to emerge disorientated in a humdrum shopping centre. Some stories employ aspects of genre like Sunny Singh’s 'In the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens' which is in part a political thriller about a tentative romance centred around a secret service agent. Salena Godden’s atmospheric fantasy 'The Camden Blood Thieves' recounts a female musician’s encounters with vampiric gentlemen who try to seduce her into nefarious corners of London’s night life.
The stories have a variety of techniques for bringing the physical space of London to life. Some focus on a very specific locale and raise questions about who really owns these particular spaces. In Gary Budden’s 'Staples Corner (and how we can know it)' the second person account notes “You are trapped in the fevered dying dream of a brutalist architect.” This meaningfully evokes notions of how the imagining and planning of buildings by proceeding generations have shaped the physical spaces we inhabit for better or worse. Tim Wells’ ‘Heavy Manners’ recounts the lost culture and manners of record shop patrons. Nikesh Shukla’s sharply observed ‘Tayyabs’ is an ode to a famous Pakistani restaurant where a narrator records the ridiculous statements and cross-cultural confusion between the diverse patrons who all enjoy their mouth watering lamb chops. 'Mother Black Cap's Revenge' by George F recounts how the notorious Camden club was closed by developers. Groups of queer punks fought to save its vital history from being lost and want to maintain its use as a unique mixing point for social progression and artistic expression. These stories raise vital concerns about the conflicting claims which can be made on the same physical space by different people and how these clashes can lead to intellectual, verbal and sometimes physical battles.
The challenge of who claims intellectual ownership of a space is shown on a personal level in a conflict between friends in Koye Oyedeji’s deeply thoughtful story ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. Here the narrator is a journalist who returns to the Walworth area and meets his boyhood friend who is a rising star named Emcee. His friend’s fabrication of their area’s urban danger betrays the reality of their upbringing. It makes a commodity out of cultural stereotypes the general public want to see reflected back at them rather than representing the reality of their experience. The narrator laments “the way history can be stolen from under your feet as well as the way it has been plastered over in Walworth.” It’s a poignant portrayal of the different ways we lose where we came from.
In some stories the intense focus on a particular location entices the reader to wonder more about the peculiar and mysterious narrator. Paul Ewan’s story 'Rose's, Woolwich' examines an old-timers pub in the middle of a bustling business area, the regulars who sit stationary within it all day and how their behaviour mimics the pub’s pet lizard. But any specific knowledge about the peculiar teller of this tale who is prone to erratic behaviour remains elusive. Equally, the mesmerising 'In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait' by Eley Williams recounts in meticulous detail all accounts of a legendary bird in this particular body of water – an obsession which has driven its studious narrator to lose everything: “In many ways, it was lucky that I lost my job so that I could devote all my time to my research, and luckier still that I was able to commit a whole extra room to my studies and to the paperwork once my wife left me.”
Some authors take a more forensic approach to examining their locales. ‘Babies from Sand’ by M John Harrison examines the paintings in a gallery and how these works of art reflect upon the city while the city reflects back at them. Truth is found in the details and the detritus. 'N1, Centre of Illusion' by Chloe Aridjis looks at the nocturnal side of a particular part of the city and how its shadows make a very different kind of impression from its sturctures. Gareth E. Rees’ ‘There is Something Very Wrong with Leyton Mills Retail Park’ is a dynamic look at the way a city’s physical space exists both in reality and in the imagination. The narrator sees “A sketch of a place waiting to happen, tainted with the melancholy that it might not” and recognizes how our images of how we want reality to be often bear little resemblance to the truth of our surroundings.
There are (of course) extreme economic and social disparities between people in London. This is poignantly reflected and dramatized in many stories. In 'Corridors of Power' by Juliet Jacques a group of struggling artists who live in a warehouse crash a private members’ club party and become privy to alarming discussions about benefit cuts. Tim Burrows’ moving story ‘Broadgate’ relates a successful banker’s encounter with a desperate cleaner. It reflects how compressed urban spaces can create a perilous lack of empathy and a sense of isolation where there should be expressions of humanity. On the more positive side, ‘Warm and Toasty’ by Yvvette Edwards shows how instances of meaningful exchange across economic divides can inspire heartfelt connections and that appearances can be deceiving.
One of the funniest stories is Will Wiles’ creatively disarming alternative history 'Notes on London's Housing Crisis'. In this vision of London traditional houses are abandoned for mass-produced housing and megastructures that can be slotted into different parts of the city on a whim. However, some people inevitably abandon the social cause for this free flow of movement to lay claim to particular areas. This means that people may have to revert to the abandoned and devalued traditional housing. The narrator hilariously begrudges the fact he’ll have to pay £675 for a three-bedroom terraced house in Notting Hill when in reality such a property would cost millions.
When I reached the end of this anthology, it was a personal pleasure to read Kit Caless’ story ‘Market Forces’ which centres around the lunchtime food stalls at Exmouth Market – a street that happens to be right around the corner from where I work. Not only have I seen all the market stalls he mentions, but I’ve eaten lunch from all of them. So I could both imagine the rich sensory experience of eating these dishes through his evocative writing, but I could remember tasting them myself. He creates fascinating micro-stories centred around five different characters who purchase lunch boxes from various stalls. These characters and the food they eat are from a wide range of backgrounds making a fitting statement about the confluence of cultures which is at the heart of London life.
Something that is so refreshing and exciting about this group of stories is the true diversity of people included. They feature characters named Khalil, Manja, Graham, Malik, Fire, Rupie, Wasim, Tawaiah, Daniela, Olu, Dom Filamo and Tuma. Some stories go into their ethnical and racial backgrounds. Others simply let them stand as individuals who inhabit the names they’ve been given or that they’ve given themselves. There are people with backgrounds in Algeria, Mauritius, Pakistan, Nigeria, Slovenia, America, Columbia and many other countries. Reading these stories isn’t an exercise in cultural tourism; it’s a true reflection of what it’s like walking down many streets in London. As Aki Schilz powerfully states in the book’s opening story “The town broadcasts its stories at a precise frequency; you just have to learn to tune in.” The stories in this collection will make you see the London and the people you pass on its streets in a new way.
I enjoy reading anthologies of different writers because it’s like getting a sampler of authors whose stand-alone books you might want to read. I’m certainly interested in reading more writing from many of the authors included in this compelling collection. Some have published several books and others are up-and-coming writers. An added bonus is included in the author bios at the end of the book where each writer names some of their favourite London-based novels as well as noting their favourite physical locations in London. You'll get a very different look at London from novel to novel when reading authors as diverse as J.G. Ballard, China Miéville, Hanif Kureishi, Virginia Woolf, Bernardine Evaristo, Alan Hollinghurst, Charles Dickens, Stella Duffy, George Gissing, Alan Moore, Monica Ali, Elizabeth Bowen, Zadie Smith, Howard Jacobson, Angela Carter, Iain Banks, Xiaolu Guo or Peter Ackroyd. Of course, no one can definitely capture London but all of them add to a fuller more pluralized vision of the city. “An Unreliable Guide to London” is a timely and significant contribution to the rich tradition of London literature. It’s a particular pleasure reading it on a London bus when you have no set destination.