It was reported on RTE at the beginning of this month that the number of homeless families in Dublin has surpassed 1000 and the number of homeless individuals totals over 5000. The property crash in 2007 created an economic strain on the country which is still being felt today with many people being rendered homeless primarily because rental prices are rising to an unaffordable degree. Writer Kerrie O'Brien has witnessed the increasing amount of people living on the street in Dublin for years. She decided to take action raising money for Simon Communities, one of Ireland's leading homeless charities, by creating and editing the beautiful anthology “Looking at the Stars” which features fiction, poetry and nonfiction by some of Ireland's leading writers. All the money earned from selling this book is going to the Rough Sleeper Team at the Dublin Simon Community.

This writing gives a dynamic look at the condition of homelessness – from inside perspectives of children, families and individuals left without anywhere to live to people working on the front lines assisting those in need to ordinary citizens who witness its effects only peripherally. Not all the writing deals directly with homelessness, but considers different angles of loss, empathy or hope. There are several moving and thoughtful accounts written by people who have experienced homelessness themselves. A piece by Tara Flynn creatively addresses issues of safety and security. Some of the fiction gives vivid depictions of people in need. A mother and her baby are scammed out of money in Sarah Bannan's 'Because Privacy'. The story 'Louise' by Belinda McKeon gives voice to an eleven year old girl living with her family in emergency shelter at a hotel where she must learn the restrictive rules and policies which make them into second class citizens. Whereas Donal Ryan's 'Detached' shows a man trying to care for his family and explain to his children why their house now belongs to an American bank even though it will be left vacant. One of the most vivid accounts of the grimy harsh reality of homelessness comes in Sinéad Gleeson's 'Counting Bridges' which makes you feel the bitter chill and continuous humiliation of living on the street.

Anyone who has spent time in a city encounters homelessness in some form and it always creates a personal dilemma. You can reach out to someone obviously in need by offering some form of support or walk past them. Poetry by Afric McGlinchey confronts this awkward question. Mary O'Donnell considers how the homeless can become merely “shapes” to us. Although we have statistics about homelessness we never know how many people are truly in need because they might not be counted in these collated numbers. Madeline D’Arcy presents the story ‘Census’ about a boy who has gone off the grid, but ironically finds himself being counted anyway. Meanwhile, Jane Casey's tense story ‘Runaways’ shows girls whose home lives have become untenable and embark on an unknown journey. Similarly the protagonist of Danielle McLaughlin's ‘The Woman in the Bowl’ can no endure her home life so takes drastic and much darker action.

More troubling to consider are people in need who are understandably tempestuous from the considerable strain they live under. Colin Barrett presents an intense inner view of an irascible character's thought process when he's plagued by feelings of isolation and feels disconnected from others. Nuala O'Connor's story 'Eulogy' considers the problematic life of a woman who can no longer be saved. Similarly, Jaki McCarrick gives us the point of view of a character who only witnesses the aftermath of a troubled individual's life and recognises how “this sensation of life being weirdly 'alien' must worsen, deepen” when someone is plagued by mental illness or absolute poverty. Dermot Bolger's striking poem considers a more complex meaning for the word home whereas Patrick Cotter's inventive poem 'The View' gives an entirely different perspective.

Issues of faith come up in several pieces in this book. Stephen James Smith's poem ‘Relit Flame’ shows a faithless person seeking solace in a church because he/she has nowhere else to go. Similarly, Mary O'Malley finds that “Habit takes you to an empty church”. In 'Jamie' by Christopher McCaffrey the issue of extreme faith is considered from the perspective of a person who can't stop himself from helping the homeless. The story '1988, Sabina' by Kevin Barry shows how an ordinary object like leather police boots can become something sacred when it takes on a historic and symbolic personal significance.

In a society where the division between the rich and poor is widening it's shocking to consider how ostentatious wealth can sit so smugly alongside cruel poverty. Gerard Smyth looks at the way prized horses receive much better treatment than people in 'The Horses of Kildare'. Anne Enright writes a story about absolute resistance in the face of these untenable gaps in society. Rick O'Shea considers the reality of the situation by looking at developments on a particular street in his piece 'Molesworth Street' where he recognises “We're living in a time where things are going to get harder for those on the margins, not easier.”

It's heartening to see writers take direct action not only be creating an anthology whose profits will go to combat homelessness, but which also make readers consider the issue from so many points of view. As Kerrie O'Brien writes in her introduction “Our government is not doing enough for homelessness – so maybe we all need to do something as individuals – be it a gig, a bake sale, a sponsored run, anything.” Buying this book is certainly a good place to start and reading it will leave you enriched and inspired. You can find out more about this anthology, the Dublin Simon Community and where to purchase the book here:

Over my winter holiday last year I read the anthology “The Long Gaze Back” and was enraptured by the quality of writing included. This book helped me discover writers such as Lisa McInerney, Maeve Brennan, Anakana Schofield and Lucy Caldwell whose books I’ve gone on to read and enjoy over the course of this year. But, as well as being a group of engaging stories in themselves, this anthology served as a self conscious attempt to give a necessary platform to Irish women writers in a canon dominated by male voices. Editor Sinéad Gleeson has now brought together a second volume “The Glass Shore” which only includes women writers from the North of Ireland. It’s a diverse array of fascinating short stories from over two centuries of writing that represent a plethora of authors from this region. It was wonderful reading this anthology from start to finish as I was treated to a wide variety of excellent stories with varying styles and subject matter. But I also gained a sense of the progressing ideas and issues female writers from Northern Ireland have dealt with in their fiction over time. The act of reading the stories in “The Glass Shore” together builds a cumulative mental portrait of this country from a variety of strong female points of view.

A beautiful arch is created from the first story to the last. The book begins with a fable-like story 'The Mystery of Ora' by Rosa Mulholland where a traveller comes upon a remote house with an astronomer who keeps a beautiful woman confined there. In the exuberantly enjoyable final story of the collection by Roisín O'Donnell there is also a spark of the supernatural; 'The Seventh Man' is about a woman who weds men over the centuries to sap them of their energy to keep herself alive. It’s a fitting way to end this collection which includes many female characters that demonstration inventive ways of eluding society’s conventional expectations for how women should live. In ‘An Idealist’ by Erminda Renoult Esler a woman recalls an incident in her life when she was sharply belittled by her sister only to grow to become a respected writer. Margaret Barrington’s majestic story ‘Village without Men…’ is a complex depiction of a community of women who have lost all their men to a ship wreck leading them to carry on entirely independently. Whereas 'The Devil's Gift' by Frances Molloy presents a girl from a large family who tries to join a nunnery but finds this community of women far from welcoming. By contrast, Lucy Caldwell’s heart-wrenching story ‘Mayday’ is told from the point of view of a girl at university trying to illegally deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When she contemplates the responsibility of the man who got her pregnant she reasons “It should be his problem too, but it just isn't, the world doesn't work like that.” Considering that the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland has been hotly debated in recent times, the story of this young woman’s precarious state feels especially relevant.

There are a large amount of vivid female characters in the stories, but there are also several stories narrated by male characters and consider many different aspects of masculinity. Ethna Carbery’s creepy and emotionally-compelling ‘The Coming of Maire Ban’ shows a man on All Soul’s Night hoping for a visit from his wife who died in childbirth. He’s accompanied by a friend who also loved his wife and through the night he comes to a realization about the reality of their relationship. Caroline Blackwood’s alternately hilarious and tragic story ‘Taft’s Wife’ is written from the point of view of a male social worker reuniting society woman Mrs Ripstone with the boy who she gave up for adoption. He remarks that “She had an unpleasantly over-ladylike accent that masked some coarser, underlying accent with unmelodious results.” Mrs Ripstone's increasingly flirtatious/superficial manner with him and dismissal of her son conceals the way she’s felt compelled to construct an identity and life which doesn’t include the reality of her child. ‘The Girls’ by Janet McNeill focuses on the views of a man taken to a tedious dinner reuniting his wife with her old friends and the way this forms a communion with our past and present selves. Sheila Llewellyn’s 'Capering Penguins' sees its male narrator return from war to visit the bookshop whose titles have an entirely different meaning for him now that he’s experienced the bitter consequences of battle. This creates a crisis within him which drives him to take shocking action.

Political conflict enters into the narratives much more as the stories progress through time and the bitter consequences of The Troubles affect the writers and their characters. Mary Beckett’s enigmatic story ‘Flags and Emblems’ shows the power of symbols in a community with sharp Unionist/Loyalist divides. The tense mood is so pervasive it feels like it influences the physical environment itself as in this poetic line: “The distant, lipping whisper on the sand and the sucking puffs of little breezes from the hills taunted her with their lack of violence.” There is a different slant taken on symbols in 'Cornucopia' by Anne Devlin where her narrator becomes a scholar working in Germany far from her Irish roots. The main character of Linda Anderson’s evocative story 'The Turn' has also left her homeland and is now confined in a Cambridge hospital. She thinks bitterly of Northern Ireland that it is “A fragment of a country, a blood-soaked tatter of a place with its 'peace walls' still standing, more than fifteen years after the ceasefires.” The couple in Jan Carson’s ‘Settling’ feel similarly disillusioned with available opportunities in Belfast and move to England, but the narrator eerily finds that the presence of her deceased grandmother has travelled with her.

Evelyn Conlon’s powerful 'Disturbing Words' gives an impression of the practical reality of new physical borders and individual resistance to regimental change. This is something which will no doubt be newly felt in Northern Ireland over the coming years as the government sorts out the mess of Brexit with its new borders. An act of individual protest also occurs in ‘The Mural Painter’ by Rosemary Jenkinson where a man commissioned to spray paint a mural for Armistice Day creates something entirely different from what his paramilitary employers want. Annemarie Neary presents social/political clashes abroad in her story ‘The Negotiators’ where a woman seeks capitalist opportunities in Algiers but isn’t prepared for the realities of the rapidly transforming playing field. An example of the more subtle long-lasting consequences of political conflict is shown in ‘No Other Place’ by Martina Devlin where an aging poet’s opinions clash with a police constable. Here you can feel a writer’s frustration with her work not being read, but she comes to the practical conclusion that “Perhaps it’s irrelevant if they listen or not – maybe what matters is the act of writing.” Luckily this anthology brings together this rich variety of writing to give a complex personal understanding of political turbulence within Northern Ireland.

While there are many interesting issues explored, I also highly admire the technical innovation and experimentation of form demonstrated in many of these stories as well. Polly Devlin gives a realistic take on a mythological story in her ‘The Countess & Icarus’ with tragic-comic results and some cracking lines such as “Martine’s crust now remained intact as far as Dora knew, but presumably had, once upon a time, yielded and oozed nicely for Victor.” Una Woods shows absurdist flair in her fascinating story 'The Diary: An Everyday Fable' which includes intense conversations about the purpose for being between metal objects. ‘The Cure for Too Much Feeling’ by Bernie McGill makes a woman’s lack of empathy into a medical condition where “She was laid low by other people’s misery, it sapped her energy, brought her out in a rash.” It forces her to become increasingly confined and cut off from society until she’s entirely isolated. The emotionally devastating story ‘The Speaking and the Dead’ by Tara West plays upon popular emotional and financial investments people make in the supernatural to deal with un-reconciled feelings of loss and grief. Many stories in the collection show highly creative ways for conveying complex ideas and emotions through forms of writing uniquely tailored to suit their subject matter.

I’m excited to read more from many writers included in “The Glass Shore”. Many of the contemporary writers included have novels and collections of stories published. It will also be thrilling to track down the books of some of the lesser known deceased writers in this book. I currently have on my shelves book published this year by Roisín O'Donnell and Annemarie Neary and I’ve been browsing through books by many more of the authors included. This anthology certainly stands on its own, but makes the most wonderful starting point for discovering writers I haven’t encountered before. While each story stands on its own, there is an intelligent flow from story to story which touch upon connected ideas, concepts or themes. The care and passion Sinéad Gleeson has shown in compiling this collection and the previous anthology is commendable. “The Glass Shore” is a necessary celebration of great women writers.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
5 CommentsPost a comment

Have you ever had penpals or do you still have penpals? As a teenager I loved writing letters – real physical letters with pen and paper. There used to be a whole culture based around finding other penpals with things called friendship books. You’d add your address and interests to a little booklet with dozens of other names and this would get mailed around by other enthusiastic pen pal folk. It was like a social network site before the internet. In this way I acquired hundreds of penpals from all over the world. It was so exciting learning about other people and cultures far away from my own small town in Maine. But a big part of the thrill was coming home and finding a mail box full of letters addressed to me. It also helped me to know myself better writing about my life to these virtual strangers. There’s a special pleasure in getting a handwritten letter – an art largely lost with the advent of email!

An early correspondence I had with Joyce Carol Oates

An early correspondence I had with Joyce Carol Oates

The Letters Page recaptures a bit of this magic by producing a literary journal around the form of the written letter and includes extracts, short stories, travelogue and poetry. They’ve just published their first collected volume and it’s a beautiful limited edition boxed set with loose-leaf reproductions of the contributor’s original handwritten letters with illustrations. As editor Jon McGregor discusses in his introduction sending and receiving letters involves lapses of time: the letter you send is sent to the future and the letter you receive is from the past. This completely changes how we read and interpret something as opposed to an email that pops up in an inbox. Also, our handwriting contains our personality and it conveys such a different feeling seeing a person’s scribbles than reading an impersonal type-written form. There can also be things crossed out and doodles in the margins. At the beginning of this volume, George Saunders also discusses how letters aide us in developing “our understanding of our relation to the greater world”. This is definitely something that was important for me writing so many letters as a teenager and discovering the physical world outside of my own little circumscribed existence.

This was one of the last letters my grandmother wrote me. She believed the protein in peanuts was essential for good health. Reading this makes me cry.

This was one of the last letters my grandmother wrote me. She believed the protein in peanuts was essential for good health. Reading this makes me cry.

The anthology includes writing from some very bright and cutting-edge authors who are able to find a new flair for their subject matter in this concentrated form. I’ve read books by several of these authors recently including Joanna Walsh who writes a funny and touching story about the gradual loss of some special cargo in a journey across Europe, Naomi Alderman who takes a new view on practicing the Jewish faith (or not), Kevin Barry who writes about the spectre of death/communing with other writers in rural Ireland and the hilarious Karen McLeod who writes a chatty letter to Alan Bennett.

There’s also some really diverse and startling writing. Some is more impressionistic like poets cataloguing a travel experience complete with drawings. Then there is writing which is more direct like a heartbreaking letter from Claudia Reed to her father about his struggles in the civil rights movement. Cassie Gonzales letter about representations of race includes a number of strike outs and corrections so the reader gets a sense of the actual thought process learning in some ways more from what’s been crossed out than what’s left in. Each letter says something particular about the experience of letter writing and couldn’t convey what they do in traditional Microsoft Word formatted printed pages. There is a relationship formed in writing and reading letters which is so intimate like peering into someone else’s window. As someone who used to love exchanging letters so much, it’s thrilling to see this form being kept alive in such a creative format as The Letters Page. Find out more about this special anthology here and the publisher Book Ex Machina's ordering page here

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJon McGregor
4 CommentsPost a comment

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.

London boroughs

London boroughs

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.