Book Review: An unreliable guide to London

Shivanee Ramlochan

Trinidad and Tobago

Lord Kitchener, the late Trinidadian calypsonian, arrived in England on the Empire Windrush in 1948, with several songs in his back pocket. Kitchener, a then fresh-faced young man, not yet the calypso titan he would become, had a song ready for the Pathé News crew, when the Windrush docked at Tilbury: London is the place for me. A jocular, optimistic anthem, London is the place for me held within its upbeat melody the hope of an entire era of black, Caribbean Britons, making their way into Brixton’s industrial austerity. The ballad is, unmistakably, an immigration song – Paddington Bear, who hails “from darkest Peru”, navigates London to its tempo in 2014’s Paddington. London, the sanctuary and stomping ground of Paddingtons and Kitcheners alike, has been claimed – triumphantly and tempestuously – as the place for so many.

In this light, it is more than mere playfulness that underscores the presentation of An unreliable guide to London, edited by Kit Caless with assistance from Gary Budden (Influx Press, 2016). Packaged as an anti-touristic manual, cheekily emblazoned with inverted emblems of Britannia on its front cover, this is London through the eyes of its people: a proudly patchwork, multiply striated band of immigrants, adventurers, aid workers, delinquents, and discoverers. In a city that is perhaps best described as a palimpsest, a self-renewing parchment for plans and ideas, An unreliable guide to London brings its reader in on the subterranean levels of how folk live, love and traverse space.

Don’t expect starry-eyed send-ups of the London Eye here, or glittery tributes to walks along the Thames: while popular signposts and must-sees might turn up in this anthology, they’ll be cut from non-commercial cloth. As Caless and Budden stress in their introduction, this collection is an ode to the unsung, possibly unwashed corridors and cloisters of London; think less Hyde Park, more Hanwell, Cricklewood, and Barking. Each of these 23 stories is interested in a kind of claiming, or possible reclamation; each of them sifts a less-seen, less-remarked-upon London from the implied tawdriness of A to Z guides, or even the most well-intentioned of travel gurus’ Top 10 must-sees. That’s all well and good, these stories gently or growlingly underscore, but there’s more to London than what you can Instagram from the roost of a sightseeing double-decker.

To Caless and Budden’s credit, the outlay of An unreliable guide to London is not heavily prescriptive: the editor and editorial assistant arrange these short fictions by a quartering principle, segmenting them into West, North, South, and East. Themes, motifs and symbolisms – the meat and heft of each story – are allowed to roam through this anthology’s porous borders, making for engaging and map-alchemising results. In Stephen Thompson’s ‘The Arches’, it’s a mixture of compassion and consternation that makes an American-born garage owner take a “Brixton, born and bred” runaway under his wing. It’s a story tenderly studded with origin tales, a darkly comic scavenger’s ode to how the non-privileged eke their existence, earning or stealing their daily bread:

“Been living in the Stonebridge projects since coming to London and even after all these years it still reminded me of where I came up. Buildings looked a whole lot different but the folk living in them were almost identical. Black, mostly. Some good, some you wouldn’t give the skin off of your chicken.”

Certain stories cleave more unerringly to the tongue-in-cheek guidebook format: witness Chloe Aridjis’ ‘N1, Centre of Illusion’, which frames Islington as a haven for sleep-deprived, restless lovers of light and shadow’s interplay. Written in the well-mannered elegance of, one imagines, a docent’s soothingly dulcet tones,  ‘N1, Centre of Illusion’ offers visitors an entirely distinct sort of museum, the Museum of Night. Aridjis is at her best in this story when she counterpoises calm, wondrously descriptive magical realism with the actual terrain of Islington itself:

“…one of the most widely noted shadow appearances, for those in search of such things, has been that of the Brocken Spectre, looming three-dimensional shadows cast onto buildings, especially in times of fog. A golem silhouette, meanwhile, has been seen slinking across the old Carlton cinema in Essex Road, and smaller versions across the exterior of the Charles Lamb pub after closing time.”

Gentrification is more than a slickly popular watchword in An unreliable guide to London: it receives a stern shakedown in Koye Oyedeji’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, wherein a first-person narrator denounces Walworth’s gentrification as a “sallow hue”, holding up East Street’s market “as the neighbourhood’s major artery, as something that would outlive me.” Oyedeji’s narrator bitterly laments the market’s impending ruin, signalling a set of values – homegrown, proudly resolute, steadfastly observant – that push through the story’s narrative structure like intentional, deliberately expositional vines. There is no room for blinking in spaces like this, a sentiment which echoes the concluding thrust of Caless and Budden’s introduction. Walworth is in flux. Look the other way, or pause to snap a selfie in front of Big Ben, and you’re likely to miss the microscopic shifts in the pavements of suburban enclaves, industrial war zones, and other places Londoners call their own.

 

Ultimately, however, the anthology resists the battering ram of supercilious judgement that so easily accompanies collections of this home-turf disposition. This is no small feat. Those who feel like their foundational sense of place is being dismantled are often quick to pepper their creative offerings with snarky, sullen invective. An unreliable guide to London isn’t a closed, Brexit-proud fist. These stories, hallmarks of the besieged yet stalwart diversity that has welcomed a stream of Kicheners, Paddingtons and so many others, are an open, tattered passport in the palm of your hand.

An Unreliable Guide to London, ed. Kit Caless with assistance from Gary Budden (Influx Press, 288 pp, ISBN 9781910312223)