shining the spotlight on short story collections
Glasshouse Books, 2010
“The polarised options of life in London were both unfathomable and unattainable. Gangs of youths in Stockwell, toting knives and fighting and treating the streets like their property, to Louis Vuitton-toting ladies with dyed blonde hair- each strand sitting regally, higher than the last – wearing giant sunglasses and engulfing coats. They both reflected a fear, of sense of not belonging, of being somewhere in the middle, but going in neither direction.’.”
Glasshouse Publishers’ decision to split the city lengthways produces some unexpected results, in London /33 Boroughs shorts: Volume 1 East and Volume 2 West. As with the previous volume, new interpretations of familiar places produce surprises.
Volume 2 West, examines lighter themes than those of Volume 1 East. Whereas unemployment, poor housing and street crime were common themes, in West dinner parties, breakfast yoghurt, jogging and consumer values are very evident. A retired school-teacher coping with failing eyesight in a residence for “distressed gentlefolk” , a wife struggling in a ‘coded world’ to impress her husband’s boss and a mother who covets a house in a school’s catchment area are typical of characters and their problems.
The partisan tone and local loyalties of Volume 1 East are largely absent. There change was seen in a positive light – harbinger of jobs for the 2012 Olympics or developing transport infrastructure ; here in Volume 2 it’s a source of disorientation. What’s surprising, perhaps, is the strong sense that the characters would prefer to be somewhere more rural. The young man who shouts “Get off my Land!” at trespassers in his suburban garden echoes the sentiments of many. The slow destruction of the environment by development is a major theme, for instance, in Melanie Mcgee’s Chicken Run, in which a young woman flees crowded Wandsworth.
Which isn’t to say that contemporary social issues are neglected – the sudden deportation of a student, temptations of gang culture and relationship problems in an arranged marriage are reminders of cultural variety in even the leafier suburbs?
Cultural identity is often key to well-being, like the young Gujarati boy of Nikesh Shukla’s The Samosa Whisperer who finds “the meaning of life” in the eponymous snack. Aspiration motivates the young, as exemplified in Rachel Dunlop’s Holding Patterns; the truant in You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are by Debi Alper comes to sudden awareness of his options by comparison with a less fortunate contemporary.
London 33 West features more innovative style and structures, such as the sombre “twitter” romance in Jonathan Green’s I ♥ Richmond, and the surreal urban fox-hunt in The Hunt by Tom Bromley. Will Maxted cleverly mixes social satire and mordant humour in the highly successful Ealing Commondy.
The insecurities of romantic relationships are apparent in A Marriage Made in Hounslow by Rajinder Kaur where a bride finds an unexpected source for bonding with her husband; complicated wedding arrangement are satirized in Jessica Ruchton’s White Wedding and a young man draws on film culture to further romance in Patrick Binding’s Streetlights.
Although the two volumes and the stories themselves stand alone in their own right as fascinating portraits of London lives, I’d recommend the two volumes be read in succession for a proper sense of London’s immense diversity.
About the reviewer: Sheila Cornelius was born in Preston, Lancashire, but couldn’t wait to get to London, where she married a Londoner and brought up her children. Now retired from lecturing in English Literature and Media, she reviews films and plays and tries to write fiction.