Marcel Krueger returns to review a guide to London which aims to be totally useless, limited in scope and of no practical use!
Gary Budden and Kit Caless (eds.), An Unreliable Guide to London (Influx Press, 2016) 312pp
When taking the train from Harwich International to Liverpool Street Station after you’ve arrived on the overnight ferry from Holland, at first you won’t encounter many train passengers. A few bikers and backpackers maybe, but most of your fellow ferry passengers will by then have boarded their cars and lorries and campervans, never to be seen again. This will however change soon, already at Manningtree. More and more commuters will get on board, women in costumes with their high heels hidden in canvas bags slung over their shoulder, men in ill-fitting blue suits and pink shirts, all with newspapers and paper cups filled with machine cappuccinos. In Chelmsford and Stratford even more will get on until the train is properly crowded with half-asleep passengers being ferried into the big smoke, the pull of the metropolis only hinted at by Transport of London stickers and posters of West End plays. The suburban stations and places in the shadow of the city seemingly disappear once the train has pulled out of each station.
To make these disappearing suburbs and non-places more visible is the declared aim of ‘An Unreliable Guide to London’, the latest publication from innovative London independent publisher Influx Press. Realised after a successful crowdfunding campaign and edited by the two owners Gary Budden and Kit Caless (who both also contributed a story), this is an excellent anthology of stories and fictions from the London that German tourists in Gore-Tex jackets will never see. Gary and Kit have assembled 23 London authors, among them Chloe Aridjis, Noo Saro-Wiwa, M John Harrison, and Gareth E. Rees, who all write about that unseen London of Wormwood Scrubs and Tottenham Hale Retail Park. The stories strongly vary in style, length, and approach to place-writing: some are essayist wanders around specific neighbourhoods and their histories; others short stories or even proper (or better improper) guide pieces based on the notebooks of local psychogeographers. What unites these pieces is their honest love-hate for the big city – each story a portrait of a sliver of London that on these pages feels often realer than, say, the ArcellorMittal Orbit and platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross.
And yet this is not a guidebook, not even an unreliable one. While the stories have been divided into four sections – West, North, South and East (in order), it will not be possible to take this book to many the places described here. While some of the locations and their unreliable history sent me off on online research immediately to verify the claim of the author (for example Eley William’s cryptozoological purple swan-breeding grounds at Bretford Ait), others can be identified as clearly fictitious while reading. But this does not diminish the quality of this book – especially as Gary and Kit point out in the introduction already that London is ‘an unreliable home that exists in memory and imagination, in our stories and experiences, as much as in any physical reality.’ The book also comes with a list of favourite London fictions and places by the different contributors, which left me with another fantastic reading list and more places to identify on my old copy of the A-Z.
So this is not a guidebook, too unspecific and without map, but an excellent collection of compressed slivers of London – of which I’m sure many exist exactly like described here. This is a book about delicious lamp chops, drunken night journeys through Camden, vindictive terriers (stuffed), and rusting Victorian dreadnoughts slowly becoming islands in the Thames. While it will certainly appeal to current and former London residents, it is also excellent armchair traveller reading material. The more obscure place names and local landmarks might be difficult to place at first for those who have never been to London, but the quality of the stories is excellent and thus ensure great reading fun, plain and simple.
After a few days in London, staying in a Russian-owned private cum guest house in East Ham, I walked to the local tube station on the way to St. Pancra’s and the amenities of the Eurostar. I chanced upon the window of a corner store, completely covered in private apartment or shared living ads on small, handwritten scraps of paper, ‘Private ensuite room available, shared apartment with friendly Muslim family’ and the like. Among all those adds seemingly announcing the coming gentrification of East Ham, there also was, inexplicably, a piece of paper with a grainy black-and-white picture of cat, indicating that someone had found this ‘big black cat seemingly responding to the name “Ian”, in the days before Christmas.’ To paraphrase Heinrich Böll, I’m sure that the London described in this unreliable guide exists: but whoever goes there and fails to find it has no claim on the authors.
Marcel Krueger is a writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin who often writes about places and their history. His essays and articles have been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN Travel, the Matador Network, Slow Travel Berlin and many more, and he also works as Book Editor for Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. ‘Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers’ will be out on I.B. Tauris in the UK in July 2016. More info about Marcel can be found at www.kingofpain.org