How often do you find yourself reading about a sleep clinic in Islington, monks in Barking or lamb chops in Whitechapel? (The author of that one, Nikesh Shukla, launched his second book ‘Meat Space’ by literally sending a lamb chop into orbit.)
Well, now you can in a new book published by Influx Press called ‘An Unreliable Guide to London’. Its stories are set in Wormwood Scrubs, Twickenham, Brentford, Leyton and other more obscure parts of the city. These are accounts from the outskirts, the suburbs, the socially excluded and the depths of the imagination.
Kit Caless and Gary Budden of Influx came up with the idea for the book in Tottenham Hale retail park, surrounded by the ‘brandscape’ of Aldi, Staples, Burger King and Poundland. Beyond the bland functionality of the area, they realised there was an abundance of stories waiting to be told.
So what is so enticing about these stories gathering on the periphery of the city?
Caless finds solace in these spaces and the characters who inhabit them: ‘The ordinary people that live in these forgotten, or never-discussed parts of London are the future of the city. As London expands, these parts of the city will get closer to the perceived centre. In the same way that 30 is the new 20 for my generation, so Zone 4 is the new Zone 2.’ So forget that selfie with half a luggage trolley under Platform 9¾. The places frequented by Shakespeare and Dickens can keep their blue plaques. You’re more likely to find these writers scribbling in an Asda carpark.
Here are five 'unreliable' things we learnt about London from the book
Blood thieves roam the streets of Camden at night
Look out for these ghostly, harmonica-playing men in white suits who take the narrator in Salena Godden's 'The Camden Blood Thieves' on a journey fuelled by tequila shots, cigarettes and looping conversations - outside the Lock Tavern she is led down a hatch in the pavement, which leads to a 'decadent room of red velvet and candles' where 'pale girls shimmy and shimmer,'. It is here where she finds herself tied down and wired up to bloated bags that drain her blood. Is it real? Is it all a dream? We're sure stranger things have happened in Camden...
Dalston is full of wankers
'There's a new record shop in Dalston. It's full of wankers' reads the final line of Tim Well's 'Heavy Manners'. Apparently it didn't use to be. Wells writes about buying reggae records in Dalston as a teenager in the ’80s. A time when you could pick up pie and mash and slithering eels from Kingsland Road and the record shops were full of 'choons' and sticky, beer-soaked carpets. ‘It’s unreliable in that it’s all gone now, so you’ll have to take my word for it,’ he says.
The housing crisis is caused by too much affordable housing
Will Wiles conjures up an alternate reality where there is a surplus of affordable housing in the city (not as rosy as it sounds). Buildings are automated and easily upgradable. These portable pods can be stationed anywhere in the city without the need for planning permission though the usual warnings apply: 'Think! Don't drink and resLOC. Remember where you docked your home.' The cheap, flexible 'strucs' are also easily disposable, which poses a problem Londoners will be familiar with. The well-to-do keep on top of the software upgrades, get extra bolt-ons and enjoy top-level views, while the narrator's 'basic Ikea 'Konstant' living room pod' grows increasingly shabby as his rent rises.
There's a giant swan at Brentford Ait
Seen any big birds, with smoky purple plumage squatting in the Thames lately? The protagonist in Eley Williams story is obsessed with the horse-sized swan which may or may not be attacking children, terrorising wildlife around Brentford and scuttling poorly moored boats. Apparently the city is full of 'cryptids', which are 'animals whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated by the official scientific community.
The Thames is full of condoms
Award-winning sci-fi writer M John Harrison offers a vivid description of the capital’s waterways, commenting: ‘The sexual health of a nation can always be judged by the state of its rivers.’ He describes the detritus which collects at Barnes Bridge as a collection of 'bottle caps, tampon applicators, condoms in a matrix of sodden interwoven twigs rarely more than five or six inches long – it's a substance in itself'. judging by the brown, sludge-like hue of the Thames this one probably isn't far off.
‘The Unreliable Guide to London’ launch is at The Star of Kings on Wednesday July 13 and four of the contributors will be reading their stories.