“Where Anne was a pale, slight pastoral figure who should have been running a school for twelve children in the depths of Northumberland, Natalie was a creature of the city – a stilettoed blonde with crackling nylons and a voice like an icepick.”
Tabs by Sean O’Brien
“‘Not another one,’ moaned a voice at the end of the phone. ‘I am sick of this. I bet you’re sitting somewhere in India, aren’t you? I hate what’s happening to the world. I don’t want insurance. I don’t want anything. Where are you? Eh?’
‘In Newcastle,’ said Gloria. ‘This is where I live.’”
Calling from Newcastle by Julia Darling
As gorgeous as the Anne / Natalie dichotomy is, there are no simple binaries. Not for womankind, Newcastle, or even Newcastle women. For one thing there is Gloria, a call centre operative stirred by a single, universal thought: how can one amount to more than just a cow in a pen?
In The Book of Newcastle, the latest addition to Comma Press’s ‘Reading the City’ series, Newcastle is not the principal actor – people are. Those born within the city, moulded by it and, for good or ill, seduced by its timbre. Across the collection, a certain arc takes shape – tales of a kind of entropy. Of small lives, at one time perfect, then slowly, inexorably, morphing – degrading. Young ones responding to music, the flute of an unseen piper, drawing them out from safety and toward Newcastle’s steel-plated basin. There is surprisingly little romanticism. Newcastle comes over as cavernous, immutable, unsentimental. Not a place for the soft-hearted. Angela Readman’s ‘Magpies’, Jessica Andrews’ ‘Blood Brothers’ and Glynis Reed’s ‘Living on Planet Clacky’ surf on that riff. (The ‘hovering-slightly-above-terra-firma’ feel to Reed’s is particularly lovely). These three stories, unwittingly, hit the same groove: glorying in some small piece of heaven, before laying bare how that paradise was lost. The city concomitantly coming into ever sharper focus. Oh, and as short stories – works of art – each swallows the reader whole. Complete, convincing and utterly compelling, from the very first line. Quietly mournful and yet beautiful.
But in this collection – small, almost pocket-sized but deceptively punchy – humour keeps surfacing. Gloria, the young call centre cold-caller, is surprisingly funny. In her journey out from the shallows, from family hearth and into the city, there is low-lit humour as she uncurls, comes out of her shell and finds her place in the world. There is also some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it commentary on shifting landscapes – de-industrialisation and Newcastle from yesteryear, as well as casual racism today. All wrapped up in a single short story. Just ‘wow’… But among such brilliant writing, ‘Tabs’ by Sean O’Brien stands apart. I’m not sure if this story of a highly literate waster, and his friendship with the author, is even a story. An account of a bond forged over poetry, beer and well, roll your own cigarettes, two men meet in a tug of war over an original 1923 edition of Wallace Steven’s ‘Harmonium’. They hang out in a ‘smoking library’ – a place, a concept that would seem lifted from the times of Mary Poppins – and yet somehow survived, until recently, within The Literary and Philosophical Library of Newcastle. They communicate in monosyllables. They share poems. The beer flows. The friend tries to keep two women sweet. It all goes belly up. The pubs of Newcastle bear witness to the parabola, end-to-end. Same as it ever was. Except ‘Tabs’ is written with such finesse, each paragraph is its own universe – a self-contained sonnet. I don’t expect to read anything this exquisite for some time.
Any Cop?: ‘Reading the City’ is a fantastic idea and I plain loved The Book of Newcastle. A city examined from multiple angles, obliquely, without care to promote or sugar-coat. No agenda, beyond shining a light on fragments of the life it holds.