“Moving on but looking back” – Manchester Uncanny by Nicholas Royle

IMG_2022-12-2-184835Nicholas Royle’s book hunting memoir White Spines anticipates many of the themes in his new short story collection, Manchester Uncanny. Some of the stories verge on auto-fiction. As usual Royle is meticulous in his descriptions of people and places. His narrators’ minds are  constantly challenging and refining the worlds  around them.

So what are most of the stories about – returning to a native place or moving on. In ‘The Lancashire Fusilier‘, the theme is leaving life itself. Some of the South Manchester dialogue from the golden triangle of Altrincham, Didsbury, and Timperley can be both comical and precise. Some of the writing about music is both precise and true:

“Drum and bass, in that order, followed by a simple repeated guitar riff and finally the most haunted sound to come out of Stretford the voice of Ian Curtis, Joy Division – the one band you would rely on not to try to kid you the world was better than your nightmares.”

If narrators return to earlier favourite music, they can return to the recording of Deltic locomotives. The meticulousness in thought fills the spaces in a life. You can almost hear the mind buzzing. The narrators are often in dialogue with themselves and the reader. What is happening? What does this mean? Here at the start of the story ‘Salt:

a nice guy and everything. well he’s OK. But you can’t help but look back at his track record and wonder.”

Within the collection as well there are more experimental pieces, less suburban in their tone. The Oulipo experimental ‘Disorder’, from the superb anthology, We Were Strangers (edited by Richard V Hirst), combines cleverness with authorial direction, as the exact words of an album are transposed into a story. ‘Strange Times’ reminds me of the story by Vlatka Horvat that Royle published with his own Nightjar Press. Here Royle takes found phrases that relate to the pandemic and collects them in a collage, repeated phrases acting as a kind of chorus, “keeping well,” “finding well,” “strange times.”

And, of course, Royle, the bibliomaniac of the Picador variety (white spines only), can’t refrain from the reference to books here which are visual objects as much as texts:

“If the name James Marsh doesn’t mean anything to you, he did those William Trevor paperbacks for King Penguin in the 1980s, or you might have seen his album for Talk Talk in the same decade. He likes birds and fish, and creating the suggestion of a face out of unusual elements.’

Any Cop?: Royle encapsulates the world of middle age, moving on but looking back. If you want to learn about a city, here Manchester, there are factual nuggets about Shudehill. There are also stories that border on conceptual art like ‘Safe’. The safe of the story could have a room to itself in Tate Liverpool or The Whitworth Art Gallery. For their variety and quality these stories stand alongside the best. He is one of the canniest of the writers of the uncanny. The next volume Paris Fantastique is one to look forward to in the year ahead.

Richard Clegg

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