Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: The White Heron Beneath the Reactor

Gary Budden, co-founder of Influx Press and author of Hollow Shores (published by Dead Ink), is also an an avid bird watcher. He admits that his love of birds may at times appear incompatible with his other interests.

“heavy and brutal music, clanking beeps and drones, obscure ghost stories, crumbling Saxon ruins, SHARP culture, experimental folk.”

In The White Heron Beneath the Reactor he writes of a visit to RSPB Dungeness to observe a white heron. It is off-peak season, mid-week and the weather is dismal. This pleases Budden as it keeps away tourists, but not him. The few hardy folk he observes are distant. He is free to examine his surroundings uninterrupted.

“Far away, a yellow digger deposits or removes shingle, I can’t tell, surrounded by a whirring halo of screeching gulls. Landscape maintenance; nothing is natural.”

Dungeness is described as scoured by salt winds – a flat, bleak coastline in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Nevertheless, it is here that the great white egret has begun to migrate from across the channel where its population is expanding. Budden suppresses the urge to come up with some sort of contemporary allegory.

“My white heron is not an immigrant, nor an expat, nor a citizen of the world. I will not let it support a political agenda, not even the one I wish to push. […] its world doesn’t have borders.”

The author considers and details the place as he finds it in evocative but never bucolic prose. He has an eye for the surreal – the impact of man’s behaviour.

He takes photographs knowing that the writing he will produce is to be illustrated by the landscape artist, Maxim Griffin. These colourful interpretations, included liberally alongside the text, are wonderful.

In some ways this is a paean to the tenacity of the natural world. Elegiac descriptions are tempered by dry humour. There is much irony but also an undercurrent of hope. Budden’s quick wit and percipient scrutiny are expressed in pared back yet resonant form. The sighting of the heron, in this place, unlocks something for the author.

The writing is reflective and absorbing. The book is a work of art. I recommend you read it. It is a tale for our times.

The White Heron Beneath the Reactor was published using funding raised via Kickstarter.

Book Review: Hollow Shores

Hollow Shores, by Gary Budden, is a collection of twenty-one short stories interlinked by people who, for a time at least, inhabit a stretch of the Kent coastline known as the Hollow Shore. The characters weave in and out of each other’s lives creating ripples whose effects are rarely understood by those involved. The place is walked through, escaped from and returned to. The stories are works of fiction but, as several of the offerings explore, although based on fact so are an individual’s memories.

The collection opens with Breakdown. On a cold, dark night a long distance lorry driver has a frightening encounter in the Black Forest of Germany. The reality of the experience is the effect it has more than the actuality of what is seen. The memory survives through the telling, the passing on to others who then appropriate the tale for themselves. Family history comes alive when it is retold, each version reflecting what is needed at that time by the narrator.

Saltmarsh presents the coastline through the eyes of a returner from London, who is walking the shoreline to meet an old friend. He is seeing the place afresh as he reflects on the direction his life has taken. His journey is not the seven mile hike but rather his ruminations along the way.

Further stories tell of a beached whale; of largely disregarded people who have become landmarks; of the spaces most will pass by without seeing. There are histories being made in the peripheries of each life lived.

Up and Coming expands on this theme. The protagonist is in a bar with friends waiting to attend a gig, observing those around him, realising that this moment will soon be a part of his past. He mourns the loss of a much loved venue, envies the young people who still have such memories to make. The author captures the judgements being silently made when others act in ways that differ from an individuals valued ideals. Impressions are often flawed, people’s intentions misunderstood. Despite time spent together few truly listen to what is being said, or seek out meaning behind silences. Later in life, when what was happening back then is discussed, there is surprise at what was missed despite being there.

The protagonists in these stories are mainly middle-aged so have awareness of time passing by. There is an undercurrent of regret, a longing for what can now feel out of reach. Relationships flounder as needs are neglected or missed.

Key characters recur in many of the stories set in different times and places. Told from varying points of view the reader gets to know these people, although in snapshots rather than fully developed, much like meeting old friends.

The writing is perceptive and pithy. From the title story:

“Julie left on Christmas Day. Married for three years, together for five. Upped and left with the gravy and roast potatoes still steaming on our clean new flooring, uneaten evidence of the final argument. What a waste of food.”

In this story the protagonist chats to a local drunk who comments about passersby, ‘They didn’t listen’ – who does? Eventually he must move back to his childhood bedroom, live with his Telegraph reading parents, listen to his mother update him on people he has no interest in. Yet he discovers that the town he was so desperate to escape from as a teenager now has a certain appeal.

The idea that people are rarely known even by loved ones is taken a step further in Mission Drift which features a man infiltrating a group of suspected activists by living amongst them undercover. Despite being a married father, he lives with one of the group and has a child with her. He wonders how many others are living like him, if he knows them without knowing.

I loved the language and mood of this book, the essence of life captured alongside the sense of place. From The Wrecking Days:

“The name came later, as we retrofitted chunks of our lives and tied them up with clever titles. We were underachievers with verbal flair, lyrical flourishes and a sharp wit, packaging our time into neat parcels. The wrecking days are, for most of us at least, safely compartmentalised, sitting in a past as unrecoverable as the eroding waterline of a home I haven’t visited in years.”

People inevitably change over time and so do places, but what is remembered is as fictional as perceptions of the present day. These stories succinctly capture the importance of life’s mundanities. They are incisive, intriguing and impressively affecting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, dead ink.