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 –┬áreviewed 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.