The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 21, 2008

Diaspora City

I'm reading a motley collection of short stories based in London and written (for the most part) by various immigrants to this great polis. Diaspora City: The London New Writing Anthology has commissioned famous writers such as Ben Okri and Maggie Gee and Iain Sinclair to contribute, but I must say that their efforts pale rather before the inventiveness and emotion of the unknowns.

The first tale is so light and so clever that it sets a high standard for the rest of the book. Rare Books and Manuscripts by Toby Litt is a love story with a difference. A young, diffident woman sees a hunk at the British Museum, and uses the readers' reference service to send him messages - in the form of book titles. Stuff like:
I know you really love me, a psychiatrist's journal of erotomania, stalking and obsessive love
Orien, Doreen
What an idea! The story is clever and sharply written and has a neat ending.

Richard Tromans's The River Underground is about a Gambian teacher, illegally in London but working conscientiously cleaning Tube stations. It is filled with the clash of cultures, needy women, misunderstandings, love, and heartbreak. Quite a punchy 25 pages.

Maggie Gee's The Artist is yet another story about needy women. In this case, the woman is middle-aged, living with a miserly husband who thinks that British workers are better than immigrants, but refuses to pay for the supposedly better service. So the woman is forced to hire a foreigner to paint and fix up various things in their house. She falls for the charms of the painter, resents his family when they visit, and completely misses the tragedy that befalls the man. In her selfishness and want, she finds herself a replacement when the painter (famed in his own country for his art) disappears.

Three vignettes of a charming taxi-driver appear in Sandra Danby's Magic and Mischief. An elderly wealthy woman is afraid to venture out of her Mayfair residence following the death of her husband, but is forced to go in person to Coutts, the Queen's Bankers, regularly to withdraw money. She is unfamiliar with ATMs and terrified of the communications she gets from the bank that aim to switch her onto electronic transactions, but when she meets the helpful taxi-driver, suddenly her fears seem to dwindle. In the next two parts of the piece, the taxi-driver shows two visiting American women a completely different London experience, one hardly ever witnessed by tourists; and reveals himself to be a pussy consultant to a diffident Essex boy, explaining the best way to bring his woman off.

Aydin Mehmet Ali's Caught Out is a typical tale of tradition among Turkish Cypriots that cracks under homosexuality and sunders a family. Same old, same old is what I have to say.

John Berger's The Museum of Desire appears to be about a museum cluttered with high art and Renaissance artefacts, but ends rather peculiarly in the description of one of the ushers who gives very articulate tours of the premises and then disappears, bearing a multitude of gifts (described ardently). Couldn't make head or tale of this story; equally, Ben Okri's The Black Russian was a total overhead transmission.

The remaining dozen-odd stories range all over London (mainly, for some reason, Hackney and the North) and feature psychotic teens and murder around the turn of the millennium, an alphabetic tour of the city by a Senegalese waiter, and a multitude of kids of every race in a little primary school in the East End.

Good stuff.


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