The ‘Great’ is missing from the title of this collection of new writing; the china teacup on the cover is chipped and missing its handle. The Britain portrayed in the 18 stories and certainly in the one photo essay is not the grand nation of Empire, but its soft underbelly.
This latest collection is a celebration of the ordinary; sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes bleak, but largely informed by a genuine love of the land and its varied people. And it doesn’t get more ordinary than Stevenage. The opening essay is a love letter by Gary Younge to his most unlovable home town: “Beneath its concrete functionality, Stevenage may have hidden a number of idiosyncrasies; but for all that made it different, during the seventies and eighties being from Stevenage felt as though you weren’t really from anywhere in particular.” Younge’s essay is a brilliant evocation of the spirit of a place that is ‘nowhere in particular’; he delineates its utter ordinariness so cleanly that it shines.
Several other writers, like Younge, step back into the Britain of their childhoods. Mark Haddon’s story of a young lad and his disreputable friend’s exploits–involving a mad dash across a motorway, a gun, a deer and a rusty supermarket trolley—is the high point of this collection.
But of course, as in any collection, there are places where it comes unstuck. Andrea Stuart’s ‘Sugar in the Blood’ traces her personal history back to the sugar plantation slaves of the Caribbean—a potentially rich seam to mine, except that in her uninspiring writing, the questions that she builds up to—Who am I? Where do I belong?—come out sounding banal and full of tiresome adolescent angst.
Then there is the utterly baffling inclusion of ‘Theatre of Fortune’, a fascinating peek into the Kafkaesque repressions suffered by Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada in the post-breakup Soviet Union state of Belarus. The only justification for their inclusion in this particular book is that their account is given a preface by Tom Stoppard. Who is, um, British.
The subcontinent is there, of course—what anthology about Britain would be complete without it?—in the shape of two pehalwans from Lahore who came to London in 1910: Gama the Great and his brother Imam. Tania James’s story captures perfectly the bewilderment and the inner (and outer) strength of these, with character portraits as sharply observed and trenchant as any found in Dickens.
And I loved Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Silt’, the story of “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked,” that curves across the flats off the coast of Essex. Lured by the promise of what an American writer calls “cognitive dissonance in isotropic spaces”, Macfarlane sets out to lose himself in a space “that appears much the same in all directions.” As familiar landmarks fade away, we are left, with him, reeling at the shining sand, the shimmering light, the watery air—cut adrift from our familiar selves and blissfully disorientated. Britain, it would seem, is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Outlook Traveller, Sept 2012