Some of my favourite people are Geordies. My granny, whose commitment to social justice stemmed from the poverty she witnessed in Newcastle during her childhood, and my best friend from university, the first like-minded soul I clung to as a nervous fresher. Both legends, who have the city running through their blood. So, this book had a lot to live up to.
‘The Book of Newcastle’ is the fifth in Comma Press’s Reading the City series. It has been a long time in the making, having evolved from an original call out for stories back in 2004. Having recently read another in the collection – ‘The Book of Liverpool’ – I thought I might know what to expect. But I suppose that’s the beauty of a short story collection – you never really do.
Editor Angela Readman explains in the introduction that she and co-author Zoe Turner were on a mission to give a platform to the unheard voices of the North East. They have selected authors from Newcastle’s past and present, including two who are sadly no longer with us – Julia Darling and Chrissie Glazebrook. There’s much to be enjoyed in their two very different, but equally as impactful stories about life in the city. Darling’s piece about a call centre worker in ‘Calling from Newcastle’ reads like a masterclass in the craft of short story writing; with clear sense of setting, intriguing characters and the emotional transformation of the protagonist. As is ‘Loftboy’, Glazebrook’s tale about a young lad who explores the adjoining attics of the block of flats he resides in – the “low rent homes for the terminally hopeless.” It’s kind of grotesque, but laugh out loud funny.
The sense of place is also very strong, even more so if you’re familiar with the city’s landmarks. There’s the “gaping hell-mouth of the Metro steps” in ‘Tabs’, Sean O’Brien’s nostalgic (if a little rambling) ode to the city’s library. And the expanse of the open spaces in Degna Stone’s thoughtful ‘Ekow on Town Moor’, which is really a character study of a man coming to terms with the imminent loss of his mum. Settings are more than backdrops – they seem to restrict or release their inhabitants, keeping them going, harbouring their dreams or in some cases, signalling their end.
A number of stories successfully drive home the point that Newcastle has suffered its own economic demise, following years of government cuts. Co-editor Readman’s own story, ‘Magpies’, is a poetic account of what happens when a community’s lifelines are taken away. It’s an experience we northerners are familiar with but her delicate take on it, from the point of view of a mother, adds an extra gravity.
Two of the pieces made a big impact on me. In ‘Blood Brothers’, Jessica Andrews, whose debut novel ‘Saltwater’ is turning heads, serves up a story of female friendship that’s so blisteringly heart-breaking I challenge you not to cry. Especially anyone that’s ever painted nail varnish with their pal on matching pairs of cons.
Crista Ermiya’s ‘Duck Race’ equally touched a nerve. Her protagonist Elle deals with a visit from an ex-boyfriend and his pregnant partner with an awkward dignity that could only be described as ‘northern grit’. Set in the artsy area of Ouseburn where poets and artists mingle on a sunny afternoon, we also get a glimpse of the Newcastle of today, where hipster bars and eateries take the place of industry and new voices have new stories to tell.
To lump all the characters together under one brush of ‘Geordie’ would be doing them a huge disservice. But I can’t help but hear something of my granny and my friend in so many of the people in these stories – the Newcastle sensibility sings from the pages. Some of the stories worked better for me than others but it was genuinely heart-warming to be reminded of such a distinctive place. After reading, you may well want to hop on a train up there, pronto.