Book Review

The Book of Newcastle, edited by Angela Readman & Zoe Turner

lovely anthology from Comma Press

I’ve never been to Newcastle, but as someone with an interest in indie publishing and an inability to ever refuse anything I’m offered for free (except the dead flesh of a creature that had eyes), I leapt at the offer of a copy of Comma Press’ 2019 anthology, The Book of Newcastle, edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner.

One of my mother’s closest friends is a Geordie, so the Newcastle accent is something I’ve been familiar with since childhood. That familiarity doesn’t just come from this person’s singular voice, but also from the pirated copies of Jimmy Nail albums she used to regularly gift my mother. I have seen some of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and there was a DJ from Newcastle who I regularly partied with (for a bit) seven or eight years ago. I’ve encountered people from Newcastle, but I’ve never encountered the city itself. Having read this, though, that’s – in some ways – no longer true.

The Book of Newcastle contains ten pieces, all of which are written by a wide range of writers who live, lived or have lived in Newcastle and its immediate vicinity. Newcastle is a diverse city, and not just in terms of ethnicities/cultures, but also in terms of class. As a no-longer-major industrial centre that has – like Manchester – had somewhat of a revival in the last couple of decades off the back of the “services industry” (whatever that means), there exist people within the “workforce” who both experienced major British industry and those who have no memory of it. There are people in Newcastle whose personal and familial identities have remained untethered since the cessation of the coal industry, and there are people who have arrived and built lives in a city that has “recovered” from its caesura. This diversity – particularly this class diversity – is evidenced by the pieces that Readman and Turner have selected for the book.

One of my favourite pieces was a cacophonous story by J. A. Mensah that – using many short segments organised chronologically across a single day – explores the variety of people and lives within a contemporary Newcastle street. There are students and families, recent arrivals and people whose family have lived on the street for generations: it’s a pleasing, gentle, cross-section of a “community” in the modern sense of the world, and how the ways in which the contemporary notions of community undercut the very meaning of the word. If we don’t know our neighbours, how can we know our street? If we don’t know our street, do we know our city, and if we don’t know our city can we truly say that we know where we live?

A place is its people, and Mensah astutely and succinctly argues this point.

My other highlight in the collection was ‘Duck Race’ by Crista Ermiya, which features the narrator with the most unique relationship to Newcastle of the collection. ‘Duck Race’ is about a youngish woman (Elle) who moved to Newcastle several years ago due to her then-partner’s professional relocation. They broke up, he left, she stayed, and the ex is now visiting the city, years later, accompanied by his wife and infant child. Ermiya writes an affecting piece which explores the ways in which our relationships intersect with our thoughts of the places in which they happen[ed]: no matter how long ago it was and how much has changed, the fundamental reason why Elle came to Newcastle was her ex, and seeing him there, again, is confusing, and it is especially difficult to see him there and happy and content in a relationship with another woman.

Elsewhere in the book, there are multiple pieces with a magic realist touch and a lot of references to a big park in the middle of Newcastle that has cows in, which sounds AMAZING.

There are some very moving stories here, and as a collection it certainly evidences that this is a vibrant, busy and interesting city.

However…

No post on my blog about an anthology would be complete with some kind of bitchy singling out of something I hated.

There was only one piece in The Book of Newcastle that felt misjudged to me: a piece of dull, conservative, dry prose lamenting the loss of smoking facilities in libraries. Not only was its central premise borderline offensive given the purposes of libraries (places for learning, shelter, respite, community), but there was a real trad male chauvinism to it, too: homosocial but heteronormative. Perhaps this was a “voice” far from the writer’s own opinions, but – to me – it didn’t feel like a “cheeky” literary exercise, it felt like a tired bit of old school, irrelevant, definitively macho “man’s fiction”. Imagine my astonishment when I reached the section of author bios at the end of the book and discovered that this piece was written by a highly acclaimed, award-winning writer!?

All jokes aside, I thought that piece was atrocious, and I feel more comfortable stating this in writing now that I know this opinion will have no bearing on the career of the writer in question. If you’re reading this, prove wrong my prediction of implied authorial unpleasantness and don’t bother DMing me abuse! I have mental health problems!!! And a busy life!!!

Anyway, it’s clear to me that Newcastle has a vibrant cultural scene: even though I’m far away from the UK, Newcastle is a city that gets mentioned a lot more than other cities of its size in the magazines and online content I engage with. If I’m ever back in England for a while, I will check it out. I will certainly check out more by Comma Press, as they’re definitely an indie press doing great things!

Thanks for the book!

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