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“…I was celestially kissed…” @Alex_Niven @CanalsidePress #newcastleendless

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today, as I share my thoughts on a lovely little indie publication which straddles several genres! “Newcastle, Endless” by Alex Niven was a title I stumbled across on Twitter (such a bad influence for books), and I was intrigued. I reviewed “The Book of Newcastle” back at the beginning of 2020, and related in that post my connection with the city via a visit many moons ago. Being an exiled Scot, I’m always drawn north anyway, and I’ve explored the work of the Morden Tower poets too. I thought Niven’s book sounded like it might be an essential adjuct to these readings, and I wasn’t wrong.

“Newcastle, Endless” is published by Canalside Press, and is a beautiful little edition which as well as containing Niven’s verses, also features colour images of the city by Euan Lynn, a prologue from Adam Sharr, and an afterword by Patrick Lynch, Editor and Publisher at Canalside. The poems explore the architecture and landscape of the city, an every-changing one, with the supporting texts focusing on the effects on the city structure of T. Dan Smith. The latter was an idealistic leader of the Labour Newcastle City Council in the 1960s, and although he was brought down by scandal it’s clear that his intentions for the city were sound ones. So the verse is divided into sections, interspersed with extracts from Smith’s autobiography, and the resulting book is a fascinating mixture of poetry, architecture, politics and history.

Niven is a lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University, as well as a regular contributor to a variety of publications and author of another very interesting sounding book I may have to track down. His verse is a variation on the sonnet form, but lacking punctuation, which makes it beautiful and hypnotic to read. There’s also one poem which takes a more tradition ballad form and it’s very moving – this is the opening verse:

Once I was a man of light
The day was early in my head
But now my heart is with the night
And all my dreams are of the dead

Other verses explore city locations such as the Civic Centre, Fenwick’s department store, Grainger Town and the Tyne Bridge. As one of the pithy quotes from Smith points out, we love water and mountains and things which appear to exist ‘naturally’ but are often offended by built landscapes – why is that, he wonders, and are we capable of integrating our constructions into a landscape so that they belong there? I think that’s probably something town planners are still trying to work out (if they actually think about what they’re doing nowadays, instead of just allowing anything interesting to be torn down and any old thing to be thrown up…)

I found “Newcastle, Endless” to be one of those unexpected, serendipitous discoveries, where you find a book purely by chance and it turns out to be quite brilliant. As a meditation on the changes in Niven’s city, it’s moving; the poems are lyrically engaging and lovely; and historical elements intriguing. And as well as being fascinating to read, it’s a beautiful object in its own right, with the images complementing the text and the extra material enhancing the whole experience of reading – I shall have to take a look at the rest of Canalside’s books. Anyway, this turned out to be a wonderful and evocative read which really made me think about the landscapes in which we live. Highly recommended and I’m off to see what Niven’s other book is about… ;D

Dispatches from the cold north east @commapress #thebookofnewcastle

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The Book of Newcastle: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner

Comma Press is a publisher based in Manchester which specialises in short story collections, either in anthology form or single author books. A founding member of the Northern Fiction Alliance, their catalogue of publications so far is impressive; and I was blown away by the fabulous collection they issued of M. John Harrison’s stories, “You Should Come With Me Now”, which I reviewed back in December 2017 and which ended up being one of my books of that year.

One of the most intriguing strands of their catalogue is the “Reading the City” collections, focusing on a specific city from anywhere around the world – from Tehran to Birmingham, from Cairo to Leeds, the range is wide and fascinating. So when I saw that Comma was issuing a collection of tales themed around Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I was very keen indeed to read it. Why? you might be asking? What’s your interest in/connection with Newcastle? And that’s a good question!

Newcastle is a city I’ve only visited once, longer ago than I care to acknowledge when my BFF H. was doing her art degree at the university. I visited during a freezing February and stayed for several days; and I can’t remember a lot about it apart from the fact that it snowed, I nearly got frostbite from wearing unsuitable footwear, we visited the Watch House (of Robert Westall fame), saw a performance by a performance artist, existed on a diet of stotties (yum!) and saw Cabaret Voltaire live in a very small club and they were magnificent! So yeah, it was a great visit, and although I’ve never been back I have happy memories of the city. Additionally, I recently discovered the Morden Tower poets who are a real joy; and of course Ellen Wilkinson, who has a strong connection with the area. Since I’m often drawn to the north, I’m obviously going to have to pay the city a visit again at some point, especially as it seems to have had quite a cultural rebirth of late!

Anyways – on to the fiction! “The Book of Newcastle” has its roots in a 2004 chapbook from Comma called “Newcastle Stories” and some of the pieces from the earlier publication have transferred to the new book. The latter collects together ten short stories by a range of writers, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve never read any of them before – because they’re obviously mighty talented! The stories cover all manner of topics – coping with a dreary day job by dropping into fantasy; negotiating a re-encounter with an ex-lover and his pregnant new partner; facing up to a future without a dying parent; the complexities of female friendship and how lives can diverge; and smoking (nor not being able to any more!) plus the decline of libraries. One particularly memorable work was “Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove” by J.A. Mensah, which explores the intersections in the lives of the people living uneasily side by side in that street when heavy rains cause floods and overflowing drains. “Magpies” by Alison Readman is a dark, allegorical look at losing touch with your teenagers when the dangerous outside world is tempting them. And “The Here and Now” by Margaret Wilkinson is a wonderful piece about the blurring of the lines between past and present; in a city like Newcastle, with a long and varied heritage, I guess there are always reminders of what’s gone before.

“The Book of Newcastle” is a stunning collection of writing, and there’s not a dud in here; each story is clever, memorable and moving; each spoke to me strongly. And of course running through all of them is the thread of the city itself; a former industrial centre, it’s had to reinvent itself over and over again, and that’s never without its problems. The Town Moor, the green heart of the city, is a vivid presence, as is the Tyne and its bridge. However, one theme which recurred and resonated was that of the Tyneside Flats, Victorian housing which is still in existence in the city and provides an almost communal living space. A fact which is relevant is that they consist of a row of dwellings with a joint loft space, and this really struck a chord with me; not only did my late mother-in-law live in a terrace with such a loft, but it’s also an important element in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”, and I was obsessed with the Narnia books as a child. “Loftboy”, a darkly humourous entry in the book, relies heavily on this element! The Tyneside Flats almost seem like an additional character in the stories, and I must admit that when I finished the book I felt as if I’d been *living* in Newcastle for the duration, alongside all of the very memorable protagonists.

Tyne Bridge by Bob Castle [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I suppose it’s the measure of a really good book when you get to the end to find you wish there was more and you want to just go on reading and reading; and I felt like that when I finished “The Book of Newcastle”. These are wonderful stories which will stay with me; vivid settings full of real characters dealing with everyday life, the past, the future and hardest of all, the present. I could easily have written a post on each of the stories, which is testament to just how good they are; but instead I’ll just encourage you to seek out this (and any of the other City books) from Comma. On the evidence of “The Book of Newcastle”, they’ll all be very much worth reading! 😀

(The stories are all so good that I feel a roll-call of the authors is necessary! So take a bow – Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook,. J.A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone and Margaret Wilkinson. )

Review book kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks!! 😀

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