Monday, 29 May 2017

Birmingham Nouveau

Alan Mahar (editor) Birmingham Nouveau (2002)
It probably says something unfortunate about the city of Birmingham - West Midlands rather than Alabama - that it's taken me fifteen years to get around to reading this themed collection of short stories. Birmingham was the nearer of two big cities when I was a kid. I found the place oppressive and terrifying, vast and dark and smoky with weird accents and a street layout which made no sense, seemingly having more in common with H.P. Lovecraft and the Bermuda Triangle than yer regular town planning. So I wasn't drawn to this volume, despite having been slipped a freebie by John Mulcreevy. He'd already sent me Birmingham Noir, the previous collection from Tindal Street Press, and I think I'd read a couple of stories and just never quite warmed to it; or it could have been me, given my reading age of the time combined with a general reluctance to read things lacking a Doctor Who logo on the cover.

Anyway, I hadn't even managed to flog Birmingham Nouveau on eBay during the great purges of 2010, so there it was, still in the spare room at my mother's house making me feel guilty; and as though to prove what a pillock I am, and how poor is my sense of judgement, I found the collection about a thousand times more entertaining than Going Postal. John Wagstaff's An Air Kiss represents an astonishing opening story, a tale where the main character really is the city itself - the sort of claim which is often made but rarely fulfilled. You can almost taste the amalgam of chill morning air and diesel as roadworks kick off in neighbouring streets. It should be a tough act to follow, but the rest make a good job of it for the most part. I found Richard Lutz's The Girl with Blue-Black Hair a bit unconvincing, but otherwise there's nothing which gives you any reason to stop reading. A pleasing sense of humour informs most of the book without necessarily feeling it has to dig you in the ribs to make sure you get it, and this tendency is given its fullest expression in M. Idrees Kayani's riotous King of the Baltis:

A chorus of laughter erupted from all those present to which Mazar Khan raised his hands and bowed in courtesy. Mazar, often known as Mad Mazar, because he worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week, just so he could build an elaborate mansion in his hometown of Mirpur, a place that he hoped never to see again. The reason for constructing such a building was so his relatives could marvel at its size and comment on how well he was doing in England.

There are twenty short stories here - notably stories of exactly the right length so nothing gets to outstay its welcome or start on the extended guitar solos - encompassing all times, places and people in the history of a city which the collection obliges you to re-evaluate, or at least obliged me to re-evaluate; and Ava Ming's Lena actually made me cry, which isn't something that happens often. I'm very impressed.

No comments:

Post a Comment