Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three new books from Manchester

I recently read Len Grant's Billy and Rolonde. It follows three socially excluded people - a junkie, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe and a homeless alcoholic in their daily lives through a Manchester most of the people reading this probably wouldn't recognise. It was certainly new to me.

Both writing and photography are simple and direct, letting the people speak for themselves. The author is appealingly open about the setbacks he has throughout the project and the way that his relationship with the subjects changes over time as, inevitably, he becomes personally involved with them. Rather than trying to become invisible, he lets us see him engaged in the work of trying to tell these stories. This tactic can easily backfire, but here it works.

It's hard not to like Len Grant as a narrator, he seems honest and rarely gets preachy - facts and statistics are offered in an almost offhand manner, when they come up in the story, and are all the more powerful without the usual window dressing. And it's hard not to like each of his subjects, regular people in difficult situations who have done a brave and generous thing by allowing him, and us, this degree of access into their lives.

The book itself is a beautiful thing, designed by Alan Ward at Axis in Chorlton and released by Cornerhouse Publications. So it's an entirely Manchester-made project, which seems right. In my ideal world this would have been a prizewinning series in Manchester's local newspaper instead of a book, but there's not a snowball's chance in hell of the MEN devoting the necessary space and resources to a project like this. So it's a book, and a pretty terrific one.

I also read the two most recent chapbooks from Manchester author Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press, which I can't recommend highly enough. Each one contains a single short story, the perfect size to shove in your bag and read on the tram. I was impressed with the solid binding and the thoughtfully-chosen covers. Chapbooks conjure up images of bent staples and inky fingers, but these are sleek beasts.

When the door closed, it was dark by Alison Moore is about a British woman who goes to an unspecified foreign country to live with a family and look after their infant. I'm not going to say any more than that, except that it is extremely creepy (in a good way), and that it might not have been such a good idea to read it while waiting for my 20-week scan in the antenatal department of Fairfield Hospital.

Black country, by Joel Lane, is a detective story in which a cop pokes about in the anonymous suburban districts of the West Midlands, investigating some weirdly troubled kids, and ends up exorcising his own buried memories. The ending raises as many questions as it answers, but satisfies all the same. Both were so good that I'll definitely be seeking out anything else Nightjar sees fit to offer us.

(Image from Billy and Rolonde courtesy of Len Grant)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip as this one may have gone under may radar. Bought the Len Grant book as a present for a friend but managed to get to read it before I handed it over!

I got through it in one sitting last night. It's a wonderful book, very moving. Pity there aren't more artists/creative people taking up these more socially aware projects locally.