The Gorillas Died

Liam Murray Bell & Gavin Goodwin (eds.), Writing Urban Space

Zero Books, 167pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781780992549

reviewed by Gee Williams

As always come the warnings from those in the know - those with passports stamped by mere survival and their papers, probably forged, made out in local names. The good neighbourhood to buy into if you can is - vague gesture - round about the … they name a ‘famous landmark’ you’ve never heard of. The street to keep moving on, head up … well you can see the entrance down there on the left amongst the dereliction. All good and bad advice. All necessary seasoning for someone who lives in her current piece of fiction and that means I’m in Rhyl-of-the-mind, at present, ‘Britain’s first shanty town’ according to The Times. And a lot of the last few years I’ve been really in Rhyl, cruising the empty arcades, reading the boarded up shop fronts and talking to the guy stealing beach sand, that’s right, sand in Tesco bagfuls till he’d enough to finish concreting his floor. And, by offering to act as his lookout, getting it wrong. Scaring him off.

Writing Urban Space is a volume of essays exploring the relationship between creative writing and the built environment. Here a disparate twelve – as the editors admit the ‘term writer is a flexible concept here’ – of essayists, fictioneers, performance poets and critics try to navigate without scaring their subjects off.

But what if the cul-de-sac you find yourself in has a mirrored barricade? Liam Murray Bell’s attempted director’s cut of his Belfast novel So It Is with extra murals (sic) is too easy on a visual form specious and degraded at its birth and over indulged with notice ever since. Of course Channel 4 is going to use an image of gable-high posturing gunmen as shorthand for we’re in Ulster (at the opening of Come Dine With Me) ‘even though,’ Bell explains, ‘such images obviously bear no relevance to the show’s content.’ Y’think? He does concede ‘it is debateable whether these symbols of conflict truly represent the two traditions of Northern Ireland,’ but remains trapped in his looking-glass world. Step through and what’s more debateable is just how well Come Dine With Me represents the Northern Irish tradition. Better, I would like to make a case for.

The map certainly is not the territory. Too fervent a concentration on the map sends visitors crashing- and unlike Popper, some of the chosen twelve write in prose of variable lucidness. But patience and determination can reward effort. Good rough guides include Peter Bearer’s assault on corporate messaging by street art, ‘uncooling brands,’ that made me wish I’d been in Oxford in the 1980s. Also (my favourite) the conversion of four undistinguished Copenhagen roads lined with brutalist structures into linear poems, installed by a Jan Hatt-Olsen with Blakean verve.

The urban environment, intact, damaged, ruined, aged or distorted, is fast becoming the human predicament, its anthem, ‘Bob said, We have to get out of here,’ (Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s ‘Finding the Words’). A chilling look at how and why and so what? is David’s Ashford’s ‘Postcards from the House of Light.’ The first five pages, a description of Berthold Lubetkin’s house of the title –built not for people but a pair of tormented gorillas to be exhibited by London Zoo – and the ruinous effect on those forced to inhabit it is well worth the curiously old-fashioned ten-page narrative onto which it is spliced. And his quotation from Peder Anker, ‘It was thus of revolutionary importance to display thriving animals in an unnatural setting as if to prove that humans too could prosper in a new environment,’ is the only preface this collection needs.

Oh and as postscript, the gorillas died - quickly, slowly, nastily.