Mike Loveday reviews
by Jack Robinson
Days and Nights in W12 is a sequence of 110 prose pieces, inspired by London’s W12 district. It is written by more than one writer. Not that you’d know. The cover tells you the author is Jack Robinson. But before you can say Jack Robinson, as the phrase goes, you should be alert enough to note that Robinson is indeed a pen name – in fact a pen name for a poet using Robinson as an alter-ego while presenting a prose version of himself.
As well as there being more than one writer here, there is more than one book, in many respects. There is the travel journal which conjures modern day Shepherd’s Bush, its public face and its shadowy hidden self; there is the book of prose poems, where phrase and sentence replace line break and stanza, written with a tough and supple musicality. There is the book of witty and diverting miniature short stories about fictitious characters populating W12. There is the local history book which details Shepherd Bush’s past, its literary, architectural and cultural heritage. You could easily find and describe other books here if you turned its kaleidoscope another notch.
Robinson is Charles Boyle, Faber poet, now prose writer and editor / publisher of the wonderfully eclectic, quietly iconoclastic – also prize-winning – CB editions publishing house. And he has written here a multifaceted, rich and sophisticated book of prose. It refuses to be caught and held to account for its agility and speed of thought, and reading it is like some wonderful grown-up game of playground tag.
There are some links below to online excerpts. There’s a difficulty with choosing excerpts from this book to discuss, which is that the wilful variety and range of the book makes it tricky to find selections that are unequivocally representative.
So I’m going to be wilfully mischievous in scope, and write only about one piece of prose, in the first link: Bird Over Prison Wall.
Like every prose piece in this sequence (I hesitate to call them prose poems, because Boyle has also hesitated to do so – they are that, and other than that, and more than that), Bird Over Prison Wall is short, i.e. less than one page, with a black and white photo taken by the author and which supposedly prompted the prose which follows beneath it. The photographs appear as if snapshots captured for a journal. They are frequently haunting or witty in themselves – and sometimes you do wonder which was the chicken / egg prompting the creativity – the writing or the photograph. (In fact I’d love to see a bigger, perhaps hardback version of Days and Nights in W12, with more room for larger photographs – they are consistently fascinating enough companions for the prose to merit being given more space – while still not distracting readers’ attention from the writing).
In Bird Over Prison Wall Robinson helpfully sets out what the reader might need to escape from prison – “courage, self-belief and meticulous planning and attention to detail, besides contempt for the regime”. There is a touch of local history (possibly made fanciful in this case) – the spy George Blake who escaped via a rope ladder “whose rungs were made of knitting needles”. And we are offered the dry cynicism that the abstract tools for escape first quoted are qualities “possibly much the same as those that got you into the place you’re now trying to get out of”. Social critique is offered in passing, like someone leaving a wise idea on your front doorstep then slipping away before you’ve had a chance to thank the delivery-man for his gift.
The piece closes with a resonant sentence – sophisticated and deft – which encapsulates the spirit of this writer: someone seemingly neither inside nor outside the system, who knows how most griefs and joys arise from the miracles of accident and hazard, and who has spent a god part of their life watching and writing about the world as gracefully, accurately and casually as if he were managing to pull the wingbeats of birds into his very sentences:
“Then there is luck – a guard momentarily distracted, a pile of sand that cushions your fall after you miss a foothold – which you cannot determine, but which sometimes you can feel in your bones, as light as air, as in the hollow bones of birds that enable them to fly.”
Somehow in a few words Boyle has explained escaping captivity with real attentiveness - as if he has himself been imprisoned, suffered, yet bore his imprisonment as lightly as a gentleman soldier, and then insouciantly broke free with the spirit of a dancer.
This is a book which deserves to be on the bookshelves of households in big cities, with the details of its black and white photography (sometimes offhand, at other times more studied), and its glint-in-your-eye prose beguiling guests while you prepare your Sunday tea (and your conversation that is almost as casually intelligent as Boyle’s). In fact this book belongs to anyone who has ever lived in a ramshackle, gritty, beautiful city. Someone who knows how grateful we are to seize moments for reflection in the midst of urban discomfort. Most of all it’s a book, when you pay it full attention, which will teach you to notice your surroundings – wherever you live – with a carefulness and interest you never quite realised that you were capable of – or that you ought to possess.
Sequences of short prose ask questions about reading habits. This is a book you can easily read cover to cover, then re-read and re-consider during one idle, leisurely weekend. But it’s also a book you can pick up and slip yourself into randomly and daily during those ten minutes along the central line at 8:15 am. You could probably make time to dash through six or seven of these prose pieces in the ten minutes. But you’d be better off picking just a couple to read that morning – and reading them over and over and over. And then turning back to the others you read elsewhere in the book yesterday which you’ve just noticed they connect with.
But don’t trust my words too much on this. Buy the book and think for yourself as you read. And don’t trust Robinson’s words too much either. Or Boyle’s. I’d say that’s half the point of this anarchic, respectful, rueful, amused, light, serious, sprawling, precise sequence. Trust one sentence too much and one that follows will surprise you in the most charming or most wrong-footing way. The other half of the point is to trust Boyle and Robinson wholeheartedly. He /they have probably realised a few things about your own experiences which are worth hearing all for your selves.
Mike Loveday's debut poetry collection will be launched in London October 12 at the Oxfam series. He is an MA student in creative writing at Kingston University, and editor of 14, a magazine devoted to fourteen-line poems.