Review: Zero Hours on the Boulevard – Tales of Independence and Belonging

Background image by Jordi Payà (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jon Gower

The opening story in this richly engaging collection is set during a sprawling extravaganza mounted for Catalan independence.  “The Infinite Demonstration” by Albert Fons is supercharged with energy and humour, as all manner of people stage a colourful and peaceful protest, from the family carrying placards proclaiming ‘The colour-blind for independence’ to the bikers ‘revving up their Harleys and waving Catalan flags.’

You might easily be able to superimpose Caernarfon over the images of Barcelona in the mind’s eye, not least when the story suggest that ‘if the politicians had smartened up their act, there would have been no need for this crazy escalation of North Korean-type extravaganzas but, in recent years, we’ve been stuck in a time loop, our very own groundhog day, with the government here demanding more powers and the government there banning it.’

Billed as a book which shows the power of smaller countries to give new perspectives on the world we think we know ‘Zero Hours…’ contains a judicious selection of Welsh writers who bear out this assertion.  The opening poem of the collection is an effective meditation by Hanan Issa on the poet ‘feeling neither here nor there,’ caught as she is between dreams of Baghdad and ‘hen wlad fy mamau – the home I have loved halfly,’ between stories about loyal dogs and betraying flower princesses that emerge from the ‘dark wood drawers of my nan’s Welsh dresser’ and images of great mosques and ancient minarets.  A pellucid poem that weaves many complexities of identity and belonging together in a breath.

That place which is ‘neither here not there’ is also elegantly mapped out by Eluned Gramich in her story called “The Book of New Words” about a German girl who comes on an extended visit to Britain and faces the ‘who won the war’ kind of xenophobia which forces her to change her name from Mareike to Mary and deny part of her own family’s history.  It is also about the negotiations of language, there in the eponymous book of the story’s title in which Mareike notes down unfamiliar English words, building up a sort of language of difference so that we have ‘foxglove = a finger hat flower, white, purple’ and ‘dieting = what you do when you’re no longer acceptable to yourself.’

Alys Conran’s “The Boulevard” draws on the time she spent in Barcelona to tell a vivid and atmospheric story of dress-making and the manufacture of fake passports and offers telling glimpses behind the frozen poses of the street performers who stand impossibly still on the city streets for the sake of a few coins.  The story marshals a busy cast of characters, from heroin addicts to inveterate storytellers and seemingly suggests that a city is built of stories, derives its energy from them.  Certainly, Conran’s crackles with it.

Fireworks

Llŷr Gwyn Lewis takes us much further afield in his sophisticated take on the travel memoir in which he blurs the distinctions between recall and make-believe in an account of two travellers who much resemble the author and his wife, visiting Buenos Aires en route for Patagonia.  “Autumn in Springtime” reminds us that the clear line between fact and fiction is a fairly modern phenomenon, pointing to the fact that, say medieval audiences didn’t care if a story was true or not.  It’s a playful tale, told by one of the cleverest young Welsh language writers in measured and calibrated prose.

Rhondda-based illustrator, telly presenter and author Siôn Tomos Owen’s “GB has left the group” is very different, being a high octane, scabrous and expletive-studded social media exchange between a group of Valleys’ men on the eve of the Brexit vote.  It weaves in memes and emojis, slang and screenshots to produce a story which is as much visual as it is visceral, a supercharged account of a night when the principal recipients of European money in Wales voted to leave.  It gives us a glimpse into the sort of mentality that made folk put their Xs, much like the signatures of the illiterate, where they did on the ballot paper. A bravura performance of a tale shot through with some pitch-black humour and plenty of verbal fireworks.

Zimbabwe born Lloyd Markham’s story “Mercy” meanwhile conjures up a plausible and morally questionable world of private euthanasia clinics in Bridgend in which job placements take on a whole new meaning, while in a chillingly realistic account by Durre Shahwar of the ‘Life in the UK Test’ a low-grade apparachik turns away a candidate for the citizenship test knowing that she will be beaten or worse because of this.  It leaves the reader feeling as helpless as the uncaring bureaucrat when she finally decides to help, before realising she has left it too late.

There are also two stories set in Wales written by Americans, namely Eddie Matthews whose “At the Door” is a superb, multi-voiced and sassy account of a couple finding a wounded man on the doorstep of their Swansea home.  Meanwhile Californian Marcie Layton’s “Fi, Yr Dinosaur” offers a disarmingly honest account of her son competing and ultimately failing at an eisteddfod competition.  Another contributor to the collection, Welsh-Cameroonian Eric Ngalle Charles mixes a recollection of telling his daughter about his life’s journey with a fantasy about armed foxes and rabbits-that-don’t-fit-in, thus mixing allegory with memory to good effect.

This is an anthology of considerable variety, with an abundance of verve and insight in the telling of stories from other small countries and regions such as Croatia, Malta and the Basque country.  It is also energised by the fact that these are often new and emerging writers, pulsing with youthful vigour.  But its main strength is its timeliness, being right on the button in these chaotic times, when boundaries harden, when GB wants to leave the group as Siôn Tomos Owen has it, and when independence and belonging seem set to take on new meanings in so many places on this fractured globe.

Zero Hours on the Boulevard: Tales of Independence and Belonging is edited by Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans, is published by Parthian and costs £ 8.99. You can buy it here.

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