Doctor Zipp’s Amazing Octo-Com and Other London Stories by Dan Carrier (London Books, £9.99)
“HUMAN interest” stories, as any good features editor knows, are part of the jam without which the newsprint sandwich would be pretty dry-crust.
So local north London weekly Camden New Journal, described by Ken Loach as one of the best around, is blessed in having Dan Carrier on board.
His insightful columns and reporting are always worth checking out. Carrier also writes for the Guardian, the Observer, pens the Jack the Blaster column for the Morning Star and runs the Dig It sound system.
More than enough on his plate, you’d think, but he’s just branched out into fiction with the publication of Doctor Zipp’s Amazing Octo-Com.
It’s a collection of 10 engaging narratives, penned by an unnamed old-school journo who’s dedicated to his north London beat and his craft — a descriptor that pretty much sums up Carrier himself.
Uniquely, each of these empathetic accounts are based on fictitious newspaper reports, the inspiration for the preceding in-depth explorations of the human stories behind the attention-grabbing headlines.
They range from a karaoke-barge owner who keeps himself financially afloat through cultivating a ganja plantation in a secret location to a Hampstead Heath hermit who banjaxes the attempts of a property developer to evict him through an assured grasp of the law on squatters’ rights.
We learn how a rare comic book comes to the aid of a scrupulously honest binman in need and of how a semi-vagrant Irishman posthumously leaves an unexpected legacy to those who nourished him with the milk of human kindness in a story which, incidentally, has an acute word or two to say about the heritage industry in Ireland.
The collection’s title story on the life and mysterious death of marine biologist and inter-species specialist Doctor Zipp is something of a tour de force.
Part gumshoe thriller, part popular science, it tells of the doctor’s attempt to create an “octo-com,” a device which would enable us to understand how octopuses communicate.
Though the mystery is unresolved, it’s a prescient and revelatory tale given recent scientific discoveries as to how these amazing cephalopods are capable of complex social interaction.
That theme of social interaction that runs through these stories is the collection’s great strength. Carrier writes about “ordinary” and marginalised people with extraordinary tales to tell of struggle, sacrifice and generosity. Such vibrant characters and the milieu they inhabit are what makes Carrier’s community special and, as the depredations of gentrification intensify in London, the book’s a reminder of what might be lost if they continue unchecked.
Like some latter-day Samuel Pepys, Carrier has a keen eye for the sights, sounds and histories of the capital city — his description of the gig by a band on the skids in a malodorous pub on the skids is a classic — and, for any budding contemporary diarists, such scene-setting is a model of how it’s done. Great read. Your birthday/Christmas gift’s sorted.