Anna Wood reviews Kevin Boniface’s ‘Round About Town’ – a document of happenings on his postal round, recently published by Uniformbooks.
I remember a bit of advice my mum gave me when I was about 12: if you go for a stroll at the right time of early evening, the neighbours’ lights might be on but their curtains will still be wide open. You can see them, and they can’t see you. I realise this isn’t necessarily advice you’d want to put on a greetings card or a motivational Instagram post, but it pleases me because, well, I do like to have a nosy in people’s windows. I like a glimpse of them slouched on their sofa, or making their dinner, or sharing a bottle of wine, or gazing at their phone, or smoking a fag, or having a cup of tea in front of Emmerdale. Even an empty front room is a win; I might feel a passing fancy for their built-in bookshelves, or a guilt-inducing but delicious bit of snobbery about the terrible posters on their wall.
My mum liked it too, having a good nosy, and I suppose we all do – that’s why Through The Keyhole is a thing, that’s why eavesdropping is a thing, that why reading over people’s shoulders on the tube is a thing. It’s unseemly, perhaps, but there’s a safety in this arms-length intimacy, getting a quick taste of a life without the demands or risks involved when you actually know someone. A plain old smile as someone trundles past on the bus is wonderful. It’s a reminder that it’s not all about deep and enduring and stable relationships. Perhaps these little glimpses and nods and smiles, the simple awareness of and delight in other people – people you barely know, if you know them at all – perhaps that is society.
And so – forgive my blathering – to Kevin Boniface’s new book Round About Town. Boniface is a postal worker in Huddersfield and for the past few years he’s been making notes, and occasionally taking photos, of the people and situations he encounters during his early-morning shifts. Vomit, rats and birds make repeated appearances (not usually together). The book is just notes, one after another, with their dates. Like this:
Tuesday 5 February –
The casts in Heaton Gardens make noises like stricken toddlers.
Wednesday 20 February –
The blackbird I often see at the entrance to the park is perched on the gates for the second day running. It doesn’t fly away when I pass. It watches me. I walk within a couple of feet of it today and it doesn’t flinch.
The sun is out, the sky is blue. There is birdsong: sparrows, starlings, a wood pigeon. Somebody is playing a trumpet.
It starts to have the same effect as the shipping forecast, after a while – a comforting melancholia, a pleasure in lists and repetition, patterns starting to emerge.
Wednesday 22 August –
The sun is out and the streets are filled with girls in leggings, texting.
I’ve walked through two spiders’ webs today.
Thursday 13 September –
I pass three piles of vomit on my way into work.
It’s been a good few years since the last one, but I saw another headless pigeon corpse today.
Because you’re a human being, as the reader you begin to build strange little stories. Sometimes it’s like watching a cut-up version of Coronation Street:
An elderly man in a stained anorak is sitting on an upturned bucket to paint his garden fence. “It’s water-based, this,” he points out.
Lots of large women in their fifties and sixties sit sipping gin & slim outside the pub, waiting for “probably the best fish supper in town”.
As the book advances, though, it occasionally feels sinister, or melancholy, like a slightly wonky Beatles lyric; except there is no way to tell, with a book like this, whether you are projecting your own sinister or melancholy mood:
It’s dark in the park because they’ve turned out the lights to save some money.
The Sports Direct assistant idly plays with his genitals while he waits for the young girl to try on some trainers.
Margaret is in the bistro with her coat on having fried eggs, chips, beans and milky tea.
But still, there are tiny gifts of metaphor and strange turns of phrase:
The starlings are swanee whistling in the tops of the trees.
She stares Britannia-like into the distance as her terrier pisses on the cotoneaster.
On the steep hill, there’s the modern-day Sisyphus struggling with his 10kg bag of potatoes.
And occasionally (you know, like in real life) a chunk of serious drama rears its head:
Another young man is threatening to jump from the railway bridge on Church Street. The police are turning back traffic and a woman is shouting.
An old Ford Focus skids around the corner. Three of the doors open before it even stops and half a dozen big men jump out, smash the front windows of a VW Golf and drag out the driver.
And then what? What happens to the driver? Boniface doesn’t tell us. There’s no story here, in this whole book, but there are glimpses of hundreds of stories. It is funny, and unsettling, and comforting, often at the same time, and you don’t get to find out what happens next. You can’t just stand still and stare into someone’s front window, even if it’s dark outside and their curtains are open and their lights are on; you have to keep walking.