Hackney librarian Jack Houston shortlisted for prestigious short story award

Jack Houston

Jack Houston - Credit: Archant

Set amid the squats of Haggerston, Come Down Heavy is a moving tale of a friendship between two women living chaotic lives and has been nominated for the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University

Crouch End actor Anne-Marie Duff reads Jack's story on BBC Radio 4 Picture: Miles Aldridge

Crouch End actor Anne-Marie Duff reads Jack's story on BBC Radio 4 Picture: Miles Aldridge - Credit: Archant

Hackney librarian and poet Jack Houston has been shortlisted for a major short story prize for his tale of two addicts who form a touching friendship amid chaotic lives.

In Houston’s affecting prose-poem Come Down Heavy, Jackie and her dog Luna lurch between squats, supported housing, and Mephodrone prescriptions on the streets of Haggerston before moving into Simone’s council flat.

But as the pair bond over a shared love of music, and commiserate over broken love affairs, their precarious existence leaves them just one stolen stash away from tragedy.

One of five stories shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University, it’s based on Houston’s first hand experience.

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“I have signed on in the past to make ends meet and lived in squats in my younger years where there was an open door policy,” he says. “It was very much of that subculture, we had lots of troubled souls, I guess I would call them friends, who had problems with self-medicatory practices.

“The more securely attached, the easier you will find it to come out the other side. But those with more chaotic upbringings find it harder to fix themselves having fallen into various traps. They are often judged, but while we all have agency over our lives most people don’t choose who they are born to.”

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Houston hopes to “give an insight” into the familiar scene of two women begging outside a Tesco Express with a dog.

“People very often see street begging and think ‘they are going to spend it on drugs’ and it’s the case that if you are a drug user you are very likely to end up asking a stranger for money. I wanted to flesh out their characters rather than just walking past them.”

The Clapton-based 42-year-old works as both a floating librarian in the borough’s libraries and as poet in residence, running events including a weekly workshop for adults during lockdown.

“I send examples of a different poet each week and on Thursdays we get together to talk about them and share what we have written. People say there’s no audience for poetry and no-one writes it, but it’s interesting how may people come out of the woodwork and enjoy it.”

Raised in Leyton, Houston himself went “back to school” a decade ago as a mature student to take a creative writing degree and has been shortlisted for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Prize.

“I always enjoyed writing little things for friends to make them chuckle but I guess I didn’t think being a poet was a job, I’m still not entirely sure it is, you would be a very hungry artist. I just like playing with the sounds of language how it sounds as much as what it means. Reading a good poem sends a little shiver up your spine.”

Past winners of the £15,000 prize include Zadie Smith and Lionel Shriver. This year’s is announced on Radio 4’s Front Row on October 6 but Houston’s story will published in an anthology and he was delighted to hear it read by Anne-Marie Duff.

“My wife and I had seen her at the Almeida and we said ‘someone like Anne-Marie Duff would be good’, but this being the BBC they got the actual Anne-Marie Duff which was brilliant.”

Listen to Jack’s story here www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000mk33

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