439 pages, Oxford
Review by Pat Black
I’m dreadful when it comes to buying books. It’s an occupational hazard for anyone who likes to have a wee browse in bookshops. Sometimes there’s a title you simply have to own.
I can appreciate the impulses of the compulsive shoe shopper...kind of. Though I guess books aren’t very much use as footwear (unless, in my case, it’s two size ten editions of Anna Karenina).
For me, the hook could be as crude as a lovely cover (which this book has) or a name you’ve not seen in a while. Or perhaps it’s a title that you’d always meant to pick up, something that nagged you for years until you caved in and bought it.
Or maybe it’s to do with the venue itself. I saw this volume for sale in a bookshop in Ambleside in the Lake District, and that certainly helped. It was lying alongside the Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories – both books with reverent spaces around them, like polite sunbathers - which I also bought on impulse. I’ve finally gotten round to reading this one, about a month or so after I moved to England from Scotland. The time seemed right.
AS Byatt’s exhaustive opening essay is a fine introduction to the works, and acknowledges the difficulty of underpinning what is, definitively, “English”.
You could point to some clichéd descriptions of what it’s like to be Scottish – the good, the bad and the ugly – and grudgingly accept that there is a grain of truth to them. But how does one describe the English, short of resorting to red telephone boxes, Buckingham Palace bearskins and BBC accents? There are class issues and the aristocracy and Oxbridge and all that, sure. But there are also ancient traditions, Celtic influences, a love of the land as well as the metropolis, the industrial heritage, the language itself... I’ve got a headache in considering that paragraph alone.
Byatt seems to settle on an idea of “the thingyness of things” as a keen marker of Englishness. It’s a curious phrase, one that I am at a loss to elaborate on but that I understand perfectly.
Let’s look at the stories themselves, and let the authors worry about what being English means.
William Gilbert’s “The Sacristan of St Botolph” is up first, a 16th century short story detailing a pious vicar being tested by a demon after he likens himself to St Anthony. Part of this scourging of the cleric involves a pig with a bell attached, which he must keep with him at all times. I liked not only the unflattering look at the clergy, a longstanding staple of English fiction, but also the subversive ways in which the preacher dupes the demon.
We get Dickens out of the way early with “The Haunted House”, a whimsical piece in which the narrator is at pains to discover the truth behind a supposedly cursed house in rational terms before discovering that ghosts quite often take on the forms of things we can’t let go of from the past.
Anthony Trollope’s “The Relics of General Chasse: A Tale of Antwerp” has the appurtenances of a Carry On movie in its layers of farce, comedy and dropped trousers. After an English tourist tries on the clothes of the famous general in the title, his temporarily discarded britches are torn to pieces by a gaggle of women eager to obtain material for their own diabolical needlework. This tale respected no-one, but the wicked players are given a comeuppance, nonetheless.
“A Mere Interlude” by Thomas Hardy looked at a merry-go-round of events surrounding a young woman who misses a boat while on her way to get married to a much older man. While stuck at the port, she meets a lad her own age whose suit she once rejected; incredible moments of chance and irony follow, and the reader is left to wonder whether fate has anything to do with what happens to her, or blind luck.
“Little Brother” by Mary Mann could be regarded as a horror story, a piece of social realism where a parish official visits the home of a working family which turns out children on a production line basis. It’s followed by a true work of horror, MR James’s “Two Doctors”, which details a typically nasty tale of diabolism and curses in the master ghost story teller’s inimitably dry tone.
Arthur Morrison’s “Behind The Shade” has more earthly concerns. Here, a strange mother and daughter living in a fancy house are subjected to the gimlet-eyed spite of their neighbours. But they’re blind to what is actually going on inside the house until it is too late.
Kipling’s “Wireless” seeks to balance advances in human endeavour – in the era depicted here, medicines and telecommunications - with a more divine sense of what inspires us, and the mystery of what generates artistic creation.
HG Wells’ “Under The Knife” strikes a similar note, looking at the thought processes of a man who undergoes a then-very risky surgical procedure involving rudimentary anaesthetic. He doesn’t know if he’ll come out the other side of the operation, and while he’s under he appears to undergo a near-death experience. Again, this was an attempt by someone at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries to marry the staggering progress made in science with a more romantic sense of a human’s place in the physical world, and indeed the universe.
Charlotte Mew’s “A White Night” could have been penned by Poe, or the younger Lovecraft. Here, some English travellers in rural Spain find themselves accidentally locked into a church overnight, where they witness an arcane rite which leads to an apparent atrocity. But the whole incident feels like it was a dream, and the witnesses shrug it off. I could imagine this bunch having spotted a wicker man burn on the horizon in passing, and then instantly dismissing it as a mere phantom of the mind. A very odd tale – and I’m not sure about what it had to say regarding English attitudes to foreign places, people and customs.
The gloriously spiteful Saki appears next with “The Toys of Peace”, in which a well-meaning uncle attempts to fill his nephews’ minds with purer thoughts than those of bloody battles by furnishing them with toys – not the lead soldiers, castles and forts they love, but town officials and miniature municipal buildings. The boys’ reaction to this, and their utilisation of the new figures in their collection, is typical Saki.
GK Chesterton appears next with a kind of mystery story, “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown”. This sees a detective and his bookish brother seeking to solve the problem of the major in the title, who, in a “wrong man” scenario worthy of Hitchcock, is plunged into a world of intrigue, mystery and danger. I loved the denouement to this, and the playful suggestion of what we really want when we read or write stories of excitement and peril. Fans of film director David Fincher’s work will be most struck by the similarity to the plot of one of his movies, which I won’t spoil by naming here.
“Some Talk of Alexander” by AE Coppard deals with one of the blackest things in human experience – suicide – in the lightest tone, as a young man decides to do a Reggie Perrin in the sea after being rejected by his sweetheart. The current seems determined to thwart his best efforts, though; and even at the end, after his strange epiphany in the pitch black water, the narrative still has time to undermine Alexander’s plight.
That story is in the same key as PG Wodehouse’s “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald”. It’s pretty much the same as his Jeeves and Wooster stories, with an amiable but dim toff who enjoys a good drink attempting to construct a marriage proposal for the radiant Aurelia Cammerleigh. The problem is that he might have to ingratiate himself with Aurelia’s fastidious aunt, first, before he can make a move. But in pretending to be someone he isn’t, does this pyjama-clad buffoon with a neat line in chicken impersonations risk losing the woman he loves? This being Wodehouse, you’ll know which way to bet.
A masterpiece next: Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects”. Central to AS Byatt’s “thingyness of things” treatise, this tale has neither plot nor purpose, following a prospective parliamentarian, John, who appears to have lost his ambition. Instead of engaging the public, this man prefers to collect odd or unusual objects which have either been discarded or pushed into his path by time and fate. Prime among these items are a piece of green glass buffed smooth by sand on a beach, a star-shaped shard of broken china and a dense totem of iron. The how or the why in what John does is never really explored, and doesn’t matter. But in describing his treasures and speculating on how they came to be, Woolf is at her freewheeling best; it’s a piece of literary alchemy that conjures the size, shape and texture of the objects right there in the palm of your hand. Pure poetry, a pleasure to read.
Dark, brooding and bearded DH Lawrence slips into bed beside dear old Ginny next, with “The Man Who Loved Islands”. Rather unfortunately, Lawrence is “the sex guy”, the way Adam Sandler is “the funny guy” or Bruce Willis is “the action guy”. I’m not sure he’d have liked this epithet, all joking aside. His work is synonymous with literary rutting thanks to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but that’s a book riddled with paradoxes – and there is a similar lack of congruence here.
In de-mystifying and de-romanticising the act of love, Lawrence was looking to create something beautiful in its own right. He was not the first person to write about sex, but he may well have been the first person to write about two-bob, workaday and sometimes disappointing sex, and the ennui, disillusionment and existential horror that can derive from that. Even when Mellors and the Lady finally get it on, their first couplings aren’t the kind of literary ignition you might be expecting. Like real love affairs, it can sometimes take time to light the fuse. This was part of Lawrence’s genius as a writer, but was also the curse of his storytelling.
For a guy whose legacy rests on a perceived notion of bliss and lovemaking as the ultimate act of expression, his tales seem to be filled with bad sex carried out by bitter, preoccupied people. Lawrence’s shaggers always seem to hate themselves for what they do or to beat themselves up about it – quite separate from guilt. They’re never dissolute or shamelessly libertine, but they’re very quick to disconnect themselves from the idea of love and good lovemaking. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I have to wonder if Lawrence ever had blazingly, bed-breakingly good sex with someone who matched and complemented him. Indeed, there is a long-standing suspicion that Lawrence might have been better suited going to bed with blokes, not girls. His fictions’ sense of frustration and disappointment are more understandable with this in mind.
So, he is not Jilly Cooper. But if you were forced to pick a theme out of these two writers for Naughty Fridays with your significant other – or someone else’s, har de har – I’m pretty sure you’d have the jodhpurs, silly hat and big boots on in a flash. Whereas taking a Lawrentian direction might result in one of you sitting on the end of a bed, morose, sighing with regret and despair before sullenly pulling on your corduroy trousers.
Where was I? Yeah, there’s a suggestion of that sort of sex in the middle section of “The Man Who Loved Islands”. Which is a terrible shame, because up to that point the story is brilliant. It follows a man who, well, loves islands, as he chases a dream, setting up a house on a wind-blasted place cradled in a swollen Celtic sea.
He hires a whole load of staff and spends a fortune on renovating the property and cultivating the land. It seems idyllic, but the place drains the guy’s cash. There’s always another bill or misfortune just around the corner – and having just moved house, I can appreciate the problem in nature, if not in scale. Soon, the pressure begins to tell on his staff, who hate him with the spite a barrack room will reserve for a sergeant major. Considerations of class haunt him, in particular; he is the Master, but he is not loved. So, with his finances dwindling, he moves to another island, and meets a lass. Cue hand-wringing and damp squibs.
As I say, it’s a shame we had to go back to a suggestion of that awful, mind-numbing metronomic sex in the middle chapter, when he moves to a second island. I want to grab Lawrence by the braces and scream: don’t think it, man – do it!
But the prose itself was blinding up till then, as the man gets to grips with his far horizons and the wild place where he dares to assert order and authority. This story shares a sense of wonderment about its setting in keeping with how Woolf felt about her precious “things”; an examination of the past of a place or an object, how it came to be, and in Lawrence’s case, who interacted with the land before the main character came along.
In the final segment, the narrator is back on yet another island, this time completely alone barring the odd sheep and a treacherous cat. It is here that Lawrence’s descriptive powers go into overdrive, and his true talent – painting pictures of the land, the elements and the animals – is revealed. It’s another masterpiece of prose, and looks at what people who desire peace and solitude above all other things can really look forward to in life.
Ronald Firbank’s “A Tragedy In Green” could have been an English stage farce – the tone is mixed in a black comedy lampooning a whimsical upper-middle class decadent lifestyle. I even detect a hint of Monty Python yet-to-be; Terry Gilliam would have enjoyed animating the catastrophe central to the tale, in which a bored high society lady of leisure chances upon a book of magic spells. The worst of these is visited upon her husband’s place of work at the Foreign Office under an enchanted cloud “the colour of gold and peacock green”.
The supreme irony is the moment that this doom chooses to strike; just as the husband, whom we are told is a dullard, abandons himself to an over-riding passion to complete a sensuous episode of his memoirs. I once used to joke about writers falling asleep on the Z key at their computers, or perhaps even dying with their noses pressed on one last full stop. The final wickedness in this story echoes that.
“A Widow’s Quilt” by Sylvia Townsend Warner has a subtler black magic in store – a far more disturbing prospect than some tinselly djinn uprooting the Foreign Office into St James’s Park. Here, we follow Charlotte, who is also bored rigid by her husband and his habits and longs for escape. After seeing a widow’s quilt in a museum – a grim traditional gift for the bereaved, only big enough for one – she decides to sew one for herself, while her amusingly-named spouse Everard bumbles around in the background. They don’t have any children, which is probably significant.
I liked this story’s faint, imprecise but – yes! – very English sense of malice. However, it did give me a flavour I didn’t like, one which poisoned almost every single page of the Penguin anthology of Modern British Short Stories: this colossally depressing notion of loveless, childless marriages, cauldrons of simmering spite and unhappiness doled out to the long-suffering and the indifferent in equal measure until they die. There’s a lot of it about, but thankfully, whatever her motivations in selecting each story for Oxford, AS Byatt seems to have realised that too much of this shit turns people off.
No, what we need is a bit more cackling, so thank heavens for Aldous Huxley’s “Nuns at Luncheon”. It’s a clever tale of an author having afternoon tea with a vicious gossip. She tells him the story of a nun brought low by the oldest and most basic mistake of all, and in it there’s sympathy, irreverence, malice and sadness in equal portions. The tale also deconstructs the art of spinning a narrative in a sly (one wishes to say, post-modern) fashion. The narrator is being told this story on the understanding that he should write about it (and of course, he has), but along the way the mechanics of storytelling are examined. The pair wonder which figures to use, and how the tale should look on a physical page. You can’t help but feel that a joke has been made at your expense, and you’ll only realise this much later when it’s too late to say anything back. But the whole thing is carried out with such brio that you won’t mind.
Malachi Whitaker is a girl – her first name was actually Marjorie, and she was known as the “Bradford Chekhov”. Her “Landlord of the Crystal Fountain” is a strange exercise in wish-fulfilment and whimsy as a teacher shares a train carriage with four big men, on their way back from a pub landlords’ conference. It’s not as dirty as it sounds. But right up until the final paragraph, I was expecting this to turn into a horror story, or at least something sinister, a la Roald Dahl. What are these landlords up to? I wondered. Maybe it’s just me.
VS Pritchett’s “On the Edge of the Cliff” looks at the strange, end-of-the-line world of an old man who has a girlfriend nearly 50 years younger than himself. It’s a non-pervy, and in fact curiously sexless coupling as the old boy follows his girl to a seaside fair, and in the process bumps into the widow of one of his long-dead friends. The old man doesn’t like this woman. For one thing she reminds him of the past, when he and his friends used to defrock and go for a nude swim at the cove. For another, there was some sort of incident, for which the old man brands this woman a “liar” to his ingenuous young lady. But there are a lot of signs that the old man’s memory is not what it was. We can only take these two friends reunited as we find them in a spellbinding drama, rich in setting and characterisation.
“A Dream of Winter” by Rosamund Lehmann sees a woman in bed with the flu while a man deals with a bees’ nest which has been causing a great deal of irritation in her country house. Her two children cause a ruckus in the meantime, one of many rude, if perfectly natural interruptions on the entire process. Although the story is set on a very cold winter’s day, there is a promise of summer in the recovery of the precious honey – although not all of nature’s gifts are ones we’d appreciate.
Evelyn Waugh, next, with “An Englishman’s Home”. This was quaint, English and proper, with bluff generals, hawkish spinsters and calculating bankers getting their bloomers in a twist over a proposed property deal which threatens their rural toff lifestyle. Classic Waugh – and, along with Wodehouse, classic comic writing.
I first knew of Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” through a reference to it in the movie Donnie Darko. This examination of innate evil through the eyes of young boys is just as remarkable as William Golding’s in Lord of the Flies. Here, a teenage gang in post-war London torment an old man living in the last house standing in a street bombed by the Germans years before. Their nihilism and pack behaviour is chilling, as is their almost insectoid swarming over the man’s home when he has the misfortune to go away for a bank holiday weekend. But the final cruelty doesn’t come from the boys.
This was a snapshot of a world which no longer exists, but will be well remembered by a great many people; the parts of England’s capital which were left in rubble and ruin years after the final siren sounded in the Blitz, as sure a symbol of the end of empire as any other.
Two things I knew about HE Bates, coming into the next tale: an off-hand reference to his writings in Withnail & I, and The Darling Buds of May. And he was probably called Master Bates at school. That’s three things.
Anyway, as Byatt points out, it’s a shame that he’s mostly known for bucolic farce, as Bates was a fine documentarian of things that grow. “The Waterfall” begins during a hard winter as a clergyman’s daughter asks a favour of a distant neighbour, as her father falls ill and dies. Not long afterwards, the ice begins to melt, and the daughter and the neighbour begin a courtship which becomes a marriage.
We then have a wonderful evocation of spring and summertime as this lonely, buttoned-up woman is flooded with life; and then something else, as a florid jester of a man is contracted to mend a waterway which has been causing trouble on her husband’s land. Her husband takes to this man and his silly jokes very well, and she in turn learns to laugh along with them. There’s never a hint of there being something forbidden or sinister in the wife’s blossoming feelings, but they are perfectly natural, just like everything else in the tale. And if there is another hard winter on the way for the clergyman’s daughter - if the waterfall should freeze up once more - Bates chooses to ignore it.
“The Troll” by TE White puts an Englishman in a gothic horror story in Sweden as he spies the creature in the title eating a woman in the hotel room next to his. The hideous, ethereal monster with his blue-flamed tongue is content to hide in the form of a man during normal times, and lets the Englishman know that he’s next on the menu. This tale had a fantastical element but was told with great conviction, and if there was irony, it was deeply buried – the two key elements required for fantasy stories to work their magic on the reader.
Wipes brow, takes drink of sharp lemonade. Nearly there.
Now, this is embarrassing: I had to check that Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t, you know, Elizabeth Taylor. That has to be a straight fail. It’s not out of the question, is it? I mean Dirk Bogarde wrote. Robert Shaw wrote.
Harrumph. Anyway. Taylor’s “The Blush” involves a misunderstanding, class issues and discomfort, though it is in no way a comedy. Here, a childless, affluent woman interacts with her cleaning lady, who, despite being apparently “too old” for children, gets pregnant. We get a rounded picture of the cleaning lady and a very keen sense of the social differences between these two similarly-aged women, before that image is completely shattered by a visit from an angry husband.
“At Hiruharama” is set in New Zealand and looks at a family history as a man and his pregnant wife move into a remote area at the turn of the century, surrounded by what some may term rural types. The central drama, as the isolated man seeks to contact the only doctor in the vicinity while his wife goes into labour, is completely undercut by an eccentric neighbour who arrives exactly on time for his six-monthly dinner engagement, and is not to be dissuaded.
Leonora Carrington’s “My Flannel Knickers” is a work of surrealism in which a man gets stuck on an island – a traffic island, to be precise – and goes through a face-swapping competition of some kind which put me in mind of Rene Magritte’s work. But it’s difficult to know what’s going on in this tale. It’s not wilfully obtuse or badly written, but there are several interpretations and we simply don’t have time at the moment.
I’ve read two stories by Alan Sillitoe and they have both been brilliant, if very sad. The one we get here is “Enoch’s Two Letters”, in which a young boy is left home alone thanks to a horrible coincidence. As night falls, the strange fears of childhood are reproduced very strongly, and I was moved by the young lad’s predicament, as well as the idea of poor old grandma being left to pick up the pieces.
Another sad thing – this edition would have you believe JG Ballard is still alive. “Dream Cargoes” is a fever dream in which a young man finds himself as captain of a freight ship filled with toxic waste which causes an environmental marvel on a deserted island. The young lad then becomes as much of a target of scientists’ curiosity as the thickening vegetation and ever-evolving animal life which swarms over the land. But evolution can be metaphysical as well as physical in Ballard’s world.
John Fuller weighs in with two quick tales, next. “Telephone” manages to give us a complete picture of a lazy freeloader who makes merry with a friend’s flat, drinking his booze and reading his letters, while a telephone rings in the background. “My Story” looks at everyone’s story, from the Epic of Gilgamesh onwards, and in so doing reveals an extraordinary truth; that you can only get a true picture of a life once it’s over. Both remarkable achievements in that each story is about a quarter of the length of this review.
Angela Carter’s “The Kiss” starts off with vivid splashes of colour as she describes the women in a Central Asian marketplace, the colours, their clothes, the make-up and hair. Then she turns it into a Scheherazade-style fable with a strong feminist slant – sensuous, provocative and shocking by turns.
Rose Tremain’s “The Beauty of the Dawn Shift” takes us to other unfamiliar, if far less exotic pastures, following the progress of a formerly East German soldier as he attempts to flee to Russia following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It may be the uniform, it may be the incest, it may be the kindness mixed with contempt of the Polish couple who help him when he falls sick, but Tremain wants us to understand there’s something very wrong with this guy. For the work of an Englishwoman who may never have seen the former East Germany, this is a fine evocation of time and place.
Ian McEwan pops up in these anthologies more often than not, and “Solid Geometry” is a bit of a classic. It follows a writer who edits the diaries of his crank great-great grandfather, and discovers a strange scientific discovery he stumbled upon relating to Euclidian purity and, perhaps, Plato’s Forms. In the background, the narrator’s relationship with his partner is fading away. These two separate strands collide in a spectacular way and, god forgive me, I was almost cheering at the end.
The end. Sigh. Here it is, with Philip Hensher’s “Dead Languages”, an appropriately moribund look at the English through the eyes of a school pupil in one of the colonies. This boy has chats with the wife of the schoolmaster, the enigmatic “mister”, and generally fails to understand this odd couple and their preoccupations throughout the length of the tale. And in the end, he still doesn’t get them. AS Byatt saw this as the perfect way to end the collection, so let’s take her cue.