Whilst waiting for my next big fix – Volume 5 of Mick Herron’s wonderful Jackson Lamb series, I discovered the existence of this small novella. I think there may be more, similar, presumably little bonnes bouches which Herron crafts on the side for impatient fans of the series
Dieter Hess, an elderly agent, run by someone from Regent’s Park, has died. Ferocious, steely Diana Taverner, Number 2 desk, and a brilliant creation in the series, discovers there is more to this than meets the eye. The agent’s handler, John Bachelor someone on the verge of seedy himself (though urbane, sophisticated and classy compared to Jackson Lamb) is terrified of Tavener (isn’t everyone except Lamb?) ‘Lady Di’ as she is known, without affection, makes it clear to Bachelor that any messes resulting from Hess’s death will not be dealt with by her, and Bachelor will pay all prices – it appears Hess may have been a double agent.
Bachelor must come up with a skin-saving solution, and fast.
It was extraordinary, thought Coe, how much a badly dressed shoeless fat man could look like a crocodile
The denizens of Slough House are not really centre stage in this one, though Jackson Lamb and Catherine Standish do memorably appear in an encounter with a rookie agent who Bachelor fingers for his fall guy, just as Tavener has fingered him. Big sharks eat smaller sharks who feast on smaller sharks still
Catherine turned ..”by the way, what is that round your neck?”
“Somebody’s scarf. Found it in the kitchen” . Lamb scratched the back of his neck. “There’s a draught.”
“Yes, keep it on. Don’t want you catching cold.”
She went back to her own office to ring Coe, thinking: So that’s where the tea towel went.
This takes a pleasurable hour to read, and reminds the reader, if they enjoy the teasing twists in this one, how much more nail-biting, heart-breaking, and audacious those twists are likely to get in the full length, London Rules, available early in February.
Not to mention, funny, amongst the darkness, Lamb is a glorious, obscene presence.
Modestly priced on Kindle, seriously overpriced in wood
“Savage and formidable Potencies…..instinctively hostile to humanity”
I was steered towards Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo by someone who read my admiring review of The Willows, another creepy, wonderfully written novella or long short story by Blackwood.
And I must say that I found The Wendigo an even more unsettling read, though also showing Blackwood’s particular interest and strength – the wild, wild, natural world, far from civilisation, and how that ancient world might be at best, indifferent to the puny biped who so often despoils and abuses it, but, sometimes, unleashes a power which might be felt as malevolent towards us
I suspect one reason that The Wendigo worked even more powerfully on me, especially as a long, chilly dark nights winter read, is its own dark, chilly, Northern wintry setting
A small group of moose hunters set forth in Northern Canada. There are a couple of friends, rational men, one a doctor, one a younger Scottish man, more imaginative perhaps, a divinity student. They are accompanied by two guides, also friends of each other, one of whom, a French Canadian, is prone to an occasional dark melancholy. They also have a cook, probably Algonquian, North American/Canadian Indian
Algoquian folklore recounts the presence of a much feared, malevolent spirit, The Wendigo, which inhabits the dark forests.
Rituals of the Sleepless Dead – Dark Art by Dehn Sora
Blackwood’s story explores this. There is, of course, that tension between those who dwell in cities, more or less free from daily exposure to the great wild, and those who are more used to, and both more respectful, and perhaps more fearful, of its power.
Like The Willows, the trajectory of the story begins with a love and an appreciation of the wild, a delight in being far from cities, healthfully experiencing the majesty and awe of nature. And begins, bit by bit, to sow seeds of doubt and terror in the minds, in the imaginings of the characters in the story. Not to mention in the minds and imaginings of the reader.
The forest pressed around them with its encircling wall; the nearer tree stems gleamed like bronze in the firelight; beyond that-blackness, and so far as he could tell, a silence of death. Just behind them a passing puff of wind lifted a single leaf, looked at it, then laid it softly down again without disturbing the rest of the covey. It seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect. Other life pulsed about them-and was gone.
It may be a while before I walk in forests again, unless the sun is brightly, brightly shining
“If you speak Cat at all there is no reason why you should not speak it fluently. It is simply a matter of application”
The sparky, weird (sometimes a little Shirley Jackson-ish) Sylvia Townsend Warner has here written a rather wonderful book of ‘fairy tales’ from a particular perspective
The narrator, or perhaps we should say, the editor, comes by chance on an intriguing house in the English Countryside, It is
a seventeenth century house with a long façade and a reed-thatch roof. It gave an impression of slenderness, of being worn smooth and thin like an old spoon
The house and gardens contain perhaps 19, perhaps 27 cats and kittens. And the tenant of the house, and perhaps amanuensis and companion of the cats, is an unusually handsome young man (in the eyes of the narrator)
We cut a great deal of asparagus, and carried it into the kitchen. While I trimmed it and tied it in bunches he prepared nineteen fish dinners, and stood in the yard calling:
“The cats, the cats! The little cats!”
Besides the asparagus there was some cold pigeon pie and a plateful of sugar biscuits. And there was a bottle of vin d’Anjou, Several cats sat in the dining room, some on chairs, some on the window-sill, some on the large rosewood table. When, with the sugar biscuits, coffee and brandy were served, one of these, a massive marmalade cat, rose up and began to sip delicately from the wide glass
And perhaps we should draw a discreet veil over the swiftly erotic connection between this handsome young man and the narrator or editor of The Cat’s Cradle Book. What is really important is the speaking, and understanding of Cat.
The young man is fluent both in speaking and understanding – and, in fact, the love of his life was a remarkable Siamese cat he met whilst employed in Turkey, in the diplomatic service. Haru, the cat was a consummate storyteller, and like Sheherezade, beguiled with her stories. William, the young man, quickly began to study these, and other stories and which he realised were savage and instructive variants of the various myth and fairy stories which are so commonly told to children across the globe. It quickly becomes clear the original of ‘our’ fairy stories were tales told by generations of mother cats to their kittens.
And the stories are a little odd – for example, The Fox-Pope :
A fox who had been reading the Lives of the Saints was so delighted with the style of the book that he decided to become a saint himself. It seemed to him that he would be happiest as a hermit; so he retired to the Transylvanian Alps, taking with him a great bundle of lettuces and a cold chicken to eat on Sundays and saints’ days
These are not just whimsical and fey though. Townsend as a writer is far closer to Grimm (or Jackson) than she is to pretty Perrault. So we have crows feasting on the eyes of corpses, and our almost Fox-Pope resisting the nymph like temptation of a female rabbit whilst eating her litter ‘as solitude is essential to hermits’
Aoshima, Japan’s Cat Island
What we have here, then, is a collection of some of these cat’s cradle stories. But, before we can begin to enjoy them, it is only fair to warn the ailurophiles who are the ones most likely to enjoy these strange and literary tales, that though the narrator clearly loves cats, since she has learned to understand the language, though she only speaks it tolerably well, there is quite a lot of heartache to go through, as there is a high count of loved cats who are passed into cat afterlife. This is not due to human savagery, merely time, and the length of a life
This is a delightful collection – however, I feel both mean and heartless in championing it. The book is out of print, no digital version exists, and I may have snaffled the last inexpensive second hand copy, advertised on Abebooks, after a fellow blogger praised this collection, following a chance find in a second hand shop. The Cat’s Cradle Book was originally published in 1960 by Chatto and Windus.
We can only all hope that someone decides to reissue more of Townsend Warner’s books, or, perhaps, a wonderful epublisher of ‘forgotten’ minor (but wonderful) uniquely resonating voices from earlier in the twentieth (like Open Road Media) brings these back.
I note that Townsend Warner seems to be appearing and re-appearing on a lot of literary blogs whose authors are particularly active in championing unjustly vanished out of consciousness and print, writers, particularly those who were at one point so well served by Virago
And I must of course make obeisance to Jane from Beyond Eden Rock. She is one of the bloggers buzzing about Sylvia Townsend Warner and is indeed that blogger who found a copy of this, in a second hand shop. I did not trust time, and chance, and went screamingly in search on the Internet. You can read Jane’s alluring (or should I say ailuring) (!) review here
Well to be pedantic, a canoe. It may start out jolly, but for sure it’s far from light-hearted
I read a whole slew of books around the witching end of October, but never got round to reviewing. As the nights are still long and dark, this chilling, genuinely creepy long short story or short novella by Algernon Blackwood should still make a reader shiver, starting nervously as winter winds rustle the branches against the windows
This story opens cheerfully enough. A couple of friends, boating enthusiasts, embark on a canoe trip down the Danube, and all in blissful, balmy weather
Starting out, hugely appreciative of their friendship, the delight in healthy exercise in the open air, the two friends absolutely appreciate the solitude and connection with the natural world which takes so many of us out into walking, running, swimming, or climbing ‘in nature’ What happy endorphins we feel, rushing through us :
Racing along at twelve kilometres an hour soon took us well into Hungary, and the muddy waters – sure sign of flood – sent us aground on many a shingle bed, and twisted us like a cork in many a sudden belching whirlpool…and then the canoe, leaping like a spirited horse, flew at top speed…We entered the land of desolation on wings, and in less than half an hour there was neither boat not fishing-hut nor red roof, nor any single sign of human civilisation within sight
Who has NOT delighted in feeling they are alone, or perhaps with a similarly adventurous companion, out in ‘the natural world’, feeling alive and unconstrained by cities, rules, regulations, civilisations?
And who has not, perhaps, had a sense that a world without (seemingly) other humans, might not be an alien one, perhaps, if not indifferent to us, then having a darker intent
I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind, and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows especially; forever they went on chattering and talking amongst themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing- but what it was they made so much to do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they inhabited. And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements. They made me think of a host of beings from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves
Algernon Blackwood is utterly brilliant at the inch by inch turning up of terror and horror. There is nothing overdone here, nor is too much debunked by explanation. Instead, he taps into something quite animal and primeval. We might be able to laugh off ancient fear and awe of the wild, safe within crowded cities, but it lurks, oh how it lurks, for anyone with a modicum of imagination.
Wiki Commons – Is There Anybody There…There..There?
And I must confess, for some days after reading this magnificent tale I felt a little uneasy, even walking beneath the tame trees in my local park. Might they, just, be plotting…….
And….I was alerted to this excellent ghost, ghouls and things that go bump in the night – even on a summer’s day, gem, by Fiction Fan, and read it as All Hallow’s Eve harrowed. Here is the link to her enticing review
It has been a long two months since I last disgraced this website. Pressure of work has been intense, and spending too much time at the PC meant I had no more time to spare in front of a screen writing reviews.
I have been reading though, loads, some of it marvellous, but there is a serious review backlog which may never be properly surmounted. My resolution never to start a new book till the review of a just finished one was mapped out crumbled from the off, and I very much doubt whether many of those 15-20 books read in October and December will ever get written
But. What a wonderful find to share here
Jen Campbell’s collection of short stories is magnificent. Somewhere between myth, magic, philosophy and let’s pretend she re-conjures exactly why the short story is a perfect ‘Once Upon A Time’ perhaps a hark back to being read aloud to, or reading aloud to.
Campbell has a wondrous, unique imagination at play here. She takes the stuff of fairy stories, the stuff of reality, and mixes them together, playfully but deeply.
As an example, the title story ‘The Beginning of The World In The Middle of the Night’ is presented like a short play script. A man and a woman, talking, in bed. On one level, what is happening is something about their relationship. On another level, the conversation is about a tree which is due to be cut down by their local council. But…….it might just be a conversation about how the universe came into being. It is all delivered with a light and beautifully balanced wit. And yet…simultaneously, Campbell was making me cry, smile, aching my heart, breathless at the fragile delicacy she creates out of moments ending before we can grasp them. She is like some sculptor of something made out of fine, iridescent glass
A story about The Annunciation makes reference to Rossetti’s painting, so I read with this in my mind’s eye
Forgive the not-really-saying-anything-about-what-the-collection-of stories-is-really about, but no prospective reader should have the magic of their own discovery spoiled
Contrary to my usual habit, I post no excerpts of her writing, as each story needs to be read in entirety. Obviously, this can be done on Look Inside, (or hanging around in a bookshop, even better) to get a flavour. The first, very dark story perfectly illustrates the quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which Campbell has used to preface this collection
“It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attracted to one another”
Animals, that first story, is horribly dark, mesmeric and also, incredibly moving
A final high five must go to the publishers, Two Roads. The book itself is a thing of beauty, and each story has a lovely line drawing to illustrate it. As no artist is credited I can only assume the illustrations are by Campbell herself
My only advice to a reader is : do not rush and race through these stories. Each is perfectly satisfying and tasty, and if you eat too many at a sitting, you will miss a lot. I rationed myself to one a day, and let the stories settle and unfold
I’m certainly going to be keeping an eye out for future writing by Jen Campbell. She is a poet and author for children, and created a series of books about ‘Weird things people say in bookshops’ having worked in bookshops for ten years, but this, highly assured book is her first adult fiction foray. Perfectly done
I did get this as an ARC via NetGalley, but have to say that there were several formatting errors, which made me abandon the book quite early, as reading was a bit of a pain. Fortunately, i also then had it offered by Amazon Vine, which made for a beautiful read, as the book itself, physical object, is a delight to look upon and savour. Perfectly fits Campbell’s seductive writing, made to be lingered over, letting the flavours of her sentences unfurl. Please, don’t rush your read of this wonderful collection
Jackson Shorts – twisted everyday psychology and supernatural horror
This is collection of seventeen short stories, most of which have been published in earlier collections and also appeared in various magazines, for example, The New Yorker. Here, they are gathered together in a new Penguin Collection
I received this as a digital ARC, for review purposes, and I assume that it is only intended to release these as a wood book, since it must be said the digital version was unusually poorly formatted – basically, there was no obvious end or beginning to each story, it ran continuously as a single tale, so the reader needed to keep their attention sharp for when a new sentence made no sense, connected to the one before
The tales fell into two types. The bulk of them were stories of every day small town people, possessed of a kind of psychological warp of some kind of nastiness. These reminded me forcefully of some of the short stories by a slightly later writer – Patricia Highsmith, though Jackson is funnier. In this vein, is The Possibility of Evil, a story about an elderly spinster, a model of rectitude, neat, devoted to growing roses, but whose nature at root is quite different, inventively spiteful.
The small town world is often deconstructed and shown to be cracked and wanting by Jackson, and the not so hidden cruelty in human nature is laid bare by her. Families, sibling rivalries, the cracks in relationships are given savage and often blackly funny treatments. Some of the stories, such as The Summer People are quite poignant and frightening in the potential realism which underlies them – a couple of still hale retirees who go year on year to a backwoods summer cottage, decide to stay on for longer. The local residents, warm and welcoming to tourists in the summer, close ranks once the season is over, and the couple are left with the creeping intimation of their mortality approaching, suddenly frail and frightened.
I particularly liked the small number of stories on the edge of supernatural – a strange and haunted picture, seen in the moonlight, in an old house, a picture of that house itself, which seems to have some kind of malevolent power….
As is often the case with collections of short stories, not all are of equal brilliance, and I do prefer the fuller flowering of Jackson’s novels, but this is still a pleasurable, shiverable read of Jackson shorts. As long as you stick to wood book format!
Had it not been Jackson, I might have abandoned this digital arc right at the point where the first story ended and the second began, with no spatial indication or demarcation point between them.
Considering the time of writing, astonishingly and horribly prophetic
E.M.Forster wrote this ‘Science Fiction story’ in 1909. Pre-computer, pre-world wide web, pre-smart talking to itself technology.
Just over 100 years later this seems not like science fiction at all, more, something which might be a mere handful of years away, and in many ways, already here.
Set sometime in the future (at the time of writing) human beings have gratefully done away with all the challenging, messy stuff of having to communicate with each other, and skilfully negotiate co-operation with another face to face human being, in real time and place.
Instead, each lives softly cocooned like a babe inside a personal pod, where all wants are regulated by sentient technology. The technology ‘The Machine’ was once created and conceived of by humans, but now it does things so much more efficiently than any one human can do. All needs, be they of ambient temperature, health and well being, education, entertainment, furniture, are seamlessly provided by the machine, and the human being in its pod never has to rub up against the messy flesh of another. Communication happens by seeing (and hearing) each other on some kind of screen. You in your small pod, me in mine
Everything that can be controlled, is, and everything that can’t, in the material world, is regarded as unpleasant and dangerous.
Living happens in the personal pod, deep below the earth, where the air supply is regulated, and purified. The surface of the earth is deemed dangerous, the air not fit to breathe. The Machine has told us so, so it must be true.
Vashti, the central character is happy in her pod. Her son is a difficult and challenging embarrassment to her and their ‘meetings’ on screen do not go well. He also has disturbing things to say about The Machine, and appears to harbour dangerously subversive ideas about a better, earlier time, when people communicated directly with each other. And then………well, the title of the story shows where this will lead.
Twenty-first century readers can’t help but look around at a world where we are all clutching our little screens,facetwitting, Instachatting, occupying the same space as each other in cafes, on buses, colliding on the street, but rarely connecting with each other, in real. Terminals in shops instruct us that we have placed an unrecognised item in the bagging area. Doctor’s surgeries require us to register our arrival on a screen, whilst the receptionist communicates only with her own terminal. And children, so we are told, no longer realise that potatoes grow in the earth, milk comes from cows, and, from early years are plonked in front of screens with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawking sounds, so their harassed parents can get on with the important stuff of staring at their own little screens, busy with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawks of their own
Whilst I certainly prefer Forster’s more ‘traditional’, literary novels of relationship this is a horribly possible vision, and it is tempting to categorise it as contemporary fiction, not Sci-Fi at all
A short piece, it punches the gut and leaves the reader gasping for breath
And, the inevitable link to my virtual bloggy buddy FictionFan, who once again brought something to my attention I would otherwise not have known about. You can read her review here. We have never met, in real, and I realise the whole wonderful book blogging community is a ‘virtual’ like Forster is warning us about. There are many good things about our virtual connections, but I sincerely hope to live out my days on the surface of this planet, not beneath it (that can come later!) and welcome the real faces of real people as we meet each other, bump against each other, and even talk, face to face, in real time and space
A version a little more alarming than the better known one by Simon and Garfunkel
Jeanette Winterson has here created a pretty perfect gift-wrapped 12 days of Christmas present. The wrapping is the beautiful presentation of the book, with its smart dark blue cloth cover, all decorated with stunning illustrations by Katie Scott, who has also provided the equally gorgeous patterned facing pages at the start of each chapter, not to mention manuscript style decorated letters to start the chapters, and tiny confetti style occasional type sized symbols – hearts, flowers, stars, a little dog. These are not random, but keep an eye out for them as you read, they are like little exclamations on the story you have been reading.
But, gorgeous as all this is, it just serves to enhance and package the delectable present of Winterson’s writing.
Soot Town had paid for the dinner, in honour of the day, and in charity towards the poor, parentless children who had taken shelter under Mrs Reckitt’s ample wings.
Had she been a bird it is unlikely that Mrs Reckitt could have flown far – or indeed flown at all – for in most respects Mrs Reckitt resembled a giant turkey. Not a wild turkey. No. A bred bronze bird with a substantial breast, a folded neck, a small head and legs……If in most respects the lady resembled the celebrated bird of the Christmas feast, in one singular respect she bore another resemblance.
Mrs Reckitt had the face of a crocodile. Her jaw was long, her mouth was wide. Large teeth lurked inside it
Twelve quite different stories, and all quite proper for the season itself, so we have the heartwarm of rewarded virtue, and celebration of love itself, in all sorts of different forms – whether of a poor child for a glorious snowman, which is, in fact, a magical and funny Snowmama, a bereft adult grieving for their dead lover, the nativity donkey touched by the birth of the Christchild, or a couple of looking-for-love New York lonely hearts. This is, after all, a symbolic time of change and new beginnings. There are proper Dickensian, type stories of wicked capital and the virtuous poor, and the wicked get the comeuppance they deserve. It is also a time more closely linked to pagan festivals, the shortest day, and the veil between the worlds of life and death.
So there ought to be dark stories, ghost stories, most frightening and powerful, to raise shivers in the reader. And, there are…some properly frightening ones.
It is the custom here that the husband provides the wedding dress; white, but with a small red stain placed where he chooses to mark the loss of a maidenhead. The maid came to dress me for the wedding. She wished me happiness and health.
‘Is he a good man, my husband?’ I asked as she fastened the dress tight.
‘He is a man’ she said. ‘The rest you must decide for yourself.’
I was dressed and I looked at myself in the silver mirror,. The maid had a vial of blood. ‘For the stain.’ She said
She dabbed the blood over my heart.
Just as well Winterson’s overall mood and desire is to bring cheer, and so she revives us with the other gift of Christmas – the festive connection of shared food and celebration.
There are 12 stories, the fictional inventions of Winterson’s imagination and writerly craft, and there are 12 recipes which have some link in memory to her past, and her present – things prepared by others for her, things prepared by her and others, things prepared by her – all part of festivities past and present.
I say possibly delicious because many of them are not vegetarian friendly, so I can only appreciate the lovely real stories she shares along with them, and some of them, particularly recipes from her childhood, might not be as appetising to a reader who doesn’t have a childhood memory to make them tasty (I was never a fan of tinned fruit salad!)
If I had to find one word to describe Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas pot-pourri, it would be that it is a kind one. And, kindness, surely is something which can sometimes seem in very short supply.
I was delighted to be offered this by Amazon Vine UK, and snapped it up eagerly. Alas, I intended to read just ONE story per day, but presented with a whole box of delectations and delights I ate/read one after the other. Delicious and satisfying and not an inch added to the waistline. Though, if I make the cheese straws (these I can eat), I might not be able to say that for much longer…………
Well written ghostlies, but creating mild goose-bumps rather than uncontrollable shivers
Susan Hill is always worth reading, and she does the ghostly brigade well, though I must confess to wishing for a little more of those factors which would have had me whimpering in slight fear, and turning on all the lights. She did this marvellously of course in The Woman In Black, knowing how to turn up the volume knob of terror slowly and inexorably.
This moderately long story collection comprises 4 tales of the ghostly, and whilst they are well done, the first two did not create any unease in me at all – possibly because the chosen constructions for both stories tended to minimise and undercut fear in the reader, because fear was not really there for the narrator.
The first story, The Travelling Bag is not the narrator’s own story, and so there is a distance from emotion, through the using of one person to tell another’s story. This makes it a ghost story told as entertainment, so I was not surprised to find no hairs rising on the back of my neck, though there might well be some vivid images which make certain readers feel a little whimpery and uneasy!
Boy Number 21 also has a device which turns the fearful volume knob down. The narrator is reminded of an event from his long ago childhood. This concerns the paranormal. At the time, others in his circle were a bit spooked, but he himself was not, so, really, the absence of the narrator’s fear didn’t stir mine
It was only the third, and really, the fourth story which made me get close to any kind of feeling spooked and a bit scared – and that, after all, is surely one of the reasons we like ghost stories (those of us that do)
The central characters in the last two are female, as indeed the possible spookers are. What makes it work is that the characters the reader is being encouraged to identify with are uneasy, and becoming increasingly so, as the story progresses, so we have mounting fear going on. In the third story, Alice Baker, the inexplicable spooky goings on take place in the mundane surroundings of the typing pool in an office block.
The last story, The Front Room, was the one which most satisfied my desire for being a bit scared, set in an unexceptional twenties suburban house, at a time pretty close to the present, as DVD players and TVs figure! What makes for a better fear factor is that everyone, bar the source, is in the end scared. And this includes small children, which somehow made the scary happenings more sinister and potent.
The Monkey’s Paw – W.W. Jacobs – scariest ghostly ever, written in 1902
Hill is an old-fashioned ghost story writer – which I like, in that she focuses most on the psychology of the person being ‘spooked’, not to mention, the psychology of the haunter, so that the journey is about increases in tension rather than the BANG! RATTLE! of a plethora of sudden shocks, clanking chains, groaning coffins and the like which are the territory of what I dismissively think of as ‘Pulpy’ Horror writers.
Though, personally, as stated I do rather like the scare factor of a good ghost story, so would have liked to be a little more terrified, this would be a good one for a reader wanting a milder, gentler shivering turn
Photo credit Ben Graville
I bought this as a download, but the ‘real’ book by all accounts is a beautifully presented one, and it’s probably particularly well-marketed for a Christmas stocking filler
Short stories, as I find myself repeatedly telling myself, are a slightly unsettling read. It’s to do with the variable length of reading time. A short can be just too short, and if you read several by the same writer in fairly quick succession, there can be a sense of ‘here we go again’ as a writer’s pattern repeats.
And so I found here, with Sillitoe. In some ways, to my taste, this collection would have been better served by having fewer of the ‘stories in the middle section’ The first, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ is a marvellous novella, rather than short story. It is full of bitter, angry realism, a heady mix of despair, resignation and empowerment. It was of course also made into an iconic film of the 60s, part of the New Wave of Cinema – which included the film of another Sillitoe book, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1962, director Tony Richardson
The central character of the title story is a troubled, disadvantaged young Nottinghamshire teen, doing time in a Borstal, after he was caught with the proceeds of a robbery – in a scene which mixes dark humour with pathos. The story, told in the first person is imbued with a sharp, intelligent sense of the unfair nature of an unequal society.
Smith did not have the chances, due to poverty and deprivation for any kind of better life (the book was published in 1959) Petty crime offered glamour, excitement – and food on the table.
In his time in the Borstal, the superficially progressive prison governor discovers that Smith has a rare talent for running, and when a cross-country running competition is set up against a prestigious school, the prison governor sees glory for himself and his running of his Borstal, in pitting his prize boy against the elite. For Smith, the buzz, the graft and the drudgery of daily training offer a meaningful solitary time for expansive, curiously transcendental thought, bringing him to a wider consciousness of himself and the system he is caught within
Although the ending of the story is never really going to be in doubt, once the reader sees how Smith’s process of analysis is going, it is gloriously satisfying.
Sillitoe himself came from precisely the same kind of background as the characters in this and the other stories in the collection. What I like is the sense of fire and spirit, the individuality and humanity in his characters, despite the fact that life does what it can to grind this down and away. He neither patronises, pities, indulges or allows his characters to indulge in ‘poor me misery’ in the best of the stories.
Of the shorter stories, I found ‘The Fishing Boat Picture’, the story of a mismatched marriage between a bookish postman who liked a quiet life and the ‘big-boned girl yet with a good figure and a nice enough face’ whom he marries rather in haste, followed by the inevitable joint repentance at leisure, a particularly strong one. The twist in the story is not a twist of event, rather, one of dignity, sensitivity, tenderness and emotional refinement inside what seems like unpromising, wasted lives
I was also moved by the sad pathos of ‘Uncle Ernest’, a lonely man who, through pity, forms a friendship with two manipulative young girls. I think a modern writer would have done something more sensationalist with this, and maybe, in the light of recent events, the idea that there can be innocent friendships is something which gets more cynically viewed.
Some of the later stories (when I had got the measure of the writing), such as ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, where the narrator, a young boy, assists another typical Sillitoe loner in his suicide attempt, just because he (the boy) was feeling ‘black and fed –up because everybody in the family had gone to the pictures’ seemed a little contrived, an attempt, curiously enough to lift with mordant humour, a darkening collection.
However, the very different end story absolutely raised the game again for me. ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’. This is either a more fully autobiographical story, or a story where the writer wants us to believe in its autobiography, as the narrator in this is a writer called Alan, originally from a background of poverty and deprivation, whose success as a writer has taken him out of class, out of background, and into a much more gracious life, now in Majorca (Mallorca) . Sillitoe did indeed live for several years in France, Spain and specifically in Mallorca
In this endpiece story, quite different in tone to the earlier pieces, the theme is that of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ The writer muses of a life formed through a passion for books, reading and writing. His relationship to them is ambivalent, they are :
Items which have become part of me, foliage that has grown to conceal the bare stem of my real personality, what I was like before I ever saw these books, or any book at all, come to that. Often I would like to rip them away from me one by one, extract their shadows out of my mouth and heart, cut them neatly with a scalpel from my jungle-brain. Impossible. You can’t wind back the clock that sits grinning on the marble shelf. You can’t even smash its face in and forget it
The writer, in his present, is taken back in time from the aural equivalent of Proust’s madeleine – the song of the cuckoo, into a flooded, present remembrance of himself, earlier in life, and tells the important story of Frankie Buller, who he was, who he was for Alan, and the moment when life paths diverge.
We were marching to war, and I was a part of his army, with an elderberry stick at the slope and my pockets heavy with smooth, flat, well-chosen stones that would skim softly and swiftly through the air, and strike the forehead of enemies
The gathering up of Sillitoe’s time and place in this, as stages of his life are weaved into and out of, is wonderful.
I was offered this as a digital copy for review, by Open Road Media, a States based company who bring many ‘gone out of print’ writers from earlier in the twentieth century, back into circulation. They are meticulous (not all digitisers are!) in producing versions which read seamlessly and cleanly on ereaders
This particular version is not the one available in the UK, I have linked to the UK ‘available on Kindle’ which was an earlier publication. The stories are the same, and in the same order, but the UK Kindle and USA Kindle (Open Road) contain different afterwords, by different authors. Open Road’s version has an afterword by Sillitoe’s wife, Ruth Fainlight, a writer herself, and photographs
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