Wednesday, 23 December 2015

'Greengates' by RC Sherriff

Shame on me. For Greengates is the third book republished by the wonderful Persephone Books, yet it is the first of his books that I've read. And yes, you did read that right. 'His books' - for with Robert Cedric Sherriff, Persephone has broken with its usual custom of reprinting forgotten books by wonderful women writers. 

Greengates is a deceptively simple book. At face value it is an enormously readable novel about Tom Baldwin who retires from his job with an insurance company and settles into his suburban life (if you can call London's Edgware Road, W2, just around the corner from Marble Arch, surburbia!) with his kindly wife Edith and their grumpy maid Ada. But a year of nothing quickly gives way to the fact that for both Tom and Edith, retirement doesn't bring the promised opportunity for creativity and freedom. Instead, retirement brings boredom and resentment to the couple. That is, until they decide to up sticks and move to the country (if you can call the fictional village of Welden Valley, which is a 30 minute train ride from Edgware Road, country!) and life becomes exciting again.

There is so much more to Greengates than that plot summary, though. It is a novel about time: not just for people but for England as well. The stories of the Baldwins' two houses - Grasmere and Greengates - represent the way time has moved on in the country before and after the First World War (Greengates was first published in 1936). Grasmere is a dark and steadfast old house, rooted in the past, where nothing has moved with the times. Greengates is brand new, fresh and full of promises for the future. The furniture within the two houses, the journeys between them, the people who surround them... all of these factors represent the passages of time, of attitudes in Englishness, of the British tradition of resistance to change.

RC Sherriff writes with such wonderful eloquence. He has fantastic turns of phrases that are at once very neat and precise, while also being beautifully descriptive and evocative. There is no shortage of detail or fascination in his writing, and all of this closely exacting text succeeds in recreating the small and closed world of the Baldwins and their narrow frame of reference.

It's hard to explain why a novel about a couple of retired folk buying a house should be so compelling to a woman in her mid-30s but Greengates truly is - last night I found myself staying up into the small hours reading 'just one more chapter' until I had finished the whole book. And I already have Greengates inked in as the perfect present for several people I know.

There are two more RC Sherriff books republished by Persephone, A Fortnight in September and The Hopkins Manuscript. I'm making it my business to hunt down copies of both at once!

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