Wednesday, 30 December 2020

'English Climate: Wartime Stories' - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I expect a lot of people are in the same boat here but I have found it very difficult to read in 2020 - as the sparse content on this blog this year will confirm. In such an unsettled and anxious time, it has been hard to concentrate on novels, no matter how much I would love the escapism. But short stories have provided a good solution, and fortunately this collection by British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner hits the mark. 

Published by Persephone Books (believe it or not, I do sometimes read books by other publishers), English Climate: Wartime Stories is, as you would imagine, a collection of short stories inspired by Sylvia’s experience of World War Two while living in the British countryside. We see vignettes of villagers who could populate any rural area all over the UK, and we have to wonder - a la DE Stevenson’s wonderful character Miss Buncle, also reprinted by Persephone - how many of these people were inspired by those whom Sylvia knew personally. They are not always flattering portrayals…

‘My Shirt is in Mexico’ is a mere four-and-a-half pages but neatly tells the story of two people who meet on a train and encourages the reader to be thankful for small things. ‘Noah’s Ark’ is about evacuated city children staying in the country, and their hosts’ difficulty in relating to these perceived wild creatures. While ‘Mutton’s Only House’ is such an extraordinary story about the preconceptions we make about people who we don’t really know that I had to read it twice, straight after each other. 

Sylvia writes in a typically Persephone manner (if such a thing exists), in that she has a crisp but friendly tone, slightly admonishing those who judge others negatively, and with a sharp ability not to waste words on unnecessary sentences - which is a great skill in any writer. And at this time when we are all feeling mentally fragmented and emotionally spent, some comforting short stories from a simpler time are just what we need as we brace ourselves to go into a second year of pandemic mayhem, this time with the added nightmare of Brexit. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

'Random Commentary' - Dorothy Whipple

Hang up the bunting and raise the flags, for Persephone Books has somehow managed to unearth another Dorothy Whipple book for us. Although alas, not a novel or even a short story collection this time, Random Commentary is instead a volume of this fantastic writer’s memoirs. And Persephone knows how much its customers love anything with the Whipple name on it. 

A short volume at a mere 159 pages, Random Commentary covers the years from 1925 to 1945 and Whipple herself compiled the text for the original publication in 1966 from her diaries. This means that Random Commentary covers the time when Whipple began publishing novels, rose to become a huge bestselling novelist and also when the anxious years that she spent living through World War Two: the book ends as peace is declared. 

While, of course, Whipple writes beautifully and comfortably, this is not a straightforward diary. Random Commentary may be taken from her diaries, but the reader is denied any kind of guide in the form of years or months to break up the paragraphs. Which makes for a rather disjointed read, and you need to keep going backwards and forwards to decide whether the paragraph you are reading follows on from the one before, or whether it is an entirely new topic altogether. Which I, for one, found rather frustrating. I had no sense of time or history, apart from the occasional mention of a real-world event or publication of one of Whipple’s own books. However, this was how Whipple intended the book to be read so this is how Persephone has kept the style. 

I was also rather confused as to who quite a few of the characters were and how they fitted in - and would dearly love to know who Mary was, and how Mary’s daughter Griselda fitted into Whipple’s life. Were they friends or family members? I have no idea but they were both obviously important people to Whipple. Maybe some footnotes would have helped the contemporary reader to fill in the blanks a little. 

But make no mistake, a Whipple is a Whipple and is something to be devoured. In 2020 of all years, we needed a Whipple more than ever and thankfully Persephone dug deep and found us one. Anyone who has read Whipple’s novels and short stories and enjoyed them as much as I have will find plenty to enjoy in Random Commentary.