Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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I finished reading The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam yesterday and it was perfect, as I have come to expect from her.  It was fluently, imaginatively written, full of haunting images and details I will not soon forget.  But there is one thing it is not: a children’s book.  And yet that is how it is marketed.

At its heart, there are two children (but child characters alone do not make a children’s book).  Bell Teesdale is eight when the book begins, a sensible country boy who, like the rest of his family, is pitching in with the haymaking on their Cumbrian farm.  Rain is expected so the family works through the day and into the moonlit night, to the despair of the London family renting the farmhouse next to the field.  A tractor circling outside their windows at midnight is not their idea of a relaxing summer holiday.  Tempers flare, words are exchanged, and both fathers are fuming by the time they go to bed.  But Harry, the London family’s very young son, and Bell subtly intervene and peace is made the next morning.

So begins the story of twenty years of friendship between the Teesdales and the Batemans, and most especially between Bell and Harry.  The entire Bateman family comes to love their country getaway, where Harry’s writer father comes to work during the school holidays, but Harry feels a particular bond with the place and is never happier than when exploring the fields, dales, and fells or communing with locals, like the egg-witch (whose story is one of my favourites) or the local chimney sweep.

Gardam is a master of the short story and while I always enjoy reading her stories, I sometimes feel frustrated by their brevity.  I want more!  Here, we have the perfect compromise: a collection of exquisitely composed stories all focused on the same people.  It’s not quite a novel – the stories jump about through the years and Gardam has no interest in explaining things the way she would do in a novel – but the satisfaction of getting to see lives progress and learn how things turn out for everyone as they age is absolutely here.

So why is it considered a children’s book?  A number of her early books are (this was published in 1981, relatively early in her career), but then again that classification seems to vary by publisher.  Some consider Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and The Summer After the Funeral to be for younger readers, which I can somewhat understand.  Europa, who have been reissuing Gardam’s books over the past few years, consider those novels to be for adults and yet this collection they consider among her works for children.  I think that is stretching it.  It’s not inappropriate in anyway for a younger reader, it’s just written in a way I would think appeals to more mature readers.  A twelve-year old would be absolutely fine with it, but then twelve-year olds should be reading adult books and not children’s ones anyway.  The language, the sedate pacing, the frequent focus on adult concerns and thoughts, all seem to me to gear more towards an adult reader.  And Bell and Harry’s boyish activities seem perfectly tailored to the nostalgic adult reader who would like nothing more than to spend a summer day exploring abandoned mines or a winter’s one admiring extraordinarily icicles formed by a fierce, fast frost.

Regardless of your age, it’s a wonderful collection and, like Harry, I didn’t want my time there to end.

NOTE: Europa, despite their interesting classification of adult/children’s novels, having been doing great work reissuing Gardam’s older titles over the past few years.  The Hollow Land, Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and a number of her other books are all currently available in excellent editions and all are well-worth reading.  She is a truly extraordinary writer.  And if you need more encouragement to get excited about Gardam, the Backlisted podcast did a wonderful episode on A Long Way From Verona that is well-worth a listen.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Many authors regret their first book.  They wish for it to disappear completely, never to be seen or heard of again, completely disassociated from any future career they might make for themselves.

Sometimes that wish is well founded.

In 1905, Lovers in London by A.A. Milne was published and it is exactly the kind of book he would rather everyone forgot about.  He certainly tried to himself; he considered The Day’s Play, published in 1910, his first book.  And as it is miles better than this I don’t wonder at that.  But these days it is all too easy to revive even the deeply forgettable and Lovers in London is now readily available from Bello as both an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback.

So what is this relic from Milne’s youth?  It’s a collection of linked short stories (sometimes it is referred to as a novel but clearly those people haven’t read it) about, you’ll be shocked to hear this, two young lovers in London.  The eager young Teddy is delighted when his American godfather comes to London with his family, including his lovely daughter Amelia.  Teddy, already half in love with Amelia based on her photograph, falls totally when he meets her and dedicates himself to her amusement (and wooing) with trips throughout London.

Teddy is a classic Milne young man: eager, romantic, inclined to whimsy, attempting to make a living as a writer, and terribly fond of cricket.  He is someone his twenty-three-year old author was clearly comfortable writing, since he basically was Milne at this stage in his life.  And Amelia is the prototypical Milne young woman, happy to go along with her suitor’s flights of whimsy and give as good as she gets, though Milne’s skills at writing women would improve greatly.

Crucially, his skills at writing would improve greatly in the years to come.

Milne had spent years writing and editing at Cambridge but when this was published hadn’t yet started his prolific career at Punch.  Punch, clearly, was where he refined his skill and these stories are sloppy compared to the clever economy of the excellent pieces he would write for the magazine over the coming years.  Some of the stories in this collection ramble terribly – Milne was a master of witty rambling but hadn’t yet managed the witty part at this stage – and Teddy indulges in far too frequent (and occasionally incoherent) fantasies about how he could impress Amelia.  In such a short book, so much repetition grates.  Teddy, as our narrator, express his own (and his author’s) opinion on how the book is going at one point:

Most of my stories have a way of avoiding anything that approximates to a plot.  They do this of their own intention, not regarding the wishes of the author.  Often have I longed, regretfully, in the retrospect for a plot.

The good news is that Milne would, eventually, find out how to write both with and without a plot and do it delightfully.  He just wouldn’t figure it out for a few more years.

As a Milne completist, I’m glad I read this.  It’s a fascinating step in his evolution as a writer.  However, on its own, it simply doesn’t have much merit.  (I will note that Simon read it back in 2012 and had kinder things to say.)

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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When I went to Croatia in June, I went prepared for a lazy beach and hiking holiday, looking forward to having hours to spend reading in the sunshine.

Well, I had hours and I had sunshine.  What I didn’t have by the time I reached Split were any books to read.  For the first time in my life, I had dared to travel with only my e-reader.  So, of course, this was the first time I lost my e-reader (I forgot it on my third and final flight and it was stolen from there).

What I did have was a smartphone with my Kobo app, giving me access to all the books in my Kobo library.  It wasn’t ideal but it was something.  I couldn’t read on the tiny screen as often as I would have liked so it turned into a selective reading holiday focused primarily on one author: Richmal Crompton.

I’d read a few of Crompton’s books before and enjoyed them, Leadon Hill being my favourite before this year.  But the more I read, the more I realise that she, like many prolific authors (looking at you, P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer) liked to repeat the same plot over and over again.  From Crompton, it’s about a group of children (generally siblings but sometimes not) and watching them grow from childhood to (inevitably) unnecessarily warped adulthood.  If you’ve read Family Roundabout from Persephone, you’re going to find Frost at Morning, Quartet, and a host of other titles very familiar.  For my part, I think Quartet is the most enjoyable of this template but then I haven’t read them all.  Do I even need to read them all?  Probably not.

That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of writing different stories.  She was and was in fact very good at it as Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes show, but again the stock characters and scenarios tend to creep in.

And then there is Felicity – Stands By, which is so entirely not what I expected from Crompton and so thoroughly fun that I could hardly believe it.

Felicity – Stands By is a collection of stories written during the 1920s about the escapades of Miss Norma Felicity Montague Harborough, commonly known as Pins.  In the opening story she is sixteen-years old and has just left school.  She has managed to give her adult escorts the slip and is feeling very congratulatory as she boards the train to go home – treating herself to third-class seat rather than the socially-approved first she is usually forced to take.  And her adventure is rewarded with the making of a new friend: Mr. Franklin.  Darling Frankie, as she soon christens him, is a delightful young man who, since the end of the war, has been struggling to find work to support both him and his widowed mother.  He would love secretarial work but, having been unable to find any, is on his way to take up the post of valet to Sir Digby Harborough – coincidentally the grandfather and guardian of his new friend Felicity.  His term as valet is short-lived and within a few breathless pages Frankie has proven his worth by foiling a thief, had his ancestors and education (Harrow) approved by Sir Digby, and been elevated to the post of secretary.  With Frankie now installed in the house as Felicity’s friend and confidant, we are ready for her adventures to begin.

In addition to Frankie and numerous servants, Felicity shares her home with her beautiful but chilly sister Rosemary (with whom Frankie, like all men, instantly falls in love), her stiff Aunt Marcella, and her grandfather Sir Digby.  The youngest of five orphaned siblings, Felicity’s eldest brother and sister are both married and living in London while her favourite brother, Ronald, is in the guards and devoted to a rather jolly life of pleasure.  They all make appearances in the stories but in mostly superficial ways.  It is only the relatives with whom she lives that we get a good idea about, Sir Digby in particular who is just the kind of curmudgeonly, illustrious grandfather I like to come across in fiction:

Sir Digby Harborough suffered from the Harborough gout and the Harborough temper.  Aunt Marcella was proud of both the gout and the temper.  She would have felt ashamed of any elderly relative of the male sex who did not possess both the gout and the temper.  Common people might be immune from such things.  Not so the Harboroughs.

Being of a far better temper than her grandfather and possessing indefatigable energy, it doesn’t take Felicity long after leaving school to get caught up in enjoyable antics.  She excels at coming to the help of others: when Ronald is in need of cash, she takes up with an acting troupe for an afternoon in order to earn money for him (and ends the day with the much needed four hundred pounds).  When a friend’s father is in danger of being ensnared into marriage by a horrifying woman, it is Felicity once again to the rescue.  She rescues a friend’s love-sick writings from a past amour who won’t give them up and is instead joyfully sharing them with his new loves and, in possibly my favourite act of social good, artfully converts a friend’s hypochondriac spiritualist aunt into a hearty outdoorswoman.

And, occasionally, she entertains herself by running off an unwanted governess with the loan of a few exotic animals from a passing zoo-keeper, indulging in socialist-inspired acts of generosity, impersonating Russians, and sampling a life of pleasure.  It is this last which she finds most difficult to do, perhaps because it is the only one she must disclose to her family before attempting.  She does eventually find a suitable escort for an evening of dissipation (dancing, cocktails, cigarettes) in her dry brother-in-law but Aunt Marcella is not easily won over, despite Felicity’s succinct explanation of how young ladies are now launched on the world:

“I mean nowadays you don’t come out with a bang like you used to.  You unfold gradually like a flower.  It’s much more poetical.  I read somewhere the other day that nowadays girls begin to go out to dinner when they’re fifteen, and when they’re sixteen they begin to go to dances and night clubs and drink cocktails, and when they’re seventeen they do all those things till they’re simply sick of them, and when they’re eighteen someone gives a dance to mark the fact that life has no further experiences to offer them.”

Despite finding no pleasure in her evening of excess, the book ends with Felicity entering formally into the adult world.  Schoolgirl no more, she appears before her family as a beautiful, composed young woman ready to take society by storm.  They are all saddened for a moment at the loss of the impish girl in braids and holey stockings – until they look at her face.  The apparel may change but the irrepressible girl within does not.

I have a weakness for cunning optimists who will brazen their way through any situation and come out composed and ready for more.  It’s why I love Wodehouse’s Psmith, Angela Thirkell’s Tony Morland, and, now, Felicity.  These stories aren’t the best things Crompton ever wrote but they are fun and charming and I wish there were a dozen volumes more in the adventures of Felicity.

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Christmas at High RisingI almost didn’t manage to read the only holiday book I own over the holidays.  I woke up Boxing Day morning with the horrible realisation that after months of anticipation, I hadn’t yet picked up Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  I immediately cast aside the book I had been reading (Maeve’s Times, a really delightful collection of Maeve Binchy’s writings for the Irish Times) because, as you should know by now, nothing will stand in the way of me reading a Barsetshire-set book (except my shoddy memory).

Just published by Virago in November of this year, Christmas at High Rising is a collection of short stories written by Thirkell in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  It is a very slim book with only eight pieces, five of which focus on the residents of High Rising.  The remaining three – a story of a Victorian Christmas, a rather un-Thirkell-like piece about an art show, and an enjoyable essay entitled “Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out” – are well enough but it was the Barsetshire-set stories that delighted me most.

Tony Morland is perceived with varying levels of joy by Thirkell’s readers.  I know some readers would like nothing more than to see his mother’s fears realised, with Tony thrown off his bicycle or horse and his neck broken so that they may be spared his condescending speeches and general interference.  I, on the other hand, adore him.  There is no such thing as too much Tony and my only major quibble with Thirkell is that she hid adult Tony so effectively from her readers in her later books.  Yes, she reports that he is grown into a responsible, even conventional man but how cheated I feel for not being able to witness that myself!  But that is an argument best saved for another review.  Here, there is more than enough Tony to delight, as he struts through High Rising with the “devil-may-care attitude of a man of the world”, sparing every so often a “glance of passionless scorn” for the imbecilic adults in his life.

And some of the adults are imbecilic.  George Knox has never been a great favourite with me and, though there is comic value in his winding, long-winded speeches, they are too winding and long-winded for me.  I am also deeply offended by his referring to the divine Donk as Tony’s “friend with the un-Christian name, that sphinx in whom silence probably conceals total vacuity.”  How dare you, sir (even though that is a neat turn of phrase).

Tony’s mother Laura is present – or as present as her habitually abstracted state allows – and, as usual, terrified of the trouble that Tony might get himself into.  I remember reading The Demon of the House (a collection of Tony-focused stories) a couple of years ago and sympathizing so much with Laura in that book’s first episode, when she frets that Tony will manage to get himself run over by a car while bicycling.  In this volume, she has the added worry of horseback-riding lessons, though the groom comforts her by saying that though Tony is an awful rider he is the sort of person who will “never learn to ride, not if he was to ride all his life, but he’ll stick to the horse somehow.”  That seems as good a description as any of the enthusiastic and tenacious young Tony, though his mother will (as mothers do) continue to fret even after such assurances.

There was a sad lack of Dr. Ford, whose encounters with Tony are some of the most pleasing exchanges Thirkell ever wrote (even when the dialogue is limited to “shut up” – such blissful words when directed at Tony).  Yes, he appears but never frequently enough for my tastes.

After a near miss, this really did make for the perfect holiday reading.  I am so please that Virago published these stories and I can only hope they find more to print in years to come (a reissue of The Demon in the House might be a nice place to start).

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Revenge of the Vinyl CafeThere is an art to telling a simple story.  Some people cannot do it.  They need to tell you all about the inner lives of their characters, even the aspects that have nothing to do with the story; they must describe the setting down to the smallest drop of dew on a leaf in a forest that none of the characters ever enter; and they must make absolutely sure that you appreciate the brilliance of the them, the author, as much as you appreciate their creation.  But it is usually the simplest stories that attract me the most, which is why I was so happy to read Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean.

For almost twenty years now, McLean, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, has been telling stories on his CBC radio show, the Vinyl Cafe.  And for many of those years, I have been listening.  The highlight of any episode is the “Dave and Morley Story”, though these days the stories are just as likely to be about one of their children – university student Stephanie or preteen Sam – or neighbours.   They are humourous stories, particularly the ones focused on Dave (an enthusiastic record store owner who has never encountered a sticky situation he could not make infinitely worse), but they are so fondly and tenderly told that I more often than not find myself tearing up, sometimes even as I am laughing.

I love all the characters in Dave and Morley’s world and I love how their world is recognizable but also just a little bit different, a little bit nicer and warmer.  Nothing is perfect but everything is comfortable.  McLean is nostalgic but it is just the right level of nostalgia: for every story Dave recounts about his youth, there is a corresponding eye-roll from one of his children, wondering why dad has to tell that story again for the hundredth time:

Dave wasn’t fussed by that.  He knew he had told them before.  He knew what he was doing.  You have to tell stories over and over.  It is the creation of myth.  The only road to immortality.

It was the “road to immortality” stories in this collection that made me tear up.  For every screwball sketch about one of Dave’s antics (getting stuck on a treadmill, riding a bicycle on top of a moving car, finding himself trapped in the sewers, being mistaken for a patient when visiting a friend in the hospital) there was another story about memories and traditions being passed on to the next generation.  I cried over “Fish Head”, which does not seem a promising name for an emotional story but was, in the end, about Dave remembering his father and passing that memory on to Sam.  “Rosemary Honey” also got to me, a story about Dave and Morley’s ninety-year old neighbour Eugene.  Eugene longs to taste rosemary honey again, a flavour he remembers well from his Italian childhood, and enlists Sam and Sam’s friend Murphy to track the bees who congregate around his rosemary bushes back to their home.  And by the end of the book, exhausted by all the belly laughs and blinked backed tears from the previous stories, I had no energy left to withstand the final story, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, about the death of the family dog.  I cried when I first heard that story on the radio and I cried again reading it.  But they were good, healthy tears and I finished the book happy.

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08-Good-Evening-Mrs-Craven-webI am slowly coming to love short stories and the more books I read like Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, the faster that conversion will happen.  Published in 1999, this is Persephone Book No. 8, a collection of stories that Panter-Downes, an Englishwoman, wrote for The New Yorker during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ wartime journalism has been collected and published (as Letters from England and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but almost all of the stories in this book had never been printed outside of the magazine until Persephone gathered them in this collection.  And what a service they did us readers by doing so.

The stories are focused on ordinary men and women, examining how their lives and views of the world are disrupted by the war.  This kind of quiet, domestic approach to the effects of war suits my tastes exactly; it is why I am drawn to Angela Thirkell’s wartime novels, diaries from women like Nella Last and Clara Milburn, and Persephone’s other WWII-era offerings (House-Bound being one excellent example).  Panter-Downes’ focus is never on the overtly dramatic – there are no dreaded telegrams or major personal tragedies – but that does not make the suffering or disappointments of her characters any less wrenching.  Two mothers brought together through their shared fear for their children in America and Asia in the days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour; a wife trying to hold herself together through the last days of her husband’s leave; a long-term mistress who has no way of knowing her lover’s fate since “the War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses”: these are the sorts of stories that the book is made up of.  Evacuees, rationing, work parties, the home guard…Panter-Downes addresses a wide variety of homefront experiences in a perceptive and direct style that I found irresistible.

The collection is not without humour.  The frustration felt by those hosting evacuees or friends whose London homes were blitzed can be most amusing, as can the gossipy conversations held during Red Cross sewing parties.  To me, though, the most amusing story was the very first one: “A Date with Romance” from October 1939.  Mrs Ramsay, who features in a number of the stories, has come to London to meet an old admirer recently back from Malaya.  Feeling intensely romantic and nostalgic, her fantasy of a tender reunion is quickly dashed by his jolly greeting:

‘Gerald, dear,’ said Mrs Ramsay softly.  She held out both her hands, which Gerald pumped up and down.

‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘old Helen.’  Mrs Ramsay felt a slight but definite chill.

I found the pieces about those saddled with evacuees the most interesting.  Panter-Downes uses a number of stories to address the tensions these situations created and the way lives and households were upset by the addition of outsiders.  “In Clover” is probably the most intriguing, looking at how a young upper-middle class wife’s innocent ignorance is upset by the arrival of a slovenly evacuee and her three children:

Little Mrs Fletcher…had two babies of her own and a husband in the Guards, but her notions about all three were pretty innocent.  On the afternoon her nurse went out, the harsher facts of infant life were concealed from her by the nursery maid, who let her have fun pretending to fool around with two little dears who were always perfectly dry, perfectly sweet-smelling, and done up in frilly organdie tied with ribbons.

By the time the story ends, Mrs Fletcher is no longer quite so unaware of the harsher facts her household had spent years trying to shield her from.

But the story that touched me the most, the one that upset me and actually brought angry tears to my eyes, was “It’s the Reaction” from July 1943.  It is a glimpse into the life of Miss Birch, a lonely ministry employee in London who longs for the friendly camaraderie that had existed between her and her neighbours during the Blitz, when they spent night after night together huddled in their apartment building’s shelter.  Now, they barely even acknowledge one another in the hallways.  Determined not to give up so easily, Miss Birch makes a cheerful and determined attempt to rekindle one of those Blitz-era friendships.  Her effort falls horribly flat and it is heart-breaking.

I found Panter-Downes’ willingness to address such a wide range of reactions to the changes brought on by the war – from earnest enthusiasm to petty but sympathetically-portrayed selfishness – most appealing and, sadly, surprising.  My expectations have been so lowered by other WWII-era books and diaries brimming with patriotic zeal, whose characters or authors would never dare to express any skepticism about the necessity of the discomfort and upheaval the war brought into their lives, that I no longer expect to find anything else.  I am not doubting that there were people – millions! – who exemplified the much-praised wartime spirit but I find it irritating when that kind of sustained optimism and enthusiastic collectivism is treated as the only way to have felt, or, worse yet, the only correct way to have felt.  It is the ability to capture and describe the range of emotions beyong that and to do so without implying any judgment that gives this book so much appeal today, sixty- and seventy-odd years after the stories were written.

The twenty-one stories in this collection are all quite short – most are only around ten pages long – so should theoretically be perfect for those looking for something to dip in and out of.  I say theoretically because I did not dip: I plunged.  Once I started reading, I did not let this book out of my hands.   I now count it as one of my favourite Persephone books and I cannot wait to read Minnie’s Room, a collection of Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories.

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Reading A.A. Milne’s The Day’s Play and Once a Week, both collections of pieces he wrote for Punch during the 1900s and 1910s,  this year has reminded me how much I enjoy good humourous writing.  The obvious next step was to reacquaint myself with one of my very favourite humourists and so I picked up Behind the Beyond by Stephen Leacock.

It was famously said that during the height of his fame more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town remains popular a hundred years after its initial publication but, though some of his other works remain in print, they are sadly less known.  Behind the Beyond came out in 1913 but the pieces in it are just as funny today as they were then.

The book begins with the title piece, a fantastic parody of a night at the theatre, making fun of both the play itself (here an all-too plausible melodrama, about an intergenerational love triangle with a dying heroine, the quality of which varies dramatically as the acts progress) and the audience’s reaction to it.  It is the audience that makes this piece still so funny because, honestly, people never change:

‘Monsieur Harding?’ he says.


‘Bon!  Une lettre.’

‘Merci, monsieur.’ He goes out.  The audience feel a thrill of pride at having learned French and being able to follow the intense realism of this dialogue.

All of the stories are little bits of nonsense but they are well-written nonsense, the kind of inconsequential but amusing writing that there used to be a huge market for in the popular magazines and newspapers of the day but, alas!, no longer.  Leacock muses on, among other things, visits to the dentist and barber, an encounter with a genial hustler on a train and, at length, the tourist experience in Paris.  I loved “Making a Magazine”, a satirical piece about a struggling author who dreamt he was the editor of popular magazine, the kind of man who had tortured and disappointed him so many times in his waking life:

“I came to say, sir,” the secretary went on, “that there’s a person downstairs waiting to see you.”

My manner changed at once.

“Is he a gentleman or a contributor?” I asked.

“He doesn’t look exactly like a gentleman.”

“Very good,” I said. “He’s a contributor for sure. Tell him to wait. Ask the caretaker to lock him in the coal cellar, and kindly slip out and see if there’s a policeman on the beat in case I need him.”

“Very good, sir,” said the secretary.

I waited for about an hour, wrote a few editorials advocating the rights of the people, smoked some Turkish cigarettes, drank a glass of sherry, and ate part of an anchovy sandwich.

Then I rang the bell. “Bring that man here,” I said.

I found it particularly interesting to read this after having read so much Milne this year because the overlap is so clear.  It is easy to distinguish between the two author’s styles – Milne would always be more aggressive, trying to fit in more laughs per line, though not always successfully – but their topics are very similar and they are equally playful in employing various rhetorical devices for comic effect.  What I do really do notice when comparing Milne’s youthful writings with Leacock’s more mature efforts (Leacock was 14 years older than Milne) from the same period is the polish.  Leacock’s work feels finished in a way Milne’s, however delightfully entertaining I may find it, doesn’t.  Every story in this collection is good.  Yes, some stand out but they are all amusing and, more importantly, the humour is sustained through each story, never petering out after a strong start or coming on strong after a weak beginning.  Leacock’s writing feels refined, like the art that it was, and you can easily understand why he was one of the leading humourists of the day.

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Oh, my friends, how delightful to have been alive in the 1900s and 1910s with a subscription to Punch!  What pleasure those readers had at their fingertips each week, opening their copies to find new pieces signed A.A.M.!  I may have missed the glory days of Punch by more than a few years, but at least I can still read the work of my favourite of its contributors in collections like The Day’s Play by A.A. Milne from 1910.  This is the earliest of the four volumes of his Punch pieces and, having read so much of his work from the late 1910s and onwards this year, it is amazing to see how defined his style already was at this time.

The Day’s Play begins with the introduction of the Rabbits.  I adore the Rabbits, a group of young people whose adventures Milne chronicled over the years as they caroused, married, and reproduced (my favourite piece from Once a Week – “The Heir” – was about the Rabbits).  Though some of the Rabbits are apparently employed, the stories generally catch up with them on the weekend, when they gather at some place or another to entertain us and one another with their frivolous little speeches, endless games, and good humour.  My only quarrel is that there is perhaps an excess of cricket talk in these pieces, most of which I could not remotely follow; all my knowledge of cricket comes from P.G. Wodehouse and now Milne, so I know nothing of rules but quite a lot about chats in the interval.  But the characters, despite their perverse and incomprehensible recreations, are delightful in their ability to make every activity and every conversation fun.  Our narrator, when cornered by his host’s fiancée, gives a typically Rabbit-like recitation (largely falsified) of her future husband’s virtues:

‘You’ve known him a long time, haven’t you?’

‘We were babes together, madam.  At least, simultaneously.  We actually met at school.  He had blue eyes and curly hair, and fought the captain on the very first day.  On the second day his hair was still curly but he had black eyes.  On the third day he got into the cricket eleven, and on the fourth he was given his footer cap.  Afterwards he sang in the choir, and won the competition for graceful diving.  It was not until his second term that the headmaster really began to confide in him.  By the way, is this the sort of thing you want?’

‘Yes,’ smiled Dahlia.  ‘Something like that.’

‘Well, then we went to Cambridge together.  He never did much work, but his algebra paper in the Little Go was so brilliant that they offered him the Senior Wranglership.  He refused on the ground that it might interfere with his training for the tug of war, for which he had just obtained his blue – and – It’s a great strain making all this up.  Do you mind if I stop now?’

Already in these pieces, Milne was writing remarkably good female characters.  Dahlia and Myra, the two chief female Rabbits, speak as wittily – though usually more intelligently – as the men and are viewed as their equals.  In The Day’s Play, Myra in particular impresses with the strength of her repartee with the narrator.  The highlight of the entire collection, for me, was a disastrous theatrical performance by the Rabbits Dramatic Company, which left Myra and the narrator stranded on stage in front of an audience to improvise until the wounded leading man could take his place.  Forced to rely on their wits, things do not go smoothly and their whispered asides to one another are wonderful as each tries to shift the attention off his or herself:

Rat-catcher. That ass Simpson’s hurt himself.  We’ve got to amuse the audience until he finishes bleeding.

Maid (sitting down with her back to audience). I say, is it really serious?

Rat-catcher. Not for him; it is for us.  Now then, talk away.

Maid.  Er – h’m. (Coyly.) Wilt not tell me of thy early life, noble sir, how thou didst become a catcher of rats?

Rat-catcher (disgusted).  You coward!  (Aloud) Nay, rather let me hear of thine own life. (Aside.) Scored.

Maid. That’s not fair.  I asked you first. (Modestly.) But I am such a little thing, and you are so noble a youth.

Rat-catcher. True.  (Having a dash at it.) ‘Twas thus.  My father, when I was yet a child, didst – did – no, didst – apprentice me to a salad binger –

Maid (with interest). How dost one bing salads?

Rat-catcher (curtly). Ballad singer.

The Rabbits portion of the book ends all too quickly but there are other delights in store.  The pieces are largely autobiographical, which makes them all the more interesting.  To read the “Bachelor Days” section is particularly intriguing, where Milne passionately decries the unsalted butter offered up by his housekeeper (slurs against unsalted butter show up in his work throughout his life), proves utterly incapable of organizing the washing that gets sent to the laundry each week  (causing him to remark: “Of course, it is quite possible to marry for love, but I suspect that a good many bachelors marry so that they may not have to bother about the washing any more.  That, anyhow, will be one of the reasons with me.”) and submits to the tyranny of a beloved sister-in-law intent on spring cleaning.

More sentimentally, there is a section entitled “Margery”, composed of pieces written after the birth of his niece Marjorie Milne, who he preferred to call Margery.  It begins with a series of letters between him and the newborn Margery (the infant’s mama acting as her scribe):

My Dear Margery, – When I heard that you really had arrived, I got out the broken teacup, filled it at the bath, and drank “To my niece!” with the greatest enthusiasm possible.  Had I been on the stage I should then have hurled the cup over my shoulder; and later on the scene-shifter would have come and collected the bits.  As it was, I left that part out; and you will forgive me, will you not, dear baby, when you hear that it was your uncle’s last cup, and he in a bad way financially.

As Margery grows, the letters give way to descriptive pieces about their encounters that are deeply affectionate and show that already Milne was paying attention to the ways of young children, many years before he would turn his hand to writing for them.

Not every piece works so well and some are downright dull.  There is an entire section entitled “More Cricket”; I thought I was confused after reading about the Rabbits’ sporting adventures but I knew nothing.  Some bits feel forced and others, slightly more successful, are amusing enough but hardly memorable – the kind of thing you would be happy to read over your breakfast but have forgotten entirely by lunchtime.  But the pleasure I got from the Rabbits, from Margery, from “Bachelor Days” more than makes up for any passing disappointments.  They are what made me laugh and smile and they are what I will remember.

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I think I am addicted to A.A. Milne.  I am completely unable to critically examine his work at this point and while reading morph into a giddy, sycophantic disciple only capable of effusive praise.  It is a delightful and highly recommended experience.   I read his books (his plays, his novels, his verses, his sketches) one after the other without ever feeling sated. I finish each book wanting more.  Thankfully, he was a prolific writer and, at this point, there is still more for me to read but the thought that one day I will come to the end horrifies me.  And I have never felt more fearful of that end than while reading the entirely delightful Once a Week.

As any Milne disciple knows (or anyone who took Simon’s advice and read Milne’s wonderful autobiography), Milne spent a number of years before the war working at and writing for the magazine Punch.  I had got the impression from his autobiography that Milne was writing a ridiculous amount for the magazine during this time but I really had no idea of the quality of the output.  Once a Week, published in 1914, is a sampling of those pieces he put out every week and I now know just what a treat readers had to look forward to in each issue.

The book begins with a dedication to Milne’s wife Daphne, referred to in all his writings as his collaborator:



who buys the ink and paper


and, in fact, does all the really difficult

part of the business

this book is gratefully dedicated

in memory of a winter’s morning

in Switzerland

It was moments like these where I particularly appreciated having started my Milne obsession with his autobiography, which meant I already knew who this collaborator was and what had happened on a winter’s morning in Switzerland.  But it is also a very fitting dedication to a volume whose best pieces revolve around the life of young couples, very like the Milnes.

The book begins with a nice lengthy sketched entitled “The Heir”, narrated by a young man who is attending the christening of his fiancée Myra’s nephew.  Archie and Dahlia, the dotting parents of The Heir, are friends of our narrator but have decided against naming him as one of the godfathers.  Perhaps this was a wise decision:

‘What a silly godfather he nearly had!’ whispered Myra at the cradle.  ‘It quite makes you smile, doesn’t it, baby?  Oh, Dahlia, he’s just like Archie when he smiles!’

‘Oh, yes, he’s the living image of Archie,’ said Dahlia confidently.

I looked closely at Archie and then at the baby.

‘I should always know them apart,’ I said at last.  ‘That,’ and I pointed at the one at the tea-table, ‘is Archie, and this,’ and I pointed to the one in the cradle, ‘is the baby.  But then I’ve such a wonderful memory for faces.’

‘Baby,’ said Myra, ‘I’m afraid you’re going to know some very foolish people.’

Baby is certainly surrounded by foolish people but they are marvellously entertaining ones and give Milne the chance to let rip with his trademark comic dialogue.  When Samuel and Thomas, the two young godfathers, arrive they are entirely ignorant of babies but are willing to do their duty, once they figure out what that is. After they have read up on the christening service, they are stunned and slightly terrified by the job being given them but entirely committed to carrying out their responsibilities.  But their idea of the scope of their responsibilities is a tad broader than the parents had imagined, entailing everything from the naming of the child to his schooling.  Getting a bit carried away, they even come up with a list of rules for Archie and Dahlia to follow while raising him, so that his parents may not impair the future baby’s godfather’s have so carefully decided on (Rule One – He must be brought up to be ambidextrous.  It will be very useful when he fields cover for England).  My favourite bit featuring these foolish but briefly serious young men was the conversation over what to name baby:

‘The question before the House,’ said Archie, ‘is what shall the baby be called, and why.  Dahlia and I have practically decided on his names, but it would amuse us to hear your inferior suggestions and point out how ridiculous they are.’

Godfather Simpson looked across in amazement at Godfather Thomas.

‘Really, you are taking a good deal upon yourself, Archie,’ he said coldly.  ‘It is entirely a matter for my colleague and myself to decide whether the ground is fit for – to decide, I should say, what the child is to be called.  Unless this is quite understood we shall hand in our resignations.’

‘We’ve been giving a lot of thought to it,’ said Thomas, opening his eyes for a moment.  ‘And our time is valuable.’  He arranged the cushions at his back and closed his eyes again.

‘Well, as a matter of fact, the competition isn’t quite closed,’ said Archie.  ‘Entries can still be received.’

‘We haven’t really decided at all,’ put in Dahlia gently.  ‘It is so difficult.’

‘In that case,’ said Samuel, ‘Thomas and I will continue to act.  It my pleasant duty to inform you that we had a long consultation yesterday, and finally agreed to called him – er – Samuel Thomas.’

‘Thomas Samuel,’ said Thomas sleepily.

‘How did you think of those names?’ I asked.  ‘It must have taken you a tremendous time.’

‘With a name like Samuel Thomas Mannering,’ went on Simpson [‘Thomas Samuel Mannering,’ murmured Thomas], ‘your child might achieve almost anything.  In private life you would probably call him Sam.’

‘Tom,’ said a tired voice.

‘Or, more familiarly, Sammy.’

‘Tommy,’ came in a whisper from the sofa.

‘What do you think of it?’ asked Dahlia.

‘I mustn’t say,’ said Archie; ‘they’re my guests.  But I’ll tell you privately some time.’

A subsequent piece follows the same group (sans baby, who is left at home) on a skiing holiday to Switzerland.  It is amusing but the dialogue never quite matches the exchanges in “The Heir”.

Milne really does have an ear for domestic conversation.  In “The Order of the Bath”, a young husband and wife, troubled by a slow drain in their apartment’s bath and entirely ignorant of the mechanics of plumbing, bicker over who must take the responsibility for fixing it:

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s absurd to go on like this.  You had better see about it to-day, Celia.’

‘I don’t think – I mean, I think – you know, it’s really your turn to do something for the bathroom.’

‘What do you mean, my turn?  Didn’t I buy the glass shelves for it?  You’d never even heard of glass shelves.’

‘Well, who put them up after they’d been lying about for a month?’ said Celia.  ‘I did.’

‘And who bumped his head against them the next day?  I did.’

‘Yes, but that wasn’t really a useful thing to do.  It’s your turn to be useful.’

Anyone who has ever had to split domestic duties, either with a spouse or a housemate, must surely recognize that timeless rejoinder, “It’s your turn to be useful.”  Celia’s husband features in several of the pieces and comes across as a delightful fellow.  His interview with a doctor while getting an insurance medical (in “An Insurance Act”) proves he is in possession of a friendly disposition but not necessarily a keen mind:

The doctor began quietly enough.  He asked, as I had anticipated, after the health of my relations.  I said that they were very fit; and, not to be outdone in politeness, expressed the hope that his people , too, were keeping well in this trying weather.  He wondered if I drank much.  I said, ‘Oh, well, perhaps I will,’ with an apologetic smile, and looked round for the sideboard.  Unfortunately he did not pursue the matter….

But, let us be honest, narrators are all nice and good but what I like best is a bit of the silly, frivolous dialogue that Milne does so well.  The exchange between husband and wife in “The Birthday Present” provides just that:

 ‘It’s my birthday to-morrow,’ said Mrs Jeremy as she turned the pages of her engagement book.

‘Bless us, so it is,’ said Jeremy.  ‘You’re thirty-nine or twenty-seven or something.  I must go and examine the wine-cellar.  I believe there’s one bottle left in the Apollinaris bin.  It’s the only stuff in the house that fizzes.’

‘Jeremy!  I’m only twenty-six!’

‘You don’t look it darling; I mean you do look it, dear.  What I mean – well, never mind that.  Let’s talk about birthday presents.  Think of something absolutely tremendous for me to give you.’

‘A rope of pearls.’

‘I didn’t mean that sort of tremendousness,’ said Jeremy quickly.  ‘Anyone could give you a rope of pearls; it’s simply a question of overdrawing enough from the bank.  I meant something difficult that would really prove my love for you – like Lloyd George’s ear or the Kaiser’s cigar-holder.  Something where I could kill somebody for you first.  I am in a very devoted mood this morning.’

This only skims the offerings in Once a Week, almost all of which I adored.  The only weak point for me was the final section, a compilation of character sketches of “The Men Who Succeed”.  Individually, they are good but I think perhaps they lost some power by being group together since they were all done in very much the same style.

There are still three more volumes of Milne’s pieces for Punch that I have yet to read (The Day’s Play; The Holiday Round; and, The Sunny Side) and which I am eager to start.  I know more delights await me, even though with each book read I grow closer and closer to that dark day when I will have nothing new left to discover of Milne.

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