A little while ago I picked up a few books by H.E. Bates from my local Oxfam bookshop, which has since closed; I hadn’t read anything by him before, not even his Darling Buds of May books, but after skimming through some of them they really interested me. I’ve been in a bit of a short story mood recently, I’ve read stories by Chekhov, Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield etc., so I thought I’d read one of the volumes of short stories that I bought, The Wild Cherry Tree, and boy, am I glad I did as this collection of stories was excellent and, in my opinion, deserves to be mentioned along with Chekhov et al.
The collection contains ten stories; there are about three stories that are below ten pages and these are generally the weaker ones but the others, which are about twenty pages long are excellent. I was expecting stories with predominantly rural settings but there is a varied mixture of settings as well as a mixture of character types. The collection kicks off with Halibut Jones, which is set in a rural village. Halibut, whose real name is Albert but as a child couldn’t pronounce his name correctly, is a bit of a loveable slacker. The story begins:
Halibut Jones lay stretched at full length on top of a dry ditch, staring through the breathless August air at great sprays of blackberries gleaming on the hedgerow above. It had been a very good season for blackberries, a very hot season, and some of the berries were as fat and bloomed as grapes.
Halibut decides to see if he can earn some money by selling the blackberries to some local housewives. When he visits Mrs Parkinson she tries to get Halibut to do some other chores such as trimming her privet hedge or cutting down some thistles but he finds reasons why he shouldn’t embark on such tasks at that moment. When she wonders if he could catch some trout for her, Halibut claims that he has no hooks and that he’ll need to get some fishing line. Mrs Parkinson takes pity on him when she hears him cough and starts supplying him with homemade bread, beer and cheese. He eventually leaves with some apples and an advance on supplying the trout – but it’s too hot to go fishing at the moment so he goes off for a bit of a sleep.
The title story has a less idyllic setting than Halibut Jones though it is still semi-rural. Mrs Boorman is married to a pig farmer and spends most of her time knee-deep in mud. When her husband and sons are off drinking in the evening she likes to secretly pamper herself and dress up in fine clothes in an attempt to escape her squalid life. One day she attracts the attention of a car driver who is visiting neighbours of the Boormans. She is wary at first but soon finds the attention appealing.
In The World Upside-down Bates gets even more playful. The story concerns Miss Olive Stratton who has taken to wearing odd-coloured stockings to work in an attempt to get men to notice her legs – but with no effect. One day she notices a man in her train carriage who is reading his newspaper upside-down. It turns out that he’s been doing it for years and doesn’t even notice himself doing it anymore. Anyway, the rest of the story is about the relationship between these two slightly odd characters; it’s funny and a little sad.
One of my favourite stories in this book was How Vainly Men Themselves Amaze; it’s set in a French holiday resort where a young man called Franklin is hanging around an attractive woman, Mrs Palgrave, who is sunbathing on the beach. She has a couple of children who are being cared for by Heidi, a young German maid, whom she loathes. Mrs Palgrave seems to like the attention of the young man and she flirts with him. Franklin is a budding photographer and convinces both the mother and Heidi to pose for photographs and then he arranges trysts with Mrs Palgrave and then Heidi. I won’t reveal how it ends.
The Black Magnolia is a very funny story. Poor Hartley Spencer, a bachelor of fifty, who has no known vices and spends most of his free-time raising money for various charities gets involved with Vanessa La Farge and her friend Kitty O’Connor. They claim that they want him to help them raise some money for a charity but they spend most of their time amusing themselves at his expense by teasing him mercifully. The women just can’t believe that someone like Spencer exists:
For some long time after Hartley Spencer had left the two women sat on the terrace of the house, drinking glasses of cool white Alsatian wine. Now and then Kitty O’Connor’s mischievous laughter floated, very like scales of rippling water, into the darkening summer air.
‘Nobody,’ she said once, ‘can be that good. No one man can have that amount of goodness in him. It isn’t human. Even virgins have some vices.’
‘I’ve a deep suspicion that virginity is more painful in the male.’
‘Really? And would you care to remove it?’
Though less funny than The Black Magnolia the stories Same Time, Same Place and The Middle of Nowhere are just as good. Same Time, Same Place is about the elderly Miss Treadwell who is living off a very small income and having to resort to wearing newspapers underneath her coat to keep warm – but she must ‘keep up appearances’. The Middle of Nowhere is about the rise and fall of a roadside café.
The stories in this collection are as near to perfection as is possible. There’s a mixture of sad and funny stories; Bates has a brilliant ear for dialogue as well, and unlike many British writers of the period it doesn’t grate for the modern reader. Bates doesn’t seem interested in class at all so, although the characters can be identified as farmers, middle-class, workers, maids etc. they aren’t defined by it and this makes the stories flow quite naturally. He is also very interested in flowers; references and descriptions of flowers crop up in nearly every story, sometimes it’s the colours, other times it’s the scents whilst in some of the stories characters discuss how to grow them. Bates wrote a hell of a lot of stories, novellas and novels so I’m going to enjoy working my way through his back catalogue and I’ll probably read some of the ‘Larkin’ stories as well.
By the way, my copy was a Penguin edition from 1977 and it literally crumbled apart as I read it; it appeared in good condition when I started reading it but the glue was as dry as anything and it split down the spine with the pages detaching from the cover and into three sections. I’ve had books come apart before but never so drastically.