The stories in this issue of John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing are pretty grim, but the photographs and artwork lighten the mood. In his introduction Lehmann talks about the ‘young men and women who for six years had lived on dreams of devoting their time and energies to writing … I would take a bet that most of them have the notes for a war book or an escape book in their pockets‘. This issue is drenched in wartime experiences interpreted by male writers: no women authors were chosen, unless they are some of the poets published here under their initials, and only one woman artist. Women are the subjects, however, of most of the short stories: sexualised, sex-obsessed or objects for sexual transaction. It’s depressing, as I said.
Nigel Heseltine’s ‘Break away if you can’ is a horrible and powerful story about a not-so-young woman struggling to get away from her mother’s Welsh tenant farm, existing on dreams of having once been kissed, before the war began. The girl’s experience is bitter, the setting and other characters are uniformly hopeless and trapped, the social codes are relentless, and it reads as a wallow in the awfulness of being a girl left behind by life because she is denied the chances that men have and take, and oppressed by the emotional demands of older women. It is more or less sympathetic, but also sub-Lawrentian, and somehow also gives the impression of taking Cold Comfort Farm seriously. If a woman had written this it would be less pompous and good deal more practical.
Oliver Messel’s ‘Design for the film Caesar and Cleopatra’: simply gorgeous.
Oliver Walker’s ‘Kaffir truck’ is the story of the end of Robert Ncgobo’s life, when he goes to Pretoria to meet his brother who has a job for him. He doesn’t have the right pass, is thrown in jail, and dies at the hands of a hungover prison guard. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful story, uplifting and resolute in the face of South African apartheid. Walker must have been one of the first novelists to write about apartheid as a political system of repression from the perspective of black Africans: it succeeds on every level.
William Chappell’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty‘ is a summary of all that is wrong and right with the way dance is taught and executed in Britain by one of the leading dancers and (later) a designer and director of British ballet. ‘No-one admired Markova more than I.’ It’s accompanied by some glorious photographs of Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann and other cast members performing in The Sleeping Beauty.
Clifford Hornby’s ‘The Tin Box’ tells of an encounter between a French prostitute in London and a man who has survived a Japanese internment camp. He tells her what has happened to him, and why he was searching on the pavement for the tin box he’d thought he’d seen, and why it was so important for him to be scavenging the streets. The narrative is desperate, and heartbreaking. I would have guessed that this author would be the one most likely to have gone on to greater things after this issue, though he seems to have become a film director rather than a novelist.
Denny Mackintosh in collaboration with Naomi Mitchison, ‘The Eel and the Whiskers’. All my Mitchison books are in another country so I can’t check up on this story, but she and Denny Mackintosh were close friends, possibly occasional lovers, and lived in Carradale where Naomi and her husband Dick Mitchison were the owners of the ‘Big House’ of the estate. Denny was a fisherman and occasional actor, and a powerful influence on Naomi’s understanding of the Highland culture and history she had reclaimed (her father was a Haldane) on moving to Carradale from London in 1939. This story is told in direct speech, about the night fishing fleet going out after herring with an unwanted passenger whose request to accompany them they feel they can’t refuse out of politeness. The story is about town-rural relations, as well as the contrast between summer seaside visitors and working fishermen. There is an eel, and the whiskers are drawn on in kettle-black while the visitor is asleep.
Other issues reviewed: