I’d like to recommend ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’

This, Maria Donovan’s first novel, is good. I’ve been enjoying reading her short stories ever since I discovered ‘Pumping up Napoleon‘, in Mslexia magazine, some years ago.

If the truth be told, I’ve looked out for her. I’ve not been disappointed. She’s taken me on an interesting range of short, but often resonant, journeys. What I’ve liked is her humour, humanity and inventiveness. Brevity, I’ve thought, was her forte. So when I stumbled onto her blog site, and discovered she had recently written a novel, I wondered what to expect.

I’m always a little nervous when writers shift from one form to another. It’s a long time since I believed that authors who produce short fiction are practising, building up to the moment when they will write their novel, or that novelists turning to the short forms are clear about how they can work.

It’s true there are some shared skills, in the two forms. Could I list them? Certainly, though if I tried to now, you, or I, would immediately name some short story or novel that refuted my proof. Since I’d rather not set myself up to fail, I’ll get back to talking about this novel.

Let’s start with the first line. It should be good. It should interest/intrigue the reader.

The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

I’m hooked. Apart from the murder, I want to know how anyone can be poisoned using a cheese sandwich. Who is this narrator? Almost as that question is forming, it’s being answered.

Break time he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic? George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.

The first page of this novel is a master class in how to deliver information without stepping to one side and entering lecture mode. Our narrator, the voice that we have to decide whether to trust or not, is that of a twelve-year old boy, Michael. Reading him, I was thrown right back to my junior school days again. His interests, his questing connection to the world, even his reminiscences seemed true. Had you forgotten that children have a view of the past too?

Janey’s birthday is in April and mine is October so she started school before me. Sometimes her mum looked after me, and I would curl up in an armchair on rainy afternoons and doze and dream, waiting for Janey to come back in her uniform smelling of pencils. I was happy when I first started school, because I knew Janey would be there.

Creating an authentic child-voice is tricky. The author must hold firmly to the sight and understanding that belongs in the age group. Their vocabulary might be fairly sophisticated, but it cannot imply an adult understanding of all that they see. Though it can ape an adult view, as in Michael’s idyllic description of how his life used to be:

Photo from Newsflare

You could knock on anyone’s door, open it, call out hello and just walk in. Sometimes I used to climb through the dog flap in Irma’s kitchen door and help myself to biscuits. If she came home and found me sitting at the kitchen table she didn’t mind. When the dog died she still kept the dog flap and though Janey said it was for the dog’s ghost, so he could come and go, I knew it was for me.

The beauty of using a child narrator is that it forces the reader to become involved. The other day, one of my students was asking about unreliable narrators. This novel is a lovely demonstration of how naivety can create that effect. The view of a child is, generally, limited, not always because of their lack of size. Adults have shaped their world, for good or bad reasons.

Ted is the only thing I have that was my dad’s. Before he met my mum and ‘went to the bad’. I’m not really sure what bad they went to. Nan won’t talk about it.

I’m not going to tell you much more either, in case I give the game away. This is one of those novels that both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be. It’s called The Chicken Soup Murder because there is chicken soup, and Michael believes that a murder has happened. There are moments when lives hang in the balance.

There are also revelations about various types of death and lives and, even, sex. It’s a story about growing up, family, love, grief, friendships and determination. It’s set in 2012, on a Dorset street, and visits Cardiff. There, that should be enough to wet the appetite.

Bridport Boxing-Day swim, photo from Bridport News.
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I’ve just read Stoner, by John Williams. Do you know it?

The blurb on the cover says this is ‘the greatest novel you’ve never read’. High praise indeed, and maybe it carries some credibility coming from the Sunday Times, though does that include in America?

When my brother handed me the novel he said, ‘You ought to try this. It’s interesting.’

‘In what way?’ I probed.

‘It’s different,’ he said. ‘Unusual.’

‘But you liked it?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘I kept reading it.’

I could get no further comment from him, so having a few moments to spare the other day, I skipped past John McGahern’s introduction and looked at the first page of story.

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

This was not the usual sort of hook. I could see no hints of a great issue to be solved, no situation that needed to be explored. Where was the characterisation? It read like an obituary notice. What, I wondered, was the book offering? So far there was no hope that William might be an Indiana Jones type, with a secret second occupation. Perhaps I needed to read a little further.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

What? The central character will be dead by the end of the novel, and has so little charisma that his students can’t remember him? I haven’t met him yet, and I’m wondering why I should want to.

Yet, I read on. Was I, perhaps, influenced by that recommendation on the cover? Not really. I’ll admit to a contrary streak that makes me suspicious of statements like those, particularly when they’re plastered to the front of re-issued novels.

It wasn’t my brother’s recommendation that kept me reading, either. Much as I love him, I value the fact that our tastes in the arts are individual.

It was, in the first place, the writing I fell for. I liked the apparent simplicity.

He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University.

There is an elegance in presenting the concrete details without flamboyance. The story, this style seemed to promise, was yet to come. The first nineteen years of William’s life is covered in two pages, because it needs no more. It describes, without detail, the long hours of monotonous labour that are small-farm-life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then do we move in closer to the characters.

His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away.

This is economy. Here is no high drama, it is a domestic scene. Look at how William takes his father’s suggestion that he should go to the new school at the University in Columbia, the College of Agriculture:

William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been further from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice.

I was four pages into the novel, and I believed it. From that point, I stopped counting. I forgot to notice how the pages turned, or the morning passing. It’s not a long novel. I finished it by lunchtime.

To tell you more would be to spoil what is a beautifully paced and presented tale-of-a-life. If you’re looking for a new read, I’m recommending this book, though I offered it to a visitor a couple of days later, and she said, ‘Read it. I hated it.’

When I saw my brother again, I pushed him for an opinion, but he wasn’t to be shifted. ‘Odd,’ he said. ‘Not like anything else I’ve read.’ So I suppose that will have to do.

I hear there’s talk of turning it into a film. I don’t think I’ll want to watch it. Talking through a book is one thing, seeing how someone else envisions and understands it, that’s a wholly different type of spoiler.

Notes on nature: stories of fear.

For the last month, it seems, queen bees and wasps have been sneaking into our house just so that they can bumble against our windows. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve returned outdoors.

Maybe it’s just the same one or two, irritated to find themselves trapped in a glass tumbler, then ushered out. Perhaps, after that, they lurk nearby, watching for their moment to fly back in.

I thought the first two or three I caught might have hibernated somewhere inside, in a fold of the curtain, perhaps, all winter. After day four, though, that seemed less likely. I may be a bit of a casual cleaner, but the house isn’t that big. Besides, we’ve had the wood-burner stoked pretty warm at times this winter, if the trigger is temperature they should have shown themselves much earlier in the year.

It seems, therefore, that we live in an insect des-res. I’m not sure what that says about us.

At any rate, Rusty would prefer us not to. An unfortunate early encounter with buzzing insects has given him a powerful aversion. He’ll even quit the settee to avoid being in the same room with that threat. Very often, the first indicator of a winged squatter is Rusty hurrying in from another room to snuggle behind my knees.

‘Aren’t you supposed to protect me?’ I ask, as I gather my improvised humane insect trap and go to investigate.

It’s the bumble-bees I like best. I know that wasps are a useful part of the ecosystem, and do not exist just to get mean-drunk on fruit juice in the autumn, but still, I give them more respect than affection.

Queen bumble-bees are, sort of, cute. Apart from the name, there’s all that fur. It makes them so improbably big, and clumsy looking, that the idea that they should fly, borders on comic.

So, I evict, but I find them all fascinating, even the hornet that visited last year. While the bees and wasps seem indifferent to my presence, I had the impression that the hornet watched me. It was a hot day, but her size, and slow entry, was chilling.

I followed Rusty’s rapid exit, slamming the door behind us. Once we were safe, he began to bark with excitement. I leaned against the door, thinking in cliches of fear.

It took several deep breaths before I could convince myself to dash back in and open the other two windows. Then I waited, outside, watching the hornet reverse my glass trick.

She circled calmly, investigating every corner and object. Once, she landed on the window in front of me, and crawled slowly across it. I stepped back, ready to run, but she wasn’t ready to leave.

Eating Elephants

Photo of two of the children posing by a gnarled tree with newly planted patch of trees in the background.

We’re in the car, coming back from an afternoon in the forest. All three grand-kids and the dog have managed to stay with us. We gave them breadcrumbs, honest, but they ate them before we reached the spot where we’d planned to suggest they make their own way home.

‘I guess we’ll just have to feed them at tea-time, too, then,’ Ray says.

I’m not sure what with. At home the cupboard and freezer are bare of the stuff that they think delicious, or even edible. Apparently we eat ‘weird’ food.

Photo of the three children hiding in a large hollow tree, while Rusty waits for them to come out and play.

It’s Easter Sunday. All the places we pass where we could stop and buy something are already packed. There’s not an empty table to be had.

Well, it is, officially, the hottest Easter on record, here in the UK. Seems like the whole population may have opted to eat out.

But heck, the whole point of hoping to lose the kids in the forest was to avoid having to cook for them. If we had to take them home again, then we needed to agree on buying a meal. You think that’s easy?

Set aside the closed shops, for a moment, and think about three individuals of varying ages from pre-, to mid- teenage. They’ve been over two hours suspended in phone-free enjoyment of sunshine, trees, dog and pond, then we return to the car. It’s hard to imagine how even short journeys were achieved before there were portable screens and headphones.

Our questions about what might be suitable have to be negotiated between songs, text messages and important updates. Parents, perhaps, go into this situation with several advantages. Authority, by my estimation, is not the most important, they know the full range of what is acceptable.

As temporary weekend surrogates, maintaining our status as ‘fun’ limits us. The voting system is tortuous, and in the end we abandon democracy in favour of pleasing all. I plan a route that takes in four types of take-away, and we head for town.

It takes ten minutes to discover they’re all closed. My heart sinks.

Ray names a pizza place sure to be open. ‘We’re all okay with that,’ says Sammy, without looking up from her phone. The others agree.

Well, I think, that was easy after all. By now they’re so hungry that there’s no real discussion over the toppings, either.

‘I’ll stay at the car, with granddad and Rusty,’ Sammy says. Brandon, Breanna and I go to sort out our order.

Here’s the deal. It costs less for our two pizza’s if we also buy two side-dishes, than if we just buy what we went in for.

When we get back to the car Sammy is giving Rusty some valuable re-training on walking to heal, so he’s happy, too.

I tell Ray, ‘We’re going to save a quarter of the price and take home an extra quarter of a portion.’ I show him a handful of change.

Fifteen minutes later, Brandon is struggling to manoeuvre his long legs into the car while carrying the heap of hot boxes.

Back at home the boxes fill our modest table. ‘How do we even eat all that?’ Breanna wonders.

‘One bite at a time, I guess,’ says Brandon, reaching for a slice of pepperoni.

Photo of a mother elephant and her baby.
Photo by Ruth Boardman

‘Same way you would an elephant,’ I say, reminded of a quote I’d read just that morning, as I fitted in a little class preparation.

‘Eew,’ says Breanna. ‘Eat an elephant?’ .

I nod. ‘That’s what an American general, called Creighton Abrams, once advised.’

‘But who would eat an elephant?’

Brandon takes another slice of pizza. ‘She doesn’t mean you really do it,’ he says. ‘It’s a metaphor.’ He nods at me. ‘That’s cool.’

Serendipity, I think, isn’t it wonderful?

Good language…

I swear, not often, but with feeling, when the occasion arises. The language I use is not especially shocking or wide-ranging. I favour a couple of words that used to be referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I think of them as earthy, and aim to keep them for private moments of stress, rather than upset anyone.

My words can be heard, on occasion, on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) – in the past, some people claimed that the presenters were the standard for how the British nation should sound. I will say that four-letter words, as they used to be known, are rarely heard before the nine o’clock watershed on BBC radio.

My mother will tell you that I wasn’t brought up to curse. She believes that there is ‘no need for it’. Swearing, she says, is the sign of a limited vocabulary.

If I want to be mischievous, I can point to scientific tests that have proved fluent swearers tend to have good vocabularies. ‘Swearing,’ I say to mum, ‘has its place in life and in fiction.’

Irvine Welsh embraces expletives. Many of his characters use profanities as adjectives so prolifically that the words are de-valued. They are mostly not conveying a specific shock or emotion, they are about attitude and portraying a particular society.

Between Welsh and the writers who avoid any profanities, are those who use them sparingly. They understand that generally, less is more.

There is, I think, an art to using ‘offensive language’.

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the period drama The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne’s friendships with Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham. I’d seen a few trailers, and knew it would be what mum calls, ‘close to the knuckle’.

I loved it. Whatever the reservations might be about historical accuracy, it was entertaining. What made it comic, in part, were the moments when the characters dropped their guards, and used what I can only describe – in this context – as, ‘dirty’ language.

Did I believe the film? Entirely. I entered a fictional world, and lost my sense of self. I don’t know whether Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill or Abigail Masham would have actually used such language. What I saw was a faction. The film was reflecting history in a manner that an audience of our period would understand and engage with easily. I’m okay with that.

My gran kept a postcard of a rhyming motto on her mantelpiece. I often think of it when considering how our everyday use of language shifts over time. Gran thought of herself as deliciously naughty for promoting a word that had been prohibited when she was growing up.

Never say 'die', say 'damn'. 
It isn't classic, it may be profane;
But we mortals have use of it time and again;
And you'll find you'll recover
From fate's hardest slam
If you never say 'die':
Say 'DAMN!'

Thoughts on breaking a digital barrier

If, a couple of years ago, anyone had suggested that I’d willingly remove the sticker from the lens of my web-cam and watch myself chatting on-line, I’d have said they were crackers. Ask any of my family and they’ll confirm that I loath having my photo taken. I am the phantom of our family album.

Image taken by Juhanson , published on Wikipedia.

I’ve been told it’s vanity. Even that blow at my pride doesn’t work.

I’ve an antennae for cameras aiming in my direction that has me ducking or turning away as the shutter is operating. So me, flattened onto a screen, for minutes at a time? That was a, NO, even before I realised that taking part in an on-line activity meant having to see your own face in a little box on the corner of the screen too. Watch myself talking? NO THANKS!

It’s one thing to stand in front of my students and deliver a class. I see their faces, not mine. I know I’ve brushed my hair and straightened my outfit before I start. Once the class is running I’m concentrating on the plan I’ve worked out, not what I look like.

My first on-line meeting was some teaching-training I’d volunteered for, without properly reading the details. ‘Where is it?’ I texted my line manager, the day before the session. ‘I need to book a train ticket.’ It was lucky I hadn’t phoned, my response to her answer might have shocked her.

I wanted to get the knowledge on offer, but was I ready to pay the price? I wasn’t sure. Right up to five minutes before the start-time I didn’t think I could do it. I brushed my hair and tidied the kitchen, but that was just-in-case.

When I took a deep breath and logged in I felt like a teenager in a new school. I was on screen. There was a moment of heightened self-consciousness as I stared into my own eyes, then the class began. We were introducing ourselves, and I was looking at the tutor, taking in information, making notes and concentrating.

Two hours later, when the class closed, I realised I’d forgotten about being on-screen, except occasionally. And that’s how it happens, I’ve discovered, as the on-line meeting format has replaced geographical ones over the last year. After the first few seconds, when I’m horribly self-conscious, interest takes over.

This has been a rewarding learning curve for me. Last week I delivered my first on-line creative writing session, Writing Haiku’.

Was it scary? You bet. I spent even longer preparing the session than usual. Was I self-conscious? Only at first. Once the session started I was too busy making sure my students were comfortable, adapting my plan and listening to their responses. I didn’t think about watching myself talking.

In search of entertainment.

I ended last week feeling like that Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh. I’d been Thinking of Things so much lately to do with books, and then finished not only a couple of classes, but the final paperwork too, that on Wednesday evening I felt I was owed a celebration.

As I considered the state of my shelves, looking for a Thing that would be bookish, but not workish, I hummed a little tuneless something.

There are books, 
     (Dum, dum, dum)
Too full of hooks,
     (ta la da da).
What I need,
     (Da do do do).
Oh yes indeed,
     Da dum dum dum)
Is something not too long...

Luckily for my sanity, at that point I reached a selection of Daphne du Maurier novels I’ve been collecting. None are very long, but for decades she was a top writer of quality-romances. They seemed like a safe bet.

I’d read three of her most famous titles as a school-girl, so opted for one I’d missed, a historical adventure, Frenchman’s Creek. It was just what I needed. Not great enough to keep me reading into the small hours, but I picked it up at breakfast and lunch-time, and finished it as I ate tea.

Then I dropped it in my discards bag and looked for something of a matching size and age on the next shelf. Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion has been there for so long I’ve forgotten where it came from, though I do have a hazy recollection that someone recommended it.

If only I had done more than notice that the cover illustration suggested it was set in a similar period to Frenchman’s Creek,I might have realised it is a biography, not a novel before I opened it. It’s also set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, not Charles II.

After a momentary hesitation, I read on. Perhaps because the first section, The Scholar, begins by describing Elizabeth’s last days.

She had round her neck a piece of gold the size of an angel, engraved with characters; it had been left to her lately by a wise woman who had died in Wales at the age of a hundred and twenty. Sir John Stanhope had assured her that as long as she wore this talisman she could not die.

I probably should have stopped on page five, when I found this paragraph:

In these circumstances the Tudor dynasty came to an end, which in three generations had changed the aspect and temper of England. They left a new aristocracy, a new religion, a new system of government; the generation was already in its childhood that was to send King Charles to the scaffold; the new, rich families who were to introduce the House of Hanover were already in the second stage of their metamorphosis from the freebooters of Edward VI;s reign to the conspirators of 1688 and the sceptical, cultured oligarchs of the eighteenth century. The vast exuberance of the Renaissance had been canalized. England was secure, independent, insular; the course of her history lay plain ahead; competitive nationalism, competitive industrialism, competitive imperialism, the looms and coal mines and counting houses, the joint-stock companies and the cantonments; the power and the weakness of great possessions.

Aaaagh. With a few adjustments it could have been written in the 1560s.

I hadn’t even met Edmund Campion yet. It seems I’d fallen through a wormhole to that time before I gave up on my vow to never let a novel defeat me. Like Pooh, I’d found that a Book I’d anticipated being very Bookish was quite different once opened. Meanwhile, I was caught up with turning pages. The sentences got longer, the paragraphs continued to bounce backwards, forwards then back through time again. Still I continued to read.

Campion makes his first appearance on page seventeen. Even allowing for a largish font, that’s a long wait for a heroic entrance. Then, immediately after mentioning him, Waugh side-tracks to tell us about ‘another young Oxford man’, and doesn’t return to Campion until page twenty-two.

I read on. I’m still reading, though I’m not sure why.

There’s more to be irritated by than the examples I’ve already provided. The narrator demonstrates just the kind of bias I enjoy in fiction. Here it keeps drawing me away from engaging with Campion, though I want to know more of him.

Though perhaps after all I do know what holds me. This is a story about discord and martyrdom, and I’d like to understand.

As Pooh says, “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19 – Part 2

You might still be wondering, what is Cath’s favourite story in The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories? Seems like she may have been watching too many Netflix series, the way she slipped that tantalising hint into the end of her Welsh short stories post three weeks ago. Darn it, does this mean there could be more cliff-hangers?

No. Relax. This is a two-parter. Paula Bardell-Hedley’s excellent hash-tag dewithon 19 only lasts to the end of March. It’s been fun reading along, but for me, it ends today with Catherine Merriman’s, Barbecue.

The story was first published in The New Welsh Review, in 1992. If that seems a little dated, I should mention that The 2nd Penguin…Welsh Short Stories was published in 1993, so it was pretty contemporary at that point.

Here’s a gang of bikers, cruising the Welsh mountains in their leathers, all counter-culture and looking-like trouble. They’d certainly raise some wary hackles if they came cruising through most villages or small towns.

Not a soul on the mountain but we can’t open up the bikes for the hordes of sheep dawdling on the tarmac, bleating and giving us the idiot eye. They’ve got half a county of moorland to roam across, up here, but as usual they’re ignoring it. Mitch reckons it’s definite proof of over-civilization, when even the sheep are scared of getting lost.

Do you see that? Mindless thugs, or maybe not quite who we expected?

At the start it’s not clear where the story will go. There’s a barbecue being planned, ‘back at the field‘, by Dai. Earlier though, before the story started, Jaz was beaten up by a couple of lads from Tredegar who are after his Guzzi, as compensation for a bike-sale that went wrong.

Sharp little face, Jaz had, when they last saw him. Looks like a plum pudding now.

Then the other half of our narrator’s gang turn up. They’ve been staying in their bus at a festival, and got into trouble coming back through Bristol. The driver, Wayne, says:

‘This publican, he won’t serve us ‘cos he says we’re a coach party. So I backed over his fence, accidental like, on the way out. The cops had us for criminal damage. Got a conditional discharge.’

Jaz wonders how many hospital visits it takes to cure a conditional discharge and I tell Wayne how Dai….wants the bus back pronto.

The story is packed with information, coming in from all angles, but it’s clearly told. There’s a nice mix of conversation, description and action. So I settle on the back of the narrator’s Z1000 in the Saturday sunshine, taking in the scenery, as…

We set off up the mountain and at the top I’m in front, revelling in the way the Z1000 powers up the gradients, when I see a dead sheep, lying at the side of the road. Fair-sized corpse, but definitely a lamb, not one of the scrawny ewes.

I flag the others down. There’s no one else on the road.

‘This fella weren’t here when we came across,’ I say. ‘Did you see him?’

‘He weren’t here,’ says Mitch. ‘We’d have noticed.’

Jaz props the Guzzi and squats down to take a dekko. Barbecue, I’m beginning to think.

‘How long you reckon he’s been dead?’ I say.

Once the three lads have established how fresh it is (and really, you have to read that bit!), it’s only a question of how to get the body home without anyone noticing.

We can’t cruise into town with a dead tup behind us, even with a jacket on it won’t fool anyone.


Our boys may operate in the shadow of the law, but there are rules.
Wayne and the narrator seem to agree that something needs to be done for Jaz.

…it’s out of order to thump a lad, and want his bike off him as well.

Jaz, it turns out, is feeling rougher than we noticed.

He’s suddenly looking very weary. He’s holding his shoulders funny, and where the side of his helmet’s been pressed against his cheek-bone it’s made a dent in one of the purple bruises.

It’s not accidental that it’s taken until now for that to sink in. Our narrator has been delivering such a lot of other distracting material, all at the same time, that we may have become as complacent as he has been.

I’m not giving the game away if I say the two lads from Tredegar are perfect villains. They are focused on their goal, forcing our protagonists to act. I’m so caught up by the stylish narration, by the swift shifts in tone and the vivid dialogue I accept them.

This is a story where style carries us along. The narrative voice is chatty, and layered with humour.

The question of how to convey class or background through speech is tricky. Make it too colloquial and it creates difficulties for the reader, taking attention away from the story as we struggle to make sense of abbreviations and implied intonations. Merriman uses the arrangement of the sentences and some strongish language, rather than dropped consonants or vowels.

To tell you more would deliver spoilers. This is a tightly woven story, a mere ten pages long. It never falters. The pace slows and speeds, but doesn’t hesitate.

I’d like to recommend: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.

Sadly, my title is not a new form of weather forecasting, it’s the title of a Julia Strachey novella, first published in 1932. It was republished by Persephone Books in 2009, and I admit that it was for that reason I pounced on this one when I spotted it in the charity shop. In my experience, Persephone seek out interesting literature for their re-prints.

Otherwise, I might have hesitated about that title. One thing I’m not keen on is sentimentality, and in my experience that’s what wedding plots so often are. Still, it’s a short book, only a hundred and fifteen pages with wide margins, and since I’ve learned that I don’t have to finish every story I start I’m happier to take reading-risks, so I bought it.

Which brings me to the first lesson I’ve been reminded of since reading this. Never jump to conclusions about a title until you’ve had time to think about it from several angles.

It’s tough getting titles right. Good ones create a balance between suggesting what might be included, and never quite pinning down where the plot will take you. Strachey, it turns out, created a peach of peaches with this one. The more I think about it, the more shades of irony I perceive.

Take that adjective, cheerful. Isn’t it an unusual choice to go with weather? Particularly since the morning opens, we’re told on the first page, ‘grey and cold’. Oh yes, it does get sunny later, but the setting is early spring.

A kind of brassy yellow sunlight flooded all the garden. The arms of the bushes were swinging violently about in a really savage wind. the streaked ribbons from a bush of pampas-grass, immediately outside the door, streamed outwards in all directions. this bush remained squashed down as flat as a pancake to the level of the gravel terrace in a curious way, and it looked unnatural, as if a heavy, invisible person must be sitting down on top of it.

If there’s one thing I like in a story, it’s contradictions between what’s being said, and what’s shown. This is a story that is layered with misdirection. Oh, there is a wedding organised for that day. The opening paragraph gives us a little more information than a notice in the Times would have:

On March 5th Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her eldest daughter, Dolly, who was twenty-three years old, to the Hon. Owen Bigham. He was eight years older than she was, and in the Diplomatic Service.

On the surface, this is straightforward information. We are looking at the middle-classes.

Here though, is lesson number two: the wedding might be the main event, but the first character we meet is not the bride, it’s her mother. I knew, right then, that I was going to enjoy this narrator.

What this straightforward manner delivers is the between-the-lines bits that any socially aware reader of the paper would have known. Mrs Thatcham, I perceive, is a force. The Hon. Owen is a ‘catch’ and I’m immediately wondering why Dolly is marrying him.

The next paragraph reveals that ‘It had been a short engagement, as engagements are supposed to go – only a month’, and now I sense secrets. That these two do marry, I have no doubt, since the narrator is using the past tense. But something, I soon realise is to be learned between five minutes past nine, when the story starts, and ‘Dolly, on her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, ran into Millman, the middle-aged parlourmaid‘ and the actual ceremony.

What happens, and doesn’t happen, in the course of a few hours is beautifully described. Here is economical writing. It reminds me of a Katherine Mansfield story, The Garden Party. The detail is precise, and illuminating, the characterisation light, and yet devastating. This picture of middle-class respectability is not kind, though it is subtle.

In the preface, Frances Partridge says that Strachey admired Chekhov, James, Proust and Groucho Marx. Yes, I can see how that works.