Short Stories: English
& Irish authors read their own work
to tell you about a very odd experience I had a few months ago – not so
as to entertain you, but because I think it raises some very basic
questions about, you know, what life is all about and to what extent we
run our own lives. Rather worrying questions. Anyway, what happened was
Reviewed by Pauliine Masurel
This audio book contains fifteen stories taken from the BBC archives.
The majority of them were recorded and first broadcast between 1948 and
1951. The remainder are from the 1960s and 70s, with the most recent
offering being recorded in 1983. The only living writers in this
collection are Edna O'Brien and William Trevor and, in general, I felt
that the readings by Irish authors have dated less than the English
ones in terms of the vocal delivery.
first there is something vaguely comical about the upper-crust tones of
Somerset Maugham telling the opening tale of an Italian fisherman,
Salvatore, who falls in love with a "pretty gel" complete with such
splendidly obsolete phrases as "upon my word." But there is also
something comforting about how incredibly posh BBC-English sounded in
the middle of the last century. On a damp winter's afternoon there's a
honey-still-for-tea feel to the experience of hearing a simple story
perfectly enunciated. At the end of this first story the author
addresses the audience directly to explain its theme. The approach
might seem overly condescending and deterministic today but it did
evoke an emotional response and reminded me that Maugham had begun the
story with the words "I wonder if I can do it." Just that, completely
out of context and with no further explanation until the ending when
they are explained. How very postmodern in a performance that otherwise
reeks of tradition.
Frank O'Connor's The Idealist
captures a schoolboy's disappointment that his educational
establishment isn't a patch on the "venerable piles" that he's read
about in school stories. Honour, decency and loyalty don't abound at
his own school and nobody ever gives them "lines". This is a real
coming-of-age lesson. It also includes some delightful descriptions,
for a small boy, I had pockets that were museums in themselves; the
purpose of half the things I brought to light I couldn't have explained
myself. They were antiques, prehistoric, and unlabelledSéan Ó'Faoláin's The Fur Coat
is one of the outstanding stories in this collection. The back and
forth of a husband and wife considering this extravagant purchase seems
to encompass so many truths about the gulf in sartorial understanding
between a man and what it means to "make do". It's an engaging and
incredibly lyrical story with wonderful turns of rhythm and phrase. The
wife, for example, "puts the children to bed like throwing sacks of
turf into the cellar."
Harold Pinter's Tea Party,
(a pre-cursor to his play of the same title) is one of the more
experimental narratives in this collection. It conveys its effect in
sequences of assertions, moving between scenes and moods without any
warning except for a change in tone or recording level.
There are a number of spooky stories featured, such as The Green Man Revisited by Kingsley Amis. Algernon Blackwood's The Texas Farm Disappearance
is a fairly slight affair which is made more marvellous for being
introduced with the words... "Do you like strange stories?" and
followed by "You have been listening to Algernon Blackwood telling a
strange story." I would have loved to hear more of the original radio
continuity announcements or other broadcasting context for the stories,
but presumably these have not been preserved.
There are two overt fairy tales or myths: Angela Carter's fabulous The Snow Child, and The Princess of Kingdom Gone by the less-well-known A. E. Coppard. It's generally said that "the scenery is better on the radio" and The Pearly Beach is an example of one such fantastic landscape that's ideally suited to viewing in audio.
think it would be over-stating the case to suggest that the stories in
this collection have all been selected as being the best of their era.
In truth they have effectively been self-selected for their existence
in the archive. As a result, the collection is slightly variable in
quality. For example, Phyllis Bentley's cut-glass rendition of Beckermonds
is atmospheric enough with a wonderful description of the preserved
Victoriana in the house and outside it the "deep brown bracken" and
"lemon moon." But it is so obviously signalled as a ghost story from
the outset that when you've heard this formulation rather too many
times before it ceases to be really gripping. Somerset Maugham's second
story, The Luncheon is also entertaining enough but having established the joke it continues to repeat it over again.
these stories are a form of treasure from the audio archives. They
provide a wonderful chance to hear writers reading their own short
fiction and it's a real pleasure to have been granted access to them in
this collection. I hope that there are many more author-read stories
tucked away in the BBC archive that will be made available to listeners
in the future.
|Pauline Masurel is
a short fiction writer who lives in South Gloucestershire. You
can listen to her reading her stories for Heads & Tales and find more details of her audio stories on her own website.
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Authors: Algernon Blackwood,
Angela Carter, A.E. Coppard, Lord Dunsany, W. Somerset
Maugham, Edna O'Brien, Frank O'Connor,
Séan Ó'Faoláin, Harold Pinter, V.S.
Pritchett, William Trevor