Short Stories: English & Irish authors read their own work 

British Library

"I want 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 this..."

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.

At 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, such as:
Even 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 unlabelled
Séan 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.

I 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.

However, 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.

Read  a story from this collection on Google Books

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.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Erin Pringle "The Floating Order"

Jim Crace "The Devil's Larder"

Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead"

Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Wood (eds) "Let's Call
the Whole Thing Off"

Ben Tanzer "Repetition Patterns"

Paul Meloy "Islington Crocodiles"

Dan Rhodes "Anthropology"

Frank Burton "A History of Sarcasm"
Various "Ten Journey"

Michael Sims (ed) "Dracula's Guest

Margaret Atwood "Good Bones"

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya "There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby"

Rob Redman (ed) "various authors"

Valerie Trueblood "Marry or Burn"

Salley Vickers "Aphrodite's Hat"

Sean Lovelace "Fog Gorgeous Stag"

Mark Martin (ed) "I'm With the Bears: Stories From a Damaged Planet"
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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