Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 18

‘Greengates’ by R.F. Sherriff
Published in 1936. Re-issued by Persephone Books. Buy direct here.

One of my very favourite publishers in recent times is the Persephone imprint, formerly based in That London and now with its physical presence in the beautiful streets of Bath. With a focus on “neglected fiction and non-fiction, mostly by women writers and mostly mid-twentieth century”, it is assuredly a classy outfit with a keen eye for design and presentation. Each edition has a uniform grey cover and end-papers decorated in a design broadly contemporaneous with the original publication point in history. Mostly these are lifted from wallpaper and fabric designs and without exception they are terrific snapshots of the decorative tastes of the book’s period. Each year I pick up several of the books and generally save them to read in one burst of luxurious pleasure. In 2022 that meant a mid-October meander through the likes of Winnifred Watson’s ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’ (and yes, I also enjoyed Frances McDormand in the film version, since you ask), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s ‘The Blank Wall’, Betty Miller’s ‘Farewell Leicester Square’, John Coates’ ‘Patience’ and D.E. Stevenson’s delicious ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’. Any one of these could have been my choice as favourite, but it is ‘Greengates’ by R.C. Sherriff that ultimately gets the nod.

I had read Sherriff’s ‘The Fortnight In September’ over the space of a few days in, not you may not be surprised to learn, September of 2021 and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a book where not really very much happens except for the perfectly observed non-events of a lower-middle/upper-working class family holiday in the early 1930s. It is a book of simple pleasure that allows us to revel in the undramatic and the tingle of discovering tiny treasures. His 1936 novel ‘Greengates’ is similarly deceptively simple and perhaps even better.

The narrative revolves around the retirement from The City of a certain Mr Baldwin (he was, it appears, ‘in insurance’), and Sherriff is certainly adept at capturing something of the conflicting feelings of relief and frustration that retirement can bring. More than this though the book is about the modernisation of 1930s England, the encroachment of the Town on the Country through the expansion of road networks and ribbon development. In contemporary times it is very easy to look back at these largely unregulated developments with a castigating eye, bemoaning as we do the destruction of nature to feed the gluttony of commerce. For Sherriff, writing as these developments took place contemporaneously with his writing, it is not quite so simple. So whilst there is initially disappointment and anger when the Baldwin’s, on a walk in the Countryside that they used to take as a younger couple, see their once beloved vista scarred by a housing development, this quite swiftly turns to a more welcoming positivity. Sherriff does a great job of contrasting modernity with the traditional and throughout the book there is a lot of sharply observed description of design styles in architecture, furniture and fashion. As in ‘The Fortnight In September’ it is these neatly sketched out details that really give ‘Greengates’ its appeal and one wonders if this kind of eye for the visual is what made Sherriff so successful as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

Sherriff is as adept at painting human characters as he is at recording inanimate details, however, and ‘Greengates’ is populated with a pleasing blend of individuals that grows as the book develops. From the insularity of Mr Baldwin’s initial retirement, the cast expands as he and his wife leave their traditional terrace and Move Up In The World to their newly built house. Naturally the metaphorical garden is not all roses and it is amongst the characters in the New Estate that we find at least one thoroughly unpleasant man whose Colonial views, language and behaviour will be repellent to any intelligent reader in the 21st Century. It is to Persephone Books’ great credit however that there is no attempt to edit this out, and indeed there is not even a ‘disclaimer’ of the type that the British Library have taken to printing in the frontispiece to their ‘Crime Classics’ series. It strikes me, as perhaps it does the folks at Persephone, that anyone reading these books is going to be informed enough to understand something of the original context and that if they are not then perhaps they may approach such things as Learning Opportunities. People are not as ignorant as we might wish to imagine them to be. Unless they are, in which case they might crop up as a character in a book.

So whilst it is is undoubtedly true that there are often uncomfortable viewpoints expressed and objectionable language used in some/many interwar novels (the levels of casual antisemitism, racism and sexism can certainly be off-putting at times) it is also, I think, unnecessary to be quite as hand-wringingly apologetic about it as some self-proclaimed Cancel-Cultural Warriors seem to think. Indeed, for me, one of the great pleasures of reading texts from the 1930s and 1940s is discovering just how divorced they actually are from either the levels of whateverisms assumed by the, ahem, ‘Wokerati’, and the mediated misunderstanding perpetrated by some who might peddle The Past as some bizarre mythical Utopian ideal. That odd veneration of hardship as some kind of signifier of value. Certainly reading a text like ‘Greengates’ it is clear that for many/most the opportunity to escape drudgery and hardship was welcomed with open arms, and that many/most would most assuredly agree with our contemporary views on equality and decency. Again, the silent majority are rarely as unpleasant and ill-informed as those on either extreme might like us to believe. Naturally one should not really need to read texts such as ‘Greengates’ or any of the other gems re-issued by Persephone Books to understand this, but I can certainly think of few more enjoyable routes to such enlightenment.

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