Wednesday, 8 March 2017
There was what might be called a Shena Mackay moment in one of the local charity shops the other day. One lady behind the till saying to another: “Your friend Mick was in earlier.” The other replying: “You mean the lad who’s always looking for football shirts?” “That’s the one. He was asking after you,” said the manageress. To which the other responded, looking in this direction, consciously or not: “Oh, I know them all. They’ve been coming in here ever since we opened”
Or, on another day, there might be a Shena Mackay type heading for the counter, clutching a Wade Viking vase, still in its original box, or a Queen Anne silver-plated cake slice. She would be tallish, with silvery white hair, discreetly elegant, and strikingly handsome, with a good coat, classy adornments, a colourful silk scarf, a brooch in the lapel, a touch of velvet.
It is tempting to associate Shena Mackay with charity shops, though that does not sound very gracious. It is not as though her books are hardy perennials, left on the shelf, lost and oh so forlorn, more’s the pity. Not round here, at least. Not nowadays. Though, it would be fun to find some old editions in good condition, ones to replace lost, loaned, yellowed and musty ones.
And it would be great to come across a mint copy of Shena’s collection, Dancing on the Outskirts, which sneaked out on Virago at the end of 2015. It is an Extras-style selection of her short stories, covering a wide period, some of which appeared originally in magazines, anthologies, or were broadcast on the radio, and so on.
Around the time this collection came out, a new Shena Mackay short story appeared in the Sunday Express magazine, about Celia, “a third-year history student who could see nothing in the future to feel optimistic about”. While out one day she leaves her insensitive fiancé Lennox and heads for the Salvation Army charity shop:
“Homesickness engulfed her as she looked down the bleak vista, at strangers waiting at the bus stop, the pawn shop, the nail parlour, the boarded-up cinema that, since its glory days, had been a bingo hall and then a charismatic church. The building bore traces of all its incarnations and if you looked up you could just make out Rivoli in faded letters on its façade.” That short passage demonstrates the genius of Shena. The reader instinctively feels that they know the place. It could even be the old Odeon in Upper Wickham Lane she’s talking about.
The story continues with Celia in the charity shop: “As soon as she saw the coat on the vintage rack in the charity shop, she knew it was the one. It was in a cherry-coloured ribbed fabric, fitted and with furry edging, still flaunting a bit of glamour and swagger. She slipped it on. It felt like coming home.” And, again, in just the one phrase, about looking along the vintage rack in the charity shop and what’s on it, there is just the right amount of colour and shading. Who else gets that kind of detail so right?
Anyone writing a social history of charity shops would benefit from reading Shena Mackay’s books. Charity shops and the whole world of commerce around secondhand goods have changed enormously over the years. Things have certainly changed round here. There are currently four charity shops in the local high street. Two hospice shops, a Cancer Research one where wonderfully everything is £3 and under, and an upmarket branch of Scope, which was once called the Spastics Society.
Many have come and gone over the years: Salvation Army, British Heart Foundation, Red Cross, Mind, Sense, YMCA, Geranium Shop for the Blind, one for helping Romanian orphans, and probably plenty of others. Many have been forced out by high rents, though there was a time when charity shops could do deals with reasonable landlords to get temporary premises at a peppercorn rent.
It is many years now since the first Oxfam shop opened on the local high street. This may have been at the end of the 1970s, certainly not much earlier, and it proved a godsend in a number of ways. It was in tiny premises near the old cinema and bowling alley before they were knocked down to make way for an Asda, back when there was a spate of people pinching bowling shoes and leaving behind battered plimsolls.
Punk and its tributaries changed a lot around the issue of secondhand clothes, with old overcoats and three-button hand-me-downs, and so on, becoming desirable. Not to mention the hunt for old books and records. Before that it was all about jumble sales, church bazaars, summer fetes, and bring-and-buy sales. And more recently there have been car boot sales and then eBay, with its impact on charity shops, as Saint Etienne’s Sarah says in ‘Teenage Winter’.
In Shena Mackay’s The Orchard On Fire, set in the Kent countryside of 1953, there are references to kids buying books, wonderfully unsuitable ones, at jumble sales: Valley of Doom by C.B. Rutley, a “terrifying tale of espionage in the Balkans”, and also Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin, and Deathcap Cottage by V.L. Preedy which was about a woman who poisoned her crippled husband with “its once yellow cover engrained with grey and a smell of mildew came off its rust-pin-pointed pages and a long-dead spiders egg in a gauzy net was found half-way through the book.”
On into the 1960s, still in the Kent countryside, in the village of Filston where Old Crow was set, Shena describes a fete in the village hall: “People crowded into the hall where old Coronation bunting and silver twigs hid piles of refuse from many jumble sales. A little bald boy sold them tickets at the door and Coral with the children clinging pushed in among the steaming hostile coats. Old Mrs Fairbrother, crossing the hall to avoid her granddaughter, came upon her husband sorting through a pile of old clothes until he found a loved cap she had given away years ago. People who took off their wet coats risked having to buy them back at a Scout jumble sale three weeks later, or meeting others wearing them in the street.”
In An Advent Calendar, set in Finchley as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the wonderful Uncle Cecil admits: “I haven’t actually got an overcoat at the moment, there’s a good Jumble on on Saturday. We’ll all go.”
By the time of A Bowl of Cherries, set in Dorking, Surrey, a decade later, charity shops had arrived. Shena describes the twins who are central to the story thus: “Rex’s body, lissom from regular games of squash, was clothed in soft silks and cashmeres. Stanley’s corduroy trousers had come from Tesco and his yellowed linen jacket and shirt were from the Help the Aged shop and still bore a faint sour smell from rubbing shoulders with the clothes of the dead.”
And in Redhill Rococo, most of which is set in the Surrey summer of 1982, Luke Ribbons thrusts “his hands deep in boredom and despair into the pockets of his Oxfam overcoat” as he stands in the wrong queue of the sub-post office before his moment of madness.
By 1989, in which Shena’s Dunedin is set, “on summer Saturdays and Sundays, south-east England is one gigantic boot sale”. Boot sales recur in Shena’s short story collection The Laughing Academy, published in 1993. The antique dealers Vivien and Bonnie, in A Pair of Spoons, are wonderfully described having breakfast like “two stoats sitting up to table”, and as a duo who “moved through antique fairs like weasels in a hen house”. They have a shop in The Old Post Office in a village in the Hertfordshire hills, and are always on the lookout for a bargain or two. When Vivien asks how a car boat sale was, Bonnie replies: “Like a car boot sale”.
Also in The Laughing Academy is the story Cloud-Cuckoo Land, in which wayward daughter Petula passes a pair of “rhinestone butterfly-winged” glasses to her father: “I don’t need them – they’re from my fifties period. Found them at a car boot.” Her dad, Roy Rowley, a retired bus conductor turned inveterate do-gooder, a menace like Martin in Ever Decreasing Circles, puts in “two mornings a week at the Sue Ryder shop” among his many other activities. Meanwhile in The Artist’s Widow, set in the summer of 1997, the lovely Lyris Crane has a couple of black sacks ready to take round the local Geranium Shop For The Blind.
In Heligoland, Shena’s most recent novel, the appealing aged poet Francis Campion struggles with his memoirs, conceding that at his age, when the world might view him as just another “doddery old geezer with a string bag”, it would be easier to write a book about “mad old men running amok, the mad old men of London in the crazy baseball caps of their dotage and ladies’ raincoats from charity shops, the roaring drunks who fall out of the bus at the wrong stop, shouting, ‘Thank you, Driver,’ so that nobody will know they’re drunk. Men without women, going to seed.”
Back in 2008 an uncorrected proof copy of Shena’s short story collection The Atmospheric Railway turned up in one of the local charity shops here, oddly, even before it had been published, which was a lovely surprise. Among the new stories in the book was Swansong, about Louisa who returns to where she grew up for a schoolfriend’s funeral, a town already haunted by ghosts. To kill time, naturally, she does the rounds of the local charity shops, after being the victim of a hit-and-run attack by an old lady with a mobility scooter.
Louisa buys a cashmere jumper for £2.99, before becoming fascinated by the number of swans on sale, in one form or another, in one shop after another: “Where did they all come from, all these white swans a-swimming to the hits of yesteryear? They were like the white swans at Golders Green Crematorium, placed there by loyal fans of Marc Bolan, in memory of his song ‘Ride A White Swan’. They were the sort of swans old people had on their windowsills; they had plastic ones too, sprouting crocuses among the gnomes in their gardens. This was the swansong of a generation”.
Shena Mackay’s The Atmospheric Railway features 13 new short stories and 23 more from her previous collections. It is an uncharacteristically large edition. The new tales would have worked wonderfully well as a discreet edition, in a slim volume of just over 100 pages.
There is a tendency towards publishers putting out short stories in large collections, which is a bit of a shame. Small selections of short stories can be a real delight, carefully put together, leaving the reader wanting more, rather than feeling that they have eaten too much or run a marathon.
A beautifully put-together set of short stories is rather like a thoughtfully-constructed LP where the length, the variety, and running order are just right. And inevitably some stories or tracks will appeal more than others, which is part of the fun.
It might be expected that short stories would be a format which would thrive in the Internet age where attention spans are said to be brief, but among those attached to books there seems to be more of an appetite for girth.
Shena Mackay works most effectively in a concise format. Her prose is so rich that there is no need to present us with large courses. Allan Massie has written that “Mackay can take a little incident and make a world of it”. Of her books, only her novel Dunedin is of a very substantial length, and her other stories are slender affairs which nevertheless cover a lot of ground.
She has, to date, published something like nine novels, two novellas, and a handful of short story collections. There has been also at least one play, Nurse Macateer, which was put on at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Holborn, in February 1969, before transferring to the National Theatre. It was part of an experimental season of drama called An Evasion of Women, where Joan Plowright asked a quartet of female novelists each to write a play.
The most striking features about Shena Mackay’s writing are her conciseness, her cleverness, and her wit. The short story or the slim novel formats are therefore ideally suited to her. In an interview as part of the University of Southampton’s ‘Writers in Conversation’ series, in February 2016, Shena spoke about writing short stories and how the “particular becomes universal”.
In the many glowing reviews Shena’s work has received it is often remarked upon how she creates poetry from the everyday and impales her victims with her incisiveness (‘skewers’ is the word critics default to, understandably). The writer John Murray has said that “few can match Shena Mackav when it comes to mordant comic observation.” And he should know.
The impression received is that Shena writes carefully, slowly, deliberately, getting specific sentences tuned just right. Many, many years ago an assistant in the Richard Shops concession in Chiesmans, the big department store in Lewisham, when asked whether a particular leather coat was a good one, nodded approvingly, and said: “Note the detail, dear”. Chiesmans actually turns up in Shena’s early novella Toddler on the Run where Deirdre McGovern, the erotic, erratic centre forward on the St Alfege’s hockey team, buys slacks and a suede jacket there, which is a great example of Shena’s own eye for detail.
She clearly delights in words, and is a genius when it comes to descriptive passages, puns, jokes and withering put-downs. There was a time when collections like Kenneth Williams’ Acid Drops were best sellers, books with plenty of Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx quotes in, and volumes of the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill were in circulation. A similar assorted selection of Shena’s words, stripped of context, would work a treat.
It is all about individual taste, of course, but there are many passages within Shena’s work that make one sigh in admiration, stand up and applaud, or want to repeat with relish specific sentences. She is an uncannily accurate observer, a recording angel, often avenging angel, but more than that she makes people and situations come alive where someone less gifted would miss the magic, the cruelty, the strangeness, the poetry.
Shena Mackay’s 1987 collection Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags is a great place to start to understand the art of short story writing. The first paragraph of the title tale is remarkably vivid, as is the opening of one of her classic vignettes, the typically twisted and tragic tale of The Most Beautiful Dress in the World:
“There are houses which exhale unhappiness. The honesty rattling its shabby discs and dominating the weed flower bed, the carelessly rinsed bottle still veiled in milk on the step from which a tile is missing, the crisp bag, sequinned with dewdrops, which will not rot and will not be removed, clinging to the straggly hedge, are as much manifestation of the misery within as are the grey neglected nets, respectability’s ghosts, clouding the windows like ectoplasmic emanations of despair.”
Right from the start Shena has conjured up the most remarkable, memorably lethal lines. In her debut story Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger, published in 1964, her description of the two young lovers meeting is perfect, and bears repeating once more: “Abigail saw Eugene first. He was standing by the bookstall at Charing Cross, wearing narrow green corduroy trousers, a white mac and suede boots. She stood beside him for perhaps two minutes before he saw her. When he did, his lazy eyes lit up and he smiled, elusive like a cat’”
In the accompanying tale Toddler on the Run, in a perfectly weighted sentence, the book’s unlikely hero Morris Todd tells his gran: “In your unobtrusive way you’ve ruined quite a few people’s lives, haven’t you?” And from An Advent Calendar this is a perfect example of Shena’s gift for description: “Cars huddled like lumps of Turkish Delight at the side of the drive”. This is perhaps beaten by the book’s mention of the “susurration of the shower curtains, time dripping from the tap.”
Every fan of Shena’s writing will have particular favourites from among her comic interludes. These are likely to include Mrs Finch’s fracas in Quality Seconds which features in A Bowl of Cherries, or the aloe vera joke in Dunedin, or from the same book the line about Danny and Olive Schwarz marrying in Hastings and repenting at Leicester. Or Grandpa Fitz in The Orchard on Fire whose model of Crystal Palace made from matchsticks “went up in flames like the original. What they call poetic justice.” Or the line in The Artist’s Widow about a painter who threw herself off Beachy Head but didn’t make much of a splash.
Shena is at her deadliest and most moving when there is a serious point to be made, like when Violet in the short story Angelo wonders “when the power had passed to those young men with sliding smiles, snidey eyes, when had they staged their coup.” Or from the same The Laughing Academy collection there is Alice who “did not cry tonight; she had cried in so many hospital car parks over the years.” There are whole sagas in those short sentences.
From the novel The Artist’s Widow, early on in the book, there is a glorious line about how “every artist leaves behind a shadowy retrospective of the pictures that were never painted.” At the book’s denouement there is a reflection on the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and how there was a “danger of genuine grief being whipped into something ugly.”
That short story The Most Beautiful Dress in the World reappears in The Atmospheric Railway and offers a fresh opportunity to savour some of Shena’s most brilliant words: “The early October sunshine had an elegiac quality that reminded her of the slow movement of a cello concerto.”
And one of the joys of re-reading and revisiting is that lines can take on all sorts of new meanings, and can resonate alarmingly as our own lives have changed, as with this sentence from The Most Beautiful Dress in the World: “She found that as those who work at home know, the anticipation of arrivals and departures creates an enervating limbo peppered with frustration and irritability and the failure of an awaited letter to arrive or the telephone to ring can sour the day as hope curdles to despair.”
The title The Atmospheric Railway refers explicitly to a part of suburban South London which will be forever Shena Mackay’s. In a Spectator review of Shena’s short story collection The Laughing Academy Anita Brookner wrote: “In her extraordinary novel Dunedin characters with unattractive names did unaccountable things in an overlooked area of south-east London, the once genteel districts of Norwood, Streatham and Brixton.”
If one were to draw a circle roughly round an area covered by the postcode cluster SE19 to SE27, bordered by Denmark Hill, Dulwich, Forest Hill, Sydenham, Penge, Crystal Palace, Norwood, Streatham, Tulse Hill, Herne Hill, and Brixton, then that would be Shena’s south eastern, though it is not this south eastern.
Shena did not just write about the area, roughly from Dunedin in 1992 through to The Atmospheric Railway in 2008 (and she even managed to work that glorious word ‘transpontine’ into one of her stories), she also lived in Norwood. And in the London edition of Robert Kahn’s City Secrets series Shena wrote vividly about Crystal Palace Park, its trees, its dinosaurs, its maze, the mini-railway, and the park’s history which takes in an atmospheric railway. She also refers the reader to “a sweet and surreal celebration of the park on video”, The Pleasure Garden, a short film directed by James Broughton, which stars Hattie Jacques, John Le Mesurier, Lindsay Anderson, Jean Anderson, Kermit Sheets and Jill Bennett.
The Crystal Palace atmospheric (or pneumatic) railway was a short-lived experiment which ran for a few months in 1864, as Shena puts it, “between the Sydenham and Penge entrances of the Crystal Palace Gardens.” In her story it is a subject that mildly fascinates Neville, who with his cousin Beryl is engaged in researching family and local history. Beryl’s specific interest is in her distant aunt Florence Graham who had taught “at a private academy for young ladies on Beulah Hill,” which was presumably St Joseph’s, Upper Norwood. Florence later came in to some money, and started her own “free school for sickly children, which she named The Garden School”.
During the course of the weekend Neville spends with Beryl, in the story, they spend time traipsing round West Norwood Cemetery. In passing Beryl mentions that “Fitzroy, the one who replaced Finisterre on the Shipping Forecast, took his own life in his house on Church Road. We probably passed him in the cemetery.” The cemetery and the Shipping Forecast would recur in Shena’s Heligoland, her most recent novel from 2003.
Heligoland has central to its storyline the Nautilus in SE19, which was designed and built in 1937 “on modernist and utopian principles” for “a floating community of cosmopolitan refugees, dispossessed artists and intellectuals”, led by its founders Celeste Zylberstein and her husband Arkady. The shell-shaped construction, or “pearly shelltopia”, with its surrounding moat of shingle from the beach at Dungeness, seems so vividly real one imagines Londonist bloggers leading walks on the theme of Shena’s South Eastern on summer Saturdays and posing for selfies (to post on Twitter) with the Nautilus’ distinctive anchor right behind them.
Once it was a hive of activity, complete with bar, library, printing press, swimming pool, summer picnics, duels. But by the time of the book “ideas and ideologies were broken glass and crumpled paper” and the Nautilus had become more of “a boil-in-the-bag and microwave community”. Only Celeste is left of the original residents, along with the poet Francis Campion, and appropriately Albert Campion’s friend and sparring partner Stanislas Oates from Scotland Yard lived down at Norwood. Francis frets about whether any of his old artistic comrades from his Fitzrovia heyday will make the transpontine trek to West Norwood Cemetery when the time comes.
The modern-day part of Shena’s novel Dunedin defined the area she would claim as her own. That section of the book opens with Olive McKenzie sitting in the gardens of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, as does the young New Zealander Jay Pascal, and they offer differing views of Sundays in South East London in the summer of 1989, capturing neatly the conflicted feelings many locals feel.
Jay muses contentedly: “South East London. Sunday afternoons in cemeteries and small museums. How he loved them.” Olive moans bitterly: “South East London really is the pits. I don’t think I can stand living here much longer,” as she drives “past buildings faded like old music-hall queens raddled with dust in the folds of their skirts and broken fans, past people hitting their children while waiting for buses that never came.”
Olive lives with her brother William in his house in Norwood. William feels that the Sherlock Holmes story about the Norwood builder, albeit not one of his more spectacular adventures, did at least confer “a certain sinister distinction on his part of London.” It is a rather less leafy part than when Camille Pissarro painted Norwood, Dulwich and Crystal Palace.
Jay, as the story starts, is living nearby in Norwood, in a manse up on the hill where he may go crazy. The old house, named Dunedin, is now “where the ruined people live”. Jay, down on his luck, ends up there, in what is a squat where life is shaped by care in the community policies, the recession, and the wonderful world of skips.
Shena’s short story A Mine of Serpents (with the title being a nod to Jocelyn Brooke, her fellow expert on the wild flowers of Kent?) features twins Gerald and Harold Creedy, who are estranged, living six doors apart, one in Bromley Villa and the other in Bickley Villa, near to Crystal Palace. In happier days of yore they had been drummed out of the South Norwood sea scouts.
In Shena’s novel The Artist’s Widow the lovely Lyris Crane lives in East Dulwich, and she and her kind friends and near-neighbours Tony and Anne Lee compare more than favourably with those characters that live north of the river. Among these is Clovis Ingram who, appropriately given his Saki-stic name, runs a small bookshop in Maida Vale. He and his ex-wife Izzy are among the people from The Artist’s Widow who reappear in Heligoland, prompting hopes of an R.F. Delderfield type trilogy about the dreaming suburbs. In a way, though, the story The Atmospheric Railway is the conclusion of this mini-saga, and a contemplation of time passing, the approach of the end of the line:
“Beryl lived in an area of Dulwich transformed from the quiet suburb of their childhood into a place of cookware shops, cafes, organic butchers, fishmongers and delicatessens, with a number of junk and antiques shops, where the new affluent population could buy the amusing furniture and kitchenware which had belonged to the previous owners of the house, and put it back. Neville and Beryl instead of going to the chippie as they once might have, had their pick of several restaurants for dinner on Friday and Saturday night.”
Beryl’s cousin Neville, in the story, finds himself “nostalgic for the Sunday inertia of his youth, the aching afternoons of waiting for something to happen.” He is now comfortably retired, and heads back at the end of his weekend in South East London on an altogether different atmospheric railway to his home in Hampshire. Shena herself somewhere around the time of The Atmospheric Railway moved out of South East London down to Southampton, to be closer to her family.
In some ways Shena Mackay will be forever young, and discovering her early writing seemed to be an important part of a process where during the 1980s there was a recontextualising of the 1960s. The very act of finding and reading Shena’s first couple of books, particularly in their Panther editions, felt like an act of defiance, a direct challenge to all those that had left these wonderful works out of official histories of the decade.
It was in the Oxfam shop in Blackheath 30-odd years ago that Shena entered this life, when there was a copy of Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the Run in a revolving rack upstairs for next to nothing, back when such things were possible and a copy of Keith Hudson’s Pick A Dub would cost just 50p there. It looked intriguing and irresistible, with the way the book was reversible (like the Postcard Records fanzine had been in 1981: you read one story through and then turn it over and start again from the other end) and with the readily identifiable references to that very part of South East London.
A copy of Shena’s second book, Music Upstairs, with the cover photo of a dolly bird sitting on a tube station platform at, it seemed, Earls Court, simply added to the fun. Then when these books appeared as Virago Modern Classics, with the Christopher Angeloglou shot of the young Shena on the back cover (looking like someone who could eclipse Julie Christie, Jane Asher and Marianne Faithful) everything made perfect sense, especially when uncropped versions of the photo appeared revealing that she was at an art exhibition. It is a minor miracle that Shena never ended up as a Smiths singles cover star, what with her vegetarianism, her looks, and everything.
What is really striking about those early books of Shena’s is how odd they are, which is a large part of their enduring appeal, along with the subversive, grotesque wit, the sheer inventiveness, and the unsettling nature of the stories. She may have been still in her teens when she started writing, but the magic was already there.
Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger is a twisted, touching tale of two doomed young lovers, the tragic ballad of Abi and Eugene, which appropriately was published in the year the Shangri-Las and Twinkle made the charts. Eugene is 20, living in Victoria, in a boarding house, while his girlfriend Abi, 16, with her long red hair with sparks of gold in it, is still at school (nominally) in South East London. Their greatest fear seems to be fitting in and settling down, and they almost come a cropper in a stolen black Chevrolet which crashes under the “cold stars of New Cross”. Shadow Morton might have resisted the temptation to add a touch of the absurd by bringing a bubble car into the incident, but that particular aspect is an early sign of Shena’s genius.
The accompanying tale of Toddler on the Run is no less grotesque. The title refers to the macabre Morris Todd, a dwarf with a sweet corrupt face, who is a malevolent thief, an inveterate womaniser, and framed for something he actually didn’t do. He goes on the run with his one true love, Leda with the hot mustard hair, and the fugitives hide out in a beach hut at Newhaven, hoping to escape to France. The backdrop to the story is provided by the South East London of Deptford, New Cross, Lewisham, Blackheath and Greenwich, extending out to the Sidcup bypass and the local police station which is now an Italian restaurant.
Shena’s first standalone novel Music Upstairs was published in 1965, and tells the story of Sidonie O’Neill, whose very name suggests a young Brigitte Bardot, a little too exotic for the suburban purgatory of Penge from which she has escaped to a room in a boarding house in Earls Court which she shares with her friend Joyce. It all starts off conventionally enough, with Sidonie working as a typist in Holborn. But things soon start to unravel as Sidonie becomes caught up in a messy ménage à trois with her landlords Pam and Lenny Beacon.
Music Upstairs is very much not a novel of the Swinging Sixties and Carnaby Street. It is a seedy, sordid, very monochrome affair of dingy, cheap lives, dank and drab days often eked out in cafés and pubs, with drinks slopped on the table tops. It is about killing time in Holborn Library, hiding in phone boxes, seeking salvation in wet London parks, while somewhere out there is a loyal lingering boyfriend to fall back on when all else fails.
Shena unemotionally describes Sidonie’s descent, her aimless drift into futility, summed up perfectly by “a breakfast of Vodka dregs and eggs and Housewives Choice” in an illicit Notting Hill room. Sidonie’s shocking passivity is unsettling, her fatalism frankly alarming, like Subway Sect’s ‘Ambition’ 15-years too soon: “I've been walking along down this shallow slope / Looking for nothing particularly / Am I guided or is this life for free / Because nothing ever seems to happen to me”.
It is a life that seems far from fun, but rather like the French new wave films where, say, Anna Karina sits around all day looking thoroughly miserable, accepting whatever life throws at her, Sidonie’s story seems strangely appealing, even if it is a series of “passive steps in a slow suicide”.
Shena’s third book, Old Crow, published in 1967, is a wonderful contrarian creation, a shocking contrast to the popular image of England as the decade exploded. The setting is bucolic Kent, and serves as a reminder that, despite being dubbed “the savage sphinx of the suburbs” by Julie Burchill, Shena’s something of a country girl at heart.
All the flowers that feature so appealingly in Shena Mackay’s stories must have their roots in what she learned growing up in the Kentish countryside. Many of her early years were spent in the village of Shoreham, near to Sevenoaks, before her family moved up to Blackheath, and she had to change from Tonbridge Grammar to the new comprehensive at Kidbrooke.
Shena’s novel The Orchard on Fire is set in the village of Stonebridge which presumably bears similarities to her own Shoreham. It is probably her best-known novel, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996. It was also for a while a regular on charity shops’ shelves as copies were given away with a magazine, marked ‘not for resale’.
The copy on the shelf here is from the local library, and cost 30p. That, in itself, suggests the conceited Rex in Shena’s A Bowl of Cherries visiting his local library and on his way out picking up a couple of bargains from the shelf of withdrawn stock above the radiator as “the doomed authors smiled painfully from their dust jackets”.
Shena’s fictional Stonebridge is set in a loop of the River Cray, so would be rather closer to London than Shoreham. The route of the Cray flows through other parts of Shena’s books. In Music Upstairs there is Sidonie’s “mother’s mother long decayed in the long churchyard at St Mary Cray visible from the window of the Catford loop line train”. And in An Advent Calendar John recalls “the snow flattening the corrugated iron roof of the transport café between Foots Cray and Sidcup or nowhere that his parents had taken when he was seven”.
Old Crow was Shena’s first novel to be set in the Kentish countryside. It opens in the fictional village of Filston (which is more Margery Allingham weirdness than Cold Comfort Farm charm) in 1958 with the fall from grace of Coral Fairbrother: “It seemed to her that she went to bed one night a village beauty and rose the next morning a laughing stock, but the transition was more subtle”. Jumping forward to the present day, that is 1966-ish, the story reeks of poverty and spite, hate and squalor.
Stella Oates, a “true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Conservative” on the Parish Council, wages a war against Coral and her kids, whipping up hatred among the local mastiff-faced women simply because, to her, Coral is anathema: “She infects the whole village morally and probably physically”. There are hints here of what is to come, with Margaret Thatcher and her enemy within, with Shirley Porter and her social cleansing, with Farage and UKIP, Boris and Brexit. The irony is Stella’s own son is a “contender for the title of village idiot” which so often seems to be the case with those who cast the first stones in any lynch mob. Coral meanwhile bravely boasts: “We have ways and means of surviving”. She shows her vulnerability though when she says: “I want to be sufficient unto myself like a tree, quietly rotting away.”
Filston reappears in All The Pubs in Soho, one of Shena’s best-loved short stories, where young Joe Sharp struggles to understand her father, “he of the camel hair coat and thin moustache and crimped waves of rusty hair”, and his anger at “bloody pansies”. This is the Kentish countryside in 1956, and into the village of Filston, bringing for Joe a burst of bright colour and affection, come the exotic others, Arthur and Guido, an artist and a poet, who take on Hollow Cottage.
The pair’s first appearance is heading from the station to their cottage: “They wore American plaid shirts and jeans which men did not wear in Filston. The small dark one had slung over his shoulder a dark green corduroy jacket and the taller fair one carried a jacket of muted claret.”
The locals’ response is hateful and sour: “We don’t want your sort here”. Apart from young Joe that is who can’t understand the fuss, and befriends the alien duo who vow one day to take her to “all the pubs in Soho”. The very fact that Joe cannot quite comprehend what that means makes it all the more mysterious and wonderful for her, in the way that unknown quantities haunt our childhoods.
In Shena Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire the story starts with a middle-aged April Harlency making plans to revisit the Kentish village of Stonebridge where she grew up. The adult April, a teacher, is living alone in London: “I chose this place to live, believing that I would find anonymity among those who did not care if the plaster and glass and paintwork of rented house splintered and decayed, who were not reproached by gardens gone to seed and rotting sofas. In that hope, as in most things, I was proved wrong. People in the shops, who are living real lives, even if you aren’t, start to recognise you.”
Unusually for Shena the story is told in the first person, and it is difficult at times to forget this is April’s story rather the writer speaking directly to us. Sometimes it seems too real to be fiction, but that is perhaps part of Shena’s special genius.
Most of the book is set in 1953 and into the new year, when April was 8, and the family had moved to Stonebridge. Her parents took on the Copper Kettle tearooms in the village, escaping from a gloomy gin palace in Streatham and rented rooms in Tooting.
The 1950s, Shena (or April) says defiantly, were “politically, intellectually and artistically exciting.” And the pair share a “weakness for the gawdy and tawdry and ephemeral”. A similar sentiment recurs in the lovely story Crossing the Border where Flora Loney is researching the life of her Great-Uncle Laurence, a poet who like her “was moved by ephemera and junk and saw eternity in a plastic flower and the human condition in the brittle pink Little Princess Vanity Set in the supermarket, whose tiny mirror flashed a fragment of a dream.”
There is in The Orchard on Fire a particularly vivid description of the local Co-Op’s Christmas window display: “You could almost smell the French Fern soap and talc, the Cusson’s Apple Blossom, the Bromley Lemons, the baskets of fruit soaps ...” This is exactly the sort of thing that would stay in the mind for more than forty years, as are the mentions of individual fruit pies, lost propelling pencils, and jumble sale purchases of books.
April’s time in Stonebridge is coloured by magical moments, and the story is inhabited by some of Shena’s most appealing characters. The two artists who live in Beulah House, Dittany and Bobs, the Misses Rix and Codrington, are particularly enchanting, and the story of their planned weekend of lectures is priceless, crowned by the local church warden Mr Seabrook yelling at their guests: “Call yourselves artists. You couldn’t creosote a fence, none of you.”
The stars of the story though are April’s parents, Percy and Betty Harlency, who are so beautifully sketched, so sympathetically shaded. And perhaps best of all they seem good people, even if life is a constant struggle.
Percy is cast as someone with socialist leanings, who joins the local branch of the Labour Party, takes the Daily Worker, and likes be-bop. His principles and beliefs are a calmer, kinder variation of John’s parents in An Advent Calendar with their house filled “with sixpenny Penguins and pamphlets and Pelicans”.
Whatever their failings these parents have made books available to their children. Shena’s own parents, she has said, were socialists and gave her the gift of poetry, music, and art. In her own way, she has honoured this by being quietly and consistently militant in her writing, seeming to promote politics of a personal kind, with nebulous aspects of Christian kindness thrown in. That may be pure projection, but it is the way her values come across.
As lovely as parts of Shena Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire are, life in her 1950s Kent is not exactly idyllic. There are shadows and there is nastiness. Beyond the fun and games there are glimpses of danger: “Grown-ups’ snappiness gave little yappy flashes of a dangerous weir round a bend in the calm river”.
Mr Greenidge, the pathetic old man in the white suit, with his sausage dog and his invalid wife, torments young April, the narrator of Shena’s book. He is the man who corroded her childhood with fear and anxiety and deceit. Meanwhile her best friend Ruby has parents who are often oblivious to her needs and occasionally violently abusive towards her.
There is a pattern across Shena’s books where she exposes the male violence which blights lives. In her early novella Toddler on the Run the seemingly respectable lawyer Daniel attacks Elaine, his wife, in her kitchen, and leaves her traumatised and hospitalised. In Music Upstairs the landlord Lenny has a tendency to turn nasty and violent. In An Advent Calendar the poet Eric Turle takes advantage of the ugly duckling Joy Pickering, a schoolgirl who is not yet 16.
Later, in Dunedin the horrendous Redvers Barrable, who is in charge of a sinister penal institution, turns out to be a serial seducer and a wife-beater. In the short story A Silver Summer, set in 1962, Tessa’s time at Sheldon’s Silver & Antiques on Chancery Lane is ruined by the revenge wrought by the foul clerk across at Dodd and Dodsworth’s, the Legal Stationers. And in Barbarians the bully Ian Donaldson threatens and intimidates because he can, because he has money and a public school background and no conscience. It is hard not to think of a Jeremy Clarkson type when Shena describes him standing there with “his trainers like two dead pigeons on the carpet.”
There is a very powerful passage in The Artist’s Widow where Lyris loses her temper rather spectacularly: “All those people with their fat salaries have no conception of life at the other end of their industries. They pick people up when it suits them, make them jump through hoops and then toss them aside ... They should all be forced to reverse roles for a year or two and find out what it’s like to grind out work for a pittance in the face of their demands and silences and sheer incompetence and ill-manners.”
Lyris’ own life is plagued by her distant relations, the incredibly ignorant and insensitive Purseys of Purley. The Pursey clan is ruled by the thoroughly obnoxious Buster: “The Floral King of the South-East. His own father had built the business from a barrow in Surrey Street market in Croydon and now Buster presided over the biggest flower stall for miles around, while the boarded-up shops of several local florists attested to his success. The extended family leased their own stalls and kiosks from Buster but they had their fingers in many other pies and jellied eels and anything that could be transported in a lorry with a dodgy tailgate.”
There is a vivid scene in the book where the extended Pursey family descends upon a restaurant en masse and causes havoc with their rudeness and vulgarity. Buster is there in his vest and shorts and thick gold chains. You know the type. Buster’s son, Nathan, a great-nephew of Lyris’ to her chagrin, is perhaps surprisingly an artist, but of a very different type to her and her late husband John.
The odious Nathan is one of the young British artists of the Loaded / Trainspotting / Britpop generation who make up for what they lack in talent and ideas with self-promotion and stupid stunts which attract publicity for some reason. Shena is scathing on the subject, and presumably had plenty of material to draw on from stories her youngest daughter Cecily (now a very successful painter) could share. Nathan had a similarly brash and insensitive prototype in the writer Terry Turner, the “opportunist, liar and deceiver” in Dunedin.
Terry came to London from the Sub Rosa caravan park in Redhill, via the University of Southampton, and lived at first in Brixton when “he looked as though he had forgotten to remove the coat hanger from the jacket of his Oxfam suit.” Shena gives a brief synopsis of his work: “His first novel, Wraith Rovers, a tale of a ghostly football team, set in a deserted village, and written at the time of the miners’ strike, had attracted some attention. He followed that with a collection of stories, The Meat Rack, whose title story told of the short summarily ended career of a rent boy in Piccadilly.” It is later revealed that, to Terry, “rent boys, now that he had written about them, were of as much interest as a box that had held a takeaway pizza.” Again, you will know the type only too well.
There is a lovely phrase in Shena’s remarkable short story Angelo where at a memorial service for a lost love Violet Greene muses about how “all that really matters in life is that we should be kind to one another”. Somehow that, combined with good manners and grace, suggests Shena’s credo in life, hence her well-timed and uncannily accurately-directed anger when things go against that way of behaving.
One of the most striking passages in Shena’s work comes in Heligoland where she skewers the state of social care, and the way the elderly and vulnerable are left to cope: “It’s a parallel universe, the world of hospital transport that doesn’t turn up, Meals on Wheels, painful infirmities and indignities. Days lit by low-wattage bulbs and warmed by one-bar electric fires and measured out in pills and dressings and patent remedies, at the mercy of a procession of strangers earning less than the minimum wage.”
Somehow, one senses that Shena has several stories to tell on that theme, from bitter experience of seeing others’ plight perhaps, but that again is pure projection and one should not really give in to the temptation to surmise.
What do we really know about Shena Mackay? Well, Virago announced a while ago, before publishing the Dancing on the Outskirts collection, that they had acquired the rights to a memoir to be written by Shena, scheduled for publication in late 2017. The prospect is an enticing one.
The charity shops are full of ghost-written accounts of the lives of showbiz and sporting personnel, all left on the shelf, not even going cheap. There may be birds of a very different feather, like Manuel Rivas’ enchanting memoir of growing up in Galicia, The Low Voices, for those who (like Muriel in Shena’s story The Atmospheric Railway) have “rediscovered the pleasures of being a random reader at the library and not having to bother with book reviews.” It seems certain Shena’s story of her life will not read like anything else.
The basic biographical details are freely available, and routinely repeated in pieces about Shena. There is also a smattering of interviews with and profiles of her on the Internet, but not that many really. In a quiet way she shuns publicity, or at least the treadmill of promotion. Perhaps the most detailed of these profiles and interviews is an Ian Hamilton piece from 1999, which is on The Guardian website.
Ian will always be associated here with the mixed feelings his book In Search of Salinger provoked. This was Ian’s well-intentioned attempt to unravel the Salinger myth, and it details the obstacles he had to overcome, making the book a bit of a precursor to Laurent Binet’s HHhH. As Ian put it, his quest was cursed because it was as if Salinger’s “inaccessibility was a national treasure that I the invader somehow threatened to despoil.”
It is tempting to see Ian’s piece on Shena in a similar light, but that is unfair. They at least knew and admired each other. Ian published some of Shena’s stories in the 1970s, when she was bringing up her three daughters and presumably struggling to keep going, in his New Review. Among these was the remarkable 1976 short story Curry at the Laburnums, a tale that takes in disruption on the Southern rail network due to the weather and industrial action, the response of cheesed-off commuters, their unpleasantly casual everyday racism, and some glorious revenge.
“A rare bird among young writers of her sex since she does not write about herself,” is what the Radio Times said about Shena in 1966 when her novella Toddler on the Run was adapted for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series, apparently with Michael Robbins as the narrator. But then it is said often that all writing is autobiographical, and it is tempting to trace Shena’s story through her work, at least in terms of location.
From the period soon after WW2 in Canterbury as featured in the short story Trouser Ladies (with Doris Day shining brighter than the sun), through Shoreham and up to the Blackheath area and on to Earls Court, to Finchley with a young family, back down to Dorking, Redhill, Reigate, up to Norwood and then down to Hampshire where The Atmospheric Railway takes her. There is projection here, too, seeing traces of Shena’s own story in tales like Angelo and A Silver Summer.
Thinking about Shena and her memoir prompts thoughts about where she has already turned up in life stories. One that springs to mind is Brigid Brophy’s Baroque ’n’ Roll which was published in 1987. Fans of Shena and Brigid are likely to be aware of the friendship between the two writers. Brigid was a champion of Shena’s work, and played a vital part in getting A Bowl of Cherries published in 1984. Indeed, that book is dedicated to Brigid, just as Baroque ’n’ Roll is dedicated to Shena Mackay.
Brigid chose Shena’s Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the Run to be included in Writer’s Choice: A Library of Rediscoveries, edited by Linda Sternberg Katz and Bill Katz in 1983. 20 years later Shena chose Brigid’s 1953 novel Hackenfeller's Ape for the ‘Buried Treasure’ series in The Independent.
More recently, in October 2015, Shena took part in a conference at the University of Northampton to mark the twentieth anniversary of Brigid’s death. Apparently she spoke, in part, about Brigid’s role in the campaign to introduce the Public Lending Right scheme in the UK. This is something Shena jests about in A Bowl of Cherries where the successful Rex gloats that “one can read the books of authors one despises without putting a penny in their pockets.”
Shena appears in the fragment of autobiography that opens Baroque ’n’ Roll. The essay deals with the onset of the muscular sclerosis that Brigid endured, and she pays tribute to the practical help Shena provided, particularly in accompanying Brigid to hospital appointments. It is hard to think of any better character reference in English literature than what she says of Shena:
“Her company was freely and affectionately accorded, even though she fulfils many responsibilities, including those to her three daughters, and, since she is a non-driver who lives in the Philistia of the home counties, my requests doomed her to the unloveliest of rail journeys, on the Southern Region.
“It was, all the same, a philistine use to which I put the finest architect of literary baroque, funny and tragic, and the most Firbankian master of surrealism now extant in the English language.
“I cannot excuse myself except by need of, precisely, her gifts. Only a great baroque imagination could make acceptable to me the comic and tragic occasions paraded while we waited. The abrasions the system inflicted on my rationality could be balmed and surmounted by the gift of a great surrealist.”
One other book that features Shena is Michael Bracewell’s England is Mine, a one-off survey of “pop life in Albion” which first came out in 1997, and is still one of the great books on music, and all it touches, simply because it creates its own little world free from the usual categorisation and nasty niches. Brilliantly Bracewell brings together things that would not ordinarily fit together, like Benjamin Britten, Sham 69, Virginia Astley, Dexys, and the films of Powell & Pressburger. If it seems illogical at times, then that is to its credit.
The section in the book on “the sound of the suburbs” sandwiches Shena’s work between The Cure and Television Personalities, with particular reference to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Suburban Relapse’ where the lyrics do read rather like a synopsis for one of Shena’s short stories. Michael makes a point of homing in on Shena’s Surrey period in the 1980s, and specifically her novel Redhill Rococo.
He links Shena’s work to that of her friend Nell Dunn, but notes the differences: “Where Nell Dunn’s Clapham or Battersea were vivid and volatile, Mackay’s suburbia is a place where deliquescent gentility, urban over-spill, hypocrisy and ennui are encoded on to the landscape. Suburbia has been synonymous with boredom and stillness – a suspension of morbid speculations such as The Cure translated into foggy post-punk”. He also links Shena’s suburbia with that of Stevie Smith, and any book ostensibly on pop culture which quotes from Shena and Stevie within a few pages will be treasured here.
Shena Mackay is mentioned in the sleevenotes of Saint Etienne Present Songs For Mario’s Café, a collection that came out on the Sanctuary subsidiary Discotheque in 2004. The concept was an imaginary soundtrack “for cafés and café folk”, with the title being a nod in the direction of St Et’s own composition which refers to a Kentish Town café, and is part of a tradition of songs that pay tribute to real eating places. The Little Nibble in Dexys’ ‘This is What She’s Like’, Laugh’s mention of Manchester’s Alasia café in their frantic classic ‘Take Your Time, Yeah!’ and the gloriously sweet harmony pop of ‘Kardomah Café’ by Liverpool’s Cherry Boys immediately spring to mind.
It sometimes seems like there have been hundreds of Saint Etienne related compilations covering everything under the sun, but this Songs For Mario’s Café CD, which tied in with a series of short films the group were making with Paul Kelly about London’s disappearing cafés and tearooms, is the real deal with sweet soul and beat ballads galore, and a spectacular opening sequence which takes in Tony Hatch, Donovan, Birmingham schoolkids The Bobcats, Tammy St John’s version of the Fangette Enzel song ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’, Ruth Copeland’s ‘Music Box’, and Candy & the Kisses’ ‘Are You Trying To Get Rid Of Me Baby’.
Café connoisseur Bob Stanley’s liner notes mention how he came to London in the mid-1980s and got involved with the underground pop scene, hanging out at “cafés like the Regent Milk Bar on Edgware Road, Gattopardo at Kings Cross, and the Oval Platter on Charing Cross Road for cheap lunch and an hour or so with a paperback (favourite reads: Richard Brautigan, Shena Mackay, Keith Waterhouse).”
Apart from the joy of discovering Shena’s earliest books, there was probably for Bob the thrill of reading Shena’s remarkable Redhill Rococo which was set among the Surrey people he had grown up with. When that novel came out in 1986 it was slightly disorientating for those of us who were just discovering Shena’s 1960s work, rather like the whole thing with Shelagh Delaney and The Smiths, catching up with A Taste of Honey and The Lion in Love, and Sweetly Sings The Donkey and Charlie Bubbles, then realising she had written the beautiful screenplay for the superbly evocative film Dance With A Stranger and belonged just as much to the present day.
Julie Burchill was the person who at the time really got behind Redhill Rococo in a massively infectious way, and she was quite right because it was the most radical novel of the time in the way it portrayed Pearl Slattery and her chaotic, falling apart family in such an appealing and sympathetic way.
Shena, herself, has always been brilliant at working cafés into her stories. For example, in her debut novella, Eugene Schlumburger meets his mate Charley Baker for a coffee in the City: “They went into a small café which was empty except for the Italian proprietor, who was reading a comic. They slid into a yellow plastic seat. There were red and green plastic tomatoes containing tomato sauce and pink salt and pepper flowers on the yellow speckled tables.”
In Music Upstairs, Sidonie kills time in cheap cafés, trying to make a coffee last. In An Advent Calendar, apart from John Wood’s parents’ transport café, there is a scene where he goes to the Wimpy on Upper Street, Islington, and is put off by the skinheads sitting in there: “Its décor was typical of its kind; to John it looked frightening; circles of cropped heads above marbled and mottled Formica, ketchup-colored chairs, rings of heavy brown boots on the floor.”
Jay in Dunedin dreams of returning in triumph to the Double Egg, a working man’s café: “He would come back one day, clean and shaven with money in his pocket, and order a double-egg breakfast with all the trimmings. The works.” In the short story Barbarians the loathsome Ian Donaldson comes unstuck in a Portuguese café a couple of miles from home. In Heligoland there is the Gipsy Rose Café presided over by the lovely Rita. And the tea room at the Horniman Museum pops up in Dunedin and Heligoland.
Shena’s Heligoland came out in early 2003, shortly after Saint Etienne’s Finisterre LP was released, which was a lovely coincidence: old school fans of the Shipping Forecast ahoy! Shena mentions a Saint Etienne church in her story Swansong, and actually appears in the film Finisterre: A Film About London which Saint Etienne made with Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans. In the booklet which accompanied the original DVD release Michael Bracewell praises the poetic voiceover track which is interspersed with commentary from a variety of figures including Shena, Vic Godard, and Mark Perry.
Shena’s brief appearance is brilliant, and very much one of the highlights of the film. She speaks very precisely, softly, sounding a little distracted, dreamy, then coming back into focus vigorously, over footage of the then threatened New Piccadilly café which is very much part of the Saint Etienne London mythology. She refers to using a One Day Travelcard and how travelling around the metropolis has become very unpleasant, everything taking far longer, there being too many people, with general standards of behaviour on buses and tubes going down the tube (which is a perfect Shena-ism), but how sometimes she get that London feeling, and remembers why she loves it.
At the end of her Finisterre appearance Shena mentions how she loves the rain and finds it invigorating. Every time that appears on the screen it seems as though Blossom Dearie should come in right on cue to sing about how she loves London in the rain. Blossom actually appears in Shena’s story A Pair of Spoons where in one of the great moments in literature a police inspector appears in Vivien and Bonnie’s shop and starts to sing along to ‘Moonlight Saving Time’, adding “I caught one of her shows at the Pizza on the Park.”
There is nobody better than Shena Mackay at using pop, literary and other cultural references in her writing. Anita Brookner once referred to Shena’s modus operandi and how in her stories “all this is served up with a full complement of television catch phrases, lines from popular songs, brand names, and references to bottle banks, cash points, and other urban detritus.”
There is perhaps nothing startling in that, but it is incredibly difficult to get consistently right. And it is hard to think of occasions where Shena’s references strike a wrong note or spoil the flow. On the contrary they often delight, and seem to fit the context, adding colour and shade perfectly.
The references are in keeping with the context and characters, but there is a temptation to wonder how often they reflect Shena’s own passions. In The Artist’s Widow there is a mention of Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Violin, and allusions to Snape and Aldeburgh. There is also a lovely passage where Lyris returns home after a private viewing of her late husband’s paintings at a Mayfair gallery: “She went into the studio. An unfinished canvas stood on the easel. She put on a record, Ella singing ‘This Time The Dream’s On Me’, unscrewed the cap of a tube of paint, squeezed out a bead of ultramarine and took a brush from the jar”.
Then in Heligoland there is mention of a Miles Davis CD, and how on a tape in the Gypsy Rose Café “Chet Baker put the boot in with ‘The Night They Called It A Day’.” There are mentions of Les Six and Germaine Tailleferre, and a reference by Francis Campion to “a strange piece of music on the wireless, for male voices and orchestra. Turned out to be called Helgoland. By Bruckner.”
And in The Atmospheric Railway Dusty’s ‘Goin’ Back’ plays on the angelfish shower radio, and Muriel decides she wants it played at her funeral. Put those disparate elements together and it is easy to create, rightly or wrongly, a mental image of Shena loving these things, conjuring up a cultured, classy, non-conformist character.
Anyone looking for the story of 1960s pop in Shena’s early books might be disappointed or disorientated. There is probably more in the way of fragments from hymns, oddly. Or as it says at the start of Shena’s Soft Volcano: “There is nothing like the sound of children singing hymns for deceiving us into thinking there is some hope for mankind.” But then there is Gene Vincent.
Sweet Gene. Eugene Schlumburger. Vincent Eugene Craddock. It fits. At the start of the book Eugene hears the West Indian students who share his boarding house playing an old record, the ballad ‘The Night is So Lonely’. Shena said in an autobiographical piece from 2004 about her short spell at school in Kidbrooke: “The novel, as I thought it was until it was typed out, was originally titled The Night is So Lonely after the Gene Vincent song. The story was written at night to a background of Radio Luxembourg, and I wish I could recapture the pleasure and excitement I felt while writing it.” And then, in the accompanying novella, Morris Todd the fugitive dwarf is on the run in his leather trousers, arebel like Gene.
Ironically, when Shena’s first book came out, in 1964 Gene Vincent himself was living, at least temporarily, with his wife and young daughter in Welling, just down Shooters Hill from the Blackheath where parts of Shena’s novellas were set. It may not have been the happiest time of Gene’s life, but it is a gloriously surreal twist. And there we were living in the same town, albeit briefly. Admittedly he might have been on the road for much of that year, performing across the UK and to Les Blousons Noirs in France, so maybe he did not get much chance to sing ‘Baby Blue’ when he passed us in the high street or by the lake in Danson Park.
There is even mention on a Gene Vincent fansite of him playing a gig in Welling on May 8 1964, at St Michael’s Community Centre, in Wrotham Road, pretty close to where he was living in Upper Wickham Lane, past the old Odeon, near to where that horrible British National Party bookshop would later be. Did that show actually take place? If it did, it must have been wild.
Presumably the rockers, greasers, and old teds would have been out in force, dancing on the outskirts, with the mods down the Inferno, up near the station, keeping a low profile that night, maybe heading out to The Iron Curtain, in St Mary Cray, which was held in a big old Georgian house, or the Austral in Sidcup.
When it comes to detail Shena Mackay is great at shops, novels, poetry, painting, radio programmes, TV soaps, films, flowers, clothes, colours, buses, trains, smells, and so on. And there are many excellent examples within Shena’s books of where she uses musical and pop culture references incredibly effectively.
The historical context of her novel The Orchard on Fire is pinpointed by a mention of ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’ which in 1953 was a number one for Lita Roza, much to her eternal horror. There is another lovely passage where the young April’s mother sings a few lines from ‘Try A Little Tenderness’: “She maybe weary, women do get weary, wearing the same shabby dress.”
There is a passing Gene Vincent reference in Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger, and in the accompanying Toddler on the Run there is “Leda, crying, while Ray Charles sang and her thin sister dies of cancer in Lewisham Hospital.” Ray reappears, sort of, in the later short story Cloud-Cuckoo Land where ‘Born To Lose’ mutates into ‘Bored To Sobs’.
There are times when Shena is great on that hinterland between the rock ’n’ roll explosion and the beat boom. There is, for example, a lovely mention in the short story Crossing The Border of the old Johnny Burnette hit ‘Clown Shoes’ in connection with a bequest left to Flora who had been (a day too late) to visit her great-uncle Lorimer at Grimaldi House, a home for retired clowns down Bromley way, which seems so real the temptation is to look it up, though that is likely only to lead to an old Avengers episode with an all-star cast.
That story features in Shena’s 1999 collection, The Worlds Smallest Unicorn, which prompted a Private Eye piece about red faces at the publishers about a missing apostrophe in the book’s title, brilliantly demonstrating that someone had not read the opening story from which the title comes.
That story, The Worlds Smallest Unicorn, features a fantastic passage about the family background of Teddy and Webster Shelmerdine, whose parents were musicians, Willie ‘the Weeper’ Shelmerdine and Delia MacFarlane: “They grew up in the English jazz and folk revival of the Fifties and early Sixties, and although they had been named after Teddy Wilson and Ben Webster, they were weaned on skiffle and cut their teeth on Trad.”
Shena goes on to state: “Willie and Delia were part of the scene, minor household names along with Pete and Peggy Seeger, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson, partners in the tightly knit world of performers and fans on the jazz and folk circuit of gigs and festivals and clubs. Everybody knew all the gossip, and there was not a dry eye in the Green Man the night Willie bawled out ‘Delia’s Gone’ for the first time after she had run off with the jew’s harp player from the Colin Clark City Stompers. Beryl Bryden, who was topping the bill, enfolded the weeping boys in the wings of her striped tent-dress like a hen comforting her chicks, but when they got home bleakness drifted like dust.”
The Green Man, where the Shelmerdine kids’ parents played, before Willie hit Delia “one time too many and she rode that freight train, the 5.15 to Charing Cross, out of his life for ever,” on Blackheath Hill, like Delia now long gone, was a regular haunt for skiffle and Trad. jazz fans in the early 1960s. One wonders if the skiffle-loving washboard-playing nun who haunts the corner shop in Dunedin was a Green Man regular before she heard her name being called.
There is something of a tacit Trad. undercurrent to Shena’s Music Upstairs with mentions of all-nighters, and maybe Sidonie and Joyce were there alongside the girls from Patrice Chaplin’s Albany Park one night at Cy Laurie’s. Shena, in an accompanying note to the Virago Modern Classics edition mentions that she is surprised how little actual music there is in the book, when the early Beatles and Tamla Motown were everywhere.
One specific reference to music comes when Sidonie goes out with her on/off boyfriend Jimmy, a jazz drummer who sports a white mac and a pale blue polo-neck sweater, and they pop into the Coleherne pub in Earls Court to try to track down someone: “This cat also stole a Coltrane album of mine and some clothes”. There is someone playing the piano in the pub, which overlaps with other London stories like Val Wilmer’s Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This with its mentions of how the Coleherne, a predominantly gay pub even in the early 1960s, would allow jazz musicians like Russ Henderson to play there. The Coleherne reappears in Shena’s short story Pink Cigarettes featuring one of her beloved faded poets Vivian Violett.
By the time Shena wrote Redhill Rococo she had the experience of having had three teenage daughters growing up around her (did they torment her by singing ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’?: “But she just couldn't stay, she had to break away”), which presumably proved valuable when adding extra colour to a story about the summer of 1982.
In it, one of Pearl Slattery’s children, Tiffany swears she cannot wear a skinhead jacket with a post-punk skirt. This is an echo of the earlier short story, The Late Wasp, where young Darren Cheeseman is stung by overhearing the phrase: “Nobody wears Harringtons anymore”.
The priceless Pearl herself sees one of her children’s friends Gaz wearing a tartan bumflap (as punks did back then) and assumes it is a sign that he is off to a Bay City Rollers concert. Pearl, who like Shena is an old girl of Tonbridge Grammar, was apparently at one time the secretary of the Redhill chapter of the Andy Fairweather Low Fan Club, and her all-time top ten includes ‘Old Shep’, ‘Honey’, and ‘Seasons in the Sun’. Elsewhere in the book there is Lemmy the lonely punk with his spare ticket for Motorhead, and there are the Castle Grounds, “Reigate’s answer to Itchycoo Park”.
In the Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags short story collection there is a lovely example of Shena’s scene setting, where at the start of Electric-Blue Damsels the troubled teacher Maurice Barlow is at home one flaming June evening: “As he sat at his kitchen table with the back door open, writing reports on school-leavers, the radio throbbed out ‘Summer in the City’.” Later that day he pops into the chip shop where his exotic pupil Fayette Gordon works: “The oil sizzled and spat while the closing music of EastEnders was strained through the bead curtain behind which the proprietor and his family were watching television.”
In the title story from the collection crime novelist Susan Virgo sits in a pub “half listening to the juke-box, making her drink last, wishing she was at home doing something cheerful like drinking vodka and listening to Bessie Smith, or Billie Holiday singing ‘Good Morning Heartache’. There are also lovely references to Brumas, the famous polar bear at London Zoo, W.B. Yeats, and Nabokov’s Professor Pnin whom Shena once chose as her favourite literary character.
That short story revolves around Susan’s ill-fated attempt to travel to a creative writing course at Amberley Hall. Later, in Shena’s novel Dunedin the terrible Terry Turner takes his turn as a guest lecturer there, and is delightfully put in his place. Dunedin is great for those of us that love pop music references, with glancing mentions of Fats Waller, ‘Blue Skies’, Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’, ‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Harbour Lights’ by The Platters presumably, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, and seeing Wings of Desire at The Ritzy, with Wim Wenders, Peter Falk, Nick Cave et al.
And then best of all there is that reference to The Clean which is a source of constant delight here. It comes in the context of young Jay’s botched Brixton busking escapade when he suggests he might have been better off trying to play something by The Clean. What would he have chosen? ‘Anything Could Happen’, ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else’. ‘Beatnik’, ‘Tally Ho’? This passing acknowledgement of the sound of young Dunedin is exquisite, and while one would not suggest Shena sat around listening endlessly to the latest Flying Nun releases in the 1980s she somehow unerringly chose just the right reference point.
Similarly in her story Swansong Shena captures perfectly the strange phenomenon of charity shops and the background sound of radios playing Heart FM or something Absolute-ly similar, with the over-familiar oldies one only ever hears when out and about, and how when doing the daily rounds it is possible to leave one shop while say Queen’s ‘You’re My Best Friend’ or ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ is playing and get to the next before another verse starts which is always disorientating:
”‘Daydream Believer’ had segued into David Bowie singing ‘There’s a starman waiting in the skies’’ and Jeff and all the browsers were humming and singing under their breath with a far-away look in their eyes. Outside the steamed-up windows the world was going to hell in a handcart but within, these disparate souls whose treasures were tomorrow’s bric à brac were practically waltzing with the cast-off clothes amidst the smell of microwaved pasties, citizens of the democracy of dreams united in the hope of a stellar ambassador from a better world.”