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A Bowl of Cherries visiting his local library and on his way out picking up a couple of bargains from the shelf of withdrawn stock above the radiator as “the doomed authors smiled painfully from their dust jackets”.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.