Friday, 8 May 2015
I'm a big RC Sherriff fan. His sci-fi novel The Hopkins Manuscript was the first Persephone title I ever read; except I read such a glowing review that I couldn't hold out for the forthcoming Persephone edition - and then it still took weeks for a musty-smelling original to arrive from America. I'm not sure I made the connection at the time but, shortly before, I'd wept over a harrowing West End production of Journey's End, with David Haig. And several years later - when I'd properly discovered Persephones - I was completely charmed by The Fortnight in September, possibly my favourite of the gentler, feel-good titles on their list.
Greengates, originally published in 1936, is being republished later this year; but I discovered a battered old copy in library reserve stock - that hadn't been taken out since 1981. And I knew I was going to love it.
Mr Baldwin is a 58-y-o Chief Cashier in a City insurance company, a gentle, self-effacing man, perhaps a couple of rungs up the ladder, but essentially not unlike the father who takes his family to Bognor for The Fortnight in September. (It's unnerving as a middle-aged reader to realise that there was a time when 50 wasn't the new 30, it was lumbago and marking time until The End.)
Several months into retirement, Mr Baldwin finds time hanging on his hands; he's thoroughly bored and aimless and cracks are appearing in his previously contented marriage which wasn't designed to survive this 24/7 togetherness. Then, completely out of character, the Baldwins decide to turn their lives around by selling their home and all their possessions and buying a new-build (Tudor or Georgian, £1,050 to £1,950) on a housing estate in what was becoming Betjeman's Metroland ...
Mr Baldwin becomes a pillar of his new community, although it isn't long before Woolworth's, Sainsbury's, Boots' and Lyons' have pursued him down the newly-concreted road to this rustic goodlife.
It sounds delightful? Noooo. Unfortunately, we accompany Mr Baldwin every step of the way - every meeting - every anxiety and setback - every letter he writes through the whole utterly tedious process of buying and selling and arranging the finance. If Mr Baldwin were your next-door-neighbour in Metroland you'd borrow his well-oiled shears and think what a harmless old bore he was. Maybe in 1936 this was a novel about buying The Middle-Class Dream. But today it feels like traipsing round in the wake of an overly-persistent estate agent. Here's a contemporary review. I'm happy to return this to the library; it's not a keeper.