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.”