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.