Morituri

D.A.N. Jones

  • Secret Villages by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 170 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 571 13443 2
  • Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley
    Viking, 157 pp, £7.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 670 47952 7
  • Mr Scobie’s Riddle by Elizabeth Jolley
    Penguin, 226 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 14 007490 2
  • The Modern Common Wind by Don Bloch
    Heinemann, 234 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 434 07551 5
  • Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson
    Chatto, 221 pp, £9.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2935 2

Some of the stories in Secret Villages were published in the New Yorker, some in Encounter and some in Punch. It is interesting to compare the three styles. Those for the Americans make Scotland seem a wee bit exotic, romantic, with an unobtrusive sprinkling of factual information, as if a local were explaining to the tourists, the summer people. For Punch readers it is assumed that Scotland is already pretty familiar, and the stories may have a punch-line. The Encounter stories are more allusive, elliptical, up-market.

The first two stories concern illegitimate bairns. One is called ‘South America’: a Scottish engineer goes to that continent, leaving his wife with two children, and seems disinclined to return, what with the war and everything, and she bears two more children to other fathers, settling down with a schoolmistress friend to make a sort of family. We may fancy that we know how other Scots women would respond to such behaviour in a small town. In fact, there is a ‘here-where’ poem by G.S. Fraser discussing the response:

Here, where the women wear dark shawls and mutter
  A hasty word as other women pass,
Telling the secret, telling, clucking and tutting,
  Sighing or saying that it served her right,
The bitch!

However, Douglas Dunn’s heroine persuades the other women to laugh with her, and the lawyer men are taken with ‘her rugged aplomb’. This story was for the New Yorker.

The second story, ‘Twin Sets and Pickle Forks’, is about a Scottish tea-room run by Miss Frame, with two bonny waitresses called Maureen and Mandy, since Miss Frame holds that ‘middle-aged men like to be served by attractive girls.’ Mandy suggests that ‘we should ask Mr Cruikshank out an’ gie’m the scare o’ ‘is life. Is that no’ an idea, Miss Frame? We’d rub ’is body wi’ meringues an’ then clear off wi’ that black suit o’ his.’ But Miss Frame responds: ‘That’s enough of that, m’lady.’ She is rather stiff and élitist, allowing only favoured customers to use her silver pickle-fork. But then Miss Frame’s illegitimate son comes to the tea-shop and she is afraid that Maureen and Mandy will tell other women about her secret. They promise not to do so, on condition that she gets rid of the pickle-fork. ‘It’s the pickle-fork that no’ everybody gets to use. It bothers me. An’ that’s ma price. Get rid o’ it.’ As the punch-line suggests, this story was for Punch.

The third story, ‘Wives in the Garden’, was for Encounter. It is about two couples who holiday together on the coast of Kintyre. One of the men is a university lecturer with ‘an amiably long-suffering expression in the face of untenable points of view’. He says things like ‘You sang a similarly sentimental aria last year,’ in normal conversation. We are in a different world, a different village of the heart, as the husbands (in their thirties in the Sixties) contemplate their wives in the garden, remembering the Fifties, when Henrietta called herself ‘Hank’ and tried to look like Juliette Greco in downtown Glasgow. To match ‘Wives in the Garden’, there is another Encounter tale called ‘Women without Gardens’, about lonely old ladies who inspect house-owners’ lilacs and lawnmowers, as if they were judges, during their afternoon walk to the municipal gardens which, being public, they suppose they own.

Douglas Dunn has remarked about his Terry Street poems that he was emulating the know-all poet in Browning’s ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’:

           not so much a spy
As a recording chief inquisitor,
The town’s true master, if the town but knew!

Dunn added: ‘Except that, of course, I wasn’t.’ In Secret Villages he adopts the same pose: a narrator perfectly at home in all regions, among all ranks, understanding everybody – a convention accepted by most storytellers until this century when it began to be rejected as a usurpation of the God’s-eye view.

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