Thursday, January 21, 2016

Greengates by R. C. Sherriff a Persephone Book

Hi Dear Folk,

Greengates by R. C. Sherriff 1896 - 1975  He wrote several novels including Greengates and a Fortnight in September, both on the Persephone Book list, and screen scripts including The Invisible Man and Goodbye Mr. Chips

I do like Sherriff's style of writing and can quite see why he went out to Hollywood and worked on such screen scripts as Goodbye Mr. Chips, it is just his style to capture the acute nuisances of a quiet life.

Greengates paints such a picture of change in the 1930s moving out from the more built up edge of old London suburbs, to the new commuter belt around London that had been woods and open farmland.  The detail in description of both houses their furniture and the period of time they adhere to is minutely described and here we see Sherriff at his best.

In Greengates Mr Baldwin has just retired at fifty-nine after forty years in a London insurance office.   He lives in the suburbs in an old house with his wife Edith and Ada their servant for seventeen years.

Retirement does not turn out to be the picture he had in mind.

Freedom - leisure:  they were words for inspiration and he was like an old canary with its cage door open, crouching on the furthest end of its perch.  He had made no planes.

The retirement gift from the office a clock.  I remember my family members on retirement always receiving a clock.  Here Sherriff is at his best on describing the mundane.

"Isn't that awfully nice! - it's so neat and simple."
She put it on the table and stepped back to admire it.  the old walnut-wood pendulum clock on the mantelpiece, with its round, keyhole eyes, stared in mild curiosity at the little quick-ticking newcomer - reassured itself and continued its placid beat without further interest.  It was a doleful clock at the best of times, but it looked at its worst at twenty-five past six, when its hands gave it a dreary, drooping mustache.

Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin eventually decide to put the new clock in the bedroom.

Tired though he was, it took him some little while to settle down, for cheap clocks, like crickets, chirp stronger as the nights wears on.  First he had to get up to cover his new present with a towel.  A little later he had to get up again to put the clock, towel and all, into the wardrobe cupboard.

As an insurance clerk in Cornhill area of London, it had been his schedule to get up at 8:00AM breakfast and catch the train to work.  All I can say about that is that back in the 1930s they lived a more leisurely work schedule than we do today.  Also Ada would serve them breakfast, and I think it's amazing that he can afford a live in servant on an insurance clerks wage.

As with many married couples on retirement, adjusting to long periods at home together puts a strain on their happy marriage.

Their supply of conversation, like a battery that quickly exhausts itself, needed a long period of daily rest for recharging.  there would be a desperate squeezing of the battery in the long, winter nights ahead.

Week-ends came to mind, when the weather had kept them indoors, inactive and together for hours at a stretch:  she remembered how perilously close they had come to a dead end:  moments when both felt themselves groping for something else within each other's minds - never finding it - and wondering whether anything else was there to find.

As one ages your mind has been trained to run along certain tracks and its very hard to get it onto another track.

He had wondered why so few of them used their freedom to do anything big, and a grim three months' struggle had shown him the reason.  A brain that has been hungrily aware of life for sixty years is stored to its capacity:  a man may draw from it lavishly and refill it with the kind of goods that he has fashioned it to hold, but he cannot clear it out and fill it with new stock of a different shape and size.  The old fittings are simply not made to take them:  they either reject them or collapse under the strain.

This passage took me back to a vision of old Mrs Radcliffes' house, she lived down the road from us when I was a child.

Sometimes, in unguarded moments, his mind had sunk into a dark vision of hopeless, endless, terrible days, suffocated by a drooping pair of faded velvet curtains - a nauseating brown carpet patterned with clusters of bloated grapes and pergolas ...

This is how their neighbors only on nodding terms, view The Baldwins.

"Sort of old boy who'll drown himself one day," said Mr. Potter from the large corner house.  "there was a case in the paper yesterday.  Fellow like that with nothing to do ought to be put into a home."

Life has come to this.

There were times when he was pitifully anxious to please her.  One evening he went out alone and returned with a small jade brooch that she had admired while shopping on the previous evening;  at other times he would return with a bag of cakes for tea.  But these were tiny oases in a desert of petty quarrels - nagging over money - futile arguments that would die away, fester and break out again and drag on for days - rising at time to terrible bursts of temper:  "Why don't you read the papers properly and find something sensible to talk about!"

Edith furtively scanning around the recesses of her mind casts it back to happier times when they would take the train out to the country and walk into Welden Valley, after which they would take afternoon tea in the village teashop and catch the train home.  This is what they decide to do.

"Thank goodness nobody's tried to spoil it, " said Mr. Baldwin as he reached the summit a little ahead of his wife.

And then he stopped dead.  She saw his jaw drop and heard his exclamation of astonishment.

A new housing development is sprouting up, they walk down into the valley to see what is going on and a young eager salesman asks if they would like to take a tour of the sample house, they explain that they are not looking for a new house, but he says he would still like to take them around so that he can try his sales speech out on them.

He was beginning to enter into the fun.  It was a good joke to go around a house like this;  to be one of the actors in a sort of dress rehearsal.  He nearly said:  "I knew this valley before you were born, my boy,"  but checked himself for fear of putting the young man off his stride.

This event will change the rest of their lives.  Now the seed has been sown.  Wasn't that house so lovely and bright, so new, not old and dull and damp.  No damp kitchens in the basement, no cold foggy bathrooms with a window that will not close.  They are quiet and ponderous on the train journey home each in their own world.  Now comes the tug of war between the careful, thrifty insurance clerk and the new shiny house in the country.  Could they possibly afford this?  Was it even right for them at their age.

It needed younger, stronger arms than those of a man of sixty to lift the latch.  And now - a year later, when another door had revealed itself and enticed him to its entrance, a single day had proved it too narrow for the lorry load of cares that follow a man in middle age.

She only knew that never in her life, until this moment, had she felt the happiness and excitement that life was ready to give to those who did not fear its shadows and uncertainties.

It was awful how the devil of ambition could get a cautious man by the ears and turn him into a spendthrift.

Mr. and Mrs.  Baldwin go over their finances and find out with Edith's little legacy of debentures they can indeed just afford the house.  And will make a clean sweep of it with all new furniture too.

If old receipts had been attractive to collectors he could have made a fortune at Sotheby's;  there was a complete set of Water Board receipts from 1899 in perfect condition, and the stamps upon them covered three reigns.

Shame he didn't know about Art Journals, people make a small fortune on eBay with that stuff.

Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin go down to Welden Valley to check on the building of their new home.

It seemed a little squat and crouching - the window frames were at present a bright startling pink and against the pale, unfinished plastered walls they made the house look like a surprised white cow with inflamed eyelids.

Such a simple thing as choosing a name for their new house became very divisive, but so simple in the end.

"Green," said Mr. Baldwin, "green gates."
"And that's the name of the house!" said Edith.  
"Green Gates."
"No," said Mr. Baldwin, by force of habit.  And then, after a pause:  "Edith, you're right.  'Green Gates' is right
And "Greengages" it became.

Their last dinner in their old house.

The salt cellar, the pepper pot and the mustard jar stood huddled in their usual corner like three little fugitives upon a desert island.

Most long-looked-forward to events are worn out before they happen.  The best times of all sweep down upon us so unexpectedly that anticipation gets no chance to water down the pleasure of reality:  and they pass so swiftly that even reality never gets a chance to bore its ugly holes into the memories that remain.

So true.

Walking away from their old house.  Sheriff would have had a vivid image of the following as I am sure this is something he had seen during WWI, the Flemish peasant women driven from her home.

She walked in tight-lipped, stricken silence, like some old Flemish peasant woman driven from her home by war.  she clutched her bag in a way that told him that she had smuggled some secret relic away.  In better truth they were refugees in that dark moment:  refugees dragging themselves to the shelter of a strange, hard building in a strange, uncertain country ...
"Two singles - Welden Valley," he mumbled through the ticket-office widow.

It lacked nothing:  it was a perfect home - but its very perfection called upon him to achieve the impossible:  to live ravenous in the present and to blot out past and future.

An evening walk and a chance encounter with a new neighbour set the pace of his future life.  The setting up of a Country Club.  No longer will they have time on their hands.

For general purposes he divided the human race into three broad categories:

a) Men who referred to their wives as "my wife."
b) Men who referred to them as "the wife."
c) Those who called them "my old lady."

He sadly placed his new acquaintance in category (b)

A riotous crowd of thoughts began to race each other round and round his brain, missing the curves and bouncing off the inside of his skull.  For a little while he tried to control them:  to cut down their pace and to sort them into order.  He tried to begin his plans for the Welden Valley club, ...

He wondered whether he was a bigger snob than he had suspected.  The long and short of it was that van Doon was not good enough.  class counted for nothing and character everything:  old Henslip, the Messenger at the office, was in conventional terms a common man, but he was a gentleman with whom Mr. Baldwin had many an evening played dominoes in the office basement.  He would welcome Henslip as a member of the Welden Valley Club because he was modest and simple and unaffected and had a jolly sense of fun.  Mr. van Doon was far cleverer than Henslip:  far better off and better educated., but Mr. Baldwin had no desire whatever to meet him socially:  he was perky - he was bogus:  he was not genuine.

Mrs. van Doon was tall and plump, with startling blue eyes and beads to match.  She had bright pink cheeks, full red lips and was in every way the kind of lady men married when they came home from Rubber Plantations.

I expect you would need to live back then to understand that thought about the rubber plantation wife.

At a meeting to set up the club.

Mrs. McKinney hemmed Mr. Baldwin into a corner and began in a rapid, high-pitched voice to tell him everything she knew about everything.

The last chapter is set ten years later.

"Funny how long ago that seems," he said.  "As you grow older your memory seems to twist right round and point the furthest end at you.  I remember my father's old house in Colchester much clearer now than I remember 'Grasmere.' (the name of their old house)  The Grammar School's much clearer to me now than the office.  Come down and have some tea!"

And doesn't that ending almost remind you of Mr. Chips?

Such a cozy read for winter and in summer read a Fortnight in September.



  1. Oh that does sound good! I did so love Mr chips and A fortnight in September. So I will read this for sure. You did a lovely job of highlighting it. I think especailly at this time in my life it will be interesting.

    1. I think maybe one does have to be older to totally enjoy this book.

  2. That sounds interesting. I was surprised he was involved in the scripts for Mr Chips which I love. I couldn't really get into A Fortnight in September. When I have finished Pioneer Girl I will look out for it.

  3. Such a nicely written review! I did like it, but not nearly as well as Fortnight.

    1. Yes I agree with you A Fortnight in September is my favourite too.


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