Greengates is the 1936 novel by R C Sherriff who before Persephone books started re-issuing his novels was probably best known for his play Journeys End.
In his novel A Fortnight in September R C Sherriff wrote about the annual two-week holiday enjoyed by countless ordinary working families. In this novel Sherriff again turns his attention to the working man in the story of Mr Baldwin and his wife. Greengates is a novel about the realities of retirement; it is also a novel about houses and the homes they become. Yet this is also a novel about the dream that was persistent in the 1920’s/1930’s – the dream of a home of one’s own, a home of modern conveniences which would allow the occupants to live a happier, better life. The changes taking place in land use at this time is also highlighted – as we see the continuing urbanisation of parts of the English countryside.
The setting is 1925; and the novel opens on the day that Tom Baldwin retires from the insurance company where he has worked for forty-one years. On his last day at the office Mr Baldwin is allowed rather longer than usual for lunch – told not to hurry back. In the afternoon he anticipates the presentation of a clock that he has witnessed so many times before – happening to other men. He travels back home to the house called ‘Grasmere’ in Brondesbury Terrace that he shares with his wife Edith. The small cheap clock is in a box under his seat as she sits on his commuter train for the final time reading the newspaper. In the newspaper that day is an article about the ‘tragedy of retirement’ and relates the story of a man who never having adjusted to his retirement has killed himself. Tom Baldwin determines to find a purpose – to be active, to do something for which he can still gain recognition. He is, after all, still only fifty eight.
“Mr Baldwin lowered the paper. He felt better for having faced it, in an unexpected way he felt happier. There was no madness in his family: in any case, he had no garage and no beam, and he would never dare abuse the gas-oven while Ada ruled the kitchen. He had read the ultimate, most pitiful thing that could happen from retirement, and gained strength from it. He pitied Mr. Stoner – and despised him. He had killed himself though not knowing how to live: he had been picked out of eternity, given a tiny pinpoint of precious light and blotted it out with a rope over a garage beam: a sordid, pitiful crime.”
It isn’t long before Tom’s retirement takes its toll on both him and his wife Edith. They are unused to being together all day – they each have their own little ways which don’t always fit with the other’s routine. Tom begins to see his history studies and gardening as being all rather futile. Tom even incurs the wrath of Ada, the maid who has lived in their home for years, her routine changes too and she is less than pleased. The light goes out of both the Baldwins, and Tom particularly starts to age.
One autumn day Edith suggests that the two of them take a day out in the country, and enjoy once more the walk they used to take often before the war. The walk culminates in a beautiful valley – and the two look forward to seeing it again. However change has come to the valley – homes are being built within sight of the path they have walked along.
“The desolate charm of it – the wild, fragrant peace – had gone for ever: through the soft gorse field stretched broad hideous gashes of naked yellow clay, and clustering along them, like evil fungus to a fallen tree were hideous new houses – stacks of bricks – pyramids of sewage pipes – piles of white timber – mud stained lorries and sheets of hunched tarpaulin – a nightmare of perverted progress. “
Shocked at the scene before them, the Baldwins encounter a salesman for the development – and despite telling him they are not thinking of buying a new house, are taken around the show house. The wonder of the show house quickly works its magic on the couple – and they are soon persuaded of the benefits of this progress, they begin to see the possibility such a life would offer. This unexpected end to their day out changes their life forever. They trudge home to ‘Grasmere’ with the memory of the beautiful show home at the forefront of both their minds. It isn’t long before they are doing sums, indulging in what ifs – making plans.
Suddenly the Baldwins have a new zest for life. They put their house on the market – with a rather dismissive estate agent – make plans to sell all their old fashioned furniture – and buy new. Edith’s investments are cashed in to help with paying for the new house and contents – and Tom decides that it will be perfectly alright to get a small mortgage to make up the short fall. As giddy as a couple of youngsters they anticipate their new life – as they wait for their new house to be built on a plot of land they picked themselves.
When Tom and Edith first see the development of houses taking shape in the valley they loved so much they are momentarily filled with horror. Soon their dismay is replaced by excitement, they quickly become invested in the developer’s view of the future – these houses seem to be very much the housing ideal of the 1920’s. I must admit I found it really hard to visualise it as an ideal – probably because I think these days we don’t see the building of housing developments in the countryside as quite so ideal – though necessary they might be at times. This post WW1 Shangri-La though while it might herald the sprawling housing estates of the late twentieth century is a considerable improvement from ‘Grasmere’ in Brondesbury Terrace. The Baldwins are utterly bowled over by the mod-cons which the owners of these houses will enjoy, the clean, newness and comfort. The developers are selling more than beautiful houses; they are selling a dream a new way of life. The dream for the Baldwins is a new house in the country, close to a village, and still within sight of the countryside which the Baldwins had previously had to travel by bus to enjoy.
This is a wonderfully engaging novel – I loved Tom and Edith Baldwin – and I was cheering them along the whole time. I wanted them to get the new life they craved. R C Sherriff is so good at portraying the reality of ordinary everyday lives, the small disappointments and triumphs that punctuate our days. There is a timelessness to this novel in many ways, which makes it every bit as relevant today as it ever was.