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Posts Tagged ‘Malachi Whitaker’

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I hadn’t planned to read a Persephone book last weekend but when I heard the Jessie at Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Persephone readathon, I changed my plans slightly. I always love an excuse to pull one of my unread Persephones from the shelf, The Journey Home and other stories was a Christmas gift from Liz, and proved to be yet another superb story collection published by Persephone -I always know I am going to love a Persephone story collection. This new collection of stories has been put together by Persephone – the stories dating from the 20s and 30s featuring stories from the collections originally published during Malachi Whitaker’s lifetime.

I first came across the writer Malachi Whitaker in the Persephone book of short stories – a truly brilliant anthology of stories from a variety of writers. That, however was the extent of my knowledge – I had to turn to the usual places to try and find out more. Well the Persephone website has far more information on Malachi Whitaker (born Marjorie Taylor) than Wikipedia. She published four volumes of short stories and an autobiography during her lifetime but seems to have stopped writing sometime in the 1930s. Born in Bradford in 1895 she spent time working in her father’s bookbinding works, moved around Yorkshire with her husband and adopted two children.

This collection brings together twenty of her short stories, many of which are very short, so the volume itself is only about two hundred and thirty pages – and that includes the afterword. The writing however is quite superb, Whitaker crafts her stories with precision, not a word is wasted, yet the stories are fully satisfying. I got the impression of a down to earth, no-nonsense Yorkshire woman who understood perfectly the communities among whom she lived. Her canvas is the ordinary, the domestic, but she perfectly captures the ordinary – making them appear less than ordinary – even the absurd in a way that not every writer manages. Here we have a boy starting work with his father, a couple getting drunk for the first time, honeymooners, children left to their own devices, young women ‘in trouble’.

Some of the stories are sad, a little dark, many are memorable. The collection opens with The Journey Home, this short, title story is quite a little shocker, about which I really feel I can’t say anything.

“The girl in the corner seat noticed the rabbit without a white bob to its tail, because she had never seen a rabbit without that mark before. She had seized on the rabbit, or anything else that offered itself outside the window, to avoid looking at the face of the woman opposite, a face so ravaged by one passion or another that it was almost obscene.”
(The Journey Home)

In the story Brother W, Whitaker tells the story of two brothers, one of the brothers has recently died. The surviving brother William, remembers, with some regret, the brother to whom he hadn’t spoken for twenty years. The brothers had continued to share the same bed as they had as children, it never occurring to either of them to move into the spare room. Now, William pays a visit to the stone mason to arrange for a headstone for his brother.

A man who has made his money in business in the south of England, returns to Bradford in September, the time of the annual fair (the tide) in The Smoke of the Tide. Albert Shepherd loves the beauty he sees in the industrial north of his birth, which is so disparaged by his London wife. He revels in the sights, sounds and smells of his youth and the memories flood back.

funfair

A child is left alone by her mother in The Lonely One. A cold winter’s day, and her Auntie Annie is supposed to be coming over within an hour of the mother’s departure – but never arrives – presumably forgetting. The girl finds the hours hanging heavy on her – with little to fill her time, she is made more aware of the time and the silence as she eats her soup alone and pretends to make the beds. Later, she walks to a nearby farm to collect the milk. She spots a woman walking in the street and imagines briefly that it is her auntie come at last.

“But nobody came. The woman must have been a stranger, or somebody from the next village. As soon as she realised that nothing fresh was to happen, that the woman had passed, the child sat down in front of the fire and cried a little, pouting her lips and narrowing her eyes, but very few tears came. Her mother was far away and her auntie had forgotten her. Forgotten her! Yes, that was better. One real tear fell down her left cheek, and another stood in the corner of her right eye.”
(The Lonely One)

Two young brothers enjoy, perhaps one last really happy day in For a small moment. Their mother who has been sick so long – has died, but the boys have not been told. Having spent the last week with an aunt, they have been invited to the house of a family friend Mrs Taybrow. Mrs Taybrow leaves the boys with her young daughter; Miriam and her cousin Louise while she goes out to what we – but not any of the children know – is their mother’s funeral. The boys have a wonderful day, picking gooseberries, playing hide and seek and making toffee, creating quite a mess in the process – for which, oddly they are not reprimanded later. At the end of the day they are delivered home, where the boys can’t wait to tell their mother about all they have done.

There are obviously too many stories in this collection to write about individually – but the whole collection paints a picture of a time and place, resurrecting the people who lived there in the way only a woman who lived among them can.

malachi whitaker

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