England writ grotesque

Gardam, Jane; The People on Privilege Hill. Abacus, 2008, rrp $24.99. ISBN 9780701177997

The People on Privilege Hill, by Jane Gardam, Cover imageIt's said that mathematicians reach their peak in their 20s and if they haven't made their big breakthrough by 30, it's unlikely that they ever will. How much better for writers then, as many don't even start writing till after their 20s and may peak decades after that.

Jane Gardam is a case in point, an author who began writing in her 30s and since then has produced prolifically and successfully, winning many awards on the way. At 76 she published her most popular book to date, Old Filth.

Now Gardam has released a new collection of short stories, The People of Privilege Hill. The title story features Edward Feathers, the crotchety old retired lawyer of an earlier story and the central character of Old Filth, the 2008 runner-up in the world's richest short story award, the English National Short Story prize.

In the new story about Feathers he is 'far into his eighties' and more crotchety than ever as he staggers across frozen English fields with a black malacca handled umbrella to lunch with a neighbour. The guest of honour, a monk rumoured to be a Jesuit, does not turn up and as a result of several misundertandings five umbrellas are delivered to Garm Street, the Jesuit headquarters in London.

The stories in The People on Privilege Hill rub class against class, age against youth, the past against the present. Whether it is Edward Feathers trying to keep his dignity at a luncheon where the guest of honour evaporates, or a farm woman waiting for a black bishop the villagers didn't want to put up, each story inhabits an England where morality is an overarching concern. Wrong may win out, as in 'The Latter Days of Mr Jones' when a simple lonely man is destroyed by a false accusation, but this is clearly not the natural order of things in Gardam's world.

Despite some weighty themes, Gardam's sly wit and eye for the arresting detail of everyday life lift each and every story. The collection is imbued with an old-fashioned English charm made sharp by a postcolonial awareness of what damage old-fashioned England once wrought.

Gardam recently said in an interview, 'I try to write about real Englishness not export-Englishness.' In 'The Flight Path' a young man travels to London during the blitz and spends an evening in a shelter with a collection of people clinging bizarrely to their social rituals; here 'Englishness' is grotesquely exaggerated. The four elderly women returning to their old school in 'The Last Reunion' are met with the new England, so different from their schooldays and yet still so familiar.

The People on Privilege Hill is a delightful collection — warm, acute, funny. Classic Gardam. 

Paddy O'ReillyPaddy O'Reilly is author of the short story collection, The End of the World, novel The Factory, novella Deep Water and several screenplays. Paddy has been Asialink writer-in-residence in Japan, a fellow at Varuna: the Writers' House, writer-in-residence at Kelly Steps Cottage, Tasmania, and a full fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, USA.



Topic tags: Paddy O'Reilly, Jane Gardam, short story collection, People on Privilege Hill, ISBN 9780701177997



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