Greengates by R.C. Sheriff

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Reviewed by Anna Barber

There’s often a moment in the middle of reading a reprint when you wonder how a story like this could ever have been forgotten. Perhaps the novel wasn’t recognised as being a success in the author’s lifetime but found a following many years later (the recently appointed cult classic Stoner being a particularly dramatic example), or perhaps it achieved moderate success only to slip between the cracks of the ensuing decades. Either way it’s a strange, sad sensation, pausing to think about all of the wonderful stories which have been allowed to melt into obscurity. Thank heavens for Persephone, then, bringing so many of them back to life.

RC Sherriff is a fine example of a writer whose work deserves a renaissance. He is best known as the playwright who created Journey’s End, but he was also a novelist and successful screenwriter (penning the scripts for The Dam Busters and Goodbye, Mr Chips, amongst others). I read A Fortnight in September a couple of years ago, and was completely enchanted by it. Greengates has a similarly quiet, gentle wisdom; a sense of the old world giving way to the new; and captivating emotional integrity.

On the face of it, the plot is easily summarised. An insurance clerk called Mr Baldwin retires from his job in the City, and finds himself suddenly spending his days at home with his wife, Edie. Mr Baldwin is determined not to slip into the kind of grey half-life he assumes is inhabited by other retirees, and sets about finding an occupation as an amateur historian. The uneventful days drift by, however; success in his garden and new writing endeavour is not forthcoming; and lumbago strikes. He slips into a bleak depression, and his relationship with Edie – previously sustained by shared stories at the end of the working day, and the fact that they spent very little time together – deteriorates. In a last, desperate effort to rekindle their marriage and find some sort of peace, they decide to move to the country.

It sounds like a simple enough premise, yet Sherriff turns it into something brimming with humanity. He charts Mr Baldwin’s decline into depression with a clear-eyed, unsentimental empathy; you can feel his life-force ebbing away, as the chloroforming of time leads him ever deeper into loneliness.

He was not reading: he was sitting huddled in his chair, his book sprawled on the floor beside him, his face buried in his hands. Her first thought was of sudden illness, but when he turned towards her she could see far more than physical pain – there was a misery that she had never seen in his face before – a despairing appeal that broke all the barriers that weeks of petty squabbling had had built between them.

The early chapters are shrouded in this delicate, profound melancholy, and you sense that a very real threat of tragedy hangs in the balance: this isn’t just a grim retirement, it is life itself fighting for survival.

It is only when Edie has the inspired idea to take her husband to Welden Valley, a place they had often walked to before the war, that the first rays of hope appear. At the end of an invigorating three mile hike, they find that the little village they used to know so well has been overrun by developers. Their first feeling, unsurprisingly, is one of horror – the valley is being turned into a building site as progress bulldozes their beloved vista – but when the couple find themselves in an impromptu tour of one of the new show homes, looking at sparking new taps, modern furniture and an untouched garden, shock gives way to ambition. There is a lot to be said for a well-appointed bathroom, after all.

The Baldwins are essentially archetypes of their generation: they have lived through the First World War; spent their lives in decaying suburbia; and stuck to the mores of their time and class. Yet it is precisely their readiness to find something good in this modern building site which sets them apart from their neighbours, and makes change possible. Whilst this is by no means a whole-hearted endorsement of urban sprawl (as some of the narrator’s wryer comments make clear), Sherriff honours the courage it takes to slough off unhappiness and step into the unknown – even if the new frontier is only a short train journey away.

John Williams’ Stoner has a similar quality. Both writers, in their very different ways, seized upon the heroism in the everyday, the sheer courage it can take to grapple with disappointment. Williams’ is, in the end, a far bleaker tale of missed chances and bad luck; Sheriff instead chooses to offer his protagonist hope. One of the things that makes this novel so interesting, though, is that there is nothing of the chocolate-box about it; completely true to life, Mr Baldwin does not suddenly lose his inhibitions and find the path to happiness laid out before him. For most of the novel, it is by no means certain that he will succeed in finding a better life, and his faults – the trace of snobbery; the self-doubt; and the impatience with Edie – remain intact. Ultimately that’s what makes him such an exceptional character. He is entirely ordinary, but for the fact that he and his wife continue to strive for something fine. Never has a longing for an elm tree in the garden seemed more worthwhile.

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Anna Barber blogs at My Art is Living

RC Sherriff, Greengates (Persephone Books, 2015). 978-1910263037, 319pp., paperback.

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