In-flight Entertainment – Helen Simpson

I’ve discovered short stories this year & one of my favourite discoveries has been Helen Simpson. It was Susan Hill who first put me on to Helen Simpson, in the days when she was still writing her blog, & I rushed straight to The Book Depository, bought one of her collections & then, it sat on the tbr shelves for a couple of years until I read Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing where Helen Simpson was mentioned and I got the book down & started reading. I read her collection, Constitutional, earlier this year & you can read my review here. I love the way she uses the details of everyday life to draw a picture of her characters in just a few lines.

One theme of several of the stories in this collection is the environment & climate change. Sometimes it’s dealt with quite seriously as in the horrifying journal entries of Diary of an Interesting Year, imagining what the world will be like in 2040. Or in the title story, two men are sitting next to each other on an international flight. Alan is on his way to a conference in the US & their flight is delayed by anti-flying protesters at Heathrow & then by the illness of a passenger, diverting them to Goose Bay. Jeremy cheerfully describes the impact on the environment of all the flying people do & talks about the end of the world. Alan finds himself defensively justifying the holidays his family take even while he remembers his mother talking about carbon footprints & putting a “Costing the Earth” sticker on his new Merc SUV. Alan’s wife Penny is not amused,

‘Your mother,’ she’d hissed. ‘She’d like us all to go back to saving little bits of string just like her mother did in the war. That does it, I’m not having her over here being holier-than-thou about the patio heaters.’

In Ahead of the Pack, we hear a pitch for a brand new marketing idea. A Carbon Coach, who will go through the client’s house & add up their carbon footprint & help them to reduce it. A new form of weight loss really. My favourite story is The Festival of the Immortals. You can read it online here. Anyone who has ever been to a literary festival will recognize these characters. Two middle-aged women meet in a queue for the next talk at the festival, Charlotte Bronte reading from Villette,

‘Hmm, I hope they keep the actual reading element to a minimum,’ said the first. ‘Don’t you? I can read Villette any time.’ ‘Good to hear it in her own voice, though,’ suggested the other. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said the first…’I want to know what she’s like. That difficult father. Terribly short-sighted. Extremely short full stop. The life must shed some light on the work, don’t you think?’

The women, Viv & Phyllis, realise that they knew each other years before & they catch up on each other’s lives as they wait in the queue. Phyllis’s daughter, Sarah, runs the literary festival & so we hear all kinds of juicy snippets from behind the scenes. Trying to keep Robbie Burns from taking the young assistant into the broom cupboard, persuading Shakespeare to run a workshop, remembering a gruelling panel discussion on illness where Fanny Burney described her mastectomy. Familiar chat about hearing Virginia Woolf reading or Emily Bronte talking about TB & Me. It’s delicious, very funny but also perceptive about the reasons we go to literary festivals & the whole business of the writer as performer that’s become part of the job.

Scan is a moving story of a woman going for a medical procedure. She hasn’t told anyone of her illness, it’s too soon. We follow her on the journey to the clinic, through the scan when she has to lie still for 20 minutes & imagines herself making risotto to keep herself still, then, going into a gallery afterwards before she goes back to work. Looking at the pictures & objects, thinking about what she should tell her colleagues, her new lover. I also loved the relationship between mother & son in Homework as a mother helps her son with his creative writing assignment on a life-changing moment in his life, the story getting wilder & wilder.

This is a terrific collection of stories. I probably should have read one a day & savoured them but as usual I read them in a couple of nights. If you enjoy short stories, I can recommend Helen Simpson’s books.

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