The joy of short stories in these taxing times

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

From time to time, usually when things are quiet, the government brings on the dancing girls. David Cameron made Carol Vorderman the celebrity Head of Maths, Prue Leith was wheeled out to revolutionise hospital catering (again), and Mary Portas was to breathe life, excitement and renewed prosperity into our dying high streets. Nothing ever happens, of course, but perhaps Covid-19 does present a real opportunity.

In the past 20 years I have watched several small towns change radically. Shops selling things people actually needed — meat, fish, fruit and veg, bread and butter, ironmongery, postal and banking services — have closed. In their place have come coffee shops, delis, estate and holiday-home letting agents, overpriced clothing boutiques, nail bars and beauty salons, and gift emporiums — those I call £30 scented candle stores. Then there are the charity shops — nothing wrong with those, and they have become smarter with attractive professional displays, but there are too many, cheek by jowl.

Now, in the twinkling of an eye, all shops other than those selling essentials have been forced to close. The scented candle purveyors are surviving on government bailouts while dreaming of re-stocking in ‘Pomegranate, Pepper and Peat’, but they will wake to a very different world, of high unemployment, austerity, bankruptcies, and general struggle. Money will be spent on necessities, not dinners for two at £50 a head or, indeed, scented candles.

Which brings us to empty shops, and one question — why do these buildings have to be shops at all? I am not the first to point out that the rooms over retail and other business premises are generally unused except perhaps for storage. They should be lived in. In my nearby town, most were once houses anyway and could readily become so again. The proliferation of pointless shops selling stuff nobody needs will not be necessary for the foreseeable future, but there is never enough housing. My area, like many, has too many holiday and second homes which have priced local buyers, particularly the young, out of the market, and although people may still take holidays, they will not afford the exorbitant rentals greedy landlords are charging — several thousand pounds a week in high season being nothing unusual. This government has learned that emergency rules can be introduced overnight, so let them bring in a few to cover the change of business rates and the relaxing of planning laws relating to change of use from retail to residential. High streets have been dying for years. When the plague is over, many will be dead unless major changes are permitted without the usual months of committee debate.

But whatever happens to the £30 scented candle shops, those selling essentials have thrived in the lockdown, simply because they have risen to the challenge with enterprise and a can-do attitude. Supermarkets have struggled to cope with shortages, panic–buyers and letting customers in a few at a time while queues double back round the car park, and their delivery slots are snapped up faster than GP appointments. Enter the small shop. One favourite is 20 minutes away but we often visit for particular groceries and the excellent coffee it serves. It is offering local delivery, for which we scarcely qualify, but Andy, the young owner, passes our lane going to and from home and will drop anything off.

Another, by our favourite (out of bounds) beach, has fresh sourdough bread, cakes, cinnamon buns, pies, sausage rolls, plus cheeses, wine, and general groceries, takeaway coffee and ice creams, and is delivering to the many elderly villagers un-able to leave home. Locals cleared them out of Easter eggs and chocolate so fast that they had to re-stock — a thing that has never happened before. An upside to coronavirus? Well, it’s an ill wind.

The Duchess of Cornwall has said that what she misses most in her Scottish self-isolation is hugging her grandchildren. I second that, though I am horribly envious that she has five to my one. But although it isn’t as good as hugging, I have a Zoom meeting every day at eleven o’clock with my seven-year-old granddaughter. We are reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe together, turn and turn about, and at the end of each session, we talk about the book and other matters. It is a shared activity I warmly recommend, a precious bright spot in the day. The rest of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books are probably rather harder and deeper for her yet, so next we’re having The Borrowers. Re-acquainting myself with the children’s books I last read to Lila’s mother is an added bonus.

It sometimes is strangely hard to concentrate just now, because anxiety unbalances the mind’s focus, and that’s when I turn to short stories, one of my favourite forms to read and to write. If you have not been a fan do try again, because in addition to the older generations, many of the young writers are producing wonderful collections. Americans have excelled at the form for years — think of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro, who writes nothing else. Pick any author, any volume, open at random and dip in. That’s part of the joy. Chekhov was the master, to whom we all pay homage. Others? Just as they come to mind, M.R. James, Henry James, Lorrie Moore, James Lasdun, Fay Weldon, and our own Lionel Shriver. Find one story that grabs you, and the rest will follow. But a tip if you are an aspiring writer — short stories are far harder to write, and to get right, than the longest novel.

The Queen’s first message of hope in these troubling times was inspiring, but her Easter message — voice only — was a thing of beauty, perfectly pitched. Light in our darkness was the essential message, candles being a symbol of that, and of shared faith, hope and celebration. I have listened to it thrice now and it yields more each time. I tell you one thing — she is our rock and we are indescribably lucky to have her still.

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