In the press release that accompanied Stewkey Blues Stories the author writes:
“Short story collections usually harvest the results of a decade or so’s commissions. But this one, in which all pieces are newly-written, emerged out of the 2020 lockdown, a time when I was pretty much confined to my home county of Norfolk.”
This is not, however, a collection that mentions the pandemic. Each story is set mostly in Norfolk, exploring the ‘oddity of the place and the effect it has on the people who live there’ across different timelines. Characters are a mix of visitors, incomers, and others whose families have inhabited the terrain for generations. Some stories offer snapshots while others precis decades lived unremarkably. What pulls them together is how apparently ordinary the lives depicted are, so ordinary that under the author’s piercing lens they are shown to be extraordinary.
I enjoyed all fifteen of the stories that make up this collection. Each is finely crafted with relatable characters whose quirks are mined for interest and plot. Varied relationships are explored: friendships, love affairs, work colleagues, school contemporaries. Several brought home the awkwardness inherent in being of a certain age.
I particularly enjoyed CV which takes the reader through the life of Danny as he navigates a never quite what he was aiming for future. Brief mentions of memorable events, contemporary at the time, help to anchor what is happening at each stage. While the reader may root for the protagonist as he moves from job to job, it is easy to understand his wife’s frustrations.
The Boy at the Door brought back the unspoken miseries and loneliness of childhood on the cusp of adolescence – the emotional intelligence still to be developed. Unlike many portrayals of this age, the boy is not seeking illicit experiences but rather trying to navigate events of which he has little understanding.
In Breckland Wilds features a long time resident, Hecky Knock, who inherits and then sells the family farm, retiring to a cottage. There is some resentment from his sister due to the divvying up of proceeds but this is nothing compared to the resentment Hecky feels when property developers appear down the road. When let down badly by someone he considered a new friend, his reaction is explosive.
Couples featured are often blinkered to the other’s needs. Sunday with the Bears tells of an amusing visit to the home of three elderly and privileged men by an arts journalist and his new girlfriend. The men indulge in much name dropping and vapid cries for attention, all the while wanting things done just so. The young woman observes her boyfriend in a new light under their influence.
“he was just like every other man she had ever known, which was to say ever so slightly insecure and getting by on self-confidence rather than talent. This posed the question: just what exactly was she getting by on?”
One story offers up a reminder of the inadvisability of attending a school reunion after decades of negligible contact with anyone else involved. Another features a self-entitled rich girl who decides a day spent fruit picking could be a lark. Polite, middle class kids are taken advantage of. Families on holiday discover they do not all enjoy activities promoted as worthwhile entertainment.
I was somewhat surprised by the number of characters with links to Oxbridge given these halls are closed to the vast majority. This did not, however, detract from the fun to be poked at those who believed themselves admirably cultured, either through wealth or contacts. There were also plenty of characters with more grounded experiences, some poignant, others through choices made.
Somewhere Out There West of Thetford is set on a residential caravan park. A lorry driver offers help to an elderly woman, discovering she is mostly estranged from her daughter. The ending was unexpectedly satisfying.
New Facts Emerge takes a Norfolk based accountant into London where she must work on Christmas Eve. It is a reminder that the county, despite its atmosphere of remoteness, still feeds workers to the capital.
The wide variety of experiences explored keeps this collection fresh and of interest. The author writes with elan as he excavates the core of the human condition. The reader is left hoping that Norfolk avoids the encroaching homogeny of modern expansionism. Each story provides a highly enjoyable and still lingering read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.