When Persephone Books announced that they were reprinting another R C Sherriff this year, I was delighted. The Fortnight in September, a wonderful novel about a family’s trip to the seaside and the quietly transformational effect of a holiday away from their ordinary lives, is one of my absolute favourite Persephones, and the promise of another Sherriff along similar lines filled me with anticipation. As it turns out, I was right to be excited, as Greengates is a lovely, life-affirming book that I could hardly bear to put down. It’s just the sort of thing to curl up and read on a cold winter’s evening, and I can see it becoming a perennial favourite.
When Tom Baldwin retires from his insurance clerk job in the city, and returns to his sooty semi in Brondesbury Park, he is initially filled with joy at the prospect of no longer having to form one of the homogenous mass rushing to and from suburban stations and trudging their weary way through the streets of the city, forever bound by the ticking hands of the employer’s clock. As he sits in the train on his final journey from the office to his home, clutching the meagre retirement gift handed to him by his colleagues, he has wonderful visions of years stretching ahead, full of a new epoch of purpose and achievement. At not yet sixty, he thinks, there is still so much he could do. Not for him the pipe and slippers by the fire that the office seems to think he will be sloping off to enjoy; no slow, gradual descent into the grave with nothing to show for himself. No, indeed; Tom intends to become a historian, discovering new ways of interpreting England’s fascinating history for the masses. He and his wife Edith will go on tours of historical sites, spending their days rambling across the countryside and having enlightening conversations on all manner of subjects. When not immersed in his writings, Tom will also enjoy the healthful occupation of tending his garden, and finally get around to all of those pesky jobs in the house that he has been ignoring for years. Retirement, he is sure, will be the making of him. By the time he returns home from the office for the last time, Tom feels a changed man; a man for whom retirement holds nothing but glorious promise.
It is not long before this vision proves to be far from reality, however. Tom soon finds that his dreams of becoming a historian are nothing but a fantasy, and he becomes irritable and argumentative as he broods on his failures. Edith, her tranquil routines upset by Tom’s presence in the house all day, despairs at the prospect of spending the next twenty years with a man with whom she now seems to have nothing in common. The cosy chats they used to enjoy at the end of their respective days, sharing the news of their separate worlds, have disappeared, and with little else to tie them together, all seems lost and utterly hopeless. That is until Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside they enjoyed on weekends before the war. The fresh air and happy memories of times past invigorate them, and they are thoroughly enjoying themselves until they are shocked and appalled to find the magical valley views they were so looking forward to spoiled by the building site of a new housing estate. Indignant, they go down to take a look at the works, and find themselves convinced by an eager young sales assistant to take a look at the sparkling show home. Unexpectedly entranced by the clean, modern lines of the house and its blissfully peaceful setting, they find themselves starting to dream of a different life. But will they have the courage to take the plunge, and will this dream offer them the meaning to their later years that they have so far sought in vain?
This is a truly wonderful book that I raced through, so caught up was I in the lives of Tom and Edie. They are both very real and sympathetic characters, whose ordinariness makes them recognisable and irresistibly endearing. I loved the descriptions of life in their suburban semi; Sherriff is excellent at finding the perfect turns of phrase to capture the pleasures of quiet, comforting routines and the smells and sounds of domesticity, and the details of 1920s furniture and home decoration fashions are fascinating to read about. Sherriff is a remarkable creator of characters who are well rounded and touchingly true to life; his sensitive exploration of the disappointments and disillusionments that can crush the spirit are quietly moving, just as the moments of sheer joy and exhilaration when inspiration strikes and all seems golden send a thrill down the spine.I couldn’t bear it when I got to the end; I felt that I was being forced to say goodbye to dear old friends. Greengates is such a truly delightful story; I can’t recommend it highly enough.