6 October 2016

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff

My plans to see out September with a perfectly-timed title crumbled a bit when I needed emergency laser surgery on my eye.  Two weeks ago, first thing in the morning, three quick rounds of flashing appeared in the peripheral vision of my right eye.  This is never a good sign.  I had two choices:  go to the hospital, or go to work and call my optometrist's office once it opened.  The second option would be quicker, and sure enough, within a couple of hours I was assessed and had an appointment with a vitreoretinal surgeon in a neighbouring city for later the same day.  My retina was torn and needed to be fixed right away.

I'm not the sort of person who takes things for granted but I can't tell you how thankful I am for modern medicine.  It didn't take long to consider the people this has happened to who simply went blind for lack of treatment whether it be a hundred years ago, or yesterday, due to lack of available resources.  My follow-up appointment on Monday went well but I have to go once again in three months just to make sure everything is stable.  Fingers crossed!  But enough about me, on with my thoughts about the book.

The Fortnight in September is a seaside holiday sandwiched in cheery endpapers.  The first page paints a picture of the Stevens family, living in Dulwich with a Railway Embankment at the bottom of their garden.  Mary is nearly twenty (which makes her a honeymoon baby) and works at a tailor's shop, Dick is seventeen and has recently started working for a wholesale stationers off Ludgate Hill,  Ernie is ten years old.  Everyone is excited about their impending annual trip to the seaside, except for Mrs Stevens who harbours a secret fear of the water.

With hilarious military precision, the Stevens family consult a list of duties before closing up their modest home on Corunna Road for two weeks.  Things to be dealt with include stopping all tradesmen, locking up the silver, and having the neighbour pour puss a bowl of milk every other day and to leave out a bloater on Mondays and Thursdays.  Even something as mundane as packing Ernie's kite is considered, it's always packed in the large case first so as not to be crumpled.  And the beach shoes need to be pipeclayed, which is something I needed to look up on Google.

I absolutely loved the image of a family anticipating a holiday to relieve them of their daily routines and looking forward to a change of scenery, only to fix their gaze on their humble home through the window of the train as it passes the end of their garden.  And who wouldn't recognize the thoughts of Mrs Stevens....

'Her only anxiety was to see that no smoke issued from the chimneys or windows - for she dreaded the possibility of having left a dishcloth near the hot stove or a few smouldering cinders in the kitchen range.'

RC Sherriff writes an account of the Stevens' train journey so intricately the reader feels as though they're right beside them in the compartment.  The obligatory flask of tea, the wrapped sandwiches, anticipated landmarks inching nearer all mark the traditional ride and their nearness to Bognor Station.

Mrs. Huggett runs 'Seaview', a small B&B, and has watched the family grow over the twenty years she's had their custom. The house is starting to look a bit tired but the lumps in the mattress and dreary corners are overlooked because the Stevens are loyal to tradition.  Husband and wife need to place a bolster down the middle of the bed each night to stop them from rolling into one another.  The following paragraph is absolutely brilliant...

'For many years it had been Mrs. Huggett's ambition and pride to renew something every spring, and this year the old yellow patterned linoleum on the stairs had been replaced by a brightly coloured carpet that glared with cheap insolence at the old, faded banister.  Dick and Mary dared not think of the scraping and saving that must have gone to the purchase of this carpet, yet its cheap gaudy colours seemed to jeer and scoff at Mrs. Huggett, and turn the nobility of her striving into something paltry and almost comic.'

Over the next two blissful weeks everyone in the family will take some time to assess the past year and look ahead to the future.  And such are the joys of reading a novel from the 1930s that Mary is anxious about asking her parents if it's alright to venture our for a stroll with a new friend, but thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette while out with her family.  Though I felt a bit sad for Mrs, Stevens as she secretly revels in one hour of peace in the evening with a glass of port - strictly for the purpose of enriching her 'thin' blood.  The author did make me laugh as he knows something of being a young boy when I read...

'But Ernie could scarcely be counted as a human being after twelve hectic hours of ceaseless activity on the sands, and after he had drowsed away ten minutes on the sofa Mrs, Stevens took him up to bed'.

Everything about The Fortnight in September harkens back to another era and yet is so identifiable today.  Mr Stevens walks a little taller during his holiday as he's no longer just another member of the lower middle-classes, he is addressed as 'Sir' by porters and drivers.  No one is who they are the other fifty weeks of the year.  But while tradition has held strong for the past twenty years, change is inevitable.

This edition was one of the first books I bought at Persephone Books because the reviews were glowing.  Not being able to get away this summer because we chose to bring a new puppy into the house made this the perfect time to at least read about a holiday.  The Fortnight in September ticked all sorts of boxes for me and I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by RC Sherriff.

12 comments:

  1. Very scary about your eyes, and am glad it was attended to so well and so quickly.
    I love The Fortnight in September. I keep meaning to read it again each September but you know how that goes. I did write about it a while back. If you'd like to read it: http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2009/09/fortnight-in-september-by-rc-sherriff.html

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    1. I would love to read this book again next year amidst a bit less excitement, Nan. Fingers crossed! And thank you so much for your kind words.

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  2. So glad you're reading again! And what a lovely book to come back to. I've only read the three that Persephone publishes - But you might want to check out some of his films (Dambusters, Goodbye Mr Chips - and many more that I can't remember off-hand. And, of course, Journey's End.)

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    1. I've seen Dambusters and Goodbye Mr Chips but not Journey's End...something to rectify. I had no idea RC Sherriff was behind those films until looking up the author. The biggest surprise was finding out the writer was a man...he wrote one of the most domestic stories I've ever read. And why not?

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  3. Glad your eye seems to be recovering well! Just had to say how much I love love love The Fortnight in September, and suddenly I'm thinking perhaps it should go in the bag for our England trip... Hmmm.

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    1. Oh thank you, Scott. It's a perfect book to pack for a holiday, especially since you're going to be taking a few train rides. Can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to hearing about your travels once you're back. I should be a lovely shade of green by then....

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  4. It is good that you got attention to your eye fast. It would have been really bad to delay.
    The book sounds so nostalgic!

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    1. That was a day I hope never to experience again, Mystica! And this book is chock full of nostalgia and just the thing if you're looking for a cosy read. Hope all is well with you!

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  5. Oh, scary, but I'm so glad you're doing well. And I loved this book, too!

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    1. Thanks so much, Audrey. Don't you just love pulling a book off of your shelves and it goes way beyond your expectations?

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  6. Glad your eye is OK. A Persephone always helps with recovery!

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