6 July 2018

Tell It to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge

One of the display units at the library is all mine for the month of July and I've chosen to work with 'Shorts for Summer' as a theme.  Short stories can be a hard sell but I do my best to convince customers they can be swept away by just a few pages of clever writing.  I checked on my display a couple of days ago and was thrilled to see lots of gaps where books had been the day before. 

I've dipped in and out of Tell It to a Stranger several times over the past few years, revisiting a few of my favourite stories several times.  Last week I read this collection (Persephone Books) from cover to cover and feel it's a shame that Elizabeth Berridge's writing isn't more widely known.  It's time to do my bit to change that!  The stories in Tell It to a Stranger are every bit as good as Rosamond Lehmann's The Gipsy's Baby, published the year before in 1946.  The difference in popularity may be down to Berridge's shying away from publicity whereas Lehmann's personal life and activism created plenty.  I digress.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and whether it's intentional or not, the middle story has left the greatest impression for being so chilling.  Lullaby begins with the wife of an RAF pilot dealing with the pull of her responsibilities at home and being available to her husband while he's on leave.  The draw of an evening out, just the two of them, would be so much fun - but there's the baby to consider.  The opportunity to record her voice on a wax disc gives the couple an idea...record the soothing words used to put their son to sleep and then slip away to enjoy a drink out.  Then the couple push their time limit.  It's impossible to read this story without feeling the creeping niggle of dread.  It still happened to me despite this being my third reading.

Another favourite is Chance Callers, set in the English countryside.  Frank struggles to find his way back to the man he was before the war and the devastating result of being a POW in Siam.  His wife, Beryl craves home ownership but money and opportunities are limited.  When Frank asks her about returning to the town where they previously lived, Beryl relects...

'She could not explain to him the real reason why to go back to the town where they had lived so briefly together would be dreadful to her, a sort of death.  She did not quite know herself.  The peeling, exhortatory posters, the queues, the prefabricated houses planted like sugar boxes amongst the cleared debris had something to do with it - but not all.  In an effort to pin down a fraction of this feeling, she said, her face like a stone, 'I couldn't bear to live in our old street again.  I'd be remembering the Verneys under all those bricks.'

Captain Banks lives on the outskirts of the village in a country manor with a parcel of land.  His invalid brother is under his care, bedridden with what they think to be infantile paralysis.  Desperation and the sentiment of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Frank and Beryl call on Captain Banks to inquire about the possibility of purchasing just enough land to build a small house on.  After a short conversation that leaves Beryl and Frank feeling under the thumb of yet another establishment larger than themselves, they leave with their dignity intact but deflated.  Captain Banks climbs the stairs to his brother's room and finds him lying in an odd position.  He quickly realizes that his brother has died while he's been engaged in pointless conversation with strangers.  Contemplating his family's history, his own past and what lies ahead, the Captain contemplates the point of going on.  This is domestic fiction written with a pen in one hand and a hammer in the other.

My top pick from this collection is The Prisoner.  Miss Everton, nearing fifty years old, sees lorries approach her cottage....

   'It was a frosty morning when the German prisoners first came to dig drainage ditches in the fields that lay beyond Miss Everton's garden walls.  She was out with her dog in the chill air by the beech trees when two large lorries roared up past her across the grass and she had a glimpse of alien faces, of packed cardboard figures, cold and raw-looking.'

A man looking too young to be in charge of prisoners approaches and asks if there's a water tap they could have access to.  Restlessly, Miss Everton goes about her day while listening for the click of the garden gate as the men come and go.  Having the Germans in close proximity reminds her of  time spent with her brother and his studies in Bonn, when Germany brought more pleasant thoughts to mind..

Eventually, a young prisoner named Erich, asks Miss Everton if she would like to trade some of her coffee ration for their tea.  It's the beginning of a friendship, the inevitable that so often follows when two people from different backgrounds come together through kindness and caring.  This is the type of short story you wish could go on for another hundred pages.

I've shared three snippets from this poignant collection of stories from the 1940s, hopefully enough to tempt more readers towards Elizabeth Berridge's work.  Tell It to a Stranger is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II fiction, as well as fans of Mollie Panter-Downes' Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Contemplation by Francis Edwin Hodge 


  1. I remember loving this collection! I really should read it again. I think I've been impressed by every Persephone short story collection so far, they've all been excellent.

    1. It is wonderful, isn't it! If memory serves me correctly, Persephone Books will be putting out another edition of short stories....by various authors, I wonder? Anyway, definitely one to look forward to.

  2. I've just re-read The Prov Lady in Wartime and I want to read more women's writing set in WW2 so this sounds timely, thanks for the recommendation.

    1. I have that PL book but haven't read it yet. My books have been boxed up because we're having new flooring put down....a summer we'll never forget! Thanks for the push to read it, and I hope you will add Tell It to a Stranger to your list of WWII reading, Nicola.

  3. This sounds a lovely collection. I've read just one Delafield and could never find another!