The People on Privilege Hill - Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam's collection contains fourteen stories that deal with memory (a mother remembering her daughter's wedding in The Hair of the Dog and former class mates reminiscing about their time at university in The Last Reunion), relationships (a lonely old lady and her love for a gorilla at the local zoo in Pangbourne and the end of a marriage in Snap) and sons leaving home to go out into the wide world (Lester on his last night at home before his first term at university in The Fledgling and Jim Smith attending an interview for medical school in The Flight Path).
My favourite stories were The Fledgling and The Flight Path. The two stories are similar in that they both deal with young men on their first trips away from home, The Fledgling is set in modern times and The Flight Path follows Jim Smith from the North East of England as he journeys to London for the first time in his life in order to attend an interview for medical school. It is winter 1941 - the Blitz. Jim's mother has arranged for him to spend the night of the interview with Nell, a cousin of hers, who lives in Wimbledon with her husband, a former dentist. Jim successfully navigates the Tube to find a train heading towards Wimbledon. I loved the description of the crowded carriage of the Tube,
"Fore and aft he was pressed into a host of silent people pointedly looking away from each other and clinging to leather nooses that hung down from the roof."
Jim's intended destination is on the flight path of the bombing raids, but when he arrives he finds tranquil, suburban streets lined with large Victorian houses. His Aunt Nell and her husband Bob live with Cissie (Nell's aged aunt) and two long-term lodgers. There is also Mac in the kitchen, who seems to be their cook or, perhaps, another lodger who pays for her board by cooking the meals. Jim is absolutely famished, when at last,
The door behind the denstist all at once banged open and a cloud of warmth flooded in with a glorious smell of cooking and a goddess filled the doorway. She bore a big blue oval cooking pot. She was tall and blonde. A figure of gold."She may be beautiful, but to an eighteen year old boy, she was old, "She might even have been thirty.". That made me laugh, as I did many times throughout the collection. Although the themes developed are not amusing: mutating relationships, loss, nostalgia, the vagaries of old age, Jane Gardam's characterisation is deft and frequently comic.
As soon as the household Jim is visiting finishes dinner the air raid sirens start. I won't tell you how it finishes.