In a previous post on this blog about rediscovering childhood books, I mentioned the late British writer Robert Westall. I promised I’d write something about his short story collection Rachel and the Angel and Other Stories, seeing as there is hardly anything online about it.Well, in the lead-up to Christmas (my, how 2012 flew!) it might be a good one to track down. The closing story “A Nose Against the Glass” is the classic Christmas Carol tale of a miser being redeemed by the power of Christmas.
But this is Westall, who is different. Writing in 1970s and 80s, where the Cold War permeated almost all aspects of life and social mores had changed, his miser, Widdowson, does not exist in a vacuum. He brings us right into Scrooge’s mind and shows us his humanity. Widdowson’s old age has crept up on him. “Every summer, the sun seemed to lose a little more heart; every winter, the cold moved in a little closer.” We share his wariness when a young teenage girl, Margie, wants to work in his antique shop: “He grew terrified of village gossip, of being thought a dirty old man…” And we share his weary cynicism when Margie marries a wastrel.
Widdowson’s redemption, when it comes, is sad, but how could have been any other way? Redemption for individuals and humanity is a major theme of the collection. Take the title story. Rachel, a bored and lonely vicar’s daughter, is kicking her heels in the village church on an unbearingly hot summer’s day, when an angel appears. He is a destroying force, however, wanting to bring about an apocalypse in her own humble town. One by one, Rachel thinks of good individuals in the town, but one by one, the angel shows her how they have broken the Commandments.
The only way Rachel, now stripped of her innocence, can save the town is by embracing the sins she has always been taught to loathe. Another biblical apocalypse begets a strange new world in “Peckforton Hill”. A nuclear war has annihilated humanity- all that remains are the military computers, Jehovah and Zeus, Anzac and Ivan, who are nurturing the few surviving strands of new life.
So arises a wonderfully weird creation story with a delicious twist.
A product very much of its time, the opening story, “Urn Burial” sees a shepherd discover just what kind of corpse a prehistoric cairn grave houses. Westall really likes cats.
He also suffered with his health for many years before dying at the young age of 63. Perhaps his health problems led him to write about ageing and dying in such a convincing fashion. In “The Death of Wizards”, a young rugby player saves a cranky 94-year-old man from the wheels of a lorry. To Paul’s surprise, the old man did not want to be saved. He wasn’t committing suicide, exactly, but “I thought, at last, it’s over- no more taking an hour to get dressed in the morning.” He gives the young man a gift- a gift of knowing everything.
Well, of course, that‘s just as much of a poison chalice as it sounds, and it doesn’t take Paul long before he wants to reverse the spell.
The final story I’ll touch on in this collection was one of my favourites as child and when I reread it I was surprised at its wonderfully nightmarish property. “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”, a song familiar to American readers or fans of the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, lends it name to the tale of an American family visiting England.
It’s the early 20th century, not too long after the Titanic sank by my guess. A family of American millionaires are waiting at Southampton after their ship back home develops boiler trouble. So the irrepressible father hires a car and chauffeur, with the intention of driving north to Scotland. But the English weather stops them long before they get to the border, and so they pull into Northwich. Not Norwich, but Northwich. This strange town is built on a salt mine and is forever sinking into the sea- part of it already has. The son and daughter, Sonja and Hiram, wake up in the night and go on a strange, dream-like trip underground, where the bizarrest of Victorian oddities await them.
The note Westall puts at the end, where he says he didn’t make up Northwitch or the stuff about the Russian tzar, really captured my imagination as a kid, and this story, probably along with my fascination with the Titanic, led to a real interest in that whole era, along with the Victoriana that came before. This story hasn’t lost any of its power with my own advancing age. Seek it out- it’s available to buy online and well worth it too.