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  • Celia Clark

Biography

Helen Simpson was born in Bristol and grew up in London.

She read English at Oxford University, where she wrote a thesis on Restoration farce, then worked for five years as a staff writer at Vogue before becoming a freelance-writer, contributing articles to newspapers and magazines and publishing two cookery books.Her first collection of short stories, Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories (1990), won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and a Somerset Maugham Award and she was chosen as one of Granta magazine's 20 'Best of Young British Novelists 2' in 1993. Further short story collections include Dear George (1995); Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), a collection of loosely linked stories about modern women and motherhood, which won the Hawthornden Prize in 2001; and Constitutional (2005).

She also wrote the libretto for the jazz opera, Good Friday, 1663, screened on Channel 4 television, and the lyrics for Kate and Mike Westbrook's jazz suite Bar Utopia. Helen Simpson lives in London and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  Her latest story collection is In-Flight Entertainment (2010). In 2012, a new selection of her short stories was published, including stories from all five previous collections, entitled A Bunch of Fives.

Critical perspective

Reading any of the collections of short stories published by Helen Simpson to date is like being swallowed up by a literary tidal wave and thrown into a sea of both bubbling, sensual urgency and witty, sometimes bitter poignancy.

Her language is rich, inventive and luxurious, she uses words you are not even sure are in the dictionary: 'wealthy frondescence'; 'marble flittermice'; 'cerubimical lass'; 'he mousled and tousled me': frisky dogs in the park are described as “curvetting and cantering, arabesques of pink tongues airing in their broadly smiling jaws”. Her stories are littered with adages and truisms ‘better late than never’; ‘while the cat’s away…;’ ‘enough is enough’, ‘there are two sides to every coin’, that often show up the inanity or insensitivity of those who utter them.

She also has a joyful ear for modern slang and shamelessly tosses before us words like 'cool' (in the sense of fashionable or admirable rather than cold), “I went completely ballistic” (in the sense of I was very annoyed); 'overkill', 'poleaxed', 'partying', 'hands-on' and 'rubbish' (used as an adjective, as in 'painted fingernails mean a rubbish mother'); ‘love handles’ (to describe the flabs of flesh that develop on the buttocks in middle age). She has an ear for colloquialisms and the patterns of everyday speech, particularly in the dialogue of the young – ‘You’re in denial…why don’t you try the juice cure’, replies the victim’s rapacious, vacuous girlfriend to the news that her older lover might be dying of lung cancer; ‘You are like so irritating’ snaps an exam-stressed teenager at her parents; ‘Oh, gross!’ whispers a young girl at the sight of a mother breastfeeding her baby. She revels ironically in the psycho-babble of the self-help guru. ‘Just do it…Organise yourself…Lighten up…’ warbles the life coach who emerges from a computer and ‘I’m a zeitgeisty sort of person and I’ve found I have this unerring instinct for homing in on what the next best thing will be’ our Carbon Coach assures us, both of them condemning themselves in clichés as untrustworthy and fly-by-night.        Simpson has an admirable way of condensing ideas into phrases that are short but breathtakingly dense in meaning and is particularly skilled in her use of simile. An over excited child is described as laughing 'hearty as a Tudor despot', another 'leaning on the bars of her cot like farmer Giles'. A visitor’s smile 'slid from her face like an omelette from a pan' when she saw a fellow guest she disliked; a nervous witness in court has eyes that are 'swivelling like whelks on a pin'; an exhausted mother lies 'like a flattened boxer in the ring trying to rise while the count is made'; a nursing mother has ‘huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert” and talking to a ninety-year-old woman ‘was like mackerel fishing, the short wait and then the flash of silver’ as the memories emerged. In her first collection of stories Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990) she skilfully transports us from modern Britain through a seventeenth century country village, via fourth century Lycia and the gelid coast of Norway, to a strange neo-medieval state of the future whose extremes smack of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. One of her main themes in this collection are the ups and downs (but mainly the downs) of marriage and relationships, recounted with tragic-comic irony in the splendid opening story, after which the collection is named, where a young wife escapes to her dreams every night to sleep with a succession of acquaintances, including her husband’s squash partner. In ‘What are Neighbours for’ we see humour worthy of Alan Bennett at his best when Mrs Brumfitt, 'deeply dissatisfied' with her husband 'for the way he refused to eat spiced foods or go out and about', is invited to a multi-ethnic tea party by her career-obsessed doctor-neighbour who is sizing the guests up as future baby sitters. Simpson lures us into one of her many guffaw-inducing moments when she describes how the narrator had spied Mr Brumfitt the day before 'perched up a ladder fixing the new plastic down-pipe while his wife yelled at him “You poxy old devil”. Or perhaps it had been “You foxy old devil”'. More mirth can be found in another central theme: childbirth. In ‘An Interesting Condition’ Simpson regales us with a wonderful cast of perplexed but comic mothers-to-be in an antenatal class, one of whom proposes to wear a mask (no, not a surgical mask, a papier maché Venetian carnival mask) to avoid the embarrassment of being seen by students and doctors during the birth! In ‘Labour’, Simpson experiments with the five act play form, the Dramatis Personae including, with hilarious results, the prospective mother, the midwives, the uterus, the cervix etc. In her second collection Dear George (1995), the themes of imminent childbirth and whether or not it is a good thing to have children are still uppermost in the author’s preoccupations. In ‘When in Rome’ we see the triumph of a girl who finds she is not pregnant, in ‘To her Unruly Boyfriend’ we see Simpson experimenting playfully with a sort of inverted modern version of Marvell’s To his coy mistress, where a young woman tries to persuade her reluctant lover to have a child with her. In ‘Last Orders’ we meet an overdue mother like 'a bulbous bottle, unreliably stoppered' ruminating on what motherhood will be like as she shuffles down to the Indian restaurant with her husband and friend 'creeping along to keep her company, one on either side, like the ceremonial escort of an ancient monarch'. In ‘Heavy Weather’, childbirth has happened twice over to Frances and she is suffering the marital stress, the exhaustion, loneliness and social exclusion of her role. The responsibilities of wife- and motherhood press on her even in fleeting moments of rest: 'like Holland she lay, aware of a heavy ocean at her seawall, it’s weight poised to race across the low country'. Simpson’s sharp eye for dialogue and social interaction come out again in the second book in marvellously comic stories like ‘Creative Writing’ and ‘Let nothing you dismay’, where few who have read it can forget the scene of the socially inept boyfriend who nervously grabs a handful of snuff-coloured, potpourri rose petals and thrusts them into his mouth, 'imagining them to be some sort of posh crisps'. Simpson’s taste for the comic ‘sting in the tail ending’ seen in the title story of the collection Dear George is reminiscent of Roald Dahl, as is the sinister quality of ‘The Gourmet’ where we meet an elderly bon vivant trying to seduce a young girl with his culinary arts, where the cheerful, ebullient sensuality of the language belies the evidently paedophilic intentions of the entertainer: 'have you ever salivated wolfishly over some delicate noisette of milk-fed lamb?' In her third collection of stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000) the author returns to the theme of having children – how it exhausts, bores and ruins relationships between friends and partners to the point in ‘Café Society’, where it is almost impossible to have any semblance of conversation if you have a child in tow. Despite the utter desperation of some of Simpson’s mothers ('she was shot to hell'), and the lack of empathy and selfishness of their partners, the author is still adept at describing those fleeting, intimate moments that make motherhood worthwhile: the heroine’s son 'climbed into bed and curled into her…gazed into her eyes and heaved a happy sigh. They lay looking at each other, breathing in each other’s sleepy scent; his eyes were guileless, unguarded and intent, and he gave a little occasional beatific smile'. Essentially, she seems to say, the rewards are numerous, and the climate (as at the end of ‘Heavy Weather’) can change at any moment from bad to good as much as from good to bad. Her outlook is, despite everything, optimistic and in the end, as she herself says, it’s only for five years. Motherhood is not the only subject to come under Simpson’s scrutiny in Hey Yeah… In ‘Wurstigkeit’ we see her love for evoking an almost fairy-tale environment as she describes the clandestine visit of two businesswomen to a secret 'cavern of temptation' - a women’s clothes shop so exclusive that you need a password to get in. If the role of mother is not to be admired, that of the career woman is no better, and even if women can now 'make it to the top', sexism still abounds. We reflect on this as the successful businesswoman Nicola Beaumont sits through the bone-crushing boredom and chauvinistic dialogue of a 'mega-Burns Night' for a group of bankers she works with. Simpson is firmly planted in her age by her use of language and her ambivalent attitude - held by many twenty-first century women - to childrearing and careers, but none of her stories are more rooted in the late 1990s than ‘Millennium Blues’. Here Simpson shows her impatience with the trite end of the world prophesies that were so common in that epoch (there will be 'a tidal wave of computer crashes…it’ll be the El Nino of I.T….half these guys I see haven’t even started to address the Y2K problem', 'we’re talking global economic meltdown') by creating her own tongue-in-cheek mayhem of biblical proportions as a an air traffic controller has a heart attack, causing an air crash in south-west London where 'fire consumes the sky and falls to earth in flaming comets and limbs and molten fragments of fuselage, where for two days and nights it will devour flesh and grass and much else besides in a terrible and unnatural firestorm'.

In her next collection of stories Constitutional (2005), her children having (presumably) grown, she focuses on the ritual carried out daily by millions of women – the school run. The drive to school is a ‘daily struggle’ but it affords the mother ‘more time alone with her young son than with anybody else, certainly far more than with her husband, thirty times more, unless you counted the hours asleep’. Sometimes the two of them talk, other times they sit in companionable silence – Simpson treasures these precious moments – is it any wonder, she seems to be saying, that children become bonded to their mothers? Having been through the rigours of life with a young baby, the author is compassionate to the over worked and over-stressed Czech child minder who struggles with a hysterical child in ‘The Year’s Midnight’.

In this collection in general however, as several critics have noticed, Simpson becomes a little darker in her subject matter. In ‘The Phlebotomist’s Love Life’ Simpson, like many writers at that time, fuelled no doubt by the conflict in Iraq, takes a stance against war as the narrator, a woman who works taking blood samples in a hospital, polls her patients to see if they are for or against the hostilities.  A number of her stories, notably ‘Every third thought’, ‘If I’m spared’ and ‘Constitutional’ deal with the subject of illness, cancer and senile dementia in particular. The usual gender conflict is still present, but seems to have been overtaken by an interest in intergenerational conflict – in ‘The Tree’ for example a busy, selfish, social-climbing middle-aged son is forced to intervene when his aged mother is tricked by tree surgeons. It is perhaps in ‘Constitutional’, the story after which the collection is named, that we see Simpson at her best: a woman in her forties, a number-conscious Biology teacher who has recently found she is pregnant and lost a friend in her nineties takes a stream of consciousness breaktime walk around Hampstead Heath. Her thoughts range from delight in her natural surroundings, her disgust for the physical decay of old age, her family, her grandfather’s senility, her perplexity at being pregnant, the loss of her friend and her horror of death.  Although little more than twenty pages long, it is rich in ideas as well as language and seems to encompass all that is important. The narrator is eager not to be late back into the classroom so she times herself as she goes: as a result, the story moves forward quickly, but this belies its complexity.

Like so many of Simpson’s stories it both merits and benefits from re-reading. Particularly moving are her tragicomic descriptions of her grandfather’s – once a man with a passion for cryptic crosswords – lapse into senile dementia. Simpson’s wonderfully evocative pen sketches of his despair ‘he kicked my terrified grandmother out of bed because, he said, his parents would be furious at finding him in bed with a stranger’, ‘muttering troubled words to himself he would take the kettle …and put it in the airing cupboard…or grab a favourite needlepoint cushion…and craftily smuggle it into the microwave…He got up to fry eggs in the middle of the night…’, ‘I want to go home’, he wept. ‘But you are home,’ howled my grandmother. ‘And who the hell are you?, he demanded, glaring at her with unfeigned dismay’. The comedy of the unorthodox behaviour is turned into something moving and tragic by the care with which Simpson chooses those exquisite words ‘smuggle’, ‘howl’, ‘glaring’.

In the collection In-Flight Entertainment (2010) the subject matter darkens further.  Environmental issues come to the forefront in the title story ‘In-flight Entertainment’ where a man dies of a heart attack on a transatlantic flight and an environmental expert shockingly reveals and that his ambition is to belong to the ‘other mile high club’ by dying in an aeroplane and ‘Squirrel’ where a young girl berates her parents for destroying the planet ‘My children will fry thanks to your mini-breaks’. In ‘The Tipping Point’  an older man loses his lover because she cannot bear his indifference to environmental issues, in ‘Geography Boy’ a young students declares ‘the end of the world is really nigh’ and in ‘Ahead of the Pack’ a Carbon Coach explains how photo albums will have to be edited because ‘In ten years’ time we’ll be casting around for scapegoats. Children will be accusing parents, and wise parents will have disappeared all visual evidence of Dad’s gap year in South America and Mum on Ayers Rock…’. The feeling of unease about the future of the world reaches a peak in the angst-inducing ‘Diary of an Interesting Year’ where we are taken forward to 2040 to a near dystopian Britain after the Collapse, or the Big Meltdown: it rains continuously, the government is on the verge of collapse, the country is in ruins, the air is dirty and people have to wear masks, rivers and streams are toxic, there are no hospitals, sewage systems have broken down, mosquitoes and rats have taken over and cholera is rife. Soon legality breaks down altogether and the narrator faces the consequences…it is a sobering story told in simple, stark prose but not without the occasional poetic highlight when the narrator notes in her diary: ‘Rare dry afternoon. Black lace clouds over yellow sky. Brown grass, frowsty grey mould, fungal frills’.

The usual Simpsonian gender conflict issues are present in ‘Up at the Villa, ‘In the driver’s seat’ and ‘Channel 17’ and we see further intergenerational conflict in ‘Up at the Villa’ and ‘Squirrel’ and, to a certain extent in ‘Homework’ where we also however observe the same kind of mother-child complicity that we saw in  Simpson’s previous collection as a mother helps her teenage son to do his homework. The more witty, playful Simpson from the earlier collections comes out again in ‘The Festival of the Immortals’ where two elderly ladies who were friends during the war meet up again at a literary festival. The descriptions of the women (Viv is for example ‘Eager, impulsive, slapdash…Rule-breaking. Artless’) are rewarding in themselves, but the festival just happens to include, not contemporary writers, but writers from the past! One of the women, whose daughter is the Festival Artistic Director describes how Virginia Woolf ‘kept the whole marquee in stitches’, Alexander Pope roared up in a sports car, Jane Austen could be ‘sarcastic in interviews’ and Shakespeare has been persuaded to be flown in by helicopter to do a masterclass in the Sonnet!

The book ends with ‘Charm for a Friend with a Lump’ a strangely personal and haunting piece where the narrator makes a promise to a friend with cancer. She is choosing plants to put in her garden and valiantly vows that she will enjoy these plants with her friend ‘In my spell we are dreaming our way forward through the year into the green and white of May, and on into the deep green lily-ponds of June…’ Against this lyrical dreamlike description however the author makes sudden declarations whose honest simplicity sums up both her deep affection and distress  - ‘you are my persona grata’ or ‘I can’t spare you. You’re indispensable!’

A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories (2012) is a collection of five of the best of the five story collections already published by Simpson. It offers an excellent sample of her work to new readers and would be a perfect gift to any short-story lover not yet familiar with her work. The collection also contains an Introduction by the Author in which Simpson ‘interviews’ herself and gives interesting insights into her work.

Amanda Thursfield, 2013

Bibliography

A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories
In-Flight Entertainment
The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea: The Art and Pleasures of Taking Tea
Constitutional
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life
Dear George
Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories
Unguarded Hours

Awards

2002
E. M. Forster Award
2001
Hawthornden Prize
1991
Somerset Maugham Award
1991
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award