In June of last year I wrote that I had just finished reading RC Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript - a novel about the moon colliding with Earth, first published in 1939 and republished in 2005 by Persephone Books. Now, Persephone have brought out Sherriff's 1936 book Greengates. No interplanetary collisions occur this time, but the retirement of central character Tom Baldwin is hardly less cataclysmic.
Tom has "worked for forty years to earn the pleasure of sitting by his fire on a week-day afternoon: he had gone to work in the dawn of winter days: through snow, and blinding rain - he had sat for hours in bitter fogbound trains - for six months at a stretch he had scarcely seen his home by the light of day." Any of us who do the daily commute, whether by unreliable train or through roadworks and traffic jams - particularly in the inclement British weather - surely don't begrudge Tom his hard-earned retirement. We may envy those who are able to retire; we may even fantasise about our own retirement, though the idea of retirement has changed considerably since the 1930s when Greengates was first published. Over the next two decades, the state pension age in the UK will move up to 68 and people can go on working for as long as they wish. Average life expectancy in England rises to 81 years this decade; in the 1930s a man would be doing well to survive into his 60s. The 'demographic time-bomb' means governments struggle to support 'unproductive' citizens and are phasing out default retirement ages; people may not be able to afford to simply sit by the fire on weekday afternoons even if they wanted to and, of course, many surprisingly sprightly older people wouldn't be satisfied with that and so take up second careers, vigorously pursue hobbies or continue their education.
For Tom and his wife Edith, retirement brings first freedom ... and then panic. Tom begins to regard his retirement "as a marooned man might think as he calculates the time his food will last" - he contemplates filling his leisure time with sticking cuttings in his scrapbook, a picture frame that needs repairing, some drawers that need clearing out, the garden, afternoon walks and books to read. "He had been given his reward for forty years of work. He had yearned a thousand times for freedom, and now that it had come he was afraid of it. It was the fear of a man who having habitually enjoyed two apples a day, is suddenly called upon to eat six in the same period."
For Tom's wife Edith, the panic is not so much about a surfeit of leisure time but the way Tom's retirement highlights a marriage that is, perhaps not as fulfilling as it should be: "They used to have lots of friends, but these had gradually left the neighbourhood and they had never troubled to replace them. They had been sufficient to each other while they only had a few hours together each day - but now? ... it was a great pity."
In delightfully well-crafted sentences and highly original imagery, Sherriff explores his themes of retirement and the need for a purpose in life. At the office, with the presentation of the inevitable retirement clock, Tom's colleagues gaze with "the sort of smiles used at weddings, turned on very carefully to half-pressure to prevent them wearing out too soon..."
|RC Sherriff - intriguing and paradoxical|
Sherriff himself is an intriguing and paradoxical character - a war hero and an insurance man, who enjoyed the glamour and excitement of being a Hollywood screenwriter but who lived with his mother for most of his life. And, at the time of writing Greengates, Sherriff was an unmarried man in his late 30s who was able to get inside the mind of an ageing married retiree.
Greengates has, as its main theme, retirement and - to borrow a phrase from Alain de Botton - the pleasures and sorrows of work. But another theme in the novel is home ownership - as a burden or an adventure. It suggests that a new home - and a new project - can provide an antidote to depression and old age. The old house and the new house are almost characters in themselves. The new-built house is "so gloriously clean and airy. Its very plainness and simplicity captured the imagination and gave one the feeling of being in a ship bound for some high-spirited adventure. One could never feel depressed or ill in such a room..." Tom and Edith are seeking to escape old age and depression and the greatest adventure imaginable to such a stay-at-home couple is to exchange their old depressing house for a new one.
Tom estimates the value of their old house at £1,000 ("say £900 at the lowest") - it's not only life expectancy that's increased since the 1930s. But despite being worth this princely sum, the old house - and its worn-out garden - have lost their appeal: "The garden was old and tired and wanted to be left alone ..." while the house was unreasonably expected "to remain fresh and young out of respect for his pretence at remaining young himself. The dining room was old and dull because the young man and the girl who had furnished it were old themselves..."
Greengates is the third Sherriff novel Persephone have republished. I wonder whether they might next consider bringing out a new edition of his 1968 autobiography No Leading Lady. From the First World War to London's West End in the 1920s and on to 1930s Hollywood, this would surely be a good read worthy of Persephone's mission to reprint neglected fiction and non-fiction.