Gentleman’s Relish (2009)
Patrick’s second collection of short stories appears thirteen years after his first, Dangerous Pleasures and, like that volume, shows how the shorter form seems to draw out a darker side to his imagination. The benevolent, forgiving narrative voice familiar from his novels is still there occasionally, but so too is another voice, darkly mischievous, even malevolent.
Typical of the first would be the opening story, The Lesson (memorably read by Lindsay Duncan when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 – see below for MP3), in which a prison governor’s wife receives discreet lessons in sea angling and self-determination from a prisoner ordered to build her bookshelves. Hushed Casket, in which two gay “church crawlers” on their honeymoon introduce something extremely nasty into their relationship when they give houseroom to a temptingly elegant Georgian tea caddy which isn’t rightfully theirs typifies the second. As do The Dark Cutter and Obedience, two sinister glimpses of life on a Cornish farm which are anything but idyllic and where the reader is left comfortless.
Here are stories commissioned by Radio 4 for the anniversaries of the publication of Alice in Wonderland or the founding of the Caravan Club, but also stories written specifically for readers in Asia or in Cornwall. There’s a neat example, too, of a practice Patrick has demonstrated in the past, of revisiting a character about whom he feels an abiding curiosity. In The Camp will delight readers of his novel, The Whole Day Through with a Lord of the Flies-style glimpse into its heroine’s bizarre naturist childhood.
There are ghost stories here too – a tale of a lady novelist whose loneliness at a Balinese book festival is lessened by the wan presence of a poet nobody else seems to see and a portrayal of a harried widower finding ghostly communion with a parish spinster at a succession of Cornish concerts – and an altogether less benign one in a which a small boy increasingly unnerves his babysitter by insisting a sinister creature, half-woman, half-moth, is preying on him in his moonlit room…
Patrick is passionate about the short story form, possibly because it was his first love, both as reader and writer. “As a boy, my favourite books were all of short stories,” he says. “An odd assortment of the Puffin Book of Princesses, my parents’ editions of Wilde and Saki and some other books I used to buy rather guiltily with my pocket money and hide from their disapproving gaze: the horrifically jacketed but, in literary terms, surprisingly distinguished compilations of ghost and horror stories produced in the Sixties and Seventies by Pan.” He despairs of the few outlets given short story writers in England, compared to America, and the corresponding reluctance of publishers and readers to commit to them. “They do require a slightly different approach from the reader. Perhaps you can’t lose yourself in a story collection the way you can in a novel or read it with quite the same rapacity – which frustrates readers whose principal aim in reading is escapism – but they’re enormously stimulating and if one story doesn’t work for you, you can skip without guilt to the next. They’re the perfect bedside book, too. When I stumble on an especially good collection, I ration myself to just one story a night.”
Has his taste in stories changed much since boyhood? “I can’t take horror fiction any more – I think that’s easier to enjoy when you’re young and have less knowledge of pain and fragility but I still regularly re-read Saki’s best ones and I still love ghost stories. But as an adult I think I’ve come to realise how well suited the story is to analysis – the swift, devastating dissection of a marriage or a relationship or simply a misdirected life. Alice Munro is marvellous at this, as are William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Mavis Gallant. But I think if I had to pick a single story it would, indeed, be one of those boyhood favourites – probably one of Saki’s wickedly suggestive tales of encounters with something not quite civilised, like his story of the handsome young werewolf, Gabriel Earnest, or the tormented, lonely little boy in Sredni Vashta who founds a bloodthirsty religion on his pet polecat-ferret…”
Now you can listen to the BBC recording of Patrick reading a shorter-than-published version of July 4th, 1862, the story commissioned by Radio 4 to mark the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland…
And here, again by way of a taster, is the BBC recording of the wonderful Lindsay Duncan performing Patrick’s story of a lonely prison governor’s wife, The Lesson.
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Read an extract
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Reviews of Gentleman’s Relish
There’s something very comforting about this collection, despite the huge carving knife that gleams from the front cover. Perhaps it’s the title. Gentleman’s Relish is an acquired taste but one I associate with this time of year, with high tea in hotels, sheltering from the nasty weather. The jacket blurbs dish up an excess of culinary puns, involving words like “spiced”,“tenderness”,“sharp” and, with less subtlety, “succulent titbits”. Yes, one of the most satisfying stories in the collection is Cookery, but it can be best described as a homily to domestic vengeance, as the hero extracts a sedate and then savage price for his father’s life-long homophobia. “Cookery is power,” his mother teaches him. By the time Perry turns ten “his creation of a puffball and bacon roulade has seduced a new neighbour and demoralized the neighbour’s wife”. Perry’s father doesn’t approve of his son as an apron-wearing domestic god, however, and packs the poor boy off to a boarding school “handpicked for its sporty philosophy and lack of opportunities for any science more domestic than the use of Ralgex and Universal Embrocation.” Perry survives this indignity and the remainder of the story is told with the perfectly-pitched voice of the semi-repressed, bitter young survivor he’s become. We don’t guess how bitter until the end of the story. Gale establishes a dark strand of humour early on and maintains it throughout, never once hitting a wrong note. Perhaps this is where the comfort comes from: these are new stories told in an old-fashioned manner, easy to read but painstakingly alert to human strengths and weaknesses. Several of the stories deal with subjects that Gale knows inside out. The Lesson is about what it’s like to be living close to a prison without being an inmate. Jane, the wife of a prison governor, strikes up a friendship with a prisoner who teaches her how to fish. The story is woven through with loneliness, with optimism and its opposite. There’s a hint that the inmate pays a price for his friendship with Jane; “an act of violence” results in his privileges being taken away overnight. We never find out what happened, or why. More than once in this collection we sense a hidden story unravelling somewhere off-page, just out of sight. This sensation isn’t always frustrating, but in The Lesson I did yearn to know more. Gale draws again on his personal experiences in Petals on a Pool, which tells of two writers bonding at a convention in Hong Kong, both suffering the same humiliating lack of interest from the invited audience. The ending is unclear. Did the heroine Edith imagine what she saw floating among the petals in the pool, or did her new friend meet with a terrible fate? I was unsure of the effect Gale was trying to create. I felt no such uncertainty at the ambiguous ending to Obedience, where a hint of suspicion falls on the hen-pecked hero for the murder of an unpopular village resident. I didn’t believe for a minute that he was the murderer, but it was interesting to see how the idea of suspicion altered his wife’s attitude towards him: “from something in her voice he sensed the distinct possibility of sex.” You don’t need to know whodunit, in other words, in order to enjoy this story. There are some fine horror stories in this collection, told with genuine wit and relish. Making Hay tells how an elderly woman takes her revenge for the dumping of her grandchildren at the home where she’s living. She tells the two very modern kids a tale of family folklore that unfolds into a gory story that has them (and us) gripped. “The trick,” she confided in Prue as Nurse wheeled in the tea things and wheeled out Miss Tregenza, “is to spike the narrative with just a seasoning of solid, agricultural fact.” Like Perry in Cookery, the grandmother in Making Hay is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the “trick” Gale refers to is one he’s mastered wonderfully. Each of his horror stories has just enough solidity to draw us in before he deals the deadly blow. Hush’d Casket is a small masterpiece, comic and compelling, with a light touch that makes it great fun to read. Chris and Hugo are on honeymoon when Chris discovers an old tea casket in an abandoned church. Forcing its lock, he releases a macabre spirit that transforms Hugo into an irresistible sex magnet. There’s a beautifully played moment midway through the story when the reader guesses what will happen if Chris succeeds in passing the cursed casket to a new owner. Chris, bless him, remains oblivious. Sleep Tight is the most unsettling of the horror stories here. A small boy fears the Moth Lady will take him in the night. His taciturn uncle dismisses the child’s fears, but the story swiftly moves from domestic unease to full-blown nightmare. Not every story has a horror component, but each dissects the impact of people trying to come together or break apart. Freedom is a lovely history of a family caravan that’s helped generations of the same family escape from the limits of their lives. The Excursion deals with the tyranny of prejudice and small-mindedness (you could call this a horror story, because of that subject matter). There are stories about music festivals and strange dreams, and a quirky bonus story in the shape of Fourth of July, 1862, written to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. This is a solid collection that shows, above all else, that there’s merit in the traditional form of story-telling: lure your reader with the familiar, and thereafter you can deal what (strange, perverse or poignant) cards you like.
TheShortReview.com – Sarah Hilary
This collection of stories from the author of Notes from an Exhibition mixes the mundane and the paranormal. Demonic possession, bloody murder and hauntings share space with disappointing holidays, church tourism and the politics of seat-saving at classical music concerts. Almost all the tales are set in the West Country, and have an old-fashioned atmosphere – an English netherworld of comic reticence and baffled discomfort at (for example) the thought of gayness. Gale relies on a set-em-up, knock-em-down formula, typically ending with an ironic punchline – although this makes the weaker stories feel like thin jokes. After discovering she’s spent her stay in an Indonesian resort befriending a poetic ghost, a shy author “grew in the certainty that exotic travel did not suit her”. Neglected by her boyfriend in favour of a dream-diary she encouraged him to begin, a woman makes eyes at “an eminently sensible” new man: “Brian, she felt sure, was not a dreamer”. Stories such as The Dark Cutter, about a cattle accident, are heavier and more intriguing.
The Guardian – Ben Jeffery
Pascal pinpointed the art of short-story writing when he said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. No one demonstrates this better than Gale, whose thoroughly English stories about dog shows, church concerts, nervous spinsters, fly fishing and murder are deceptively low-key. I didn’t know what to expect – I’ve never read him before – but with one story to go I still couldn’t quite pin him down. A little too middle class, possibly, for men who don’t eat quiche (one character, appalled that her partner never dreams, suggests Cornish hen lobsters as an alternative to cheese for dinner), but never dull.
The Guardian – Sue Arnold
Once again, I have discovered a new author, and once again, the genre of short stories (a bit of a necessity for me in these insomniac days) is what I am reading. I found this book in an independent bookshop in Marlborough. The cover intrigued me, and I was hoping for a short story collection. The author is English, and so captured the domesticity of daily life that is so often what pulls you into a short story, so that you can be captured by the twist. And the twists! Roald Dahl, with his Tales of the Unexpected, taught me to love short stories with a sting in the tale. But, so often, the twist is the focal point of the story. Not so with Gale – here the twist, although sometimes surprising or even shocking, does not dominate but adds a certain piquancy to proceedings – rather like the eponymous relish. One tale is set in a prison environment, and conjures up wonderfully the harshness of life in Portland for those who worked in the gaol there. One tale has a curious magical element, hearkening back to the pagan heritage of these lands, but without becoming ridiculous or marvelous. One has a marvelous vengeance wrought by a waspish son. These were great companions for me on the train, and in my room. I have already started reading another work by Gale; watch this space!
The Banbury Man
Gentleman’s Relish, the title of this collection of stories, suggesting a sort of sly-ish, uppity-ish, silly-ish thing that exists nowhere except in England – hoo-hoos with a very particular Englishness. And isn’t there an embedded mild-ish dirty joke as well? Patrick Gale’s Englishness is the sort of Englishness we once thoughtlessly expected: the humour of To The Manor Born, the eccentricities of Henry Green, the bucolic observations of H E Bates – all those slight but crucial aspects of English behaviour that, in the contemporary multicultural mix, now exist only in strange little pockets down a winding path at the end of the wood, framed by the tallest hollyhocks. Gale, who has a solid fan base for his consistently good novels, is exquisitely alert to the details of human behaviour. Perhaps not so much in the renowned – and irritatingly lauded – English eccentricity but in those glimmering aspects that make us most ourselves. He is at his best drilling into those who live the most ordinary lives. The opening story, The Lesson, concerns Jane, the isolated wife of a prison governor. Jane, who is first seen hanging out the washing, does nothing except tend to a series of houses and gardens as her husband moves from prison to prison. Her children are away at school and her life is aimless until she has one of “the men” as her husband calls them, to do some joinery in her house: “An older man. Handsome. Respectable-looking.” A few moments later Jane notices that his eyes are “the colour of the English sea, his dark hair silvered at his temples.” Nothing much happens in this absorbing tale. The man does his work well and Jane finds more and more for him to do, persuading the overseeing officer to leave them alone. He notices her absent son’s fishing rod and speaks winningly to her about, of all things, fishing. Then he is summarily withdrawn and she is alone again. It’s a quiet, oblique tale of loneliness and yearning, of dangerous possibilities. Hushed Casket is less oblique about the power of sex. Two men – new lovers and “on their honeymoon” driving through the English countryside to find architecturally interesting churches – come across a locked casket in a derelict church. The only point of interest is an ancient, anonymous tomb. The sculpture, unrelieved by any pomp at the head or feet, or any comfort of spouse or pets, shows a single figure. The lovers note that where the genitals should have been there is a cavity and assume that they had been removed in more decorous times. The casket, which they believe is an old tea caddy, is too interesting and valuable to leave so they scrawl their number on a note and pin it to the door. Later they open the casket and the result is a classic but updated tale of sex and haunting. Or haunting sex. Gentleman’s Relish is a deceptively mild tale about a decent man and the deep love he has for his son. An incident at school pains and surprises him, and his immediate desire is to talk with his teenage son. Over breakfast he tries but it turns out his son is just as reticient and just as decent as he is. It’s a sort of antidote to endless emotional expression and it defines Gale’s writing. Despite all the ersatz Englishness of the Midsomers, the televised Agatha Christies and the redefining laddishness of the new England, something of that reticent and staunch old world remains. At its core is a well-tempered acceptance of the way we are. These sixteen intelligent, generous and closely observed stories – many of which were written for specific events or places – testify to that with unusual grace.
Sydney Morning Herald – Helen Elliott
The short story as a form has been enjoying a considerable renaissance and Patrick Gale offers sixteen new stories in Gentleman’s Relish. Dark, witty and often obliquely moving, these are tales of difficult fathers and gay sons, of lonely wives and random or deliberate acts of violence. Among the best is Cookery, in which a closeted son takes hilarious revenge on his homophobic but stroke-muted father, leaving him to the care of “the sort of camp, Irish nurse his father would loathe. Said treasure wore a uniform he described as Doris Blue. He was delighted when Perry confided that his father had been sleeping with men on the sly all his married life and was a wicked old flirt with wandering hands.” Gale is interested in power and the lack of it and his stories pull the reader in unexpected ways, offering worlds that are far from certain and where love or its absence can never be predicted.
The Times – Carol Ann Duffy
Patrick Gale’s interests soon become plain in Gentleman’s Relish, his new collection of sixteen short stories. The first tale, The Lesson, shows his detailed knowledge of the staff side of prisons in its sympathetic depiction of the loneliness of a prison governor’s wife. Gale’s father was a prison governor. The next story, Cookery, about the cruel revenge of a gay man on his father who wanted him to play rugby like his brothers, is not the only one of these stories to include a recipe for a dish to delight any gourmet. Gale is clearly a practised and happy cook. After his success as a novelist, he has attended literary festivals, as amusingly depicted in Petals on a Pool, and he knows about agriculture, as shown in The Dark Cutter, about raising cattle, in Making Hay and in the brutal tale, Obedience. The clues to his experience continue – music, caravanning, the travails of old age, gay life and gay dilemmas. He could also be said to have the skills of a court poet, turning out a suitable story to grace a public event. Thus Fourth of July 1862, about Alice dreaming on a river bank while her older sister tries vainly to capture the affections of a mathematician who rows past in his boat, was written to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. Both Cookery and The Excursion were commissioned for gay anthologies, and two slight but effective stories for the St Endellion Music Festival. Sometimes his facility verges on the trite, and the reader starts to wonder, for example, why it is necessary to catalogue so faithfully old and new methods of wrapping bales of hay. The writing is redeemed, however, by Gale’s vivid, believable characters and by the way he suddenly twists a sunny tale into the macabre, to end on an uneasy note. Eileen, in The Excursion, is a woman who does not want to offend anyone, either the couple who befriend her, or the nice, gay priest at her church whom they detest. The grandmother in Making Hay is a memorable horror, telling her grandchildren, who are visiting her in a residential home, gruesome lies about the origins of their father. Along with the sensitivity – Gale is good on the way men worry about relationships with partners and children – there is an uncomfortable streak of sadism in some of the stories, most evident in Cookery, where there son’s treatment of his father spirals into a vicious fantasy. Gale has a light touch with social commentary but the undertones are often menacing.
Times Literary Supplement – Sarah Curtis
Gale writes with such humanity and warmth in his novels that it comes as a surprise that his short stories are told in a different, darker voice. A man wreaks nasty vengeance on his father when he’s too old and incapacitated to retaliate; two gay ‘church crawlers’ on their honeymoon unleash something deeply unpleasant when they take an apparently abandoned Georgian tea caddy back home with them from a church; a viciously homophobic couple try to enrol a mild-mannered spinster in their hate campaign. There are ghost stories here, not always benign, distinctly bleak Cornish farm stories and an unwholesome atmosphere at a naturist camp. Although, as always, Gale’s writing is sharply evocative, the tendency is for the stories simply to tail off in a disappointing way that delivers neither surprise nor insight.
Daily Mail – Carla McKay
The short story has long been close to Gale’s heart and this new collection bears all the hallmarks of his acclaimed novels. From the joys and sorrows of family relationships to the thorny politics of village life, these stories are all written with Gale’s customary wit, perception and humanity.
Patrick Gale is a writer highly regarded for a series of touchingly compassionate novels about complicated human relationships. He has described his most recent book, The Whole Day Through, published earlier this year, as “a bittersweet love story in the Brief Encounter mode”. Gale’s characters are usually middle class, often creative and more often than not seriously engaged with the Christian faith. However, lest this should make his books appear either dull or moralistic, it should be pointed out that Gale has a distinctive sense of humour and it is not unusual for something sinister to be lurking beneath the apparently unruffled and genteel surface of his narrative. Gale’s short stories are a different matter altogether. Gentlemen’s Relish is Patrick Gale’s second collection of short stories; Dangerous Pleasures, his first, appeared in 1996. This new book comprises sixteen tales, several of which “have made earlier appearances, often in slightly different forms in such diverse places as BBC Radio 4, Asia Literary Review and Endellion Notes, the organ of the St Endellion Music Festivals” in Cornwall where Gale lives. Well over half the stories in Gentlemen’s Relish adroitly utilise carefully-observed detail as the background to events that cause the reader to give a delicious shudder of horror at story’s end. Cookery tells of a put-upon youth who grows into a brilliant cook and uses his culinary expertise to exact revenge, notably on a loathed father. Sleep Tight is about a babysitter whose charge disappears. Petals On A Pool concerns an elderly female novelist (none too successful) who experiences disturbing visitations while at a literary festival in Bali and In The Camp tells of unspoken trespasses at a nudist holiday retreat. Hushed Casket could have been penned by that master of the ghost and horror story, MR James while The Excursion chillingly reflects the more lurid newspaper headlines. But there are also more gentle tales: The Lesson, Fourth Of July, 1862 “written to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland “ and Saving Space. Gentlemen’s Relish is a hugely enjoyable collection which proves that the short story is still very much alive.
Daily Express – Peter Burton
This is Gale’s sixteenth book of fiction, and second collection of stories, following 1996’s Dangerous Pleasures. For his longstanding fan base, as well as recent converts through the Richard and Judy-featured novel Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and this year’s The Whole Day Through, it provides further evidence of Gale’s stylistic deftness, insight and wonderfully eclectic range of interests. The opening tale, The Lesson, plants us in familiar territory – its gardening housewife protagonist living both in Cornwall (as Gale now does) and as spouse of a prison governor (Gale grew up in Winchester, where his father was governor, which informed 2005’s Friendly Fire). As ever, though, Gale finds a new slant. In this case, discontent begins with Jane’s “dreams of anonymous city life in which she walked down streets so bustling with women, all of them better dressed and longer-legged than her, that she felt blissfully eclipsed.” She develops a sudden devotion to fishing, taught from an unusual hand. Even as rural life and perspectives dominate, other stories consistently tease out fresh territory. Obedience, a suspense story, is thoroughly Cornish, if unexpectedly, and winningly, set among dog-training classes. The Dark Cutter concerns tragedy at a cattle farm. In the Camp details the Nietzschean will-to-power of an eleven-year-old Aryan at a naturalist retreat. Cookery finds gay man and cookery enthusiast Perry’s discretion concerning his sexuality being manipulated by his married brothers, as they expect this “eunuch with a way with sauces” to take in their debilitated, but bullying father. Perry must find a recipe by which to exact revenge. The one foreign story, Petals on a Pool, is an hilarious account of an overlooked authoress accepting a free trip to the Bali Book Festival, offered her in error, only to discover that “massage seemed to be playing a great part in the festival, than literature.” There’s a chilling yet funny portrayal here of the unstoppable inroads made by “celebrity” culture into literary festivals, in the formidable form of a Chinese cable show hostess-turned-books “expert”, who may know just enough of every author’s P.R. releases to get by, but can readily outrun her personal trainer. There’s generic variety too. Fourth of July, 1862 details an afternoon spent by the Liddell sisters, Alice (of in Wonderland fame) and Rhoda; the historical novel could be a new tangent for Gale, on this evidence. Saving Space and Hushed Casket breathe new life into the ghost story. When Making Hay returns us to Cornwall, we may feel that Maudie, a grandmother in a retirement home who bewitches her grandchildren with a tall tale about their father, could be speaking for Gale himself when she reveals: “The trick is to spike the narrative with just a seasoning of solid, agricultural fact.” One quibble: Gale’s last novel was simultaneously published in hardback and paperback (see the interview in The Independent, 12th June 2009). Given British publishers’ notorious lack of faith in the short-story market, it seems bizarre of Fourth Estate not to have repeated the trick with Gentleman’s Relish, though it’s worth every penny as it stands.
The Independent – Richard Canning
The short-story form suits Gale’s ability to zoom in on the smallest nuances of a relationship. In the title story of this collection a father frets that long years of breadwinning have separated him from his children. His youngest son has become mysterious to him, but a call from the school means that he must tackle the impossible subject of sex. There’s more generational misunderstanding in the magnificently witty Cookery, when the only gay member of a family uncovers a certain power through the art of cooking.
The Times – Kate Saunders
Although he has been writing consistently since 1985, Patrick Gale only jumped from being a cultish author to an overnight sensation in 2007 with Notes From An Exhibition, a Richard and Judy choice and, therefore, a tearaway bestseller. Gentleman’s Relish is his second book to be published this year, following 14th novel The Whole Day Through, and offers a selection of succulent titbits in the form of 16 short stories. If Gale is arguably more at home in the more expansive form of the novel, these pieces certainly showcase his capacity for combining a light touch and macabre sense of humour with an understated strength of human feeling. Some of the stories rest on a payoff that feels a little glib. In The Lesson, a prison governor’s wife learns the intoxicating sensation of independence through some illicit fishing instruction from an inmate but Gale’s characterisation feels perfunctory. And although Cookery is deliciously bizarre – the story of a son poisoning his invalid father in order to move in his gay lover – it feels more an exercise in superficial shock tactics. Gale is more at home with stories that spring from his Cornish home, invoking the harsh landscape of West Penrith in Obedience (which brilliantly juxtaposes the banality of a dogtraining class with the discovery of a local woman’s murdered body) and in standout story The Dark Cutter, which beautifully exposes the untamed, brutal underside of farming. His novels may be more satisfying but these stories confirm Gale’s ability to exploit the short story genre’s capacity to deliver a caffeinated hit.