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 Then he is summarily withdrawn and she is alone again.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.

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