Ox-Tales: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Oxfam, £5 each
Buy short stories and help the wretched of the earth! I don’t mean short-story writers, on this occasion, though that injunction usually holds too. No: I mean, if you buy one or, preferably, all four of these pretty, pocket-sized paperbacks you’ll be donating to Oxfam.
Cooked up between the Hay Festival’s impresario Peter Florence and Mark Ellingham of Profile Books, Ox-Tales is a sort of literary equivalent of the War Child album: a gallimaufry of short fiction donated by various authors — about two thirds original stories, about a third novel-extracts.
These have been gussied up into four very loosely themed volumes, each of which is accompanied by an elemental poem by Vikram Seth (sample: ‘Fa-yaah/ O fayah-fayah-fayaaah/ Dizayaah/ Hot hot hot/ I’m burning a lot with dizayaah’ etc.) At the end of each a two-page coda explains the work that Oxfam is doing in that element — drinking water, farming, climate change, controls on the arms trade (fire) and such like.
Short stories are hard enough to review as it is, and a project like this doesn’t invite criticism so much as statistical analysis. Thirty seven stories — nine each in Earth, Air and Water, ten in Fire — of which about half are by men and half by women, and maybe two thirds are told in the third person.
A four-volume collection of short stories whose authors are chosen for their willingness to help Oxfam out and, presumably, for their name recognition, isn’t likely to offer a guiding literary principle. It’s a snapshot of some things in the culture, though.
The fact that around a quarter of the stories are told in the present tense seems to be indicative. You get that less, as a rule, in long-form fiction — it can get annoying after a bit if not extremely well handled — but it’s a favourite of short-story writers. I’m on the fence about it, personally. It gets you out of some tangles with the pluperfect and can lend immediacy, I suppose, but it’s now so much used as to seem a bit conventional. Each to their own, however.
Ox-Tales also implicity tells you — as well as who’s nice and gives work to charity — who in 2009 looks like a marquee name. I could do worse than just write out the list: Rose Tremain, Jonathan Coe, Marti Leimbach, Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, Marina Lewycka, Hanif Kureishi, Jonathan Buckley, Nicholas Shakespeare, Alexander McCall Smith, Helen Simpson, D. B. C Pierre, A. L. Kennedy, Kamila Shamsie, Beryl Bainbridge, Louise Welsh, Diran Adebayo, Helen Fielding, Mark Haddon, Geoff Dyer, Victoria Hislop, Sebastian Faulks, John le Carré, Xiaolu Guo, William Sutcliffe, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Jeanette Winterson, Esther Freud, David Park, Hari Kunzru, Zoe Heller, Michel Faber, William Boyd, Joanna Trollope, Giles Foden and Michael Morpurgo.
There, me hearties. Feast your eyes on that. It’s a PEN quiz, a Booker longlist party, a Richard and Judy Book Club of a cast list. And each of the four wee books it has turned out is well worth the fiver asked. Oxfam, reader, is doing you a favour: not vice versa.
The odd one’s under the writer’s best, inevitably. Almost all are workmanlike, not all memorable. The odd one’s terrific. In Air, which I think was my favourite of the four books, I adored D. B. C. Pierre’s story about a Trinidadian eccentric, ‘Suddenly Dr Cox’:
‘Lend me fifty dollars,’ he would say.
‘I’ll lend you the sharp end of a pineapple.’
‘I was only joking.’
‘The sharp end of a pineapple, I say.’
‘What! I was only joking!’
‘But do you have ten? I’ll pay you back.’
Air also contains a lovely little ghost story from Beryl Bainbridge, a fantastically acute account by Louise Welsh of what we drinkers refer to as a Night of Shame, and a richly involving fragment from Kamila Shamsie describing a man lugging a stone torso through the desert from Pakistan to India.
The four elements thing is cute, incidentally, but more or less irrelevant except as a selling gimmick. I found myself at one point scribbling — lips pursed with bogus disapproval — ‘NMF’ over and over again on the contents page of Fire. It stood for ‘Not Much Fire’. Then it occurred to me that I was being a pompous ass and that it was much less important that the stories answered to the theme, than that they were any good. And they were good — especially Ali Smith’s tale of an unexpected adventure in a rail-yard, Lionel Shriver’s psychologically exact story of school friends meeting years later, and William Sutcliffe’s funny and bleak account of taking toddlers on holiday.
Marina Lewycka’s story about a young girl being embarrassed by her mother (the mother interrupts the school nativity play to make sure Mary puts on warm socks) makes the sidestep — at which Lewycka is always deft — from silly into serious: ‘I never forgave my mother for that until her dying day, but on her dying day I forgave her.’
There are some interesting curios, here, too. John Le Carré contributes a charming if faintly sententious fairytale; Ian Rankin — perhaps, implicitly, marking himself out as a top dog by getting away with the shortest contribution — gives us a clever, self-contained 200-word Rebus adventure.
Two writers I’d never read — Jonathan Buckley and Marti Leimbach — impressed me: Leimbach less for literary style than the documentary quality of her description of taking an autistic child to a birthday party; Buckley for a payoff that jumps, with subtle effectiveness, just the way you don’t expect it to: ‘Not sure if I’ve read this story or made it up. The former, I think.’
The prize, finally, for Most Informative Simile goes to Giles Foden, for a magnificent sentence from a DVD-style alternative ending to his novel Turbulence called ‘(One Last) Throw of the Dice’:
My mind whirs. The separate incidents of the early part of the voyage become melded together in my head like slabs of Pykerete, that curious mixture of ice and wood pulp from which our vessel is made.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 4, 2009