Alexander Masters

From faintly weird to fiercely eccentric

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Ten Sorry Tales

Mick Jackson

Faber, pp. 160, £


Free meals and accommodation.
Situated on grand estate.
Would suit the quiet type.

When Giles and Ginny married ‘it was like a great clanging-together of bank vaults that rang out across the land’. Now Ginny demanded a savage. She had discovered an empty cave in the woods, and it needed to be occupied. The applicant to her ‘Situation Vacant’ notice in the local paper must not shave, cut his hair, trim his fingernails — do anything but look rough; in particular, he must not speak. Then she and her guests could ride out after supper to spy on him. At first, all went well with the successful unsavoury applicant, until they forgot to feed him. Then Hermit turned ignoble and pinched the baby.

I don’t know why Mick Jackson’s ten tales are sorry. They aren’t apologetic or pathetic or disgraceful, but an almost delightful mixture of … I’m not sure I know the answer to that either: of cautionary fable and fairytale and Panic allegory and E. M. Forster short story, with children’s book characters and old-mannish cynicism thrown in. ‘Gothic,’ says the blurb, which endearingly can’t find the right word either, ‘from the faintly weird to the fiercely eccentric.’

Five years after Baby has been stolen, a local woman spots two wild-looking creatures with matted hair and long, sharp fingernails. One is fully grown, the other small, like a child. Ginny grasps the woman’s hand in desperation and begs for news: ‘Did either speak?’ ‘Not at all,’ replies the woman. ‘They were both as silent as the grave.’

David Roberts’ portrait of Jackson on the back flap (Roberts has drawn all the excellent, exhausted-eyed drawings in Ten Sorry Tales) shows a comically grumpy, stooped, bespectacled character, who looks like he’d be fun to mutter with in a pub, but someone you’d want to slap when you’re back in the vigorous open air. The real reason for Jackson’s regretful title is the one, simple thing that I think holds him back from being truly special: lack of nerve. He chooses ‘sorry’ because he doesn’t quite have the bravado to call his work ‘Ten Topping Tales’.

‘Crossing the River’, about a family of undertakers who get lost and have to row their coffin across a river to the church, is close to being remarkable. But the balance is made soggy by adverbs and indefiniteness. Jackson doesn’t allow his characters to exist without authorial caution. The undertaker’s sons are not ‘particularly bothered where they sat’; ‘it was generally felt that they should look straight ahead’. When the coffin tips into the water, you long for splashy, shocked sentences. Jackson almost does it, ‘a terrible splashing and thrashing ensued’, then he gets tentative again. The undertaker’s sons ‘weren’t particularly good swimmers’ and the man who owned the boat was also ‘not as good as one might expect’. Jackson pulls off a lovely ending to this piece, however. The undertakers arrive at the church in sodden suits, pools of water around their feet, the dead man’s widow in despair in front of them. ‘We checked the records, ma’am,’ explains the father undertaker, clearing his throat, ‘and found no sign of a christening. We thought it best to baptise him — just to be sure.’

There are great coups throughout this book. In ‘Alien Abduction’, the ‘defiant roar’ of disgruntled children is ‘washed up against the hard grey walls of authority’. A nameless child in ‘The Boy who Fell Asleep’ is carried home on a blackboard ‘like some casualty from sleep’s battlefront’. Another boy runs off into the woods, where, like the hero of Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, he stays ever after, his brain ‘whittled away into something smooth and simple’.

What Jackson needs is a tabloid-minded editor, someone with resolute, sweeping opinions; such toughening up might be obnoxious in this hesitant world, but it is the essence of cautionary, allegorical, moral, gothic (or whatever they are) tales.