While on holiday in Bognor…
Mibby23: The Beach at Bognor Regis, 2016 (CC)
From the Paris Review:
“The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently,” writes R. C. Sherriff in The Fortnight in September, his unassuming but utterly beguiling tale of an ordinary lower-middle-class London family during the interwar years, on their annual holiday to the English seaside town of Bognor Regis. “All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.”
First published in 1931, The Fortnight in September was the British writer’s first novel, though Sherriff was already known as the author of Journey’s End, based on his experiences in the trenches, and is still today one of the most celebrated plays ever written about the First World War. This had been an unprecedented sell-out success in London’s West End for two years in the late 1920s, after which it moved to Broadway, where it was also a huge hit. But Sherriff had followed it with Badger’s Green (1930), a flop of such magnitude it had all but sent him scurrying back to his am-dram beginnings with his tail between his legs: “A play that, but for the acclaim of Journey’s End, would never have found a place beyond a suburban church hall,” wrote Hannen Swaffer, the drama critic for the Daily Express. “So far as the theatre world was concerned,” Sherriff admitted in his memoir, No Leading Lady (1968), “the Badger’s Green fiasco had proved what most people had suspected: Journey’s End was a fluke. By a lucky chance a small-time writer for local amateurs had hit upon an idea so perfect for the stage that it was bound to be a success whatever way it was written … He had tried again, without the heaven-sent material of his first venture, and put himself back where he belonged.” So Sherriff was surprised, on sending out the manuscript for The Fortnight in September—a story he’d written for the sheer fun of it—when the renowned publisher Victor Gollancz fell on it enthusiastically. “This is delightful,” Gollancz wrote back. “I wouldn’t alter a word.” Critics were also impressed. The Sunday Express deemed Sherriff’s debut novel a “little masterpiece.” Soon enough it was selling twenty thousand copies a month.
The novel’s premise is brilliantly simple. We accompany Mr. Stevens, an office clerk, his sweet but nervous wife Flossie, and their three children—Dick, who works for an auctioneer; Mary, a dressmaker’s assistant; and schoolboy Ernie—as they ready themselves for their summer holiday and take the train from London to the coast. Once there, they enjoy their getaway. Nothing in the story surprises. Nevertheless, it’s an absolute delight from start to finish. Sherriff’s tender observations of the family dynamics, and the simple joy each of them takes in the highlight of their year, prove him to be an unrivaled master of the quotidian. For those readers already familiar with Journey’s End, such an accolade might not be that surprising. The play—which George Bernard Shaw famously hailed as a “useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war”—is not a story about the jingoistic heroics of battle. Instead it takes the reality of life in the trenches as its subject—the death and the destruction, the pain and the horror, but first and foremost, the torturous tedium of it all.