My partner and I spent this summer in the delightful Devon village of Colyton, it’s skyline dominated by the steeple of St. Andrews, the village church. A place where you can stroll along it’s winding lanes from one side of the village to the other in 10 minutes and the world heritage site of the Jurassic Coast was just 15 minutes away by a restored tram line (www.colyton.co.uk). For the the two previous years we’ve holidayed in the Derbyshire village of Hayfield (www.visitpeakdistrict.com/High-Peak-Hayfield) the site of the mass trespass in 1932 on Kinder Scout as well as the birth place of Captain Mainwaring himself – Actor Arthur Lowe.
What attracts us to these quintessentially English villages, is the way everything is so charming and petite, Pubs are quiet and homely and both villages give off a real feeling of community. Compared to the sprawling metropolis we inhabit for the other 350 days of the year, not to mention a love of all those quaint villages which are the setting for many British dramas and comedies. This brings us on to this months book, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson (www.helensimonson.com).
Edgecombe St Mary – a sleepy village in the Sussex countryside. Quintessentially English, it’s upper middle class inhabitants pride themselves on their impeccable manners. When some of the lower-class residents harass the Pakistani couple who have taken over the local shop the “upper echelons of the village… compensated for the rudeness of the lower by developing a widely advertised respect for Mr and Mrs Ali. … ‘our dear Pakistani friends at the shop’”
Major Pettigrew, who has lived in Edgecombe St Mary since he was a boy, is no exception – “I was raised to believe in politeness above all”.
But the complacent, self-satisfied superiority of the upper echelons of Edgecombe St Mary is about to be challenged. And by none other than Major Pettigrew, one of their own!
Major Pettigrew is an archetypal product of the England that is Edgecombe St Mary. The values of decorum, respectability and conformity have shaped his life. A 68-year old widower, he lives in a house that he, as the eldest child, inherited from his parents. That this might rancour with his brother – or more especially his brother’s wife – doesn’t enter his mind. Primogeniture is, after all, what is. When the lord of the local manor starts surveying land adjoining Major Pettigrew’s house to build ‘exclusive’ new homes, the Major shuns his (female) neighbour’s approach of picketing and public protest in favour of a “stern letter to the planning officer” and “looked forward to the entire matter being resolved in an amicable manner between reasonable men”.
Typical of his type, Major Pettigrew is socially insecure. Maintaining one’s place in the social pecking order is paramount. He rankles if addressed as Mr rather than Major or, worse still, by his christian name, Ernest. (Thankfully only Americans, who are way down in the Edgecombe St Mary pecking order, have the effrontery to do this!). An invitation from the local Lord is a coveted prize to be – casually – mentioned to envious others. Membership of the local golf-club, the ‘sine qua non’ for social acceptability, is jealously guarded – as the Khans, who have donated handsomely to the annual ball find out. “We are quite oversubscribed in the medical profession”.
So what then does Major Pettrigrew do to disturb Edgecombe St Mary’s snobbish complacency? He falls in love. With Mrs Ali, the recently widowed Pakastini shopkeeper.
For this plot to be anything other than corny – and it is far from that – it has to be written by someone with a gimlet eye for the nuances of English village life and a fondness for the idiosyncratic mix that is the well-meaning English gentleman. Qualities that the author, Helen Simonson, appears to have in spades. Born and reared in England, she spent her teenage years in a village in East Sussex, so has first-hand knowledge of English village life. After college she moved to the US and has lived there since. It is this distance, both in time and in space, that provides the outsider’s perspective to the insider’s experience that characterises the book and brings it out of the realm of a corny, Woodhouse-style comic romp to a touching, insightful (and comic) human tale. Published by Bloomsbury (www.bloomsbury.com) in 2010 this is her first book, her second The Summer Before The War is due out in Spring of 2016.
Simonson’s insight is evident from the very first pages. The fateful crack in Major Pettigrew’s facade of social decorum occurs when, having just heard news of his brother’s death, he answers the door while wearing his deceased wife’s old floral housecoat (he was doing his weekly housework). On the doorstep is Mrs Ali, calling to collect newspaper money. The combination of shock over his brother’s death, mortification at being seen in the housecoat and embarrassment for not having the money ready overwhelms even the Major’s inbred ‘stiff upper lip’. He blurts out “My brother died”.
So begins a human interaction, unmediated by social niceties, that shatters the Major’s lifelong adherence to formulaic social norms. Acting outside the accepted behaviour of his group does not come easily to Major Pettigrew, however.
The novel describes his struggle to choose between a second chance at love with its inherent vulnerability, and the familiar, boring security of his habitual conformity. Thankfully, Simonson’s description of the Major’s struggle does not take the form of dreary introspection and soul searching (what self-respecting Englishman has time for such nonsense?), but is played out in a series of often hilarious and sometimes poignant events that reflect some of the cultural and racial tensions of a changing Britain.