Penguin Modern Stories

One shoved four is worth twelve at a push

Edited by Judith Burnley during 1969-1972

My previous reviews of older or classic books:

And other Penguin short stories here: and

When I read these stories, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

31 thoughts on “Penguin Modern Stories

  1. To be read in a relatively random order…

    THE TALKING TREES by Sean O’Faolain

    A wild version of adolescent boys from the Red Abbey school who are ever on about girls and pink porpoises and sexy notions, and a girl posing in gym knickers accompanied by whose violin music? — Haydn and Seek … and a paraphernalia of a sense of something like guilt or parental influence, and sweet shops or secreting sweets for oneself instead of a gang bang? A sort of post-Just-William and his Outlaws, but with raging puberty…
    Mad and manic, and it is quite unbelievable that a story like this actually existed!
    I myself never got to enter the talking trees but got happily married instead.

  2. Pingback: Nothing But Sex | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  3. LADIES WITHOUT ESCORT by Olivia Manning

    “Pam had shared worse places but she felt that the bum to bum confusion of two people in a narrow cabin would not do for Brenda.”

    They manage to bribe the steward of the ship to get them two cabins. An engaging account of these two English ladies, fifty-something, who had met at a Pet’s Club, after various marriages et al, in fact one had a man as a “possible third” (mentioned twice) — as a counteraction to Bowen’s ‘shadowy third’? They have a shared liking for alcohol, and they travel together as some sort of small hen party, leaving their men behind, travelling on a cheap precarious cruise to Athens on a cargo ship, and they are soon pestered by two foreign men, whom they manage to ward off during some wittily described encounters in sometimes boring anchorages on the way… until they find that their otherwise unknown backstories hint that there may not have been any bum to bum confusion at all, had they tried a single cabin after all! The serious part is what the foreigners thought of the English in general, and the foreign peoples the English let down in history, and continue to do, I guess!

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  5. THE MUSE by Anthony Burgess

    “The now-past was completed, the now-future was completed.”

    A wild time-travel story involving alternate worlds and the logistics of getting to whatever whenever, and depicting grotesquely ever-morphing human-beings (“the breasts swung and the nipples ogled him”) and the plot involves the seeking out of Shakespeare amidst the sex and stinks of London of Shakespeare’s day in whatever parallel world this is. Shakespeare even wrote here, among many others, a play called ‘The Devil in Dulwich…’ (not my ellipsis!)
    And a perfect few lines of Shakespeare are shown here anew, describing the themes of this amazing story itself whereby, inter alia, Muses come from other worlds.

    “Why could he not get in touch with the Ding an sich, the Kantian noumenon? But that was the trouble — the thing-in-itself was changed by the observer into whatever phenomenon the categories of time-space-sense imposed.”


    One of these Muses even reaches towards my own as yet uncreated Noumenonymous!

    Chasing The Noumenon
    — coined from my blog here in 2006:
    And from a review in 2011:
    “Ever chasing the noumenon but thankfully never reaching it because, if reached, it would become less than its unreachable essence.”
    Cf my later ‘gluey Zenoism’ obsession!

  6. FOREIGNERS by Penelope Gilliatt

    “He won’t use his elbows.”

    Repeat: “‘Won’t use his elbows.’”
    A remarkable portrait of a half-Indian man Thomas, in England, in the era when you could overhear young women talking of absurd trysts with Paul and Ringo. An extraordinary situation here, as this man is married to an English lady who runs toy shops, and his Stockbroker stepson is in a sort of attached cottage next door to the big house wherein Thomas is heading towards a mental breakdown because he won’t use his elbows to do better, his wife claims.
    He later gives his six year old granddaughter Plasticene to make sculptures, Plasticene with old-fashioned smells rather than the then new-fangled smell-less version that his wife sells. And the child’s father, Thomas’s stockbroker stepson, rabidly whips her as a result! Remarkably the stepson has now taken over the big house, a switch that took place, while Thomas was in the Caribbean mentally convalescing.
    Thomas stands up for himself after the whipping incident, tries to use his elbows, as it were, even though now he is demoted to the now attached Granny cottage, and his own Indian mother has been put in a Granny cupboard
    Fiction, I guess, is the only medium with which properly to scry the strangeness of the past, a past where you, with today’s weakening memory, no longer live. A past as a foreign country, one “occupied by foreign forces”? And where shrinks stalked their patients to airports.

    “We know nothing, we recognise nothing, we give nothing, we are capable of nothing, we understand nothing, we sell nothing, we help nothing, we reveal nothing, we forget nothing.”

  7. Pingback: FOREIGNERS by Penelope Gilliatt  | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow)

  8. DEAD CERT by Sean O’Faolain

    “the tilt of time”

    Old friends, he and she, meet when she is in Dublin, and I imagine that her perfect husband back home whom she loves dies for a week as a means to allow her to fulfil something during that week with this other man, without betraying her husband. When that is tested with an ever fastened-up flirtation she abruptly huffs off in her car as this man imagines her reality through the Bowenesque style of words here describing a car journey, through night landscapes of Ireland, a journey that ends … ends in what? — that I, the reader, also imagine a reality where she crashes and it was her death for a week; death being ever certain however short it lasts, I guess.
    Back to the yacht club and possibly meeting her without her husband on a skiing holiday.

  9. THE SNAKE TEMPLE by Francis King

    “The man rolled over, so that his long, skinny body was supported on one elbow.”

    Precarious enough for this elbow-trigger to presage his suicidal propensity? The grumpy man (balanced on his one elbow and playing chess with an equally grumpy 12 year old boy called Charlie) is called Jimmy whom Lettice (recently widowed by her husband’s shorn-off head in a car accident) meets on a ship travelling from the Far East to Tilbury, Essex, stopping off in Penang for them to visit the eponymous temple. The circumstances of all these characters, and the local colour, you will need to appreciate on your own without my help. It seems that in those days people were more intense, even if colours like mauve and grey were interchangeable. Except Jimmy saw it as the mauvest mauve he had ever seen, one which you can compare to the colour in the well in which Lettice fell. As to Jimmy’s later attempts at shearing his own head off, you will need to factor in his earlier dance with a large snake around the neck in the temple, after having played Schumann on the piano in a house with MIDDLEMARCH on a footrest, as I recall. A footrest in the house in Penang of the man (living with a gaggle of half-naked boys), a friend of Lettice’s late husband. Charlie later sloughs off his own grumpiness and thanks Lettice for looking after him after Jimmy (not his father) attempted suicide yet again. Unsure where all that may leave you, let alone how Lettice felt. I just thought it is probably a story that I will never forget, but I do not know why! It was that mauve that possibly got me. Akin to Dennis Potter’s ‘blossomest blossom’. Not forgetting the plock-plock-plock of the ping pong in Penang.


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  11. IN THE CONSERVATORY by Susan Hill

    “Boris never went to parties of any kind,…”

    This is a remarkable strange, weird story, arguably a ghost story, too, one I had not previously encountered, starting like a romcom, wherein a woman, married to Boris who spends his time lining up his leaden soldiers (rather than creating buses out of wooden boxes?!) … and, with her knowing that he was satisfied by that insular life, she somehow thought he would not mind her having an extramarital affair. And the logistics of that affair, after meeting the appropriate man with whom to have an affair, he and she somehow feel the need to conduct it in public places like museums or art galleries, and finally their favourite venue, a stately home called Fewings that has paying visitors, the descriptive atmosphere of which is built up strikingly with a seemingly neuro-diverse boy that seems ever to haunt it with his limping gait. A figure that will haunt you, too, particularly within the nature of the house’s conservatory. And the work’s ending seems tantalisingly ambiguous to me. Is one of the boy’s parents — the woman once thought to be living within a ‘self-contained’ affair — the Fewings caretaker’s wife instead, with Boris as her son, in their own self-contained flat within which she and her husband live as part of being on the job? The rest of it being fiction. Or simply madness.

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  13. SISTERS: Elizabeth Taylor

    “He gave a name, which meant nothing to her, and she invited him in, thinking he was about insurance,…”

    A man tries to land the salmon of a literary scoop, or to scoop up a seemingly grounded lady called Mrs Mason, with bland habits and only reading light historical fiction, and with low-key feminine sociability that she values and wants to remained unspoilt. He tries to land her from the backdrop of her sister, a famous writer of arguably outrageous fiction, one who mixed in the free-love set. An interesting portrait, merely that. Deeper down, though, I wonder if Mrs Mason was indeed the sister who wrote the words that described her. All women writers are in a secret sisterhood after all. Or all sisters being in the same head of a conflicted Taylor? These sisters involuntarily kill their own fathers, by rote, here a rector. And, in disguise, they daringly create a man here in this story who nearly destroys them, until he is somehow trapped by the itemised sororal words that created them ironically as the rooted flowers that the sisters are not!
    But gossip and doubt remain naggingly.
    Was Taylor the daughter of an insurance inspector, as I once heard?

    I worked for an insurance company 1970-1992!

    “Even going down the path to the gate, he seemed to be glancing from side to side, as if memorizing the names of flowers.”

    Cf my review of this author’s IN AND OUT THE HOUSES, a telling portrait of a woman writer when younger:


    My ongoing review of this author’s collected stories:

  14. TO THE CAMP AND BACK by Francis King

    “Thomas, who had so far refrained from joining in the argument , touched Christine’s elbow. ‘We’d better turn back.’”

    This story of a Prisoner of War camp for Germans situated near Blenheim Palace involves Christine (whose fiancé was killed by the Luftwaffe) walking out into the snow with one of the German prisoners (previously Luftwaffe, himself!) and their relationship is seen against the backdrop of taunts from some boy footballers and the “little chits” of under-age girl prostitutes. Some wonderful images here of snow and landscape and downtrodden houses. Blenheim Palace suddenly in the dying sun had the flames of light disrupted into a million particles, and ‘the windows became windows.’ He saves her from falling in the snow, “…a ballet until his arm came across her.” He had a hand raw and swollen with chilblains. And I dwelt on Christine’s depression, and counterintuitive methods to counter it. The man who had arranged the meeting of these two was absent because of a seminar he was giving on Jonathan Swift, as it happened.

    “…tasting the saliva that seemed to have in it all the accumulated bitterness of his captivity.”

    My previous reviews of this author — one shown above and another two, here: and here:

  15. I earlier reviewed the next two stories by WILLIAM TREVOR , as follows:



    A generally funny account of a hotel in Galway that changed hands before summer regulars – a headmaster and his wife – arrived for the umpteenth time to see that the manager had died and his son had halved the size of all the rooms with partitions. And other disimprovements. And on the other side of the partition is the headmaster’s once favourite head boy who happens to be on honeymoon with his new wife! Imagine the carry on!
    The two wives get together, while the men go fishing…
    With a final ‘dying fall’ of acceptance that seems to typify something or other about them all.



    “I still couldn’t understand why the series of events was taking place. I tried to connect one occurrence with another, but I failed.”

    …as I do or don’t in this moving, poignant work, this slice of a boy youth’s life, now an uncle, his sister married elsewhere when announcing a baby by letter, this boy youth seeing his butcher Dad kiss the Bridget maid at the bottom of the stairs, earlier this boy youth being florined by his Dad’s assistant, an assistant but a better butcher, a better would-be husband for his mother, a better Dad for the boy youth, better at neatly, economically cutting meat rather than stumping off his fingers like his ‘swaying’ Dad often had done in the past, the boy youth not wishing to butcher red meat for the whole of his future life, Almost force fed, as he is as today’s boy youth, with fatty bacon and sausages every morning.
    The assistant was the unmarrying sort, according to his Dad, and is that why this assistant once perhaps innocently kissed the boy youth good night, but not in the same way as the boy youth’s own Dad had clumsily kissed Bridget? Something surely had to give, and someone had to leave.

  16. AN EXCUSE FOR A PARTY by A. L. Barker

    “Miss Robey, it transpired was away from her office. The Trust Company’s receptionist said she was working at home.
    ‘For some things it it’s safer.’”

    Trust company? Well, for a story first published in 1971, this seems a pretty nifty prophecy of a world where something like Partygate could happen! It is also a sad romcom with undertones of colours green, crimson, white, and an huge eye like blue jelly. Close up, too, of beard growth in the pores of an onion’s surface layer. And a marriage that should have never been established in the first place keeps its stoicism of an ‘evergreen’ status quo that cannot be redeemed nor, for that matter, ended. Even a champagne and roses ’do’ — arranged by a wife as a party’s gateway to her secret knowledge of her husband’s affair with fffffffPhoebe Robey — becomes a damp squib as a prospective romcom tableau, and, as rapprochements go, this one remains still a rather shaky affair. Bathos as just another layer of onion skin? Or somehow an alternate world’s means to detonate a future Foreign Secretary’s conducting of an extra-marital affair in his parliamentary office before he became PM? All a question of Trust in present company.

  17. Pingback: AN EXCUSE FOR A PARTY by A. L. Barker | Shadows & Elbows


    “…of intent, of consequence, and hopefully of cause.”

    Ella, after a past couple of husbands and some lovers, is now married, with a daughter, to Michael whose suit and vest are, in her eyes, part of his waddling essence, and she regularly commutes by a New York train to her male psychoanalyst after ditching the female one at the train’s terminus. Attempts to transcend her alleged promiscuity, with her latest lover having departed to Devon in England, whom she manically tries to phone with teeming quarters into the old-fashioned coin slot, and meets, by sight, her next future ex on that very commuting train even without ever getting to know him! A story that left me looking up into the blue sky for clues amidst the wispy ribs above me as I read this work in an old-fashioned paperback that also includes Ella’s own cloud pareidolia. She also had a dream book where she recorded her dreams and nightmares, but I was left haunted with an image of her turning the wet pages of a magazine, as if forever, on the train. A clue is hidden in plain sight as the story’s title. And that she only has an hour each time. But with whom?
    The purring during sleep of her super-ego notwithstanding.

    “Was it that she was through sleeping with nobodies, or was she going to wind up unable to sleep with anybody?”

  19. Pingback: THE PSYCHOANALYTIC SPECIAL by Philip Roth | Shadows & Elbows

  20. DOWN AT THE HYDRO by William Sansom

    “…a clock with a big red hand jerked away the minutes […] measured the minutes with a dreadful exactitude, demonstrating both the slow pace and the inexorable hunger of time. It symbolized all clocks.”

    A sometimes amusing satire of a sanatorium, not Thomas Mann so much as one for those who want their body tuned like cars, mixing colonic irrigations with cheating by buying buns in the nearby village. An ‘Into the Wood’ scenario like Aickman without the utter strangeness, but merely with human strangeness, as a well-characterised Colonel (dreaming of gunfire) in his sixties has at core his gradual touching affair with an equally well-characterised point of view from a middle-aged married lady whose husband had sent her here for her suspender-belt fat to be removed. This sanatorium is a large house near the woods with ‘gazebo’ huts instead of Mann’s loggia rooms, and there are arguments over the availability of ‘long-chairs’, and a couple of women with names like toothpaste who stridently talk to each other, oblivious of others. And much else niftily adumbrated. A religious aura with tonsures, too. Aickman’s Hospice with emptier plates! Eroticism of an enema. Love as a need to ‘dignify itself by deifying an unavoidable animal process.’ Or words to that effect. And countless sixpences flushed from the tummy of Christmas.

    A sense of that jerking clock’s Zeno time by halves, too.
    “Tomorrow, tomorrow…” — Her face “somersaulting him back into the past, half in memory, half also as a strange new reality.” — “You don’t know the half of me yet,’ she laughed.” — “He almost said something about ‘liking to know the other half of her’, but it died on his lips.”

    My previous reviews of this author:

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  22. HOW SOON CAN I LEAVE? by Susan Hill

    “The clock had stopped just just before midnight,…”

    A somewhat matching synergy for my review of a Kyla Lee Ward this very morning HERE, on this historic day, in which I have read this Susan Hill story, with the above title (!), just now, and with the Ward story’s matching reference to “…a grandfather clock whose hands are set at five minutes to midnight….”!
    The Hill story is about two well-characterised women with a quaint form of assumed latent love, women who live together in a seaside town, living together at the suggestion of the older and more oppressive one to enable the younger and meeker, more indecisive one to conduct her handicraft business and also therefore to leave her sea-damp cottage for a better home. The older one later calls the other one ‘pussy-cat’ in front of a young couple and thus humiliates her… forcing the younger one to leave … until she returns … if just for a while? With more than just hints of having effectively killed the older one…?

  23. Pingback: AN ACTOR’S LIFE FOR ME by Philip Roth | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

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