‘Beggars Would Ride’ by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge pursued an obsessive quest for concise and musical language. She was celebrated for her alchemical distillation of a dozen typed pages onto a single sheet, and for her relentless process of reading aloud until her words sounded properly ‘tuned’. Bainbridge’s fiction relies on wit, precision and intricate detail to explore a wide range of human experience, and she was one of those writers who took greater risks with form and style in her short fiction than in her novels. This is reflected in ‘Beggars Would Ride’, a sharply observed social satire framed by incidents, 300 years apart, involving an artefact imbued with supernatural power. A pair of vain, middle-aged, middle-class, financial service managers suddenly discover they have mysteriously transcended their customary mediocrity on the tennis court and become seduced by their new-found prowess. It turns out that unearned power brings unexpected risks. Terse, unsettling and funny: the story’s shadowy vitality is counterpointed by pithy observations of everyday urban existence.

First published in Winter’s Tales #26, edited by Alan Maclean, 1980. Collected in Mum and Mrs Armitage, Flamingo, 1987

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