Chosen by Michael Caines
Theodore Francis Powys – a younger brother of the now more celebrated novelist John Cowper Powys – has always seemed to me the more interesting of these two prolific brothers. (I think, or I kid myself perhaps, that I can see why people rave about JCP, but he usually leaves me cold.) One more attractive feature, perhaps, is T. F. Powys’s particular mastery in shorter works of fiction, such as his Fables (in which, for example, a church mouse talks theology with a holy crumb dropped from the communion table). ‘Captain Patch’ is a nice piece of silliness in which a tailor, in a coastal town, lives modestly but dreams of being great: “He rose to glory, he commanded, and he was obeyed”. In this precursor to James Thurber’s ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (1939), the fantasy life takes over for a while; there is indeed, on a comically modest scale, glory of a kind; but there is also love. Reading it again now, with great pleasure, some years after my Powys-mania was perhaps at its height, I think of ‘Captain Patch’ as a story of misplaced love, and a chance encounter making things right. Not everybody in a Powys story is so lucky. (Spoiler: that church mouse eats the crumb.)
First published in book form in Captain Patch: Twenty-one stories, Chatto & Windus, 1935
Michael Caines works at the Times Literary Supplement. He is writing a short book about literary prizes, and a slightly longer book about Brigid Brophy. He is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other selections here.
“The Old Testament Scriptures end with a terrible word. This word no polite language of modern times can ever soften . . . .” T. F. Powys’s power over me is something remarkable. He often writes about pariahs of one sort of another; I feel that if wasn’t one already, I become one, and a complaisant one at that, when I read him. He wrote many fine stories and lived in a world of his own. One anecdote has it that, when he was eventually persuaded to take a ride in a motor vehicle, for all the wonder and speed of the experience, he merely commented, with the fluttering visions revealed by the vehicle’s headlamps, that travel by such means must have been hell for lepidopterists. (Also recommended: the novels Mr Weston’s Wine and Unclay, as well as Powys’s various story collections.) ‘Mock’s Curse’ is the story of two brothers, John and James, and how they fall out.
From Mock’s Curse: Nineteen stories, edited by Elaine and Barrie Mencher, Brynmill Press, 1995)
‘A Christmas Gift’ is the story of a man with van – but also a quietly heretical resetting of the Christmas story. (For a start, it seems to have merged with the one about the Good Samaritan.) The man in question is Mr Balliboy, a recurring character in the West Country fables of T. F. Powys. Mr Balliboy operates a service that, we would now say, connects isolated rural communities to the local market town of Weyminster. From the beginning, pride is in the air: both Mr Balliboy’s, and his customers’. Many people (or at least “a number”) take pride, for example, merely in seeing their names written down. The lonely Mr Balliboy would like to see his own name written on a gift label. He knows this much well before he knows to whom to give a gift, or even what the gift will be. And so “A Christmas Gift” turns out to be a story of pride being brought low – or being redirected, at least. I like its ostensible simplicity but suspect that something more is going on, as its last line, only three words long, perhaps suggests. Powys’s fiction is often like that: biblical in tone, yet somehow off-message. “A Christmas Gift” wasn’t the first of his works I read – my introduction to him being Unclay, a tattered revelation of a novel about Death taking an unlikely holiday, in this same eerie region of Wessex. But it is one I return to, and include in my imaginary anthology of his stories.
First published in An Anthology of Christmas Prose and Verse, Cresset Press, 1928; subsequently published in Powys’s collection The White Paternoster, 1930. Available to read online here. Chosen by Michael Caines