I imagine that most readers of the Ramblings are well aware of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, hosted by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson. It’s a thing of great joy, a product of the pure love of books and reading; and I’m probably not the only listener whose book stacks have been swelled by recommendations from the chaps and their guests… They have a Patreon offshoot called Locklisted, which is also wonderful fun (and incorporates the excellent input of their producer Nicky Birch); and on one of these recent episodes listeners were treated to Andy reading a story from the recent Persephone Books collection, “English Climate: Wartime Stories” by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was just fab…

Now, I love a beautiful Persephone book, but I don’t automatically buy every one which comes out; I haven’t got the shelf space, nor the time to read them all, frankly. And although I love STW’s writing, I already have a Virago collection of her short stories; so I imagined I might already have some (or all!) of these and hadn’t intended to urgently get a copy of the new book. However, the story Andy read (“My Shirt is in Mexico”) was just so good that I felt I needed to investigate further; which I did, only to discover that I don’t think I have *any* of these stories already, and also that some have never been reprinted since original magazine publication. Needless to say, I had to send for a copy…

And when it arrived, it occurred to me that it would be ideal to read for “All Virago/All August”, a challenge which we member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics undertake annually. Yes, I know it’s not a Virago…. But we do allow other books of a similar ilk, so can include Persephones, Furrowed Middlebrow and the like books (and presumably the new British Library Women Writers too!) I do often try to include a translated Virago to mop up #WITMonth as well, but alas it was not to be this August. Anyway! On to the book…

… Mrs Campion was standing on her top step, staring vaguely at the sky and shaking a duster without energy. She had pale green eyes, pure as a kitten’s, and they looked so much at variance with her small, anxious, sallow face that one had the impression they must have been given her by some rich admirer with more connoisseurship than discretion.

“English Climate” collects together twenty-two of STW’s stories which were published between 1940 and 1946; they’re presented chronologically, which is an effective method because it allows us to watch the change in behaviours and attitudes as the war progressed. STW and her companion, Valentine Ackland, spent the war years in a cottage in Devon, and so were in prime position to observe many of the foibles of those in the country during the conflict; and indeed many of the stories have that kind of setting.

As with any collection of short stories, I sometimes find it hard to know quite how to write about it; so I’ll do what I usually do and pick out some particular stand-outs. “From Above” (1941) tells of a couple still living in London, and their contrasting feelings about the threat of their house being destroyed by a bomb; Mr and Mrs Campion react very differently, in ways which reveal their real feelings about their relationship and their life together. “Noah’s Ark” (1941) looks at a pair of misfit evacuee children and the effect of the new people they encounter on their coping mechanism. “Setteragic On” (1941) is a very clever story which takes as its subject the effect of specific privations and shortages on the general populace.

Then there’s “Scorched Earth Policy” (1942) which explores the burden of possession and the increasing fear of invasion which took over the British people as the War progressed. “England, Home and Beauty” (1942) is a short, sharp tale demonstrating the difference of the sexes and revealing that British women were quite prepared to take part in meeting any invasion attempts. And the title story, from 1943, was quite devastating for me (though not in any way you might expect); although I imagine what happens is meant to be symbolic of the destruction of culture by conflict.

In spring it is the duty of every village schoolmistress to foster a love of nature and kindness to animals. While encouraging the children to gather wild flowers for the Easter church decorations, she must remind them not to uproot primroses and violets, or tear up bluebells, or break off boughs from fruit trees, or trespass into the Manor woods after daffodils. In Spring too she must avail herself of young lambs and birds’ nests as the ideal means of approach to a reverent understanding of biological processes, and also prevent the children from stealing birds’ eggs, cutting the wings off fledglings, and throwing stones at valuable pedigree calves. For years Mrs Pitcher had hated spring.

Well, I could go on. There isn’t a dud story among them, and what was particularly fascinating was the different angles STW took. Some of the stories are less directly war-related, simply exploring the psychology of people in extreme and unusual situations (so, of course, somewhat relevant to how 2020 has been for many of us…) She’s an acute observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women; and her commentary on the foibles of everyday life is sharp and often very funny.

So “English Climate” turned out to be the perfect read for All Virago/All August and thank goodness Backlisted nudged me into picking up this collection. Sylvia Townsend Warner was such a marvellous writer, and these stories capture so well the changing emotions and times of the War period. I can’t recommend the collection highly enough; and it makes me very happy to realise that I have plenty STW books on the shelves unread… ;D