OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am the privileged possessor – I nearly wrote ‘proud’, but we must avoid the cliché, and the propensity for alliteration to obliterate meaning – the privileged possessor of the original drawing, by A.E. Rickards, of Arnold Bennett that was used on the cover of the Penguin edition of The Grand Babylon Hotel. The drawing was given to me by my late father-in-law, who was a theological bookdealer of international repute. He turned up many treasures in his passage through this world, and passed this one on to me because I am a Staffordshire man.

I tell you this because on Friday last the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Great Lives’ featured Arnold Bennett. This writer has fallen into obscurity, desuetude – not unnaturally -was the word used in the programme, and I must confess, that in all the years I have possessed the drawing, and in those before, I had not until the evening following the programme, read a word of this writer’s output. The programme was inspiring though, and has achieved its presenters wish that at least one person would go on to read some Bennett. There, lurking on my shelves, among the Penguin histories of English Literature as it happens, was The Grim Smile of the Five Towns.

Now I really did know nothing whatsoever of Bennett, save for his connection with The Potteries. In my Midland childhood they were still a place of smoke and grime – though I think I had that by rumour rather than experience! And in the programme, though the words ‘novelist’ and ‘journalist’ were mentioned, no reference at all was made to my favourite form, the short story. This put me in the curious position of embarking upon the first story in the  collection of short stories that is The Grim Smile of the Five Towns in the mistaken belief that I was reading the first chapter of a novel. Ignorance may or may not be bliss, but it is certainly a strange feeling to read a short story in the mistaken belief that you are reading a novel. Indeed, I wish I had realised earlier what I was doing, so that I might have paid more attention to those peculiarities. Of course, had I known, the peculiarities would not have existed. The penny, if that is the appropriate coin, dropped within half a page of the ending of the first story, The Lion’s Share, but it had been shoving at the slot – to extend the metaphor – right from the beginning. This was, I thought, an odd, though engaging and enjoyable, way to start a novel. It seemed to skip so lightly through the lives of Horace, and Sidney, and Ella at what, for a novel, seemed an almost indecently giddy pace. I can distinctly remember thinking, somewhere just after the middle of the story, that Bennett must be preparing for some ‘after’ story, that would commence when these preliminaries had been got out of the way. Dickens’ opening chapter of Bleak House might be said to do something similar.

The experience I might compare to boarding a train, and finding that you were travelling by boat – except for the fact that I have never done such a thing.

What, of course, Bennett was preparing me for – and for me – was the ending of his story, which, like all good short stories, carries the punch in its final words. So, for this reader at least, there was the double delight, not only of reaching the end of a good short story, but also of finding that I was not, in fact, reading a novel! There was also that glimmer of insight into the differences not only between the two forms, but also between my expectations of them.

I would commend the experience to you were it possible to replicate, but without that blissful ignorance, and the mistake it led to it’s hard to see how such a replication might be achieved. What I can do, of course, is to recommend a reading both of the author, and of this particular collection, on their own merits.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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