Cockfosters by Helen Simpson

19th Nov 2015

Cockfosters by Helen Simpson
Helen Simpson’s sixth short story collection is full of wry reflections on aging, loss, regrets, gender roles, and a changing relationship to sex.

Most of Simpson’s characters are in their late forties, a liminal time when they’re caught between older parents and still-needy children. (Their complaints of crumbling bodies and dried-up sex lives sometimes seem a bit premature, isn’t 70 the new 50?)

In the title story middle-aged friends Philippa and Julie are doubling back to collect the glasses Julie left on a train. They use the time to ponder how life has changed since their school days, and the passage of time is marked by the Tube stops between Green Park and the end of the line.

Throughout Simpson highlights the downsides, and opportunities, of middle age. “Berlin” which has a couple attending a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, rests on the metaphor of the “Twilight of the Gods” – the fall of Hitler and the Berlin Wall (but also Adam and Tracey who may be in the twilight of their lives but, so far, have made their marriage last).

In “Moscow” a successful fifty-year-old businesswoman, at home following a knee operation, gets a Russian in to fix the fridge/freezer. It’s an interesting setup but doesn’t really go anywhere. “Cheapside” sees a workaholic who recently underwent heart surgery trying to persuade his doctor’s flighty son to study law.

Recovering from surgery is a recurrent element. In “Torremolinos”, a story of just four pages, the narrator is awaking from a triple bypass. In the next bed is a Wormwood Scrubs prisoner who faked a heart attack. (Spot the echoes of Great Expectations in this one.)

Dickens turns up again in “Kentish Town” one of the best stories. Lots of the book club members are named for Dickens characters: Nancy, Dora and Estella. Their text for a pre-holiday meeting is Dickens’s The Chimes. Simpson weaves in discussion of the plot with commentary on the state of the nation as the ladies set the world to rights and make New Year’s resolutions. This is a perfect story to read in the run-up to Christmas.

The fact that Simpson’s characters are conflicted about work versus family shows that the path ahead is still not clear.Many of the pieces are dialogue-driven, almost like scenes in plays. In “Arizona” Mae is giving Liz acupuncture for her migraines. Both are entering menopause which Mae likens to a new state, “like Arizona… Brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine.”

The nine stories are all named after places. Seven originally appeared in other publications, several under other titles. Only about half of the current story titles work, others seem arbitrary. Like “Kythera” a twee tale in which a mother recalls favourite memories of her teenage daughter whilst baking a lemon drizzle cake for her birthday.

The overall stand-out is “Erewhon” named after Samuel Butler’s satirical utopian novel (1872). It quickly becomes clear that gender roles are reversed in this fictional world. The narrator lies awake at night worrying about being a good dad and keeping up with housework while working full-time. His wife Ella is loutish and aloof, and naked men feature in ladies’ mags. The satire is a little broad and obvious, yet the feminist intent is admirable.

“There is no such thing as the work–life balance. You cannot be both driven and laid-back” one character exclaims. Another laments that “I’m doing the best work I’ve done in my life but – I notice it every time I go for an interview – fifty is a black mark.” The fact that Simpson’s characters are conflicted about work versus family shows that the path ahead is still not clear. This short but incisive book will provide plentiful food for thought.