I have lost count of the number of copies of Helen Simpson’s short stories I have given as presents, usually to younger friends who find themselves struggling in the adjustment from singledom to marriage and then from wedded bliss to baby care. Simpson’s first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, is brilliant about the former, while Hey Yeah Right Get a Life examines some of the teething troubles of parenthood. Reading Simpson’s stories makes you feel less alone in the world: she’s one of those writers who just seem to hit the nail on the head. She’s funny, too.
In this new collection she turns her attention to late middle age. Here are its discontents and moments of surprising joy and acceptance, as revealed through the minutiae of life: misplaced spectacles, broken freezers, the making of birthday cakes. People complain of aches and pains, wonder whether their marriages can survive unfaithfulness, try – as people in Simpson’s fictional world always do – to muddle through and make the best of things. Amid the noise and haste is the constant solace of conversation between women. When everything else is going wrong, female friends may be relied upon for their warmth, candour and wryness. Much of the substance of Cockfosters is made up of their reported speech: women at a book group, a woman and her acupuncturist, old school friends travelling together on the Underground.
Simpson has always been a much more subversive writer than she seems. Her stories may look small, but so does a surgical instrument: both have a way of getting right through to the bone. Within the jokes and chatter are stinging jibes at consumer capitalism, critiques of Dickens and Wagner and a hilarious feminist reimagining of marriage. The story in which the acupuncturist and her patient talk about the menopause actually proposes something pretty radical. Counter to the prevailing climate in which only HRT and anti-ageing potions can make it OK, Simpson suggests that going through it armed only with curiosity may be fine, after all.
Simpson is doing something sly here in terms of style, too: she is demonstrating that women’s conversation – so prone to digression, jokes and self-deprecation – is actually where the action lies. It may sound light and conciliatory in tone, but lurking within are serious truths, wisdom and insight. It is the engine for personal and familial change, but also for shifts in the wider social and political world. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a kinder, less adversarial tone in Westminster, for example, must surely have derived from listening to women. (Indeed, recent research shows that men gender-transitioning to become women acquire improved language and communication skills almost as soon as they start taking hormones.)
Oddly enough this isn’t an easy thing to propose, even now. When Simpson puts women’s talk at the centre of her stories, she’s being bold indeed. While it’s accepted that women’s bodies are forbidden territory for ridicule, women’s talk is still infra dig. Men roll their eyes heavenwards when women talk together, the general assumption being that whenever two or three are gathered they will discuss nothing more challenging than handbags. To press home the point, one story here is a conversation between an older male lawyer and a school-leaver, a boy looking for work experience: their encounter is piercingly dull and they remain at cross-purposes throughout. Only the older man’s interior monologue is of any interest.
The longest story concerns a couple who go to Bayreuth to hear The Ring cycle. Many of their fellow travellers are much older and Simpson strays into Jane Gardam territory with this rueful and witty depiction of the elderly. The technical accomplishment of this story is great: a discussion of Wagner, the delicate repair of a broken relationship, the comfort of strangers, the juxtaposition between what people think and what they actually say. And yet, being Helen Simpson, she makes it look so easy.