Book Review: Pauline Fisk book on Shrewsbury

Title: Behind Closed Doors in an English County Town
Author: Pauline Fisk
Publisher: Merlin Unwin Books Ltd.
Published: September 2014
Price: £9.99

You might, seeing the title, expect this book to be an exposé of the sordid secrets of the residents of some dark corner of the English psyche with a made-up name like Mudchester. If Mudchester is what you’re looking for, there’s a long tradition of novels ranging from Trollope and Dickens to Jilly Cooper and beyond.

This is something a little different. On January 1st 2013 Pauline Fisk started blogging about her home town (nowadays) of Shrewsbury: more specifically, “things that have interested me, that have caught my attention, made me smile, made me angry, joyful, happy or sad; buildings that I love; people who fascinate me; events that have taken place, or extraordinary incidences of natural phenomena…”

The result is a well-written mixture of informal interviews, historical snippets and anecdotes. This is, in brief, a thoroughly nice (in the best sense of the word) book by a thoroughly nice person – or so I was told by the thoroughly nice lady who sold me a book. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those well-meaning but slightly amateur publications that can sometimes be found on the ‘local’ shelves in small town bookshops. (Not that there’s anything wrong with encouraging local talent that hasn’t attracted blockbuster publishing budgets.) Pauline Fisk is an award-winning author with a track record of novels for the likes of Bodley Head and Faber & Faber, and she has a novelist’s eye for detail and people-watching, albeit with more empathy than some, and an eye for the interesting aspects of story that might, in other hands, seem mundane. And Merlin Unwin, though a relatively little-known regional press, has a reputation for publishing some very classy books such as their edition of Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ with photographs by Gareth B. Thomas.

She points out more than once in that she’s no historian, but there are historical snapshots here that will appeal to anyone with an interest in local history. But this isn’t a ‘period’ piece. For every insight into Shrewsbury’s more-than-usual-absorbing history [example], there are several pieces on more contemporary issues, interviews and so forth. Non-Salopians may not be personally outraged by the encroachment of the aggressively modernist Princess House into the 13th Century charm of the Market Square, but they may well recognize the tone of the discussions

The spirits of Henry Bolingbroke, the young Princess Victoria, Darwin and Coleridge sometimes walk these pages, along with more contemporary names such as two recent leaders of the Labour Party, Robert Plant, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury. However, the interview pieces are not usually with top-ranking ‘celebrities’ (which is fine by me…) They do include notable writers (Peter MurphyMichael Morpurgo); musicians like Dan Cassidy (brother of Eva and a fine fiddler in his own right) and gypsy jazzer Robin Nolan (George Harrison was a fan) and Chris Quinn; artists (Aidan Hart , Svetlana Elantseva; ‘Legendary Shropshire Tweeter’ Shroppie Mon; and people who don’t look for fame beyond the community in which they live, but whose stories turn out to be just as interesting: market traders, booksellers, florists…

Not everyone will be interested in the minutiae of living in a not-very-large town in a large but not heavily populated county – I am, but then I used to live there and still write about the area – but if you think you might be, you won’t be disappointed by the quality of the content and writing here.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

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