(Comma Press, 2013); pbk, £9.99
Edgar Allan Poe, the celebrated short fiction enthusiast, is often attributed the quote: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” David Constantine, for one, seems to have taken this to heart. In his fourth collection of stories, Tea at the Midland, Constantine has created an outstanding work in which each sentence is deliberately designed to convey exactly what is intended.
While the collection as a whole remains consistently first-rate, the title story rises head and shoulders above those which follow. Tea at the Midland is a five page master class in deft, delicate precision. Set in the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, the story involves two nameless lovers whose interest in one another is dwindling. Their conversation allows Constantine to explore ideas of beauty, the connection between art and artist, and the defiant “power of fiction” against the “inexorable traffic of our lives”. It is this concept of an escape from the commonplace through fiction and imagination that connects the collection as a whole, as each of Constantine’s characters acts in “defiance”, holding the personal and the artistic close while pushing the crushing uniformity of society to one side.
“Tea at the Midland” searches for beauty, skill and grace in the seemingly every day. However, Constantine moves beyond the momentary, his stories engaging the reader in intellectual debate and observation while retaining their status as fundamentally personal accounts.
Constantine actively avoids any political undertones . Of particular interest in the title story is the point where the two dysfunctional lovers use Eric Gill’s beautiful stone depiction of Odysseus and Nausikaa as an example of the relationship between art and artist. Despite her companion’s assertion that “a paedophile is a paedophile”, the woman, and by extension the reader, is struck by the beauty of the carving, regardless of Gill’s deeply unsavoury personal life (Gill was revealed to have abused his daughters in a posthumous biography). In essence, Constantine puts forward the idea of art outlasting the artist, even in the context of such social tarnish. Indeed, that may very well be Constantine’s underlying point; that art is essentially personal and objectivity reduces the social stigma of the artist into irrelevance.
Each word seems weighted and minutely calculated by Constantine to produce wonderfully layered, somewhat idiosyncratic descriptions. This is where the collection truly shines. Whilst watching surfers from behind the Hotel’s plate glass windows, the female narrator of “Tea at the Midland” notes: “Such versatile autonomy among the strict determinants and all that co-ordination of mind and body, fitness, practise, confidence, skill and execution, all for fun!”
It is in this way, through twisting, unexpected language and subtle context, that Constantine creates a short story of wonderful depth and skill that unfortunately serves to slightly overshadow the remainder of the collection. But that is certainly not to criticise the rest of the book, where Constantine continues to map out characters in situations of “delicate defiance”. Worthy of special mention is “Alphonse”, the story of Alf, a pensioner on the run from the clutches of a nursing home. At once humorous, defiant and unsettling, Constantine also employs the echoes of personalities running through Alf’s head, leading to a questioning of sanity and reality itself. Also engaging is “Goat”, which follows the bittersweet encounter of a vagrant, called Goat, and a clergyman in his last hours of employment.
Above all else, Constantine’s excellent collection concerns itself with the artistic and the personal, rejecting any sweeping social messages and forming an intimate bond with the reader. Through his expressive but almost obsessively precise style of prose, Constantine creates absorbing moments which do more than promote the power of fiction as a vehicle of escape; rather, “Tea at the Midland” proves this idea to be true.