Ian McMillan: Chekhov on cobbles

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Car boot sales, library sales, charity shops, second-hand bookshops, the bookshelves of friends when they’re looking the other way: these are some of the places I search for obscure works by writers I’ve never heard of, knowing that at some time in the future (probably closer than I think) I’ll be one of those obscure writers nobody’s heard of.

I’m always hoping to uncover a gem, particularly a Yorkshire gem, but to be honest I often realise, after a few pages, why the book ended up in the charity shop. Years ago, though, I uncovered a slice of unexpected Yorkshire treasure that has nurtured me ever since and kept me going back to those dusty back rooms full of neglected pages of words that give off a miasma that often makes me sneeze.

The Bradford Chekhov! What a phrase! I bought the book and read it on the train home and I’ve been a bit of a Malachi Whitaker evangelist ever since.

The book in question, that I bought in a charity shop in a mill-town somewhere, is The Crystal Fountain and Other Stories by the wonderfully-named Malachi Whitaker, published in 1986. I’ve got to admit that I was drawn to the blurb at the back of the book: “Malachi Whitaker published four books of stories in the 1920s and 1930s, was hailed as ‘The Bradford Chekhov’, then announced abruptly that she had written herself out.” The Bradford Chekhov! What a phrase! I bought the book and read it on the train home and I’ve been a bit of a Malachi Whitaker evangelist ever since.

I like the way she describes people; here’s a vivid sketch of a bloke from her story, Sultan Jekker: “A fat man, with loose, light-pink cheeks, was sitting on the side of a flat truck, eating his lunch. He had a torn gabardine raincoat on, and a cap so shrunken by rain, that it made his face look enormous. His legs, which were short, did not reach the ground as he sat, and his feet hung inertly, toes pointing inwards.” Some of Whitaker’s writing evokes a Yorkshire world that has largely disappeared, as in these lines from her story Time For Chapel: “She looked, not at Aunt Florida’s unsmiling face, but at the steep, light brown painted stairs and their respectable red carpet, protected in its turn by a foot-wide covering of near-linen, which ran up behind the old woman like a photographer’s back cloth.” Those stairs could have been from my auntie’s house in North Street.

The idea of the Bradford Chekhov comes from the fact that her stories have a modernist tinge; they float along in their own air, built around character and image, and there are no surprise endings of the kind that were popular in the magazine fiction of the time. Interestingly, reviewers at the time all assumed she was a man because (inevitably, I guess) of her masculine name, and indeed one critic wrote that her prose was “boy’s lemonade masquerading as man’s wine” but I disagree. This is writing as strong as the strongest Yorkshire tea, and you should seek it out.