Ox-Tales: Air, by Alexander McCall Smith, Helen Fielding, Beryl Bainbridge and others
In an intriguing take on the ‘charity book”, Oxfam have moved beyond the comparatively obvious option of books such as recipe books, turning innovatively instead to contemporary fiction as a source of fund-raising. Oxfam has lined up an impressive group of eminent writers, chosen the four elements – Water, Air, Earth and Fire – as themes and put together four books of new writing, each based around one of the elements. Part of the fun of reading these collections lies in seeing how these very diverse writers respond to the central theme.
Vikram Seth’s contribution is a poem, Air, which opens the collection, followed by a whimsical Alexander McCall Smith short story featuring an Italian airman visiting Scotland. With ‘Goodnight Children Everywhere’, Beryl Bainbridge offers a characteristically sardonic piece of writing, playing with the idea of a radio and air-waves . From DBC Pierre comes a vividly written , engaging and poignant story set in Trinidad that lingers in the mind. Pakistani author Kamila Shamse’s poetic piece, The Desert Torso, conjures the haunting image of a man walking through the desert carrying a stone body, moving from that to a thoughtful meditation on art, belief and life. Fans of Bridget Jones’s Diary will appreciate the chance to read a piece of fiction by Helen Fielding, a bitter-sweet comedy of manners set on a Caribbean island.
One of my favourite pieces in the collection is Helen Smith’s story ‘The Tipping Point’ which cheerfully and wittily acknowledges the theme, opening with the line: “Look at that sky”. Her story of a lovelorn academic is filled with references to air and sky, from ‘stratospheric’ venues and cloudscapes to asthma attacks and even a fart joke. Smith’s tale taps into the apocalyptic zeitgeist to create a blackly humorous story. The uneasiness with which one laughs at her story about selfishness is brought home to roost with the book’s afterword, detailing the grim consequences of climate change for the poorest parts of our world.
A book of short stories like this is best appreciated as a literary pick and mix. Enjoy this as a book that can be picked up, dipped into for a taste of somebody’s voice, perhaps an author that you know and admire or someone totally new to you, that you can discover in just a few pages. With all royalties going to Oxfam, buying a book like this is at once a personal pleasure and a simple way to support a good cause.