In-Flight Entertainment, By Helen Simpson

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The Independent Culture

The threat of global warming appears in several stories in Helen Simpson's new collection. A bit risky, this; many a story has sunk beneath good intentions or the need to point a moral. But it's carried off here effectively, for the most part, by incorporation as dialogue, as a persistent anxiety at the side of everyday life or, most cunningly, something droned on about by bores.

In the title story, Alan, a youngish businessman flying to America, pooh-poohs the whole idea. He is irritated by being contradicted by a fellow passenger - and because the plane has been diverted after an old man has died on board. This is a superb story, told from the viewpoint of the not overly bright Alan: of age and death and the refusal to accept either. Again, in "Geography Boy", a young couple cycling in France visit a château at Angers where medieval tapestries of the Apocalypse are displayed. Bernard annoys Adele by constantly pointing out the nearness in their own time of another engulfing Apocalypse.

The promised horrors arrive in "Diary of an Interesting Year". This is the diary of a middle-class woman, beginning in a humid mosqito-ridden southern England in February 2040. The sewage system has packed up and there is cholera in London. Her husband congratulates himself by saying "I saw it coming". "It" is a world of rationing, candles, one car and one radio for a whole street, and the billeting of families from even harder hit parts of the world. The couple decide to head north. Calamity ensues. Violence, abortion, murder: but the whole is related in an exasperated urbane tone that turns it into a very black comedy. It should be rushed out a separate slim volume with illustrations by Posy Simmonds or Raymond Briggs.

The writing is consistently acute. In "Up at the Villa", a woman takes off her bikini top to reveal "breasts like wheels of Camembert"; in "Scan", a woman in a tube stuck in dark tunnel see another train, "a worm with lampy eyes making its way in another direction altogether". She has been suffering blackouts and her doctor has sent her for a scan. The journey stands in her mind as a metaphor for birth, the scanning machine as a noisy and claustrophobic limbo, and when she visits the Wallace Collection afterwards for comfort, something altogether more terrible happens. Helen Simpson rarely puts a foot wrong in these stories. She is a wry, humane and brilliant observer of our peculiar condition.

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