Boyd Tonkin: A feast of stories for a planet in want

The Week In Books

Friday 03 July 2009 00:00

Charity anthologies have, to be frank, a less than glorious name in the publishing business. Too often, the literary great and good respond to the pricking of their conscience by finding – to car-crash metaphors – a damp squib in the bottom drawer. If good causes enlist bad stories (or poems, or essays), who benefits – or cares? One would expect more punch and panache from any project that merged the stature and talents of Oxfam and Profile Books under the direction of Rough Guides founder, and Profile editor, Mark Ellingham. And so, given the very rare forgettable misfire, it proves with the four volumes of Ox-Tales (Profile, £5 each).

The Ox-Tales collection coincides with the Oxfam shops' first Bookfest. It aims to raise £200,000, while spreading up-to-date awareness of the organisation's work. Topped by a poem from Vikram Seth and tailed by a sketch of current Oxfam ventures, each volume gathers short stories connected to one of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Every sale of one handsomely designed paperback will bring a 50 pence donation to Oxfam but – given that the entire quartet will cost only £20 and enrich dozens of lazy summer days – why not pick up the whole set?

The constellation of 37 writers extends from Mark Haddon to Ali Smith; John le Carré to Zoë Heller; Ian Rankin to Rose Tremain; Hari Kunzru to Lionel Shriver; Sebastian Faulks to Marina Lewycka; Victoria Hislop to Hanif Kureishi. What's more, the overall standard of the pieces in most cases matches the lustre of these names.

Such plenitude wrecks all efforts at generalisation, though back-to-back reading does throw up all manner of curious rhymes and chimes. Thus the the myth of Ariadne marooned on Naxos, superbly revisited in Mark Haddon's "The Island" (one of the very best stories), then lurks in the background of another, utterly different stand-out contribution: Ali Smith's "Last". Still, within the frame of a summer-reading banquet designed to boost a global development agency, I could hardly miss the several stories that depict Westerners at work or play among people poorer than themselves as resources dwindle and the natural world suffers.

Close to the bone, Hari Kunzru's "Kaltes klares Wasser" has a washed-up aid worker feverishly (in all senses) immersed in anti-malaria campaigns, working for 20 years in "far-flung corners of the earth where my total inability to commit to another human being can be disguised as a generalised passion for humanity". You will grasp that this project involves proper fiction, not feel-good propaganda for a cause.

Elsewhere, anguished rich-world vacationers come to grief in luxury resorts in fine stories by Zoë Heller and Helen Fielding. Kate Atkinson's "Lucky We Live Now" wittily imagines Third World austerity returning to a bankrupt West. A trip to Indonesia (his mum's homeland) fails to assuage the grief of a dead soldier's son in Michael Morpurgo's tale. In DBC Pierre's Trinidad story, an expat's charismatic colleague falls prey to the "dark and colossal joke" of Aids. And, in Nicholas Shakespeare's "The Death of Marat", a bloody episode of the French Revolution fuses with the trials of a white farmer's baffled widow in Mugabe's - thinly-disguised - Zimbabwe.

Not that any one climate of ideas can hang around for long in an archipelago of tales whose settings range from the station where Tolstoy died (Rose Tremain, in top form) to last winter's Athens, set aflame by riots (Victoria Hislop; ditto). All the same, the context for Ox-Tales means that many readers will peer out from beach sun-lounger or cottage window and reflect on our clumsy stewardship of the elements it evokes. People with too much, and with too little, all dread an age when - as Seth's poem about water has it - "The ice-caps melt. The ports are drowned./ The current from the gulf is still./ The darkening planet drinks the sun/ And cyclones swirl and whirl and kill."

P.S.Poets and local authorities seldom see eye to eye. So perhaps Ledbury Poetry Festival (which begins today) guessed the reaction when it brought some American graffiti – literally – to the streets of the pretty Herefordshire town. In the early hours of Sunday, Robert Frost's lines from "The Road Not Taken" – "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –/ I took the one less travelled by,/ And that has made all the difference" – appeared on the pavements of Ledbury. Predictably, Herefordshire council was stonily unmoved and sent the scrubbers to work. But director Chloë Garner promises that further inspiring words will take shape beneath festive feet. Meanwhile, above ground, a typically stellar line-up includes the likes of Roger McGough, Ruth Padel, Alice Oswald, Daljit Nagra, Hugo Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah:

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