The 84 of the Best British Short Stories?

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All the stories in Philip Hensher’s ‘The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story’ & ‘The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume 2’

Sometimes you just don’t get it. You wonder why. Bur more depressing is when you do get it, and you’re still wondering why. Why what? Why was it written? Why was it published in a collection that set out to find the best of the ‘Contemporary British Short Story’? Why is it admired? Why is it adjudged to be better than countless other stories that you’ll never read, or even many that you have? It’s a curious thing. Perhaps as curious as someone marking every story out of 100.

Francis King – ‘The Mouse’ – 98/100 – Aha! Perfect balance in all sorts of ways

Mark Haddon – “The Pier Falls” – 95

A.S. Byatt – ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’ – 95/100 – not perfect (loose ending) – but Byatt is great – this is the Byatt of ‘Possession’ as opposed to the Byatt of the Frederica Quartet 

Leone Ross – “The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant” – 94

Alun Lewis – “Private Jones” – 94

Muriel Spark – ‘Bang, Bang, You’re Dead’ – 94/100 – reaches higher than Mrs J Brodie

Graham Greene – ‘The Hint of an Explanation’ – 93/100 – Far from perfect, but it grabs you

Tessa Hadley – ‘Buckets of Blood’ – 92/100 – just very well done

Angus Wilson – ‘The Wrong Set’ – 90/100 – Spot on

China Miéville – “Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia” – 88

V S Pritchett – ‘The Camberwell Beauty’ – 86/100

Penelope Fitzgerald – ‘The Means of Escape’ – 86/100 – Great opening. Fitzgerald just writes great stories 

Doris Lessing – ‘Notes for a Case History’ – 84/100 – A great writer, but is this her best short story?

Zadie Smith – ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ – 83/100 – damned if you do and damned if you don’t – there’s no coherence or cogency to this story, but if Smith gave it a neat ending she would have probably ruined it

Graham Swift – “Remember This” – 82

Leslie Halward – “Old Sweat” – 82

Robert Aickman – ‘Bind Your Hair’ – 82/100 – not sure where we ended up, but great build up

Malachi Whitaker – “Courage” – 81

Julian Maclaren Ross – “Death of a Comrade” – 80

W Somerset Maugham – ‘Winer Cruise’ – 80/100 – classic short story of its type

Angela Carter – ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ – 80/100 – surprisingly good, more subtle than the Carter stories of this type

Lucy Wood – “Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict” – 79

Rhys Davies – ‘A Human Condition’ – 79/100 – good going

Jean Rhys – ‘Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers’ – 79/100 – nowhere near the best of JR

Alasdair Gray – ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’ – 79/100 – For an author I just can’t be getting on with, this was quite good

Jack Common – “Nineteen” – 78

Rose Tremain – “The Closing Door” – 76

Sarah Hall – “Later, his Ghost” – 76

G F Green – ‘A Wedding’ – 75/100 – pretty good at replicating confusion 

Lucy Caldwell – “Poison” – 74

Kingsley Amis – ‘Mason’s Life’ – 74/100

Neil Gaiman – “Troll Bridge” – 73

Helen Simpson – “Every Third Thought” – 73

Zadie Smith – “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” – 73

T H White – “The Point of Thirty Miles” – 73

Samuel Selvon – ‘Knock on Wood’ – 73/100 – doesn’t really arrive

Elizabeth Taylor – ‘In and Out the Houses’ – 73/100

Will Self – “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” – 72 (& far better than the FSFitz original)

Candia McWilliam – ‘The Only Only’ – 71/100 – a great little story, spoiled in places by a need for abstruse vocabulary – not sure what ‘ferrous patina’ brings to the table

Kazuo Ishiguro – “Come Rain or Come Shine” – 70

Thomas Morris – “All the Boys” – 70

P G Wodehouse – “Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court” – 70 (more than mildly amusing as one would expect)

Bernard MacLaverty – ‘Phonefun Limited’ – 69/100 – doesn’t amount to much, a shame

Janice Galloway – ‘Last Thing’ – 69/100 – great conception, execution a little shoddy

L A Strong – ‘The Rock’ – 68/100 – kind of works, despite itself

V S Naipaul – ‘The Perfect Tenants’ – 68/100 – jogs along pretty well, Naipaul is great writer, but I’m not sure where it goes: if it went nowhere, it still didn’t quite arrive.

Tessa Hadley – ‘Funny Little Snake’ – 66

Elizabeth Bowen – “The Dancing Mistress” – 66 (very rusty for EB)

Evelyn Waugh – “Cruise” – 66

Ali Smith – “The Universal Story” – 65

James Hanley – “The German Prisoner” – 63 (not what it could be)

Hilary Mantel – “The Clean Slate” – 62

Ian McEwan – ‘Pornography’ – 62/100 – how does this even begin to hang together?

Martin Amis – ‘Career Move’ – 62/100 – much as I hate Martin Amis, he writes well; but he’s not as clever as he would have himself believe and the formula for this piece, like so much of his stuff, is pretty simple. Facile. He pulled off ‘Money’, but nothing else.

Jackie Kay – “Physics & Chemistry” – 61

David Rose – “A Nice Bucket” – 61

Georgina Hammick – ‘Grist’ – 61/100 – Mixed – “Aunt was dying, or, more accurately, living with Death. Death was giving Aunt a hard time. He followed her up and down the stairs…” – as well as the title – as in “grist to the mill” – just fall flat

Helen Dunmore – “North Sea Crossing” – 56

Adam Marek – ‘The 40-Litre Monkey’ – 56/100 – doesn’t pull it off likes he thinks he does

Roald Dahl – ‘Someone like you’ – 54/100 – Dahl tries the non-story with no point, and pulls it off

Helen Oyeyemi – “If a Book is Locked…” – 53

Sylvia Townsend Warner – “The Trumpet Shall Sound” – 53

Adam Mars-Jones – ‘Baby Clutch’ – 53/100 – flabby, gets to where it’s going without much subtly or grace

Peter Hobbs – “Winter Luxury Pie” – 52

David Szalay – Chapter 2 from “All That Man is” – 50

William Sansom – ‘A Contest of Ladies’ – 50/100 – mediocre

George Mackay Brown – ‘Three Old Men’ – 50/100 – why are people still writing this kind of stuff in the late 20th century? – not wise enough, nor cryptic enough to get away with it

Ali Smith – ‘Miracle Survivors’ – 49/100 – putting together two stories that have no real link – so that the reader will look for one – is not the peak of the art

Jon McGregor – ‘The Remains’ – 48/100 – not quite

Jane Gardam – “Dangers” – 46

A.L. Kennedy – “Spared” – 44

Gerard Woodward – “The Fall of Mr & Mrs Nicholson” – 41

T F Powys – ‘The Key of the Field’ – 41/100 – silly, fluff

Beryl Bainbridge – ‘The Longstop’ – 39/100 – this can’t be Bainbridge’s best short

J G Ballard – ‘The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D’ – 33/100

Douglas Dunn – ‘Bobby’s Room’ – 32/100 – a real mess

Martin Amis – “The Unknown Known” – 31

James Kelman – “Justice for One” – 30

Shena Mackay – ‘Cardboard City’ – 30/100 – the set up is woeful

Eley Williams – “Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef” – 29

Christine Brooke-Rose – ‘Red Rubber Gloves’ – 26/100

Henry Green – “The Lull” – 24

Alan Sillitoe – ‘Mimic’ – 22/100

Irvine Welsh – “Catholic Guilt” – 13