Christopher Priest


William Sansom

Reviewed by CP in 2002. This article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.

The only copy of this book I have ever seen is the one I possess, and I bought that two or three years ago from one of the internet used-book dealers. You rarely see books by Sansom on sale anywhere, even in secondhand stores. He is a writer whose day has apparently come and gone. Even in his day he was not especially well known, although his work was highly regarded by a select audience.

My admiration for Sansom rests on several of his short stories and a non-fiction book about WW2. I find most of his novels light, undemanding and rather dated, although they are all highly readable. The story that grabbed me was called The Wall, which was first published in Fireman Flower but which I came across in a 1966 anthology called Writing in a War, edited by Ronald Blythe (Penguin). The Wall is set in the City of London during one night of the Blitz. A team of firemen is tackling a warehouse blaze. The front wall detaches from the burning building and collapses on top of the firemen. The entire action of the story takes place during the next three seconds. The Wall is four pages long and it is a masterpiece.

In the same anthology was a second wartime story by Sansom (who served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service), called Building Alive. Although not at quite the same level of imaginative intensity as The Wall, this second story is another remarkable effort. It deals with a squad of firemen searching the wreckage of a house after it has been hit by a V-1 flying bomb. The men are still inside the dangerously unstable building when they hear a second flying bomb approaching.

The title story of this collection – the first he published – is a third fire-service story, but it is a long and loosely written allegory, not up to the same standard as the other two I’ve mentioned. This is one of the problems with Sansom’s work: his involvement in the war clearly brought out the best in his writing (although some of his mature, post-war stories are also excellent), but too often you can detect malign influences. In Fireman Flower I felt the dead hand of Virginia Woolf lying heavily upon him, as it did in some of the other allegories in the book.

Perhaps the best of the rest is a short modernist parable called The Long Sheet. In this, a group of captives are placed in a series of sealed rooms, through the connecting walls of which has been wound a long white sheet, saturated with water. The captives will not be freed until they have wrung the sheet bone dry.

Finally, a note on the book itself. Published by Hogarth Press in 1944, it was one of those produced within the 'authorized economy standards' imposed on British publishers during WW2, so it is printed in a small typeface on microscopically thin paper. Although the book is 163 pages in length it is only just over a quarter of an inch thick, including the hard covers. For some reason I always find books from this period attractive, perhaps because they are so fragile and unlovely.

Practically all of Sansom's books are presently out of print, but does maintain a page of his books. Most of them are marked 'presently unavailable', but a few of them can be bought secondhand through Amazon. In addition to Fireman Flower, recommended Sansom titles include: The Marmalade Bird, Three, The Loving Eye, Goodbye and Away To It All. Sansom's work is long overdue for rediscovery.