Graham Greene once wrote that T. O. (Thomas Owen) Beachcroft was “likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country.”
Well, this wasn’t one of his best predictions. Beachcroft’s last collection of stories was published over sixty years ago and his work has vanished, aside from a rare story included in an anthology. It’s hard to put one’s finger on just what led to this neglect, but a quick comparison with Bates–with whom he had much in common when it came to his choice of social classes and settings–reveals two obvious deficiencies: a lack of bestsellers and a lack of film and television adaptations. One reason that so much of Bates’ work is still in print is that his books–and particularly several of his novels–were popular with both the reading public and producers looking for source material. Beachcroft’s novels, on the other hand, gained little notice even when they first came out, and I suspect that there was enough similarity with Bates’ work that Beachcroft’s stories were just too easily to overlook. An excellent sample, The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft, however, can be found for free online at the Internet Archive (link).
Although Beachcroft came from a solidly middle-class background, attended Balliol, and worked in advertising and broadcasting, he was better at writing about the working class. He had a good ear for the dialogue of people used to pinching pennies and a different moral code from that of stolid Anglican churchgoers:
“Come on, Elsie,” said Phil, “don’t get behind. We’re nearly there.”
“I’ve dropped a parcel,” said Elsie.”
“Here,” said Phil, “give it me.”
He picked it up and took off the wrapping.
“Why,” he said, “it’s a kid’s motor, toy omnibus. What are all those parcels ? Can’t you leave ’em somewhere? What’s this motor for?”
“Why,” said Elsie, “I mustn’t lose that: that’s for my little Charlie–he’ll be ever so pleased to see that.”
“Your Charlie?” said Phil. “What do you—mean?”
“My little boy–I was taking all these toys home for him and the baby.
“You got two kids?”
“Yes–three years old, and ten months.”
“What the sweet hell?” began Phil, and stopped.
“Here,” he said, “take that glove off.” He snatched her hand.
“Oh, you’re hurting.”
“Hurtin’–you bitch: you ought to be killed. Look at that–married woman!”
from “A Glass of Stout”
He also knew that a life of work could be more than mere drudgery and mindless clock-punching. In “Busting Him One,” for example, his protagonist is a master mechanic with more respect for his machines than for the foreman who tries to maintain his authority through bullying and bravado:
He had a lathe in almost constant use, remaking, re-turning, regrinding, re-edging a number of the cutting and punching tools which shaped and stamped the tins as they went through. There were dozens of different patterns, and several sizes were needed on each machine, according to the thickness of the material and variations in speed and exact effect that was needed. This part of his work was highly skilled, and he had to know all the machines and all their tricks and habits backwards. It was his extra grasp of the complete work that all the machines in his shop were handling that had got him out of the line five years before: just as somewhere in an orchestra there’s one man who knows the whole score well enough to conduct a performance.
Many of his stories take place at work, and the variety of jobs worked by Beachcroft’s characters demonstrates that his time in advertising had allowed him to get around to quite a number of settings, from white collar (doctor, cancer researcher, priest) to blue (publican, machinist, sailor, carpenter, farmer, soldier) and even to jobless (panhandler, homeless men). He knew the sight of men coming home from a day working in the fields: “… brown and yellow and gnarled. They looked like roots and tubers freshly taken from the ground, with the earth still clinging to them.”
And he knew the same England that Orwell described in The Road to Wigan Pier, the England of bleak economic and spiritual depression:
Then he saw the wheeling shadow of the hard times swing across his town and settle on men’s homes like a blight. The hungry thousands with sunken eyes and faces pressed round and called to him–from cheap dosses and cheerless wards and crypts that took in the destitute, from the open, from doorsteps and prison cells where they had been scattered. And he felt his own life merge into the lives of the many thousands of men like him: once whole, and now broken.
Perhaps what condemned Beachcroft to neglect was what he was best at: simple, undemonstrative stories told in subtle shades, rather than dramatic effects or social causes. As poet and novelist Stevie Smith wrote of one of his later collections, “Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.” Such simplicity, sadly, may take infinite care to create, but can also be too easy to take any notice of. And so T. O. Beachcroft joins the ranks of such neglected masters as Anne Goodwin Winslow, Isabel Bolton, John Guest, Herbert Clyde Lewis, and dozens of others mentioned on this site.