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Issue 1149

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Light reading on the 6.15

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Alexander Waugh tells Eliza Charlton about his publishing brainwave - the short story that folds like a map

IT began with a sacking, as good ideas often do. On D-Day last year, the writer and musician Alexander Waugh got a letter from the newspaper where he worked as opera critic, dispensing with his services. "When you've got a job, getting sacked from it is what you dread most," he says. "But when it happened, it was the most wonderful thing." For what it meant was that at last he was obliged to concentrate on a scheme that he had come up with years before and never quite got off the ground. It was an idea of beautiful simplicity, which arose during a conversation about short stories with that master of the form, William Trevor.

The thing about short stories, Waugh and Trevor agreed, is that although they are written to stand alone, in practice they very seldom do. The reader must approach them through the medium of a collection or anthology, where there is a danger of what Trevor calls "cancellation" - one story nullifying the effect of the next. Waugh describes reading a volume of short stories as rather like being at a party - you're never sure that you're talking to the most interesting person in the room.

And so the idea of the Travelman Short Stories was born - a library of classic short stories (no abridgments, no bleeding chunks hacked from longer texts) printed on a single broadsheet, which concertinas neatly into pocket size. The design is both elegant and highly distinctive. Waugh (who came up with it - he appears to be dauntingly multi-talented) described it as "logical".

The body text is printed in a typeface called Perpetua, on creamy paper (from sustainable forests); the title is in Gill Sans. Bands of colour identify the genre - scarlet for crime, blue for romance, and so on - and there are specially commissioned cover illustrations, some of which Waugh has also provided, including one, rather in the spirit of Osbert Lancaster, for a duo of stories by his grandfather, Evelyn. The stories are numbered ("for sad anoraks" says Waugh) and deliberately, enticingly, collectable.

The series is presided over by an editorial panel - a collection of literary names dazzling enough to make one's eyes water: William Trevor, Martin Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, Dame Muriel Spark, Auberon Waugh. One can see how he came by the last mentioned (Auberon is Alexander's father), but what about the rest of them? Writers are preoccupied and solitary and notoriously not keen to take on unremunerative bits of extra work.

"Oh," says Waugh, diffidently, "I wrote to Martin Amis quite early on, mentioning Sredni Vashtar (Saki's savagely brilliant short story in which a loathsome female authority figure tangles with a small boy's ferret, and the ferret wins). I didn't really expect to hear, but he wrote back saying, "Anyone who says the words Sredni Vashtar to me makes me laugh, so yes." And then I could write to the others, saying, "Martin Amis has already said yes."

The plan is to publish eight titles a month. The first batch, which appears on Monday, includes HG Wells's The Country of the Blind, Katherine Mansfield's Bliss, PG Wodehouse's Goodbye to All Cats, and Evelyn Waugh's On Guard. They will be available at bookshops and newsagents across the country, and WH Smith is promoting them at its branches at stations and airports.

Waugh's idea is that the weary traveller, bored with his unvarying diet of newsprint, will pick up a Travelman for 1 (there are plans to install vending machines in the London Underground later in the year) and lose himself in a fictional world aboard the 6.15 to Haywards Heath.

This enticing combination of literature and travel is not, of course, wholly original. Rudyard Kipling apparently did a roaring trade on the Indian Railways with his twopenny story sheets, and WH Smith itself claims some credit for introducing decent literature to station bookstalls. A Times report of 1851 comments unflatteringly of these: "encumbered with unmitigated rubbish [which] indicated only too clearly that the hand of ignorance had been indiscriminately busy in piling up the worthless mass . . . of publications of the lowest possible character". Smith's backed a cheap and popular "Traveller's Library", whose titles included Coleridge's Table Talk and a work by the Bishop of Exeter entitled Baptismal Regeneration.

It does seem perfectly possible that Waugh, a moment or two ahead of the rest of us, has caught the scent of an approaching fashion - a weariness with the tyranny of stupidity, a kind of longing for whatever the opposite is of dumbing down - brightening up, perhaps. But still, it would be a great mistake to overlook the less spiritual charms of the Travelman. They may be about to effect the renaissance of the English short story, but they are also an invaluable means of starting a conversation with the pretty girl in the next seat.

The essence of Englishness


Next report: A repressed psyche in full flight

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