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A Midhurst Lad

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Success Stories

by Ronald Boxall 

ISBN 1 904278 31 0
Red'n'Ritten, 2003
254pp, pbk
Retail price £8.99

When we read the life stories of ordinary people, we do so in quite a different way from reading a novel, different even from the way we read the biographies and autobiographies of the rich and famous. With the latter, we have a pretty good idea of the ending. With novels, we may not know the ending but at least we know there is going to be one. The autobiography of a man like Ronald Boxall, lived from beginning to end in obscurity, has no plot and no real dénouement.

In a sense, this may be considered simply a series of anecdotes, each as interesting in its own way as a short story. The difference between A Midhurst Lad and others of this variety that I have read is that it is extremely well-written. Even if the author needed help from an editor (I don’t know whether he did or not) to put it together, it is clear that he possesses the storyteller’s gift in abundance. And he can spell "nerve-racking" – a surprisingly uncommon gift.

The book was written, or begun, during the 1980s, and has been published by Red’n’Ritten, an independent publisher that prides itself on producing good old-fashioned stories with no explicit sex or unnecessary violence. This is obviously not a policy designed for maximum commercial success, but there is certainly a need for books like this. How many of us – and not just the elderly – have been shocked and disturbed by the content of innocent-looking volumes picked up at random from the library shelves?

Quelling the modern notion that the south of England has always been a prosperous place, Ronald Boxall recounts the story of his birth and childhood in the small market town of Midhurst in Sussex. He was born into what, today, would be regarded as extreme poverty, but fortunately for him he was also born into an extended family where love and honour were paramount values. If proof positive were needed that books without sex or violence don’t have to be boring, this is it. The anecdotes told by Mr Boxall vary enormously in subject and mood. Who could fail to be moved by the tale of Aunt Kate’s jackdaw, or riveted from beginning to end by the story of the vicar’s goldfish and the fate of their killer?

Because this is fact, not fiction, the endings of the stories are seldom predictable. We might foresee that young Ronald’s family, and those of his two friends, would call out the police when they disappear on a 25-mile hike to Crystal Palace and back with no money in their pockets, but we would not anticipate what awaits them after they have been put to bed without supper. The chapters, each a miniature masterpiece, are full of real colour and atmosphere. I could just see young Ron, tucked into the big armchair, reading ghost stories by the light of two candles as well as gaslight. If I had lacked the imagination, the delightful pen-and-ink illustrations would have told me all I needed to know.

This book is a little jewel amongst many well-meaning efforts of its kind. I enjoyed it so much that, when my husband returned it to the library by mistake, I felt compelled to go and get it back. Don’t miss it!

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Review by Deborah Fisher