H E Bates and the paperback cover

I love H E Bates. His short stories are perfect examples of drowsy, bee-filled summers or glowing winter afternoons, and full of bittersweet melancholia not unlike Hardy shorn of some melodrama. Incredibly prolific and versatile (which, along with The Darling Buds of May is probably a reason why he’s not allowed to be admitted as one of our literary greats), his stories often, and perhaps surprisingly, centre on outsiders, the downtrodden, the innocent, where circumstance is quicksand. You’re quite likely to find a patriarch crushing his wife’s lesbian idyll, or a husband humiliated by his gin-sodden wife finding release with the village lad she attempts to devour.

I imagine publishers were keen to exploit his sense of liberated, almost pagan sensuality that finds outlets amid the sourness in small English towns and villages (see The Sleepless Moon – illicit meetings by a disused mill, bare legs and – well, I imagine the first sketch was sent back with a request to ‘cover things up a bit’). As such, on some occasions his other paperback covers almost depicted that seventies male-fantasy, the ‘dolly-bird’. Dulcima is interesting here: Carol White, who appears on the cover, took the role of a downtrodden country girl in the 1970 film with John Mills. Known for Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, she was a respected dirty-realism actress who ironically wanted the Hollywood glitz instead, dying young in its failed pursuit. Despite attempts with the bed and the bath towel, due to her skill as an actress this film-still cover tells us something quite different: about hope and hopelessness, frustration and resignation.

It’s hard to describe the particular sensibility in these covers: they occupy a particular space of time from the late sixties into early seventies. These are interesting faces, enigmatic characters whose images have to tread a fine line in making sure they aren’t sending out Trojan horses to poison romantic fantasies. There is resignation to lamplit gloom in Glenda Jackson’s The Triple Echo; and the girl in the The Four Beauties is no-one’s fool – here is freedom, independence.

Apart from the odd one out of course. That’s A E Coppard marketed as shampoo. With a slug.