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At a recent workshop (Writing The River – part of the Maryport Literary Festival at the Senhouse Roman Museum) one of the group came up with a monologue in which a policeman addressed an unseen and unheard individual. Reading aloud to the group, he preceded his monologue with the explanation; ‘it’s a policeman talking’.
Following the reading, the challenge I set him, was to reveal that identity without the need for the introductory prompt.
We could take this as a general writing exercise: write a piece – a story even – in which the first person narrator reveals his identity – or role, or status , or what-you-will – during the course of the narration.
There are many possible variants on this. Here are a few. The revelation could be at the beginning, which implies that we (the listeners, or readers, if you prefer) need to know right away where this narrator is coming from, or going to, even when our opinion on that may be revised later. On the other hand that identity could be withheld, could in fact be the ‘grand revelation’ that ends the piece. Who would tell this story, give this account? And will our prejudices and experiences have guided well our speculations? Alternatively that identity could be dribbled out; filled in; accumulated over the whole piece.
How might one do this? In the quoted case the suggestion came almost immediately – by having him begin ‘evening all’. For those still young enough not to remember, this was the opening line of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, an early TV police series, as George Dixon led us into a narration of one of his cases. The phrase gives us a clue to what might be right, and wrong, with picking words associated with a particular identity: what’s right is of course, the association. What’s wrong, is the transience of our awareness of it. I remember, in the nineteen eighties, being highly amused on a Sunday morning, when a young and slightly uncomfortable policeman would turn up at the Probation Hostel in which I worked to collect the breakfasts for those who had been banged up overnight down at the ‘station’. The residents, our euphemism for those convicted, and those on bail, would quietly whistle the tune from Z Cars, another TV Police soap. The policeman, would feel more uncomfortable. But who now would recognise the refrain?
Yet, the problem remains to be resolved. How do we tell – there’s no showing to be had in the world of one word after another, in order – where somebody belongs, or is coming from, by the words they use? Vocabulary? Jargon? Subject matter? To a certain extent it’s a back-story issue, and carries with it the danger of an opening:
‘When I began patrolling my beat this morning, I never guessed I’d meet someone like you!’
That is clumsy, and unconvincing. Using ‘or him’ and having the narrator address the listener, rather than the character, would be slightly better. Something like, ‘May I ask what you have in the bag, sir’, might work, and ‘All right, sunshine, open the bag!’ would imply quite a different person being addressed. ‘Hello, hello, hello, what ‘ave we ‘ere!’ would be too music hall, but quite distinct from “’Allo ‘Allo”!
There is the issue of who is being addressed. Who is our policeman, or whatever he or she is, talking to, or about? What is their attitude towards each other, narrator and narrated? And would a changing attitude, be for positive or negative? And would it coincide with ours, or diverge as we progress?
I find encounters like this, whether first or second or third person, always intriguing, and a good basis for tales. And behind them always, seems to lurk the questions of why the narrator is telling the tale, and why in that voice, and how I am supposed, or expected to respond. I find the idea of the ‘narratorless’ story unconvincing. James Joyce talked of refining the artist ‘out of existence’, but it seems to me that such refining is not really about disguising or hiding the narrator, and of course, the ‘artist’ Joyce was referring to is the creator of the narrator. One of the first necessities in writing fiction is to discover your relationship, as writer, with the narrators you, intentionally or otherwise, create. As I’ve said before, the way to find out where somebody is, is to ask them what they can see.
Somerset Maugham, writing about first person narrators, has something to say on this, worth quoting again: ‘the I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons…..The author is […… ] creating a character for the particular purposes of the story.’ (From the Preface to volume 2 of Maugham’s Collected Short Stories, Penguin, 1972 )
The issue of the narrator’s identity makes a good basis for not only a single writing exercise, but for a whole series of them, examining the ways in which our revelations of that identity might impact on the nature of the tale, and on our responses to what we are being told. It might be worth an hour or two of your time to experiment with it.
If you’re taking an interest in the unfolding story of how veils should be responded to, and how they might be reacted to, it might interest you to know that there is a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story that touches on the subject.
Long before the issue of Muslim veils had surfaced here in England, I’d written a long short story set in a futuristic mall – but one for which the actual future kept on outrunning me in many ways – in which a projected, electronic veil was worn, to protect people’s privacy in the face of CCTV coverage. I could never really get a grip on the story. Like so many stories, it wanted to go its own way, and persisted in turning into some sort of adventure story. I liked the characters though, and the playing about with the ideas that the veils, and what they might look like, prompted. Not only the fast encroaching future of malls, but the developing issue of the Muslim veil also eventually ran my story into the long grass.
Hawthorne’s tale comes from a different era, and is based on, or at least parallels to some extent, a documented historical incident.
Clergyman Hooper’s Black Veil is a story with a religious basis. The eponymous hero appears unexpectedly in a black veil, a scrap of muslin – don’t get confused there -which he wears, day and night, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking – I’m beginning to sound like the Bishop’s Curse (you have to know your Carlisle) – until the day he dies. It’s a curious veil, in that it covers his eyes, but not his mouth. His parishioners are horrified. His wife is devastated. On his death bed he challenges those present with its meaning. I don’t want to reveal more, but commend the story to you.
Veils, masks and visors have a potent and enduring presence in my culture, by which I mean the culture of the English that was created, along with its language, in the aftermath of the Norman Occupation – from which there has been as yet, no liberation. Robin Hood was the original hoodie. Medieval knights raised their visors to show their faces, and their good intents – a lowered visor, a concealed face, meant the threat of violence. Playing cowboys as a child, when you got the baddy’s roll, you masked the lower face with a handkerchief folded in a triangle. Highwayman went masked. TV villains wore stockings over their heads – what a waste! The IRA wore their balaclavas. The Ku Klux Klan wore its bedding. The Public Hangman, I think, was hooded, when on duty. Even the black glasses, and especially those reflective ones, of the celebrity, and the gangster, carry connotations, in this culture, of rejection, of exclusion, of contempt, and of threat. I can see you, but you can’t read my intentions. Only the Lone Ranger bucked the negative connotations of the masked man, and he was a late comer to the fold. In my childhood women sometimes wore veils at funerals, and of course there’s the wedding veil. The former kept grief, or lack of it, concealed, and the latter, kept the identity of the chattel concealed, until it was too late. There are some lovely medieval stories about the ‘wrong’ daughter being supplied!
Eyes and mouths are what this is all about. The curled lip, the sly smile, the dismissive grin. A few years ago a women’s magazine ran a little competition – there were no prizes – in which a half dozen eye-line photographs were shown, for interpretation. What emotion, the reader was asked, did these eyes communicate? I scored about average, but I was guessing mostly.
Working in the Probation Service a couple of decades ago, I can remember the eyes of a confidence trickster, who painting himself – talking I suppose, really – into a disastrous corner over a period of weeks, had the bleakest pair of eyes I have ever gazed into. He used no mask to veil his intentions. Lies did the job as well as it could be done.
In my mall-set story, only the security guards went routinely unmasked. Everyone else was ‘veiled-up’. In private conversations, among friends, they would ‘veil-down’, and in shops they might be asked to, ‘for your safety and convenience’. And of course, the electronically generated masks they wore, became more elaborately individualised the further you travelled up the social scale. In my story, it was the desire for privacy that sparked the trend. In Hawthorne’s story it was shame that sparked the act. Whatever the reason, the practice of going masked, in this culture, confronts a thousand years, and perhaps more, of custom.
There’s a flip side to this coin: the place of ‘face’ in our culture. In Eastern cultures people can be spoken of as ‘having’ or ‘having no’ face, much as the way we might speak of people having ‘side’. Look at colloquial English, and you’ll get an idea of how important ‘face’ is to us. We can have a ‘brass face’ be ‘hard faced’. Inscrutable or unforgiving we have a ‘closed face’. We can ‘face up’ to our responsibilities. Soldiers ‘face about’ to ‘face the foe’. Unwillingly, sometimes, we ‘show our faces’ at public events. In adversity we ‘put on a brave face’. Confrontations can be a ‘face off’, tete-a-tetes can be ‘face to face’. It was Helen of Troy’s ‘face’ that launched a thousand ships, rather than any of her other physical attributes. Agression is ‘in your face’, and that recent addition to global communication (from American English) had to be called ‘Face’book. When we’re daunted we say we ‘can’t face it’, when determined we ‘set our face’, often ‘in the face’ of some difficulty or other. The Mona Lisa fascinates us because we can’t quite read her face: if she had been a Page Three girl we’d have forgotten both of them long ago.
Unseen manipulators of our lives, whether beaurocrats or anonymous officials, are ‘faceless’ men, and, perhaps, women. Our icons are ‘the face of’ whatever they’re representing. Take away the face and you are removing a foundation stone of our means of communication between individuals. Deliberately obscure it, and you are challenging, perhaps unintentionally, the notion that such communications are necessary, or even desirable. Without the face the focus of our interactions must shift, but to what? Language? I read somewhere that the meaning of words accounts for a mere 3% of the ‘communication’. The rest is in such things as tone of voice, pitch, volume, expression, gesture and body language. How much, I wonder, is attributable to face?
You’ll sometimes see the phrase in reviews of books: a work of sustained imagination. It’s almost a cliché, a taken as read, taken for granted, glib, throwaway piece of shorthand labelling. How often do we give a thought to what it means, or rather, to what a book, or a story, needs to have, needs to be, to merit such an accolade?
The primary implication is in the adjective: duration. The noun gives us the core of all stories, even those cobbled together -imaginatively – from snippets of memory and observation. Put the two together though, and you get something more than the sum of the parts. Sustained doesn’t only imply duration; it means consistently maintained. The imagined world must be consistent. It must not falter, fade off at its edges into some other world, fray into a different perception.
Fictive worlds told in text exist only in the words that are used to present them. Where there are gaps in such worlds our imaginations, as readers, must be able to step across them, arriving in the same world as we have left. Where there are edges, our imaginative gaze must look out beyond them and see the same world.
However much at odds with our own world, worlds of sustained imagination, must have their own internal consistencies. Sustained imagination does not put a foot wrong. It does not flicker on and off. It never forgets itself, never makes a mistake. It does not allow the intrusion of a misplaced scene, artifact, reported event, or even word. There is no pantechnicon crossing the horizon of its medieval landscape, no modern motor-car parked in the side alley of its World War Two streets, no ‘Cumbria’ in the reminiscence of a Cumberland childhood.
I remember, when a student, seeing a school dance troop perform. Out of them all one dancer was particularly gifted, or accomplished. Her body danced in its entirety: to the toes and fingertips, all was deliberate and intentional. Even her hair, I’m tempted to believe, was flung out precisely by her twirls. The others, by comparison, seemed to dance only partially, their concentration focused on one or two elements only of their movements. I’ve seen actors too, not good ones, scanning with their eyes an audience that should not have existed for their character.
In a story of sustained imagination, the street furniture, the passers by, the ambient sounds, must all be part of the same imaginary world. The minor characters must belong to it, and behave in accordance with its norms, even when they are not conforming. A sustained imagination is not intermittent, not patchy, not inconsistent, and making sure of that is part of the hard slog of writing beyond the foregrounded events of a story.
This is one reason why ‘less’ is ‘more’. What you don’t reveal can’t be mistaken; though what the reader imagines may not always be what we expect. I’ve mentioned before what a surprise I got in a Coppard story when a hat that I hadn’t assumed, but which he’d assumed I would, was raised! And here we come to the difference between a wholly imagined world and a presentation of a ‘real’ one. Imagined worlds are, perhaps, smaller, though real worlds are limited by the size of our (both reader and writer) bubbles of perception of them. And the fact that the words – the only evidence of the worlds an author presents, real or imagined – will never have quite the same resonance, or even meaning for each individual encountering them.
The photograph, by the way, is of a distant planet, without life, yet with evidence of past life, which I visited once upon a time…..
My progress through ‘The World’s Thousand Best Stories’ has been like the exploration of a multi-veined mine. I was going to write multi-seamed, but seamed is one of those words that might lead us astray, like a vein of fool’s gold.
The ore I’ve just struck is that of the Russian short story writers. I read a couple of Schedrin’s, and then some Tolstoys. Elsewhere I’d been working my way through a four volume Chekhov – all these in translation I must add, which must surely throw a pennyweight or two in favour of content over form.
What struck me, and something always strikes me before I sit down at the computer and turn it into a blog-post, was that whereas I have found the Chekhov stories to be quite European, even when set on the Steppes, or in a Russian city, the two writers I mentioned previously had, to me, a distinctly non-European quality to them: perhaps, a quality of Russian-ness that I had not noticed so strongly in Chekhov. Of course, what we see reveals where we are….What can you see? is what you ask someone when they phone to tell you they are lost!
I can remember a reference years ago – I can’t tell you in what – to the ‘Slavic soul.’ This, applying to Russians, as far as I could see, came with a deep sense of gloom and sorrow, borne out of an understanding of, and an intimate connection to, not merely the land and its cycles of re-birth and decay, but the recognition of mortality, an ownership of it.
Perhaps it was the stories I had stumbled upon, the stories that a predominantly western European panel of editors had chosen to represent their Russians, but that sense was strongly present in my pair of writers. The Schedrin tales were Two Little Moujiks, and The Self-Sacrificing Rabbit. The first is an almost unbearable contemplation of suicide by two serving boys who can see no way out of their harsh lives, save death. They contemplate too a confrontation with God, who will demand an explanation, and having heard it, punish the wicked mistress whose cruelty has driven them to this sin. Schedrin is a political writer, a harsh satirist upon the harsh conditions endured by the pre-revolutionary peasants in their medieval lives. The second story is a no less trenchant allegory in which the peasants are represented by the rabbit, and the ruling class by a family of wolves to whom they are in thrall.
The Tolstoy stories, A Candle, and The Long Exile, whilst dealing with the same injustices, take a more overtly religious, and philosophical tack, the former ending with an assertion that ‘the power of God works by goodness and not by sin’. The eponymous candle is borne upon the handle of a plough, as a peasant ploughman is forced to work upon a Holy Day: miraculously, despite the movement of the plough, even on its turnings, the candle does not blow out, and the man prays as he works.
The other story is a bitter tale of injustice overcome, but not righted, and of a guilt that once acknowledged becomes a greater burden to the criminal than the injustice to the man he framed (an SAHB reference there, for the cognoscenti).
Reading these stories I could feel my scalp prickle (and will be taking the treatment). There is an awe-fulness about them, a sense of that huge grinding stone of time and fate that crushes us all, and which must be borne, and not evaded. I was reminded of that reference to the Slavic soul.
I also read some Turgeniev: The Singers, and Visions-A Phantasy.
Russian enough, but these Turgeniev tales did not have quite the heavy grandeur of the others. In fact, The Singers, a story of peasants in a pub, singing for the prize of a bucket of ale, reminded me of a Coppard story which has a similar theme. Visions-A Phantasy could have been French: the ghostly visitation of a woman in white. I don’t know why ghostly women always wear long white nighties, but I rather like them that way! This one takes the protagonist in her arms and carries him about the upper and lower atmosphere during the hours of darkness. Whatever lights your candle -and perhaps blows it out! There is a harder edge to the story, but I’ll leave that for you to discover, if you don’t already know it.
E.M.Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, raised the spectre of all writers, of all times, writing together in a single room. He was making the point that they were not necessarily conscious of working in their various schools, of technique, subject, nation or approach, but were merely – if that is the right word – writing. I’ve not found Forster having much to say on the short story – perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough – perhaps, he was one of those who dismissed the form as being lesser, but his idea is worth considering in relation to them. Of course, writers in the same room would be aware of each other, even if they were not aware of the groups that posterity would shoehorn them into. Time, along which axis we must travel at our own pace, and for our own distances, but undoubtedly all in the same direction, allows us to look back, but not to look forward, except in imagination. The writers of the future are not in our room, though they will, one day, be in the same room as our shades (nightied or otherwise).
Looking back at these Russian writers I can see them in relation to my own time more fully than I can to the time in which they wrote, and their indignation, their gloom and sorrow at the way of their world – a way which both the Tolstoys and the Schedrins believed was, in our response to it, a chosen way – could equally be applied to ours. And if writers remind us of each other, in their forms or contents, might it not be because they are dealing with similar issues, and from similar standpoints, rather than because they are Russian, or English, or whatever? Or might it be because we apply these group terms in specific situations because of the wrong thing that they have in common?
I’ve been thinking about story arcs and trajectories, and about that broader metaphor of story shapes. Stories, I’m beginning to think, are all about shape, and structure. The arc/trajectory metaphor emphasises a limited number of qualities that might be found in such shapes. Useful, no doubt, but not comprehensive. Arcs and trajectories are rather linear, but then so are stories, being told one word at a time, in order. Not only linear but also singulinear, by which I mean one line, and even for short stories one might not be enough.
What if stories have double bends in them? What if they have corners? What if stories, even short stories, stop and start (or seem to)? What if they have mirror images, parentheses or repetitions?
I was thinking about what sort of short story I might like to write next – not about who I’d like to write about, or what situation they might be in, but what sort of story? What sort of arc, or trajectory? Or other shape? A sort of zig-zag story seemed to appeal: one where the protagonist – eponymous or otherwise – was on a downward curve, maybe even had hit some sort of bottom – not that shade of story – and then experienced some sort of rebirth and rose again – no capital ‘R’ – but only to fall to that downward curve once more, because that’s the sort of character he/she was, or that was the sort of situation they remained in.
It would be an uppy-downy sort of story. What might a story like that be telling us? A fall from grace, a rehabilitation, a relapse. That’s the sort of story in which we see someone falling to their own failings perhaps. And then we can reflect on our own failings, and our own fallings. Then we can reflect on that general human falling. That’s not a bad sort of story to tackle; not, perhaps, a bad sort of story to read.
Then I got to thinking about where in the process, in that repeating pattern of rising and falling, and rising again, I would start, and stop. Would I start near the top of a passing rise, and the very beginning of the slide down? Or at the bottom of the first fall? And where would I stop? To stop at the beginning of the second rise would make a rehabilitative story (or could I show within it the seeds of a future fall? The opening threads of repeating pattern). Should I go on to the beginning of that second fall, just to make sure that repeating pattern was apparent? I rather favour the former: let the switched-on reader recognise the shoots of the snowdrop, showing before even Christmas.
In fact, if I scrawled out in pencil my ‘whole’ pattern it might look like a scruffy W, or M; but if I drew out the shape of what the written story might be, it might look more like an upside down V.
A good deal of my writing is done in front of a window that looks out slightly to the east of south, across farmers’ fields with not quite parallel hedges that sometimes remind me of a horse-racing track. There are trees in the foreground, and in the distance. In the distance I can’t see the trees for the wood. When the leaves are in full show, I can’t see more than one building gable-end, without moving from my seat. And when the trees are bare, I can see two.
A theory of mine is that if you want to imagine a story, you can do worse than start with a place. Places imply people, even when they are absent. They imply the purposes of people. My empty-of-houses landscape implies farmers, or poachers, or trespassers (forgiven and otherwise), or dog-walkers, or perambulating neighbours. It implies fast, occasional vehicles driven by locals, or slow, unfamiliar ones, driven by delivery men, or would-be criminals, or people who are lost. Like most views, it implies people out of place, or in place, which, you’ll realise, is already teetering on the verge of story.
But I don’t necessarily want to take my trimmed, honed down story shape and fit it to what I can see from where I sit. I might like to fit it to other places, remembered or even imagined, where other people intrude, or inhabit, with other purposes in mind; with other stories to tell. So, blog-post over, story arc in mind, I’m off to write that sort of story……
BHD’s new collection of short stories, Not A Matter of Choice, is due out mid November from Sentinel. Here’s a sneak preview of the proposed
The Wordsworth Bookshop in St Andrews Churchyard, Penrith
Where you can also get a very good cup of coffee, and something to eat!
We were in the city [of London. Is there another?] last weekend; a rare and exciting experience for us CBs. Among the many delights on offer was a night at the theatre – to see Top Hat, the stage adaptation of that old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. The show, at The Aldwych, was snappy and crackled with sharp dialogue as the protagonists took a pop at one another. I’ve been ear-wormed with one of the Irving Berlin tunes ever since!
But also, I’ve been fascinated by photographs in the show programme. What strikes me is the way that, in the big production numbers, when the stage is full of dancers all dressed the same and doing the same thing, it is the individuality of the pereformers that stands out.
I noticed it during the show. One dancer, top hatted and tuxed, seemed for a moment to be even better than the lead! But when I look at the programme, the moment can be held, and studied. Whether it is the dancing girls in their cloche hats and tassel skirts, or the men in their top hat and tails, with canes, look closely and you will see that however similar they appear at first glance, they are in fact, all slightly different: the angle of the head, the position of the hands. Each, as Gerard Manley Hopkins told us ‘selves-goes itself’.
Most of all, it is the faces that paint the difference, those pairs of sparkling eyes, those mouths ‘Deals out that being indoors each one dwells’. I have noticed similar peculiarities in photographs before, but they have been photographs from the past: regimental groups, old school photographs, with their ranked and uniformed scholars. I think that I had assumed that it was them being of the past that made the faces so scrutably interesting – but the Top Hat programme is of my own time: these faces telll their stories in the present. Of course they do! And nowhere do they tell those stories more obvioulsy than when those faces look out from a group that has been choreographed into apparent conformity.
This is, or aspires to be, a writer’s blog. So what can these reflections, upon photographs of a stage production, offer to a writer? Perhaps the raised question of how we get such individuation into the characters we present in words alone.
(you’ll find those GM Hopkins lines, btw, in ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’….)
One of my English lecturers back in the nineteen seventies pointed out that what is always missing from literature is that which the writer thought so ordinary that it needed no mention.
Items, ideas, clothes, furniture, landscapes even, that were so ubiquitous, so normal, that they could be taken for granted – that they were taken for granted – and it could be safely assumed that the reader would take their presence for granted too.
I came across an example of this quite recently while reading an A.E.Coppard story. Written, and set, in the nineteen thirties, the story included a scene in which the protagonist and his sidekick were visiting a nightclub. There they met a young woman, and as she approached their table the protagonist raised his hat to her. There had been no previous mention whatever of a hat. My assumption, to that point, had been that they were bareheaded. Coppard’s was that, obviously they would not be. I was reminded of a book I read during the writing of A Penny Spitfire. It was about the immediately post-war world (and I’m assuming here that you’ll assume I mean World War Two!), in which the author wrote that in 1947, a man walking down The Strand bare-headed would turn heads! Our assumption, I assume, is that bare-headedness is the norm, though they tell me that hats are gaining in popularity again. Back then, however, they were not merely popular, but de-rigueur.
A curiosity about past and present is our sense of ownership of both. We think we are nearer in some way to pasts that we regard as our own, even when they are too far back for us to recall, or even to have experienced. We tend to forget, I suspect, that such pasts are known to us only by what we are told of them; and that which may be told to us, might be told to anyone. Perhaps it is the degree of caring, rather than the extent of knowledge, which creates the illusion. The issue is slightly different with the present, for here, though we think we own it wholly, we are in fact trapped in a bubble of our own perceptions, and many of those are likely to have been created by our responses to what other people, through one medium or another, have told us. Most of the present is invisible to us, and most of what is visible, is by report. In fact, it might be arguable, that the past, which is mostly invisible, can seem more knowable by virtue of the fact that there is less of it available to be known!
How fascinating it might be to compare the actual that authors from the past were describing, with the imagined that their writings evoked. We can do this, of course, to a certain extent, by comparing those evocations with photographs of the time. How much more fascinating to consider the differences between our present day actualities and the future imaginings that our writings about them will evoke.
I’ve just come back from London – which is why this posting is a day later than usual – where there was a distressingly large number of bare-headed men on the street!
Thinking about poetry – as one does – I recalled a statement made in one of the Paris Review interviews. I didn’t recall by whom; but whoever it was said that he thought a poet was probably destined to write only a handful of really good poems.
It’s a theme I’ve pondered often, probably because I’ve lived in a generation that has been exhorted to write a poem a day. It’s a theme I come back to again and again, because I feel there is a conundrum here, for both ideas, seemingly mutually exclusive at a first glance, are both valid.
I know the first is true from my own experience. Not as a writer! But as a reader, I’ve found that of the dozens or even hundreds of poems that my favourite poets have written, I would single out only a handful – which with my hands means about fiver or six – as being truly great. That remark immediately raises – hang on there a cotton-picking minute – the question of just what makes a great poem, and my answer has to be: one that I think is!
There’s a Wildean notion here, about unbiased opinions not being worth all that much where Art, or other human fancies, is concerned. The objectively great poem, I tremble to suggest, does not exist. Nor does the objectively great novel, short story, play etc etc. The fact that many of the same titles will crop up in almost everyone’s lists of greatness is beside the point.
The writer is doing only half the job remember. The reader, or hearer, of the writing has to do the other half – and our capacity for doing that greatly will be no more than theirs!
On the face of it that original statement might suggest that writers have wasted most of their time – good, very good, and very, very good not being great, and great being the only thing worth doing. Of course, good, and very good, and very, very good are well worth doing. And so are mediocre, not too bad, and pretty awful, if they lead you on up the scale – and perhaps, even if they don’t. We all have to do our apprenticeships, some longer than others, as both readers, and writers.
And that’s what brings us back to that other, contrasting idea about writing a poem every day. Like a violinist, or a bricklayer, one imagines that practising one’s art, or skill, on a regular basis, improves it. Ballet dancers, and weight lifters, watchmakeres and stand-up comedians: we all have to practice, and if you look at high level performers in any field, hours of practice will iceberg out their few minutes of performance. On the other hand, if you look at low level performers…..
Ah! There’s the rub-a-dub-dub. The low level performers often seem to mix the two up and nowhere more so than in those poem-a-day poems. The exercises, the essential practice, the apprentice pieces, are mistaken for the finished articles. Matching the lifetime outputs of a Shakespeare or a Chekhov every few years, we ask our readers to do their half of the work on pieces that should never have seen the light of the day upon which they were written – our stream of consciousness we take for a stream of creativity, and it may be one in which, I fear, any handful of greatness that does get written will simply be washed away.
I write every day. I try not to. Sometimes I try very hard. Occasionally I succeed. Of what I write, I finish fewer pieces than I used to. Of those I finish I offer fewer for publication or performance – especially where poetry is concerned.
The trouble is, I find I’m reading more. I’m reading every day! Sheesh!
I thought I might have upset Kath recently by my earlier blog post comment that biographies were ‘prurient’ or ‘unhelpful’. Chocolate half-coated digestives are sugary and fatty, but that doesn’t stop us from devouring them – well, me anyway! – greedily and with pleasure.
The Norman Nicholson biography will be prurient and unhelpful, for me at least, in a very special way though, not merely getting between me and the subject’s writing, but also, perhaps, by getting between me and my memories of the man himself. I cannot claim to have been a friend of Norman Nicholson, but we did have a friendly acquaintanceship that ran from the early seventies up until his death in the late eighties. It was an intermittent connection. We met through the Brewery Poets, which I was involved with from the beginning, and for whom Norman read on a number of occasions. Once or twice I called upon him at his Millom home, and was received graciously – fed and whiskied! We corresponded, but I have mislaid all but one of his roughly typed and ink-corrected letters.
In the late nineteen seventies I was involved briefly with a couple of characters who worked for a school sponsored TV studio. As part of my work with Country Council I had helped to develop the old Morley Street School in Carlisle into a fully equipped TV studio: Aidanvision. We filmed Basil Bunting reading Brig Flats there, and took him for a pub lunch at the Bee Hive pub on Warwick Road. When we poured him into a taxi later that afternoon, I recall a bottle top projecting from his raincoat pocket. I have often wondered, and once enquired – without response- of the Basil Bunting Society, where that recording ended up. If you go to Morley Street now, a row of houses stands on the site, and my guess is that several good stories lie beneath their foundations.
My two collaborators wanted to set up an audio recording project specialising in the spoken word, and as I knew Norman I asked him to be our first subject. He kindly agreed, and I spent a day at Millom talking to him, and listening as he spoke about his work, and read a baker’s dozen of poems for me. His skill as a speaker, and presenter of himself and his work, turned my ill-judged and badly formulated questioning into a series of verbal gold-nuggets, and of course, the poems needed no input from me. This collection of readings is probably the largest single recording of his work in existence, and for years I kept it to myself. The same vanity that marred the questioning, now embarrassed the hell out of me! But, as I got older I began to realise that his voice was more important than my sensitivities, and when I heard that Kathleen was writing her book, I offered her copies of the recordings.
Talking to her about her project I realised that she had found the same charming and hospitable man that I had known: a ‘grand old man’ of Cumberland (not Cumbrian) poetry. But her gaze, I’m sure, has been steadier and more searching than mine was, and certainly less blinded by the light of reflected glory. As the publication of the biography draws closer, I’m eager to know Norman better, but I’m also aware that I shall come to know him more – and that is altogether a different matter.
This is a welcome revival for Coppard fans, for it is forty years since the title story – to my mind one of the genre-defining examples of the English short story – has been in print. Amazingly, Coppard left this little gem out of his 1948 US Collected Tales, but Doris Lessing’s 1970s selection included it.
There are seven tales in Turnpike’s offering, all of them from Coppard’s early period, which pundits generally consider to be his best. There’s no doubt he hit his stride early on, after a late start at forty years of age, and the density of better stories is higher in the early collections, but there are gems among his later tales too.
This selection promotes the rural tales, with The Higgler, The Watercress Girl, and The Field of Mustard included. Of these three, The first is probably the most well known, the second, one of the most pungent, and the third seemingly the most loved by academics. The first two were made into TV adaptations in the seventies, which are worth watching and available on dvd from the States under the title ‘Country Matters’. Underlying all three tales, however, is a theme more universal than that of ‘rural England’: they are tales of love, passion even, frustrated and sated.
Another inclusion, Dusky Ruth, though set in a country inn, is also more to do with sexual attraction than anything else. Adam & Eve & Pinch Me, again, pushes the rural boundaries into other territory, this time into the fantastical, which became another strand in Coppard’s web of tales.
A lesser known story, The Wife of Ted Wickham combines several of Coppard’s interests. The love interest is here, and so is the rural, and, being set in a country pub, it reminds me that the rural ale-house is a recurring setting for Coppard.
Back to that title story though. Of the seven this is perhaps the purest examination of the rural decline that Coppard must have witnessed throughout his life, and especially in those few years he spent on the hard edge of rural poverty at Sparrow Pit Cottage in Oxfordshire. It is one of the simplest and shortest of short stories that you will find; a mere four pages. Yet it packs a punch more powerful, and unexpected than many a more elaborate tale. It is set in a landscape that is misunderstood, but not by the narrator, and hints at explanations and situations in both past and future that question the significance and causes of the events portrayed. It is finely wrought tale, as most Coppards are: see how he manipulates our perception of the man, by simply switching from an ‘a’ to a ‘the’.
Ford Maddox Ford famously observed that Coppard had given to the genre ‘the quality of English verse’ and it is a poet-like love of language that gives the tales their unique appeal as much as the sharp eyed observations, and the wry humour. Coppard is a ‘narrator present’ writer in the main. He does not follow the Joycean path of ‘refining himself out of existence’. The Watercress Girl’ in fact, ends with a Coppardly comment that at least one commentator has deprecated. Coppard’s narrator is nearer to Fielding, engaging directly with his readers, as the oral tale-tellers on which he modelled himself would have done, of necessity, with their listeners. The Ted Wickham story is a good example, for here even a simple first person narrative gets a twist at the beginning, and that narrator has quite an axe to grind!
If you’ve not read any Coppard, this is fine starting place, and if you enjoy it, there are another 200 or so tales to go at, if you’re prepared to search the used book market. If we were to recognise an ‘English’ school of short story writers, in the way there are Scottish, Irish, French American, Russian and so on, Coppard would be a contender for not only its pre-eminent member, but perhaps also its originator.
The cover art for this attractive volume is by Eric Ravilious, who went missing on active service as a War Artist, in World War Two.