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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIssued on dvd in the Silver Screen Collection this compilation of short story adaptations, features and shorts was Fox’s answer to Gainsborough’s portfolio films of Somerset Maugham stories.

There’s much to be interested in, in both the films and the surrounding extras, including the useful printed history of the production that accompanies the dvd. The presence of John Steinbeck, taking the role that Maugham himself was able to take with his own stories. The presentation makes the connection between the two productions clear, with Steinbeck introducing both the series and the individual films as did Maugham.

Seeing Steinbeck on film was as interesting as seeing Maugham. He adds, intentionally, a gravitas to the whole proceeding – something subtly different to what Maugham added. Sitting behind, or casually upon a desk in a book lined study, he presents a solid, respectable, and essentially serious mien. Fox wanted O.Henry to be taken seriously, despite his undeserved reputation as a literary lightweight.

Perhaps in pursuit of this, the books in front of which they film Steinbeck carry the titles of O.Henry stories, in gilt lettering on their broad, leather spines. There is an unintended comedy here, which Henry himself would not have missed, for while those spines are novel-wide, the stories they purport to contain are often only a few pages. This doesn’t prevent Steinbeck from lifting down the relevant volumes and leafing through them until the camera zeroes in on the first page of the story, from which he begins to read…

This is a direct steal from Gainsborough, or should I say, homage to? There is something about visual humour that does not always translate into pictures! O. Henry’s stories are often visually comic, and his words stimulate our imaginations to create those images. When someone tries to to replicate them in actual images it is not a simple equation. What words evoke, when seen in reality, may not evoke the humour that was in the words. A classic example of this must have been the late 20th century TV adaptation of Peter Mayall’s A Year in Provence. It was, sadly, often ‘the way he told ‘em’, and in at least one of these adaptations O. Henry’s tale suffers a similar fate.

I’m thinking of The Ransom of Red Chief. This is a screwball tale of two incompetent kidnappers who seize a brat-like child who runs rings around them, and whose father they have to bribe to take him back. It cries out for filming, and there have been several subsequent films on the same theme, but without any reference to O Henry! But Fox knew they had a porker on their hands with what they turned out, and the film was dropped from the original 1951 compilation, being put back in only in a nineteen sixties TV re-run. Even the bear, which cover notes point out was of a species not native to North America, seems to walk through the piece as if under sedation. Of course, it may well have been, but were the actors too?

If you’d like to read the story but don’t fancy the 100 tale edition of his work, look out for the TravelMan edition (short stories on single sheets, folded like traditional road maps).

My favorite was The Cop and the Anthem in which a tramp, played with relish by Charles Laughton, seeks to get arrested so that he might spend the winter months in a warm and well fed custody. His plans go awry, despite his attempts, but turn out all right in the end, or not. I don’t want to give too much away. It’s worth saying though, that Marilyn Monroe gets a walk on – should that be a sashay on? – part, at a little over a minute, but star billing with Laughton and his sidekick who are present throughout the film.

O.Henry’s tales are tight little vignettes, famed for the twists in their tales. It is difficult to adapt them without being faithful, and in some ways pointless to do so if they are! Unless of course, you’re aiming for an audience who can’t read them, or who can’t imagine what they are reading. One of the twistiest of tales is the famous The Gift of the Magi and Fox capture not only its sugar sweet sentimentality, but also its powerful denouement in which the Christmas gifts of a poverty struck married couple are complementary in an unexpected way. Unexpected of course, only if you have been living on Mars, for the story had become the American Christmas Carol for the generations between of Henry and my own. This story also features on the Travelman sheet along with Red Chief.

The Clarion Call with Dale Robertson and Richard Widmark is remarkable for Widmark’s riveting performance as a deranged hoodlum, played so far from the credible character that the story requires as to undermine the dramatic integrity of the whole. Yet, undeniably, a masterpiece of acting, in the wrong place.

The fifth film is The Last Leaf in which a drunken and failed artist pulls off a minor miracle and finds his true worth at the end. Despite the crude outline of the story, this has nuances of character and motivation that make it worthy of the original.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We can judge the success of the series, perhaps, by the fact that Fox went on to make no more, whereas Gainsborough got three bites at Somerset Maugham’s cherries. I think there is an affinity between the short story and the film, but in these O.Henry adaptations, I don’t find the best of evidence for it.

Second Time Around, Chelifer, 2006.I bought a novel recently:  One of those ‘not-quite-self-published’ novels that companies in America will produce for you.

On the face of it they can be nicely produced too. This was one is. But in the first 8 pages of text I found two mis-spellings and a completely wrong word, and two paragraphs repeated. When does nit-picking become the recognition of a job badly done?

And should we expect our readers to be alert to these mistakes? And should I call them ‘minor’ mistakes? After all, they are the mistakes that I noticed as mistakes (and so was able to discount, if not ignore). They are a distraction though, taking attention away from the story, and in a sense, from the writing itself, because looking for more errors can become an irritant. Then there is the issue of the ones not noticed. How many of them have there been, and how unimportant are they?

And if we aren’t alert to them, these minor oversights and errors, what else aren’t we alert to? How about the nuances of the story? The beauties of the language (all those neat turns of phrase that might turn out to have been unintentional, to have been typos even). To what extent is the act of reading an act of faith? To what extent has that faith been undermined, shaken, by noticing a mistake on every second page out of the first four pages turned?

When I sold second-hand books for a living I encountered quite a few self-published war memoirs (and one or two peaceable ones). They too often had what are at core, proof reading issues. Proof reading is notoriously difficult. One of the best ways to discover typos and the like is to go through your work over and over again until you’re sure there aren’t any, and then – and this is the crucial bit – send the manuscript out to a publisher. The better the publisher the better it works. Magically, almost as soon as you’ve hit send, certainly before the manuscript has thumped into the bottom of the post-box, you will notice one or two that had previously escaped your gaze.

Another sure fire way is to wait three, or four, or ten years, and look at that perfect version again….If all else fails, get published, and that will provide the final crop; but not one on every other page fGs! Having said which, I have a ‘corrected’ version of James Joyce’s Ulysses which reckons to have corrected 5,000 errors in my Bodley Head edition. That’s several per page, if my maths is correct – which it sometimes isn’t. I still read the BH edition, btw.

A deeper malaise I found in many self-published war memoirs was the inclusion of repetitions that were not mere matters of proof reading or typography, but of editing, and of storytelling. Incidents were sometimes re-told, or referred to before and after the re-telling. Links that might better have been left to the reader to make. Worse still, and this is often a feature of fictional stories, the writer seemed to have no idea of what was important and not important, interesting and uninteresting, relevant and irrelevant to the story. Everything, it would seem, had been put in, significant or not, as if the writer himself (it was usually a him in the books I sold) did not know what mattered about the story, or why it was worth telling, why it might be worth reading.

I’ve known of authors reduced to tears, or rage, by what they have thought of as the cack-handed way their books have been adapted for film and TV. Often a frustrated rage or weeping, as they have been contractually bound never to reveal such negatives about the project. And publication is a sort of adaptation, one that, through the offices of a good editor and eagle-eyed proof-reader, will make a story come alive beyond the hopes of its creator. Badly handled, it can set in print, which is equivalent in terms of the life of the author to being set in stone, those glaring mistakes and errors that will cut the author like knives each time he sees them.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the English teachers at my Secondary School told me about Walter M Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz. That would have been in the mid nineteen sixties. I read it, and lost my paperback copy sometime later. The novel cropped up recently in a discussion at LitCaff in Carlisle, which got me to recalling.

Throughout the decades between one thing had stuck in my mind – and this I’m afraid, will be a spoiler to begin with – that was the way Mrs Grales’ extra head comes to life as Rachel, while her original head withers away and dies. I read it again this week, in a new hardback by SF Masterworks (2012).

The novel is constructed in three major sections, set in a single place over eighteen centuries of time. The place is a monastery in a post-apocalyptic desert in what was once Utah. In the first section the Abbot struggles with a novice who has found remains from the time of the nuclear holocaust, remains that will eventually validate the claim of the eponymous Leibowitz to sainthood.

In the second another Abbot contends with a visiting academic, and a practically minded Brother, who together represent the re-birth of Science and Technology, based on the Leibowitzian remains – known as ‘the memorabilia’. The third Abbot lives to see his technologically advanced world destroy itself once more, and to experience that miraculous transformation that stuck in my mind.

The reborn Rachel not only comes to life, but also she comes as free of ‘original sin'; as one who is innocent of the knowledge which that act of disobedience ‘cursed’ mankind with. As such, it is she who administers the last rites to the dying Abbot, who is unable, both physically, and implicitly, morally to so do for her. This scene which stuck in my mind, is not the last of the book however, for in a short following chapter, the Abbot’s protégée, brother Joshua leaves earth with a group of other monks (plus women and children) to set up a new evangelical colony.

I recalled this last scene a few chapters before I reached it, for it too has a striking image, that of a monk knocking the dust of earth from his sandals as he enters the ship.

Neither of these two scenes though, dominated my second reading of the book. What had not struck me so forcibly before was the uncompromising religious fundamentalism that stands behind the story, a fundamentalism that seems to go hand in hand with a type of misogyny. For the fact is, that for the first two thirds of this book there is barely a reference to the female of the species, and there are no female characters driving, or even responding to the action.

Late in the story there is a ‘lady reporter’ who stands as a token rather than a symbol, and whose role might as well have been taken by another male character. There are references, though very few, to Eve. It is not until Mrs Grales sudden appearance in the third part of the story that we get a female character: ‘the bicephalous old tomato woman’.

It is not simply that Miller is blaming the ills of the world on ‘men’. Rather, he seems to me at least, to be saying that ‘women’ simply aren’t part of the equation. The reference to ‘sisters’ at the monastery in the final section does not develop into any of them having even a single statement to make about any of the religious ideas that the book not so much examines, as promotes.

The two headed Mrs Grales is perhaps the most important character in the book, in that she becomes the born again Rachel, ‘preternatural,’ without sin, guilt, or knowledge. Her presentation is odd, to say the least, with a music-hall accent somewhere between Hollywood Negro, and West Country Rustic. I’m always sceptical of sins of the flesh that are referred to as ‘naughties’. More interestingly, she is never approached and scrutinized by the figure of the ‘pilgrim’, the Wandering Jew, Benjamin, who has haunted the book right from the very start, seeking ‘the one’, whom I take to be the second coming. The Abbot, in his three manifestations is also important, for he develops and articulates the religious ideas upon which the book is founded, ideas which are, I believe, its agenda.

These ideas culminate in the third Abbot commanding an irradiated woman (and her child) to suffer the painful fate God has given them, rather than take the euthanasia offered by the state. It is not his disapproval of the possible cynicism of the state that prompts his command, but his belief that the pain of the world is intentional, and that we avoid it at the cost of our immortal souls. (This idea was briefly touched upon in a Radio 4 discussion earlier this week).

‘As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not

to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to a false god of expedient


Here is an as uncompromising fundamentalism as you will find anywhere, in any monotheistic religion. I don’t think Miller was being ironic. Neither do I think his suppression of a female voice throughout the book is accidental. In the world he has created (or observed?) it is the male voice that has been heard, that has uttered and brought forth the world in its repetitive, unavoidable disasters.

But what Miller’s third Abbot also gives us is a recognition that the hope offered by the religion he represents has died, at least so far as this earth is concerned.

‘…the least hopeful note of all comes…..from the Vatican……Pope Gregory

ceased to pray for peace in the world.’

The Catholic church, on behalf of its God, has ceased its ministry.

The birth of Rachel, the female mutant head of Mrs Grales, is only vaguely redemptive.

‘He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence

from the shoulder of Mrs Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts

of Eden -‘

‘He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection.’

I doubt we can disentangle the fictional and imaginative from the remembered experiences of this World War Two bomber, who is said to have felt guilt at his involvement in the bombing of Monte Cassino. I’m not sure we would benefit anyway from such knot-picking. The book raises questions about belief, and as much about our belief today, and tomorrow (if there is one) as about any past, fictional or factual, or that blend of the two which Henry Ford called ‘mostly bunk’, and which Churchill reminded us, is written by the ‘winners’, that we call History.

On reflection, after having read, I felt that the biggest hole in Miller’s grim universe was that left by the absence of any reference to human love. None of the characters seem driven by their feelings about other human beings, except where those feelings are of hatred. They are male characters driven by anger, fear, and hatred of the ideas and consequent actions of other male characters. Told, as it is, through the eyes and minds, predominantly, of the three Abbots, the only love referred to is the love of God.

‘Hear then, the last Canticle of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz ……

V: Lucifer is fallen.’

Miller’s text copyright dates from 1959. There are other books of that period which take a similar tack. Post-apocalyptic stories were common throughout the post-war period of nuclear stand-off, known in its own time as ‘The Cold War’. Frank Herbert’s The Dune Trilogy (dated to 1965), though it spun off into other themes as it developed beyond the first three novels, was in part a discussion of the relationship between political philosophy and religion. The less well known, Hiero’s Journey (Sterling E Lanier, Panther,1975) tells of a monk’s quest from a post-apocalyptic abbey in Canada, but his story ends with the finding of a book entitled ‘Principles of a Basic Analog Computer’, which is offered as the panacea to those post-apocalyptic conditions. A conclusion further from Miller’s would be hard to imagine.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives a surprisingly simple definition of ‘canticle’. It is, we are told, ‘a (little) song’.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


I’ve mentioned Michael De Larrabeiti before, butOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Provencal Tales (Pavilion 1988) is worth a longer look.

Based on a journey apparently taken in 1959 it is a first person account of an Englishman among the shepherds of Provence, making an annual trip, on foot, with 3000 sheep, from the coast near St Tropez, to the Alpes de Provence, some 9 days inland.

Not only his story, the account is laced with the stories that the shepherds tell, one each night, as they camp, and a couple at the end, where the flock has dispersed over the summer grazing of three mountain pastures. The tale told is contemporary, but the told tales are medieval. The sheep herders have cars that meet them with supplies at various points on the route, but the characters in the tales they tell are Barons and peasants, troubadours and Magicians. Their enemies are magical creatures, wicked relatives and neighbours, and Saracen invaders.

The structure of the collection as a whole reminded me of Boccaccio, with its tales within tales, and tellers of tales being told of. The themes though, are deeper, and often archetypal rather than domestic. Many concern falls from grace and redemption, and with the eventual passing, and returning, of all things, over time. Restless and dissatisfied men, and some women, some rich, some poor, make or squander their fortunes, their wisdoms, and their happinesses. The stories themselves are sometimes of stories, stories which are told of stories within them.

By turns De Larrabeiti made me laugh, and cry, and think myself wise, and suspect myself of having been a fool. The device of the medieval, traditional tellings has meant that the overall telling has not aged as it might have over the quarter century since publication, though contemporary English has.

There are so many levels of belief and disbelief to consider in a collection like this. Did the journey really take place? Did the shepherds really tell these tales? Were the tales they allegedly told really medieval? How much was fiction, how much fact? And behind all that, the question, who cares? For it is a story, and the truths of stories are in their fictions. Pete Morgan’s poem Ring Song, has a couplet: ‘and the story was told to a poet/and the poet passed on the story’.

It’s hard to pick favourites from a collection like this, but The Ruins of Grimaud and Malagan and the Lady of Rascas would be among mine. The former tells of a proud Baron who will not offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to a Saracen Prince. There’s a seam of what these days we would call bigotry that runs through the stories, and prejudice against the ‘other’ is strong in this story. It’s result is to bring ruin, mutilation, death and loss to the protagonists, and to their peoples. The theme is common in the wider collection. The latter story has a more fantastical disaster in mind, for here the proud Baron has a spell cast upon his wife that will make her unattractive to any potential lover while he is away crusading. The spell cannot be lifted until his return, with the magician who wove it. The baron, however, comes home alone, and finds that although his wife is still loved, admired and respected by all her courtiers and by the common people, despite the magical infliction, he is revolted by her. Unhappiness for all follows, until Malagan the magician, who has not died on the battlefield, comes home, to punish the Baron for abandoning him, to atone for his casting of the initial spell, and by inflicting upon the Baron the same curse to allow the situation to restore itself in a strange and unexpected way.

A similar denouement takes place in the tale of The Plane Tree and the Fountain, though the lead up to it here involves the consequences of a Baron failing to carry out his duties to those of whom he is overlord. Overlordship, responsibility, love and jealousy run through the medieval tales, and why would they not? The social arrangements within which they operate may have changed, but the human motives that create and challenge the institutions of state, and those of personal relationships are still with us.

The linking tales, like Boccaccio’s before, are short introductions to the ones that will follow, but they too are character studies, for each shepherd, and one or two others along the road, tell a tale that reveals something about him or her, to contrast with or complement the thumbnail sketch that the author has given us of the teller.

Another magical tale is The Curse of Igamor in which an evil Baron uses the local population’s fear of that eponymous curse to suppress them. A troubadour comes to town, and troubadours, in these tales, are always men (well, nearly always!) who bring truths that are both liberating, and challenging, and are often the triggers for change in both individuals and societies. Here the troubadour tells a tale, of a tale in which the evil baron of the overarching tale becomes the victim of his own curse. But the people do not believe in it sufficiently, and the troubadour is whipped and beaten for his troubles. One brave citizen helps him, and learns that unless tales are believed in they can be if little use, and that it is the troubadour’s job to be beaten, again and again, until they are believed. Which is an appropriate point at which to turn aside and reflect in a week that has seen journalists jailed for the tales they have told.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA




The Writers Quarter is coming

Carlisle, Saturday September 6th 2014

Poetry Breakfast: An informal, open mic session with Malcolm Carson. Waterstones 9.30-10.30 £3.

Small is Still Beautiful: A 90 minute fiction workshop with Vivien Jones on what makes of the short form so special: its gem like qualities, its punch, and the technical skills of paring down to essentials. A little reading, some exercises, feedback and networking. Tullie House Community Room 10am. £3.

Vivien Jones is co-editor of Southlight magazine.

Self Publishing Workshop: with Alan Cleaver,. An overview of how to publish your own book – whether entirely by hand, through a printer or via the internet. During the workshop you will hand-bind your own booklet. Tullie House Community Room 12 noon. £3 A 90 minute workshop.

Alan has spent his career in journalism and publishing.

Poetry Workshop: Forming Form with Ben Wohl This workshop will  consist of sharing and composing some interesting examples of formal poetry concentrating on Sestinas, Villanelles, and Gahzals. Tullie House Community Room 2pm. £3 a 90 minute workshop.

Words in the Cathedral: a Creative Workshop. Canon David Weston, Geoff Smith and Dr Martyn Halsall will use the Cathedral as a source of reflection and inspiration. During the afternoon Geoff and Martyn will be on hand to assist in the writing process. Work produced can be showcased in the evening at The Fratry event (qv) The Prior’s Tower, Carlisle Cathedral 10am-12 noon. Free.

Therapeutic Writing with Carol Ross. A 90 minute workshop exploring the use of Creative Writing as therapy. Carlisle Library. 10.00am. £3.

Big Bill the Beltie Bull and his Beltie Bairns Jayne Baldwin and Shalla Gray from Curly Tale books will be reading and sharing songs and fun activities. Carlisle Library, 12 noon. £3. Suitable for pre and early school age children.

The Story Café with Lisa Rossetti. Stories are not just for kids! A unique event offering inspiring stories for Wellbeing, sharing insights and conversations together – plus a dash of creativity! Carlisle Library, 2.00pm £3. A 90 minute workshop for adults only.

Marilyn Messenger & The Crichton Writers. The Border Galleries Drop-in Creative Writing Sessions: Tullie House galleries.10am – 12pm, 2pm – 4pm

Free to visitors to The Border Gallery, Tullie House.

WagTongues – pop up bookshop. An all-day opportunity to purchase books by local authors from Cumbria and Dumfries & Galloway. Carlisle Library. [TBC]

An evening of poetry & prose with writers of The Writers Quarter& Facal aig an Oir with poetry & music from S W Scotland at The Fratry, Carlisle Cathedral. 7.30pm. Free.


The Writers Quarter is part of Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival 5th – 7th September 2014


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI ran a workshop for National Flash Fiction Day yesterday, at Carlisle Library.

Some of the students opted to write an exercise with one of my ‘catcher’ lines (that’s my term for the opposite to a kicker line, btw: a line with which to end, rather than to begin a story!). Just to make things fair, one of them suggested a line for me:

“He was left without his shirt, bloodied and in tears”. Sheesh!!

I got a page of crabby hand writing in the twenty or so minutes we devoted to the the writing, and finished it off this morning. I knew where I was going, and where I wanted you to think I was going, almost as soon as I started. I permitted myself the luxury of deleting one of the words – believing that the story always trumps the rules! So here’s what I came up with:

A Reverse

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

The problem was that Jenny didn’t understand. She never had. That was the problem. And it hadn’t got any better over the years. That was the problem. He looked down at Mutt.

The problem is, Mutt, that Jenny doesn’t understand, he said. He saw his own reflection in Mutt’s soft brown uncomprehending eyes.

Jenny had had that haughty look over breakfast; the look that said, Get over it! That said, Man up for Chrissake! The look that said, you never were much of a man anyway; said, I don’t know why I married you.

They should have had kids.

We should have had kids, Mutt, he said, standing up and stepping back from the edge.

But Jenny hadn’t wanted to have kids. Kids would have got in the way of her career. He should have put his foot down; not about the career. He wasn’t that sort of guy. He should have put his foot down about the kids.

But then we wouldn’t have had you, old feller, he said.

He had warned her so many times. Watch what you’re doing! If you just thought about it. If only she had listened, but Jenny never took any notice of him. He wouldn’t have to warn her again.

The grave was narrow and deep. The soil glistened with a dampness that belied the blue sky and the heat of the sun. Blood had got onto his shirt; onto his forearms, mixing with the sweat and dust; onto the sharp blade of the spade. A shadow passed across the sun and he shivered. He would need a shower. He stood up and felt for the spade. He remembered a funeral they had gone to, years before, where he had lingered in the churchyard, talking to one of the other mourners. Jenny had gone on ahead and was waiting impatiently in the car. He had heard the thump of the soil landing on the coffin lid as the gravediggers began to cover it up. There would be no thumping this time. The soil would fall back softly, the curled body giving slowly with the growing weight of it. He could not bear the thought of it falling onto the open eyes. He let go of the spade and tugged at his shirt front.

He should have put his foot down about the car. What did she want a car like that for anyway? It looked like a squashed sardine tin. All you could see out of the front was the underside of lorries, and the hump of the boot out of the back. You wouldn’t get any kids in the back of that car. Even Mutt would have been hard put to fit in, if he had been allowed.

Jenny’s voice sliced down from the house-back.

Have you finished yet? I need to go and get this bloody dent taken out of the boot.

When he appeared at the edge of the lawn, he was without his shirt, bloodied, and in tears. <END


There is a series of informal, drop-in workshops planned for Carlisle Library, starting next Saturday, 28th June, from 11.00am-1.00pm. Led by Darren Harper and Brindley Hallam Dennis (aka Mike Smith). There will be five in the series, fortnightly, ending just before Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival & The Writers Quarter (of which more next week).

 28th June. 11.00am-1.00pm Fifteen Minute Biographies – come and join Darren Harper & BHD writing short biographies of themselves, of remembered family and friends, of imaginary people, then post them on our wall!

 12th July. 11.00am-1.00pm Reading as a Writer/Writing for the reader. Join Darren Harper and BHD in a discussion about how reading and writing match up, and why they sometimes don’t, and have a go at some short & simple writing exercises.

 26th July. 11.00am-1.00pm The Useful Little Story Machine: Darren Harper & BHD sets some writing exercises to find the stories you are ready to tell.

 9th August. 11.00am-1.00pm Desert Island Paragraphs. Come along to share your favourite

sections of novels and short stories with Darren Harper & BHD.

 23rd August. 11.00am-1.00pm The Book Doctors: Darren Harper & BHD will hold a series of surgeries looking at your stories and how they work!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScatter gun reading this last couple of weeks (and birdshot writing it must be said).

I’ve been flumoxing around in that treasury of short stories, Hammerton’s ‘The World’s Thousand Best‘. Árpád Berczik, for example, and his amusing ‘A Pursuit of Venus‘, which I’m sure could be re-worked, and suspect was itself a re-working of a tale told many times.

This was a Hungarian writer of the nineteenth century and as the preface to the ‘East European and Others’ section confesses, ‘nothing is more difficult to convey from one language into another’ as humour. Moving from American into English might not seem such a leap, might even be thought a step that we do not notice we have taken.

I also got to read a couple of stories by Solomon F. Smith (1801-1869), from the following volume of the same set. Smith’s ‘Wooding Up‘ is one of those river boat tales that we associate with Mark Twain, whom Smith preceded, and it has the same lively humour about it. More fun, to me, was Jenks’s Whiskers, in which a speculative investment in those eponymous handlebars – the narrator buys them off Jenks – doubles the money when the new owner comes to collect his purchases on the night of a ball, and opts to take only one for the time being. Jenks, without his whiskers is a lesser man, but without one side only of them, he is a lost cause so far as the ladies are conscerned. He must secure his freedom to remove the other by buying it back, at almost any price!

This story had the ring of O Henry more than of Twain for me (and I think the editor may have mentioned that in his introduction). Smith preceded Henry, and who knows, perhaps gave him some ideas! Or perhaps like Forster’s novelists they were all in some magical circular room somewhere out of time.

Whiskers apart, I’ve also been plodding on through Florence Goyet’s study of ‘the Classic Short Story’, plodding not because of the text – which is thought provoking and engaging – but because my e-reader makes pdf files difficult to read without a magnifying glass, and I can manage only an hour or so of slow progress at a sitting.

This week’s tranche hit the comparison of short stories and travel writing, reminding me that I read a while ago a very good collection of shorts from Paul Theroux, those these were short novels. Fiction and travel writing have a lot in common, though when first introduced to the idea – by Scottish writer and M Litt tutor Tom Pow, who created a fictional ‘guide’ for his travels in Peru – I found it difficult to accept the fiction/fact dichotomy that’s set up by casting real experience into a digestible, fictionalised form. Johnny Morris (and fictional companion Tubby Foster), of course, did just that in my childhood.

I travelled to Islay this week as well, and here’s a photograph of a gem I found…a fact is stranger than fiction woollen mill, still operating its Victorian & Edwardian equipment, though not now with water power!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week I took a dip into a film I’ve had lying around on DVD since Christmas. This was the 1975 offering from Brownlow & Mollo, Winstanley. A story set in the aftermath of the English Civil War, the eponymous hero is Gerard Winstanley, pamphleteer and leader of a proto-communist group known to history, and to its own times, as The Diggers.

I’ve read quite a bit about the ECW, though not recently, and have visited the Burford churchyard where Leveller mutineers were shot…you can still see the bullet marks, allegedly, on the wall. The film, shot in black and white, with obsessive attention to period detail still shows its seventies’ origins. There’s something distinctly hippie about those Ranters and the amateur actors who played them, it turns out, were from a contemporary squat. They played themselves, with a little exaggeration, they say, in the ‘specials’. The English Revolution, as some have called it, was undoubtedly lost, and that it was is still critically important to the way we live today. Churchill is quoted as having said that the only thing you need to know about an Englishman is which side he would have stood on at Marston Moor (or perhaps Naseby). These days, perhaps it would be equally instructive to know if he (or she) knows which side the accidents of heredity, or political conviction would have placed them on.

The defeat of Winstanley gets a nuanced handling, and more than once during the film I was reminded of comments in Kate Fox’s Watching The English, which I’m sure I must have referred to before. Brownlow himself, I think, comments somewhere about how, in what he regards as an English way, everyone tries to handle the affair with respect and dignity, yet the fundamental rift between ‘property’ and ‘freedom’ eventually demands that one side utterly overcomes the other. At about the same time as Brownlow was making this, I, then a ‘mature’ – a sloppy use of language in retrospect – student, was spending a summer as an unpaid amateur actor in a BBC film club production of Beowulf (Dir: Don Fairservice, if memory serves.). That too was shot in black and white. Beowulf deflected the fiery breath of the monster with a shield made of beaten baked bean tins. Our helmets were of glass fibre, our Saxon clothes made out of old blankets. I wasn’t the Saxon with the wristwatch, by the way! Watching Winstanley the similarities of dress and acting style were not lost on me.

Brownlow first came to my attention for his restoration of Abel Gances pre World War One blockbuster Napoleon, a multi screen umpteen hour epic. It was shown on TV in the eighties, but I was on duty at a Probation Hostel at the time, and wasn’t that persuasive. He is more famous though, for the film he made when still in his teens, and which first brought him into collaboration with Mollo. This was It Happened Here, a story of the Nazi occupation of Britain. I haven’t tracked that one down yet, though I’ve got the little book he wrote about the making, and selling of it.

Winstanley has been restored by the BFI, which funded its original production. It is a moving film, and gave me at least the unsettling sense that I was watching not a historical piece, but a futuristic one. It’s the sort of film I might argue ought to be shown in every school in the country, but I doubt Mr Gove would agree.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI didn’t get off to a good start when reading Florence Goyet’s history of the ‘classic’ short story.

The use of the word ‘paroxystic’ irrritated me. Surely it should be ‘paroxysmic’? (cataclysm=cataclysmic). I wasn’t absolutely convinced by the argument either, that short stories are always paroxywhichever. What did convince, or rather intrigued me was the later assertion that short stories are about situation, rather than character. Novels, by contrast, the implication is, are about character rather than situations.

Both have both, but the focus is different.

Thinking it through, what would that tell us about short stories and how we respond to them? It occurs to me that we are more likely to ask ‘what would I do in that situation?’ than we would be to formulate the question ‘what would I do if I were like that?’

If the novel explores character, do we view it from a safer, more detached perspective, as an outsider? We assess the character being explored, but it remains somebody else.

The situation, by contrast, in a short story, confronts us with an exploration of what might happen to us, of what we might do in the same situation. The short story, if that is true, turns us back on ourselves. We are more intimately connected with it than with the novel’s story. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the characters, or their situations in a novel, but we care in a different way.

Situations reveal rather than explore character. Sequences of situations offer that exploration. Short stories are rarely sequences in that sense, though there may well be phases in the development of the single situation they explore. Characters, by their interpretations of events and their responses to them, create situations – for me the classic example of this is in the novel (but not the film adaptation) First Blood, which I have written about elsewhere. They also react to situations.

Like chicken and egg, like whether we set off walking with the left foot or the right, situation and character are inextricably linked: they create and reveal each other in story…

But that the short story might start off on the situation foot, rather than the character one is an idea well worth considering when we set out to write one.

A curious aside to all this is that recently I sent off a collection of short stories for possible publication. The publisher wanted a working title. Titles are always a challenge, and one worth meeting, so I put on the thinking cap – a rather charming embroidered jobbie with a tassel. You can see it in the story ‘A Fabulous Blade’ on Vimeo at BHDandMe – and went looking for something appropriate.

The stories, thirty five of them, are varied in tone, style and content. What, I asked myself, might bind them all together and pop them in a pot! I rather like to draw titles from within the stories, rather than use an existing story title with the added ‘and other stories’, but what story might have a line in it that could be quoted, or twisted, to say something about all the others as well as about itself?

The answer came from The Turkey Cock, also on Vimeo, where the little man makes a comment which includes the phrase ‘in a situation like this’. Here was the seed of my overarching working title: ‘In Situations Like This’ – which seems to me to be an unexpected and unconscious affirmation of FG’s assertion.

New glasses, by the way!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn The Language of Fiction, which treats almost exclusively of novels, David Lodge touches on the concept of single words ‘standing behind’ the whole story. I’ve written previously about the exercise of reducing a short story progressively down through the typical ‘word-max’ limits of contemporary competitions, until we arrive at a single sentence, a phrase,or even a single word.

The idea that one word might encapsulate an entire story is not that odd. I’m sure the most common question asked about stories by readers, before they have read, but when they have become aware of any individual story is ‘what’s it about?’, and in striving to answer that question it is often a single word that we are trying to supply. We might reply with a sentence, a phrase, or a group of words. ‘It’s about this and that and the other’, but whenever we put a group of words into a pot we instinctively reach for a label for the pot itself, and we’re back to a single word.

Which thought edges me into the area I wanted to go: is there a similar possibility when describing the work in general of an author? D.H.Lawrence is the first name that springs to mind, for I have heard it said that he wrote the same novel over and again, as if trying to articulate some specific concern that was central to him as an individual. Other writers too echo earlier works in their later ones. Some are commercial genres, repeated because they are ‘successful’. But others are repetitions that refine or explore a single theme: the one that drives the author to be an author, instead of getting on with a sensible and socially useful life.

All this might be an interesting exploration when applied to the writers we encounter out in the world, but is it a riskier venture when we start asking the same question of ourselves? What do we write about? And do we repeatedly write about it? And the string of questions unravels from there. Why, and what good does it do us, and what harm, and can we move on from it without answering the questions ‘successfully’, and what happens to us after we have, or haven’t?

Then the question raises its head about whether or not it is in fact a good idea to know about ourselves what we idly seek to find out about the writers that we read. Maybe we’re better just, mole like, burrowing into whatever theme it is that stands behind our writing, risking the mole-catcher’s trap, throwing up our molehills of stories (on the pristine lawns of Great Literature – ‘especially great literature’, you might recall, bored John Berryman).

Or maybe we don’t have a single word standing behind all we have written. Maybe we’re casting our net wide – to change metaphors – trawling the seas of possible experience for something interesting. Maybe our writing is a search for meaning, not for the expression of a meaning that we already have. But even if that were the case, it might be that some outsider, reader, coming along, would put a finger on the tender spot of what unifies our writings, and if they did, would we want to know?

The question lurking behind this little musing must be the one I’m asking about why I do it – the writing?APennySpitfire-frontcover


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