The Macmillan Cancer Support Lake District Mighty Hike, 17th June, 2017.
Officially, 25 miles….one GPS said 27.3, and someone else’s 30! Could have been 30! 10 hours walking between 7.00am and 8.00pm. 3,797 feet of accent (in 23 degrees temp). 2 or 3 blisters. Jiggered knee, aches and pains….is that enough?

The rest is out of my hands…but in yours: give here.

My very sincere thanks to those who already have, and to those who are about to!

 

I’ve been playing that back of a fag packet game (though not on the back of a fag packet – fags are cigarettes in English argot, btw) of writing down my ten favourite short stories. The list is, well, fluid, but several stories are always there:

The Little Farm – H.E.Bates

Weep Not My Wanton – A.E.Coppard

The Fall – V.S.Pritchett

Arabesque – the Mouse – A.E.Coppard

The Blush – Elizabeth Taylor

Monsieur Seguin’s Goat – Alphonse Daudet

The Dead – James Joyce

The Magic Shop – H.G.Wells

Fitter’s Night – Arthur Miller

Sorting Office – Vivien Jones

 

It would be easy to go on for another ten…..And I could justify all of them for one reason, or several.

A variation on the game struck me though while I was writing. What about the top ten collections? Curiously enough, when I started to think about that, I found it harder to compile, and was surprised to find that they weren’t necessarily the collections in which the stories above might be found, even when they were by the same author.  It was also the case that only a half dozen of the forty or so collections on my shelves really stood out from the others. In fact, only two of them include a story from the above ten, and another is by the author of one from above.

 

Perfect Ten – Vivien Jones

Travellers – L.A.G.Strong

Provencal Tales – Michael de Larabeiti

Presence – Arthur Miller

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison

Lettres de Mon Moulin – Alphonse Daudet*

*the collection is in a French edition, but I have most of the stories in translation too.

There’s something about the way we assess a collection that’s different from the way we assess a single story. Not necessarily that all the stories in a collection must push against the same door, it’s more to do with some collections being very satisfying as a whole, but not throwing up a single story that stands out. Other collections might have an outstanding story, but the collection as a whole disappoints.

My late father in law, a catalogue bookseller of international repute, used to tell me that to make a catalogue ‘sing’ you simply had to remove the dross…what was left would look much better, and something similar must be true for collections of short stories, and of poems for that matter. There’s another issue of context: stories that won competitions – a one off flash-in-the-pan event – might not stand up to the re-reading that makes a collection one you go back to time and time again.

Coming back from a writers gathering in Dumfries recently, a group of Facets of Fiction Workshoppers fell into discussion on this, recognising that children – and the child in us perhaps – like to read, and to have read, the stories they have remembered, not those they have forgotten. We re-read, not to find out what happens next, but to re-experience the telling of the story. That we might get more than just that is a bonus that some stories, and some readings, give us.

It’s all subjective, of course, which is the way it should be, must be, if we are to assess on what the stories mean to us rather than in relation to some arbitrarily set standard (that will almost certainly be based on what they mean to some other individual).

 

This could be your last chance to sponsor BHDandMe as we tackle the mountain marathon on Saturday 17th June (tomorrow!). Me along with c999 others will be leaving Keswick between 7.00am and 9.00am and heading up Borrowdale into Langstrothdale, over Stake Pass (why it couldn’t be steak pass I don’t know) and into Langdale, through Elterwater to the outskirts of downtown Ambleside! We’re doing all this in aid of Macmillan Cancer Supprt, and if you do want to provide a little cash to that organisation you can go to the link on Just Giving, here.

Cut Up – A Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop,
by Mike Smith
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Many of the Writing Workshops I’ve attended are based around the idea of trawling the subconscious and heaving up some piece of writing that has been snagged by whatever hook the Workshop facilitator has fashioned.
The ‘Cut Up’ session, one of the workshops that I devised for the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, takes a totally different approach. It’s a Writers’ Workshop, but not a workshop that aims to produce, there and then, a piece of writing.
In fact it’s based on our abilities as readers, and on the belief that as readers, we perhaps know more about stories than, as writers, we realise we do!
As the title suggests, I take a short story – working with one that’s out of copyright, and hopefully unknown to workshop members – and cut it into pieces. Usually these are paragraph sized or similar, but the theory would hold good with sentences, or even chapters if working with longer prose forms.
Splitting the workshop into groups of between two and (preferably no more than) five, each group gets a full set of the story pieces, and reconstructs it. Practice has shown that the larger the group, the more difficult the task.
Some of the things that I think we know are what beginnings and endings look like. We know too when things are being introduced for the first time, and when they are being referred to subsequently. We know who is telling a story, and who it is being told about. We might even have ideas about to whom it is being told, and from that might deduce why it is being told, and why by that particular teller, and in that particular way!
Several lessons usually come out, and I hope that such was the case with the Mary Mann (1862-1929) short story, Little Brother. Those lessons include the functions of beginnings, and the importance of endings. The malleability of ‘middles’, and the effect of changing the order that information is given to the reader.
The workshop is not a competition to see which group can rebuild the story quickest, but rather an opportunity to examine those ‘facets’ of fiction: Narrative Voice, Location in Time and Place, Ambience, Function of Beginnings, Endings, and, arguably least of all in the short story, Characters.
When it works well, and in the case of Mary Mann it seemed to, it leads to discussions on all of those facets, and more generally on the use, and misuse, of detail, and the usefulness, and otherwise, of theory itself when we confront the tricky business, not of writing a first draft, but of knowing what we have written, and whether or not it works, and if not, how we might make it! It’s a technique that can tried with almost any story, and stories being what we might think they are, will throw up the same sort of lessons, about the same facets of fiction!

Well, me ducks (that’s my midland accent)….Twenty Two Years ago today I was diagnosed with Hairy Cell Leukaemia (that’s the first time I’ve spelled that without getting it wrong first time) Since then, in the words of my haematologist (I’m doing well with the spelling today), I’ve been ‘at risk of cure’….Glad to be among you still (hope the feeling’s mutual).

I’m going to share with you something that cost me five thousand pounds.

It’s about what I want my stories (and other types of writing) to do. I want them to haunt you, or even stalk you. I want them to ambush you with laughter, or surprise, long after you’ve finished reading them. I want them to come back at you like bad pennies, dishonoured cheques, and badly digested meals, or the shock of unexpected sexual encounters.

Because that’s some of the ways that stories stick in my mind, and is why I like them a lot!

One of the ideas that I picked up whilst taking my M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, was that you have to read to be able to write. I picked it up like it needed putting in a plastic bag and dumping in a bin. It wasn’t an idea I was looking for. It disturbed my equilibrium, threatened my equanimity.

Of course, reading won’t make you a good writer. The relationship is more complicated than that. Writing, in fact, is more likely to make you a good reader. It is likely to make you into a reader who reads like a writer, and reading like a writer might just help you to become a better writer than you have been.

A lot of the value in that five grand was in a simple idea, one that I should have had without needing to have it shoved into my head like a nine foot pike staff. It was the simple idea that when you’re reading, and something makes you reel – or any other of a number of imaginable metaphors – it’s worth stopping your reading, and going back and looking at exactly how that happened.

Because, sure as eggs are erfs, the only thing that can have made it happen is the words printed or written on the page (or heard from the lips of the person reading or telling you the story).  Because that’s all there is. And when you isolate those words, you can begin to get an idea of what it was about them that created the effect.

Partly that will be just exactly what those specific words signify in the lexicon of your brain: something that has been created for you alone, by the events of your life, and the way that the words you have encountered have interacted with them. But partly too, it will have been the way that those words have interacted with the words that have preceded them in whatever you are reading, and with the way that they have interacted with each other in the cluster that has sparked your reaction.

Language is the thorns that prick the skin of your subconscious. Reading like a writer is a matter of pulling them out, and taking a close look at where they came from, and why they hurt. And that just might help you when it comes to sticking them into someone else.

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For fun? Are you kidding? This is what people do to escape pestilence and famine….we’re trekking over the mountains for 26 miles….when the Greek guy did this he popped his jbs immediately afterwards – he was Greek…He wasn’t wearing clogs! (and there was no Macmillan Cancer Support in those days!)

So. I’m walking over the mountains. Would I be asking you for money if I were doing it for fun? Of course I wouldn’t! Why would you be giving me money if I were doing it for fun? That would crazy. Look, I’m going to hate every minute of it, I promise. And if I don’t, I’ll at least have the decency to pretend I do…so come on, up-end the piggy-box, smash the sweet jar, rip up the floorboards, let the dosh see the daylight, get the moths on the wing, and go to Justgiving.com/fundraising/MikeSmith106 and donate something to Macmillan Cancer Support’s Lake District Mighty Hike, June 17th…..here’s the link, in case you didn’t spot it anywhere earlier…..https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Mike-Smith106

This is what I get up to when I can’t get out of it…..it frees the mind and binds the feet. Don’t try it at home (unless you have a very, very big home)…of course you could just go up an’ down the stairs a few thousand times…at least you wouldn’t have to look at views all day, I mean grass is grass, when you’ve seen one blade you’ve seen ’em all…I mean, OK, so there’s flat grass and there’s steep grass, but who cares, it’s still grass….I suppose there’s rocks too, but let’s face it, who in their right mind wants to look at rocks?…don’t get me started on sky…

Macmillan Cancer Support helps people in their time of need, and they need you, and me, to help them do it…please give whatever you can, either by sponsoring me, here or in any other way you can. Thank you.

I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

London’s Mayor appeared on Radio 4 recently, talking about immigration and the projected quotas. Quoting government figures, he suggested that London, on a pro-rata basis, might be ‘allowed’ just under forty thousand immigrants…less than needed to supply the building trade alone (where over 10% of workers will retire over the next five years, apparently). He suggested a special measure for the city that would allow it to have more immigrants, while the rest of England (and of the UK) could continue with its exclusions.

The interesting element in this, which wasn’t picked up by the interviewer, was how, and by whom, this arrangement would be ‘policed’. Presumably some sort of line would have to be drawn around London, and ‘surplus’ immigrants prevented from crossing it , at least so far as moving to other jobs, and to living elsewhere would be concerned. Days out, holidays, and visits, presumably would be OK? Who would draw this line? Who would control its crossing points? London? Or we Provincials? Would we need internal passports to get into, or out of whichever side of the line we inhabited? Would Londoners, wishing to move in to the rest of the UK, or Provincials wishing to move out to London, count as immigrants, and who would be counting?

Either way, it would be the first step in a discernible road. I seem to recall that both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, during their time as Mayors of London, remarked in public, that they thought it entirely feasible the city could maintain itself as a City State, without the aid of the rump of the UK.

In Trieste last year I encountered some campaigners for a sort of ‘free Trieste’. They were convinced that the city – much smaller than London – could successfully go it alone.

When things start to break up it’s not entirely predictable where the fragmentation will stop. We have a surplus of water in this part of the UK, which, global warming continuing, might support the local population if sold at a high enough price to those living in the soon-to-be-drier parts of the present country… Of course, we’d have to seize the reservoirs etc(Just a thought!). 

 

There is a quality in short stories and poems (and other forms!) of being memorable. Without warning, day or night, weeks, months, years after you have read them they will pop into your  mind, often triggered by some seemingly totally unconnected prompt, and one of which you might even be completely unaware.

One such recollection sprang to my mind recently, in the form of three Latin words: Corvus moribundus est. I’m no Latin scholar (where there has been no learning, there has been no teaching, we used be told at Charlotte Mason College – but not at Burton Upon Trent Grammar School), but my understanding was – and is – that the young priest in L.A.G. Strong’s clever short story The Rook, is telling his colleague that the eponymous bird is fatally wounded.

Strong is a writer long forgotten, and I came across a collection of his (Travellers, Readers Union/Methuen, 1947) in the Mill on the Fleet’s bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet in South West Scotland. The Rook is one of several outstanding stories among the thirty-one included. In it an unsympathetically described gardener take a shot at a gathering of rooks. We follow the flight of the fatally wounded rook as it seeks safety in the trees, but falls through the branches to the ground. Incomprehension, panic and fear follow us, and the metaphorical implications are powerful.

The two priests are teaching a class of boys, and while the younger goes out with a stick to finish off the wounded creature, the other reflects upon life and death. It’s a simple story, and remembering those three Latin words brings all the meaning back to mind, all the images that the story had evoked in the reading; yet not necessarily the words themselves.

It is the content of the story, rather than its form, I suspect, that is likely to haunt the average reader (if there is such a thing).

And those stories and poems that we do recall, in part, in words and phrases, and images, are surely the ones that we must regard as successful. This won’t necessarily correlate with how many copies were sold in the author’s lifetime, or even the lifetime of the story to date, nor with the degree of fame, then and now. Success and the recognition of it are not quite the same thing. And what sticks in the memory is about the person whose memory it is!

Strong’s tragic love story, The Seal, is one of the stories examined in Love and Nothing Else, a collection of 12 essays about short stories and their writers.