Just back from a near month in New Zealand to which family ties rather than idle curiosity took me.

            While I was there I met up with fellow writer Jenny Purchase who has just published her collection of short stories, Transit Lounge. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/transit-lounge-jcl-purchase/1142469337. I had the opportunity to read a slightly earlier version of these tales, when the collection was still in manuscript form. As an outsider it opened my eyes to aspects of New Zealand life that I hadn’t more than glimpsed as a visitor on my two previous, pre-covid visits. An incomer herself, from South Africa, Jenny brings that outsider’s perspective that is so useful to the writer – Kipling, I think, had it, and especially so when he wrote stories about the England of the English, as opposed to the Colonial establishment.

            It’s not so much a detachment as a distanced engagement, one that’s close enough for observation in detail, but far enough away to see the wider context too. Crime, romance, growing up as a Maori in a Paheka world, and the changes that we all face, or shy away from, run through the stories like broken glass in the jelly. It’s a great collection, both insightful and moving and I hope it does well.

While I was over there I read two books, at the suggestion of my daughter. The first was Kazuo Ishigaru’s Klara and the Sun.  I enjoyed it, though from time to time I forgot that Klara was anything other than an ordinary character in a novel. I’m not sure whether that was my misreading, or Ishigaru’s intent, or even a bad thing, but I was surprised that the story seemed to hinge on our acceptance of a robot having what might be called a ‘superstitious’ inclination. Klara’s belief in the benign intent of the sun is carefully presented in the early pages, but function rather than intent seems to me a more likely robotic explanation, and she (it?) didn’t seem as connected to the other AI devices surrounding them, especially those ‘oblongs’, as our modern phones, laptops and even fridges, apparently, are said and designed to be.

            My favourite scene, and the one that sticks in my memory, is the very last, set in the wrecker’s yard where it (she?) lives out, if that is the right term, her long fade – a sort of Old Folks Home for devices, I suppose.

            The other book, and I read it quickly because I didn’t want the bulk or weight of it in my hand luggage on the return, was Eleanor Catton’s The Luninaries. I confess, the moon and star stuff went mostly over my head, but I did like the character studies of the dozen or so main characters. I don’t think I would have missed it, mind you, if it had been omitted, and I’m not convinced it was needed to validate the actions, thoughts and speeches of those characters, which seemed perfectly feasible in the course of the story. What did strike me was that when I reached the end, it seemed that the revelations being ‘tied up’ in the last few chapters were only really revelatory to the characters themselves. We, I think, knew it all already?

            That said, I found it absorbing enough to read over about four days, and not purely because of those weight restrictions. I’d recommend it. I might even look for a copy over here and give it another go! I was aware that there had been a TV adaptation, having seen the trailers. Having read the book, I can only guess that those long psychological studies have been deleted, and replaced by much more visual scenes. A curiosity of the book, that I would guess has also been changed, is that there is very little actual sex for a story concerning the life of a prostitute and her various sponsors. Curious too, I thought, that the story had so few, and such underwritten women characters, though I found them wholly credible and engaging. 

I came back from the trip with about 100 pages of notebook filled, three of them with ink sketches of landscape – rare for me, because I’m such a lousy drawer – plus several dialogues, the bones of a few stories, and some poems, four of which, for want of anything else to do with them, I publish the one nearest ready to abandon here:

Happy New Year, by the way!

A Metaphor Cast Upon the Pacific Shore North of Kaikaura, South Island, New Zealand

Detritus of trees such as litters the beach

Floats also in the sea just out of reach

Where the plunging waves form.

                                                    You cans see it

When the waters rise and tip it into view

On their gathering flanks, too heavy perhaps

To be flung onto the shore.

                                            It seems because of this

As if some vague sea beast swam against the tide

Maintaining its position for a while.

                                                          But bleached roots,

Fish heads and dried seaweed give the lie.

It will be thrown to sky and sand before

This tide turns and brought to land

As if it had tired of some struggle to keep the sea.

is that the ones we want to read or hear, or see portrayed on stage or screen again are the ones we have remembered, not those we have forgotten. Like the stories we tell, or create, about our own lives.

We’ll tell this month BHD’s short story, Old School Ties.  And Mike’s poem Curtain Call, which was included in The Unpredicted Spring, published by The Book Mill for the Norman Nicholson Society, in 2020, edited by Kathleen Jones).

Old School Ties

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

Mr Worple was an overbearing lout. Sorry, but I’m prejudiced.

I’d seen Mr Worple hit people smaller than himself lots of times, but never anyone bigger or even as big as he was. I’d never seen him hit anyone who was likely to hit him back. Grammar Schools were on the cusp of change back then, but had a core of teachers who had been there before the Second World War, and who, if they were the right age to have done so, had served for the duration and then returned to teaching. Some of them had never done anything but be in school or in the forces. They were the ones who kept the school traditions, of bullying and hypocrisy, alive.

            There were two Bannisters at school. Me and David. We weren’t related. We weren’t friends, but we were in the same class all the way through to A levels, from 1962 to 1969. He was Bannister D. I was Bannister H. That was to the teachers. To the other boys we were Stair-rail One and Stair-rail Two. Neither of us was thin or tall. We weren’t remotely like stair-rails.

            Mr Clarke was the Head of English. He would have missed the war, I’m guessing, and his two staff were a decade younger still. One had come straight from College and the other from industry, though which industry was never specified.

            They were good, but Mr Clarke was passionate. He wasn’t like the other teachers, any of them. He could lose his temper with the best, but there was no lashing out, no throwing board dusters – don’t let the word duster mislead you. They were hard wooden blocks with a cloth pad on one face. There were no threats of the Headmaster and the cane; no meaningless lines to be written out. With Mr Clarke it was pure emotional blackmail. He’d tell you how disappointed he was that you’d fallen short of the standards he thought you’d set for yourself, how much less a person you seemed than he had thought. And it worked, because you could see he meant it. He was genuinely upset. And you believed it too, about who you might be. Once or twice I thought he might cry. Yet you could see he was raging too. His face would be flushed a deep red, his voice shaking with fury, with despair.

            When I went to visit Mr Clarke in the old folks’ home he was in his late seventies, a venerable age for those days, and I was in my early fifties. He looked smaller, thinner, but his eyes were bright, still alert for something. In an odd way he looked younger rather than older. He was still wearing cord trousers, but there was no jacket now over the maroon v-necked jumper. I found that unsettling, but he still had the little badge he used to wear on his lapel, though now it was on the chest of his pullover.

            Bannister, sir, I told him.

            It surprised me then, and still does now, how easily I slipped back into the formal relationship. He squinted up at me and repeated the name.

Bannister? Bannister? Then recognition sparked. Your father served in the war, he said.

            That’s right, sir.

            He was a war hero. Won the Military Cross? Something like that.

            No, sir. I leaned in closer. That was Bannister D, sir, David Bannister. I was Bannister H.

            He pulled a face, then smiled. I could sense him trying to wreak my boyhood’s face out of the middle aged one facing him.

            You were Henry, the one who wanted to be a writer, he said.

All three of them had encouraged me, the English teachers. But he’d been the one, the one who had made it seem possible, had made it seem necessary, too important not to have a go at.

His eyes narrowed. Well, did you do it?

            A little bit, I said.

            A little bit’s better than none, he said and he clapped his hands. I knew you would. What is it? Journalism? Novels? A bit of poetry?

            Short stories, sir, mostly. I tried to make it sound not like an apology.

Short stories are good, Henry.

It’s in stories that we hide the truths that no-one wants to own. That’s what he told me, all those years ago. We’d been working together on the school magazine, looking through the little pieces we’d all been told to submit. One of mine, he’d said it about.

He nodded and briefly covered his mouth with his hand.

            I should have thought Bannister D would have made a good story, he said.

            Would he? I was genuinely surprised. Why was that, sir?

            I’d sat down beside him by this time, and the care assistant had moved away leaving us to it. Mr Clarke glanced at me briefly, and an almost childlike grin spread across his face.    You must have heard?

            I don’t think so, sir.

            Bannister D was the boy who smacked Jack Worple in the face. He glanced up at me and pinched his ear.

            Worple had been a tall man, heavily built. He’d loom over you, haranguing you for some misdemeanour. Having your jacket collar up, or your tie undone or running in the corridor would suffice, and then, in mid flow his left arm would swing up in a great haymaker of an arc and he’d clip you behind the right ear. It was always the left arm; always the right ear. But no matter how many times you saw him do it, when it came to your turn you wouldn’t see it coming.

            I remembered Stuart somebody-or-other, starting to explain, but I thought, sir, and Worple striking. You’re not here to think, boy! It could have been the school motto.

            He got me only the once, sending my glasses flying, and as I bent instinctively to catch them he barked at me. Have a care boy! Spectacles are expensive. As if it had been my fault. But I wondered afterwards if the incident had surprised him, frightened him even, because he never did it again.

            The Worple Swipe we called it, Mr Clarke said. In the staff room, he added and he tilted his head and briefly closed his eyes, presumably recalling. I imagine you boys had a name for it too, he said, but if we had, I’ve forgotten it entirely.

            But Bannister D, sir? I prompted.

            Bannister D, yes. Well, he struck back, a real Clarence Tibbs. Smack, right across Worple’s face.

            What happened, sir?

            The shit hit the fan, of course.

            I gave a start of sheer surprise, but Mr Clarke went on.

            Frog marched your namesake to the Headmaster, demanding expulsion, the cane, the police even. Oh, yes, Jack Worple couldn’t believe it. Neither could the Head. Worst atrocity, he said, against a member of staff in the four hundred year history of the school.

            Well, I said, trying to picture the scene.

            All bullshit. Four hundred years of history? Spurious lineage. Questionable facts. Fanciful narratives. You might as well have written it. He grinned like a schoolboy. But they didn’t take the father into account.

            He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers.

            He’d be an ordinary working chap, a builder I think. But he’s been in the Commandos, won his medal on the beaches at D Day, rescuing comrades under enemy fire, taking out pill-boxes, something like that. He’s not a man you’d try the Worple Swipe on, and he’s brought his son up not to be either. He’s all for calling in the police too. Assault is the first one to strike would be his take on it and the second was acting in self defence.

            Would that have washed back then, sir?

            Probably not, but that medal. He could have made a fine stink in the locality. War Hero’s son expelled for standing up for himself? Messy. The war was still very close in the nineteen sixties. Besides, there were witnesses. Kitchen staff would have seen it, so would the boys on dinner duty. Worple shouldn’t even have been in there, but would have just waded in, as was his wont.

All be hushed up of course: Witnesses discouraged, manipulated, bribed, intimidated, honour of the school and all that bluster and bluff. Besides, the town was Tory to the core, always has been.

He smiled again and placed his palms against his cheeks.

But a boy striking a member of staff? Striking a Master? It was mutiny. It was The Revolution. What a story that would be. You’d think it was the end of the world, and perhaps in a way, it would be. Old Worple would never do it again.

            Mr Clarke looked past me and nodded slowly. Even when we make it all up, he said, there’s got to be truth at the heart of it.

            And it was what they’d fought for, after all, he said, wasn’t it? He turned to face me, and I saw once again his lips tremble the way they used to, though there was no anger in him now. And you boys, Henry, he said, the young men of your generation, you wouldn’t have let injustice like that pass unchallenged, I’m sure of that!

But I think of how easily I’d slipped back into calling him sir, and I remember how we’d been trained to tip our caps without thinking to those old-school ties.

Curtain Call

By Mike Smith

I’m not in the next scene. I’m not on stage,

but in the wings, where I can see the ropes

and wires behind the back-scene flats.

My lines are done from this page to the last.

Blame the director for my moves,

and the writer. I took my cues from him.

 I neither nod nor walk on till the end,

when we link hands to take our curtain call

and see the audience clap and rave

or watch them, silent, shuffle from the hall.

Too late now for re-writes, edits,

new bits of business with our hands,

new marks on which to stand,

re-aligning lines of sight.

(Adding notes for younger members of the cast,

bringing prima donnas to control at last)

Some lighting engineer,

high up beyond the Gods,

to win a bet he made with someone from the pit,

has swung a spotlight to one side,

shifted the hero from his mark. Just for a lark.

Outside the fans are gathering at a door.

I’ll shoulder through unseen.

No-one will call my name.

That’s a relief,

considering the character I played.

Somebody told me a few years ago that a mutual friend had described me as ‘a loner’. I latched onto it like a metaphorically drowning man might grasp an imaginary lifeline. Then Covid-19 came along and gave me a test run out here in the countryside where the sound of many hands clapping (to convince themselves they were helping the NHS) could be heard faintly across the fields, and more people than usual stopped to chat across the hedge as they walked what had previously been the unaccustomed lanes.

            During that first enforced lockdown I published on the blog a hundred stories over a hundred days; a hundred and one days to be precise as one story was extra long and I split it into two! I thought of it as my Bocaccio project, in recollection of the Decameron (a hundred stories set in the mouths of rich young Florentines fleeing the plague of the thirteen hundreds). My stories weren’t all new. Several had been published before, and later I took them all down and gathered them into the print only collection Previously, which, because it is so fat, I think of as The Brick!

            After that I ceased posting to the blog and for two years it lay fallow and the writing went elsewhere. But now, BHDandMe’s Blog is back. It’ll be a monthly mix of essay, short story and poem by Brindley Hallam Dennis and Mike Smith the two names I’ve lived my life as (neither chosen by me, but both, in their undeniably different ambiences, seeming to fit). We’ll begin with a piece about Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield

What of Agnes?

(in Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield)

By Mike Smith

I recently watched Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield. I’ve seen it several times, and enjoy it greatly, and as with several other adaptation of that writer’s works, it always makes me want to go to the book and read it again.

            On this occasion it was a single line in the film, slipped in almost unnoticed near the end that became the focus of my reading: that and the opening sentence of the novel itself, the possible significance of which had escaped me on previous readings. Here’s that opening sentence (the single line, we’ll get to later):

                        ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’

            When you consider the events of the novel, and the number of characters involved in it, there are quite a few possible contenders for the title of hero: Ham, Mr Peggotty, his sister, even Traddles, and certainly Aunt Betsey, and Mr Dick. Emily and Martha are heroic in their endurance, and Mrs Gummidge could make a strong claim. Even Micawber, and undoubtedly Mrs Micawber strive and come through, as heroes often do. But all these, and you might think there are more, are heroes of the events of the story. Dickens’ first person narrator, in the persona of David Copperfield is suggesting an alternative hero ‘of my own life’.

            There’s no point in me being coy here. The title of this piece gives the game away, as does a page heading a quarter of the way into the novel, in my nineteenth century, double column, quarto edition. Iannucci had set me off to read Dickens with Agnes in mind.

Something that struck me on this reading – a function, I suspect of the ageing process, as well as of the writing  – was the absolute sincerity of Dickens’ proxy voice. The film adaptation captures something of that, along with the sense of place and of period, the appearances of mid-Victorian London and, is that Lowestoft, passing itself off as nineteenth century Yarmouth? It captures in spades the heightened emotional life of Copperfield and his suite of characters, saved from sentimentality by its comic overtones – something I’m not sure Dickens was doing. In fact, my reading of the novel brought the surety that Dickens took and presented these displays of what might seem overblown paroxysms of hysteria rather than of mere strong feelings with absolutely serious intent. It’s how we feel, about ourselves and each other, and how we feel what other people feel about themselves, and us, and others, that Dickens is out to show us, and to get us to respond to.

            That’s not to deny the fun in a Dickens story, nor the melodrama, nor even the sentimentality, but behind them all is the grim reality that Vonnegut so pithily summed up in the saying he sprinkled throughout Slaughterhouse Five: So it goes. You’ll even find a near version of it in Copperfield, if you look hard enough. The film foregrounds the fun, and the melodrama, and the action. We’re invited to watch as they unfold, and the story, trimmed, slimmed, and stripped down, is compressed into a sensible time scale. What it does not do, and cannot, is what Dickens does repeatedly, which is to bring us to a halt, to a pause for reflection; perhaps to read a sentence again and ponder its truths or to consider the justice of a word, the insight of a thought or observation. The events of a Dickens story, and of this one perhaps more than any that I have read, are a framework on which to build those moments of consideration. Copperfield might be telling us his story, but Dickens is offering us the chance to consider why it’s worth our time to read it.

It isn’t necessary to know much about Dickens’ own life to notice the parallels, or at least the lines that nudge close from time to time. In the foreword to my (1869) edition, he says it is his favourite novel, and says as much in one of the letters in The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (ed.Jenny Hartley, Oxford,2012), though there I see a hint that it’s how well the novel has gone down at readings which might be at least part of the attraction!

            Consider the jarring dislocation of Copperfield’s return to Blunderstone from Yarmouth, to find ‘a strange servant’, a new father, and a big dog, which might be seen as an echo of the disruptions in Dickens’ early life. And Micawber’s brushes with the debtor’s prison must echo what happened to the author’s father. The ‘bottling factory’ of the novel recalls the ‘blacking factory’ of Dickens’ own life. And the doubts that Copperfield begins to experience about his marriage to Dora must, I imagine, have drawn on the memories of Dickens’ own marriage failure.

            But there is no living figure that I am aware of in Dickens’ life equivalent to Agnes in Copperfield’s. That is, there is no figure present so early and so importantly, who remains so to the time at which he was writing this book. In that sense Agnes is an invention rather than a transposition, unless she is the transposition of one who died young. Could Agnes be the embodiment of Dickens’ regret for a lost love that could never be retrieved except in fiction? There is Maria Beadnall, later Winters, who wrote to him in the 1850s after a quarter of a century of separation, but in his replies to her included in the Selected Letters she is compared to Dora and not to Agnes!

From the Selected Letters, and the biography (Ackroyd’s) which I have read, Dickens comes over as a frenetic figure, whose joie de vivre doesn’t so much flow free as come out under pressure. His daily routines seem to have been packed with writing – of fiction, articles and those letters, some fourteen volumes and counting I believe – with socialising, producing  magazines and plays, campaigning for a variety of charitable and social causes, and, of course, the rounds of reading tours that Iannucci references to frame his telling of the tale. And his travelling both within Britain and abroad seems remarkable, even by today’s standards.

            Yet we don’t need to know who Dickens was or what he was like to enjoy and to be moved by this story, or any other. What it meant to him and where it came from in his own life experiences is an academic issue. It’s what the book means to each of us who read it. And it is to each of us that Dickens, in that first sentence has given a clue to what we might look for and hope to find, not about Charles Dickens, or even David Copperfield, but about ourselves.

            If Agnes were to be the hero of Copperfield’s story, what notion of her might we take into our own stories?

Reading of Copperfield’s escape from ‘Murdstone and Grinby’, two thoughts came to mind. The first was that, in the film version, this was the point at which Iannucci began to reassemble Dickens’ own telling of the tale (though not without changes). But much of what happens in the book over the next few chapters is happening to a much younger man than the one we watch in the film.

            The second thought was to recollect a flight I made once, out of London in the dead of night, on foot to begin with and fleeing from emotional turmoil. I recall standing, asleep on my feet, somewhere in the midlands, having been dropped off by a motorist who kept himself awake at high speed by juddering along the cats eyes. I recall owls circling my head as I stood, waiting for the daylight of a Sunday morning, to resume my hitch-hike towards my parents’ house. Copperfield’s account of his night outside Salem House, sleeping under the hayrick brought my journey sharply back, but I had not yet to meet Agnes, nor was I moving towards her.

            Agnes Wickfield appears not quite a quarter of the way into the novel, in the chapter entitled ‘I make another beginning’. Dickens, because of the serialisations perhaps, gives his chapters titles, and all the right hand pages in my edition carry a supplementary title, a heading such as you might find in a newspaper column. My guess is that if you put them all together you would have an outline of the entire story. ‘I see Agnes for the first time’, it says above the page on which she arrives, and that’s not quite the same as saying, for example ‘I meet Agnes’.

            There’s a deal of preparation has gone into this encounter. Copperfield is taken to the Wickfield house by his saviour, Aunt Betsey, and his, and our first glimpse of Agnes is of what he and we take for her portrait: ‘a lady with a very placid and sweet expression of face, who was looking at me’.

            That this sentence might have ended at ‘face’ and made perfect sense might nudge us to notice just what Dickens has added here. That ‘looking at me’ makes the portrait active rather than passive, and active in direct relation to Copperfield. Looking isn’t a casual glance. It’s a connection, and a discerning one. Mr Wickfield separates Agnes out from the other characters in the story by asserting that she is ‘my motive’, adding ‘I have but one in life.’ Having given us her importance to her father, Dickens lets Copperfield tell us what he sees:

                        ‘a girl of about my own age came quickly out and kissed him. On her face, I saw immediately the placid and sweet expression of the lady whose picture had looked at me downstairs. It seemed to my imagination as if the portrait had grown womanly, and the original remained a child. Although her face was quite bright and happy, there was a tranquillity about it, and about her – a quiet, good, calm spirit –that I never have forgotten; that I never shall forget.’

            I quote the whole piece because there is so much in it to unpack. The words, their order as individuals and in their groupings; their meanings. Placidity and sweetness might not be our preferred qualities these days, but Dickens is giving us his template, the template of his times, and, more importantly, the dream-template, I suspect, of his busy and trauma packed life. There’s also the possibility that the tranquillity is what we might call resolution in the face of adversity, the placidity, endurance, and the sweetness a sense of wholesomeness rather than of toxicity or corruption. Copperfield sees the meaning in Wickfield’s words immediately: ‘I guessed what the one motive of his life was.’ And at the end of the quoted paragraph, ‘I never have forgotten’ and ‘I never shall forget’ span time from the moment of that first meeting to the moment of this fictional writing. We shall not forget her either, as we don’t forget our own Agnes.

            In a sense, Agnes isn’t so much a character as an ideal, which might make us consider that Dickens in dealing in ideals rather than people.

Perhaps because it is what Agnes ‘is’ as opposed to what she does or what she says, Copperfield’s presentation of how she behaves towards her father remains for a time the focus of our attention. But as the story progresses will begin to see that in his descriptions of her a mirror his being held up to his own feelings.

            E.M.Forster, I think it was (in Aspects of the Novel), who told us that Dickens’ characters were flats, agitated so vigorously that we were fooled into thinking them round. Could that be because Dickens is not aiming for realism, but for representations of ways of being, and it is what his characters represent, in a moral, and in an emotional sense, revealed through their words and actions that Copperfield, our narrator, is always telling us. And through his telling, and his response to how he sees them, we see him. And we see ourselves too.

            For Dickens is one of those writers who is always telling us what we could be, and what, perhaps, we ought to be. Sometimes too, he asks us what we might have done, or what we might do, or what we have done in situations like those his novels reveal.

In this novel there are so many characters, and all of them are caught up in relationships with one or more of the other characters. Even the butcher, who knocks down the young Copperfield, and loses a tooth to the older one, is in a sort of relationship with our narrator, who towards the end of the story, fills us in one what became of him. Even Mrs Gummidge, who sits and complains for the first four fifths of the book, is finally revealed to be in a close visceral relationship with Mr Peggotty. And that old seafarer is connected to just about everyone. There are numerous pairs: Ham and Em’ly; Steerforth and Em’ly; Steerforth and Copperfield; Doctor and Mrs Strong; Traddles and ‘the best girl in the world’; Mr and Mrs Micawber. Copperfield with Dora, and several others before her.

            But from that first meeting at the Wickfield house, never foregrounded, but always there, the relationship between Copperfield and Agnes, simmers away in the background. After almost every event in which he is involved it is to Agnes he turns for reassurance, for guidance, and for advice. And at every one of those turnings the narrative, Copperfield’s own account, repeats the description of what Agnes is, and adds to it the effect that being in her presence has upon him. It is the nature of that effect, rehabilitative, redemptive, sustaining, that makes Copperfield’s story worth reading, and worth telling. Dickens, in several instances of which I am aware, and no doubt in many others, makes it plain how special this story was to him, and I’m sure that it was so because in this story he tells us, through Copperfield, how he, and we are, were and might be made. And that is by someone like Agnes. If only we come to recognise them.

            There are something like twenty or thirty short-ish chapters between the meeting of Agnes and Copperfield, and his first inklings that she might be already the love of his life. By the time that penny drops, we, I think, are well aware of it. That first faltering intimation comes as he intrudes unintentionally on a scene in which Mrs Strong expounds upon her love for the Doctor, her much older husband. He, conscious of their age difference and harried by his mother-in-law, has mistakenly distanced himself from his wife, believing that she cannot really love him and that his marriage to her has been, in effect, an abuse of her. In a long speech she corrects this illusion, and gives an ‘idealised’ – perhaps appalling to modern minds – account of what a marriage should be. Two particular statements resonate with Copperfield, and perhaps with us. The first is that the worst ‘disparity in marriage’ is ‘unsuitability of mind and purpose’. This so strikes Copperfield that he repeats it, twice, at the end of the chapter, and a third time a little later as he reflects upon what he has witnessed. He repeats too, the second: ‘the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.’

            Reflecting upon these two ideas, Copperfield begins to see his own marriage to the child-like Dora in a new light, and to see his relationship with Agnes afresh too. As a storyteller, Dickens now has the problem of getting Dora out of the way without damaging our view of the ostensible ‘hero’. Iannucci does it quite neatly: Dev Patel’s Dickens simply writes her out, at her own suggesting! Dickens, in truth, does pretty much the same, though it takes a little longer. Aunt Betsey, ever a voice of reason, where donkeys aren’t concerned, takes to calling her ‘Little blossom’, and Copperfield, with a nice literary touch, reminds us that blossoms wither, and fall, and die.

            In the book a series of chapters tying up the loose ends of what I think of as the ‘side stories’, along with a lonely trip abroad, provide a decent period of mourning before Copperfield’s crucial confrontation with Agnes. By this time he has recognised the depth of his feelings towards her, but has half convinced himself that he’s left it too late. We, of course, know that he hasn’t, which is what draws us to read on. The scene comes in which he has to tell her his feelings, and when he does so, she closes that section of the chapter – it’s marked by a line of white space after – with the simple statement: ‘I have loved you all my life.’

            This is the single line that Iannucci slips almost unnoticed into his film, and for me it’s the line I’ve been waiting for. It’s the Obligatory Line, to twist a concept of McKee’s (Story, Robert McKee). If The Personal History of David Copperfield  were a short story, it would end here; well, at least according to my theory of the short story. But it’s a novel, and there are other characters in whom we’ve invested, and we want to know what became of them, besides which, the narrator needs to sign off formally from where he is, telling the tale on Dickens’ behalf.

            And when I’ve got there I see that the last line of the book is yet another evocation of Agnes, and what she is and what she represents:

                        ‘O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!’


         A case, I think, for suggesting that for Copperfield at least, she is the hero of his ‘own life’.

There’s a sort of postscript perhaps needed here, for all that I’ve said is based on assumptions about what a hero, or a heroine, actually is. Some of that’s tied up with our feelings about them. Can a character we loathe or despise ever be a hero? Would an extraordinary display of courage or endurance, even as they maintained their evil in thought and action, make them one? Is MacBeth such a one? Or would there need to be some rehabilitation, a change of heart or mind? In this case that’s academic, for Agnes is goodness unchanging, and Copperfield has moved from that ‘undisciplined heart’ to a constancy of his own. He has also become David Copperfield; no longer Daisy, or Trotwood, or Doady or, as Murdstone calls him ‘boy’.

            My current thinking on this is that if one were take Copperfield out of the story Agnes would still remain the same. She would comfort Em’ly. She would   defend her father against Heep. She would see through Steerforth. She would be a good friend to Mrs Strong. She would be, in short (as Micawber might say) Agnes. But Copperfield without her would be entirely lost. Her story, a friend of mine suggested, would not be as interesting as his, and I think that’s true, but that first sentence idea which Dickens has Copperfield put into our heads, is not that someone else might be the hero of Dickens’ novel, or of its story, nor even of David Copperfield’s, but of that character’s ‘own life.’                            

Here’s Southlight 28, online as part of the Wigtown Book Festival, and with something from BHDandMe inside.

WordPress has introduced a new ‘editor’, which has given me the push I needed. You can find find essays by Me on the short story, adaptation and writing in general on The Blue Nib, Literati magazine and in the Thresholds archive, as well as published collections on Amazon (by Mike Smith). Short fiction by Brindley Hallam Dennis appears on .Cent (don’t miss out that dot), Fairlight Books, Liars League archives and the Black Market Re-view and elsewhere. Both can be found in Southlight Magazine. Collections of short stories by BHD are available on Amazon. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing. BHDand Me.

Let me give you an idea of what it’s like.

We cut back the hedge on the other side of the lane a few days ago. Not all of it. A man with a thrashing machine on a tractor was doing that. We cut the bit that had overgrown the gate not quite opposite the front of our house and which he couldn’t get his machine into. The hedge had gotten tall, maybe twelve feet, and it was thick. The birds love it that way, but if it comes down to around five or six feet it lets in much more light, even at the distance it is from our windows. From upstairs it’s not so noticeable,  but from ground level there are views all the way across to the Pennines at the false horizon to the east.

The bit we cut back, at the gate doesn’t make much difference to the light, but it’s like cleaning a window onto the farmland to the north of east, across the fields beyond the village that sits in the dip a quarter of a mile away.. Today a cow looked through that window, leaning its muzzle over the top rail of the metal fence. Nobody seems to use that gate these days. There’s another, up the hill, beyond the T junction, on what you might call, with no small sense of irony, the main road.

Many years ago, when we worked in the second hand book trade sending parcels out to more than twenty different countries, a visiting dealer, bemused to the point of being spooked by the quiet and the lack of houses to be seen from where we live, asked the question, what do you do for kicks out here? Well, these days, the cows, seemingly more often than they used to provide the kicks, but other than that we don’t do much. We noticed, today, that a cow was looking over the gate, where we’d cut back the hedge.

All of which might go to explain why there was no blog post yesterday.. It’s easy to forget what day it is; easy to forget which order they come in; easy to forget their names. On the other hand, it might have been just because I was too damned lazy to write one…..

Today BHDandMe will have fulfilled our three score year and ten, and will pass into injury time (and other stoppages). Perhaps in celebration of this, BHDandMe have collected the One Hundred stories posted, one a day, during the first hundred of days of the Covid-19 lockdown, and put them into the paperback Previously, now available online. The stories were posted on the blog between March 23rd and July 1st, and removed at the end of that month. Of the hundred more than ninety are previously unpublished, but one or two old favourites, commended stories and prizewinners were included. The book has them in the same order as they were posted, but that isn’t the order in which they were written (as would become apparent to a reader). Included too are the ‘preview’ comments that gave a little context to the original postings.

In the meantime BHDandMe are raising a glass or two to each other, and to you.

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse.

Here’s another little tale from BHD in .Cent magazine

BHD being toast?

I was invited recently on Faecesbook to ‘bin a word’. It’s an interesting, if ill-defined idea. It sounds ‘fun’. There’s a word to speculate on. It sounds ‘funky’, which may or may not be meaningfully related. It sounds ‘trendy’, ‘with it’, dare I say ‘cool’? And if I do, how many syllables should I give it, and what meaning? That of the sixties, when I first heard it? That of the nineties when it cropped up again? Of later?

‘Bin’? I met a Kiwi once who called himself ‘Bin’, but that was his accent, and vowels in anybody’s English have always been slippery. ‘Bin’? To discard, throw away, trash? To get rid of? Just what does that mean when it comes down to words? Does it mean that after we’ve Binned’ it and somebody, sinn fein even, comes along and finds it they, we, won’t know what it means? How helpful would that be?

And this is for writers, fgs! How helpful would it be to us to have ‘binned’ words, put them somewhere safe, somewhere where we’re safe from them, somewhere beyond anyone ever using them again, in any context? Wouldn’t that be hum-dinger of a 1984er! Imagine, never being able to have a racist, or an innocent use a word in a story, because you’ve ‘binned’ it. Maybe a word you’ve binned because you’re frightened of it, by it, a word binned for being what you think it is, or was, or might have been; a word you’ll never be able to make a ‘nice’ distinction about, being binned. How close that binned is to banned, and how close either to being forgotten?

I’m sorry, but I’m not a ‘binner’ of words. I’m a collector. I’m a hoarder. I hang on to as many of them as I can. I pluck them out of the air, into which other people, knowing and not knowing their meanings, past, present. fluid, fixed, varying from place to time, have tossed them, have whispered them, shouted them, spoken them. I have them wrapped in old newspapers like carefully preserved turds, lining the hallways of my mind. I have them stashed like obsolete fivers in the mattresses of my head, in the hatboxes of brain on the top of my wardrobe skull. I have them sewn like émigré’s diamonds into the seams of my subconscious underwear. I can’t get enough of them. Some are so old I’m not sure how they work, but I’m prepared to work at polishing them up, or sharpening them again, or oiling their rusted wheels. But even when I have they carry the marks of their times and places, and maybe that’s what I like about them.

Bin words? What sort of Orwellian sanitizer do you think I am? Do you want me to be? I’m more likely to be going through your word bins, fishing out the tasty morsel you’ve wasted there, putting them to use, re-cycling them, re-purposing them, re-furbishing them. Don’t ask me to bin words. I’m not sure I could even skip them.

Here are some thoughts on poetry, shared by Me with The Blue Nib!

I didn’t read The Hobbit while I was at school. I remember sixth-form friends talking about it, but I was already into James Joyce’s Ulysses.

A few years later though, while at college, I did read Lord of the Rings, and became a fan. I went on to read The Hobbit then, which, of course, made it for me not so much a stepping stone to the larger book, but a step down to a much lesser one.

College years during the early nineteen seventies cast Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a sort of hippie realm; a semi-magical world of adventure and medieval, even ancient mythology. Treebeard and the living wood created a ‘Green’ glow, in both senses of the word. Yet even amidst all this fantasy I got the sense that Middle Earth was perhaps the most dominant character in the book, and that it was also a thinly veiled metaphor for rural England. I don’t know how Scots feel about it, but though I’ve travelled extensively in their country I’ve never felt a Middle Earth connection. In the Midlands England I grew up in, and the Northern England I emigrated to, Middle Earth popped up again and again.

In fact, in those early readings of the book I was content to experience the story as if the landscape and its implied adventures were all that was there. A college lecturer called halt to that by proposing that the book was badly written. This idea was so heretical it shook my faith in him, for a while. He was a bright bunny. Insisting on doing my final English thesis on a minor American author he hadn’t read, he insisted I compare the man to a greater one that I hadn’t. A couple of weeks later he could run rings round me on both.

Yet, to suggest that Lord of the Rings was badly written! The suggestion has haunted me ever since. The implication of it, I thought, was that its popularity was thus questionable, though now I doubt that would have been my lecturer’s point. Writers, editors and critics might care about how well a story is written, but readers, I suspect, rarely do. With them it’s content that wins the day, not form.

It was in the early eighties I think that Brian Sibley scripted the BBC Radio version of the novel and suddenly the landscape of Middle Earth was eclipsed by the sound of its voices, and those voices hammered home the truth that the book was conceived and written in and about a class ridden society.

Every orc in the story speaks with the accent of the London mob. The ‘good’ peasant, Samwise Gamgee, has a sort of rural speech. The Hobbit adventurers whom he serves speak a self conscious RP, especially when they are talking about their class and where it fits in to the book’s hierarchies. In the final sequence, hinted at but not played out in the films, it is ‘ruffians’ who invade the shire, and I wonder to what extent, for Tolkien, the ruffians were us seen from the white towers of academe?

And behind those English class-labelling voices sits, hidden in plain sight, the fact that this book, perceived as being about the battle between good and evil and transformed into a film along those lines, is really a promotion of the idea of hereditary monarchy.

Tolkien’s Aragorn might have the qualities that a good king needs, but the author makes it explicit that he is the ‘rightful’ king because of who, not what he is. He even has that old medieval magic of the ‘king’s touch’ which heals the sick. In the film this diluted to an apothecary’s trick that anyone could pull, but the book plays up the medieval monarchical mystery.

Tolkien’s hero is taking back what is rightly his, knowing that his time has come. He earns the victory, but does not earn the right to the kingship. It is already his. It is not a sword that is brought to him at the weapon take before he takes the paths of the dead, but the banner of his family, and with it the secret army of his household that has worked for years towards the Restoration of the kingship. Assuming the crown after the victory over Sauron he is accepted by his subjects, but they recognise rather than chose him. There is no choice but to submit, or resist. He is the ‘rightful king’ either way. The Lord of the Rings is not a novel that promotes democracy. One of the arch villains, Saruman, is dangerous fundamentally because of his voice, and he uses it like a modern politician, to delude the mob and to seduce his peers.

The Hobbits Merry and Pippin, both learn and explicitly accept the place into society into which they have been born. It’s an idea that the Edwardian working class parents who brought me up would have understood, and also would have accepted. It’s the attitude that pervades the British Establishment, with the proviso that it is a club that is open for new members so long as they too will conform to its attitudes.