I watched the Judi Dench/Maggie Smith film, Ladies in Lavender, a few months ago and noticed in the credits that it had been based on a story by William J. Locke.

I’d never heard of William J., but he’s there, in print-on-demand, on the internet, so I bought myself a copy. The story is one among a collection entitled Far-Away Stories, which was published in 1919. They were stories written ‘over a long stretch of years’ and among them is a suit of tales under the heading ‘Studies in Blindness’. There are four such studies, one, seeming to be a piece of WW1 anti-German propaganda passed off as truth, another a comic tale of a man who, blind. Comes to love the voice of his nurse, but, sight recovered, falls for her cousin who has the face he imagined. It’s a cleverly complicated story, and worth the time it takes to read.

It’s the other two that interest me here though, for they resonate with other stories I have read, from both earlier, and later writers. The first tale in the set is ‘An Olde-World Episode, and in it a blind woman falls in love with a badly disfigured man. He has lived since a child as an isolate, respected for his character, but shunned for his visage by society. They marry and live happily ever after…or at least until a London surgeon turns up pioneering the treatment of glaucoma! The man is faced with the possibility that his wife too will shun him if her treatment succeeds. I won’t spoil the tale, but it too is a cleverly complicated story.

It reminded me of two other stories. The first is O Henry’s classic Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi, where a poor couple sacrifice their most precious possessions in order to buy a Christmas gift, each for the other, to complement the other’s, well, most precious possession. The symmetry is perfect, and gives a startling poignancy to a first reading (after which we moderns might find it a little cheesy). The symmetry in Locke’s tale is no less satisfying, and the theme was replayed, more famously I think, in V.S.Prichett’s Blind Love, title story of a 1969 collection, where it is the woman who is disfigured and the man blind.

Whilst I wouldn’t criticise Pritchett for re-playing an earlier idea – bringing a story into your own place and times is an exercise I’ve tried on several occasions, and with success – but I’d love to know whether he did or not!

The fourth story is The Conqueror, in which a blind man returns from America after having made his fortune, and takes up again with the woman whom he left behind, and who has feared that he will see how old she has grown. The ending of this story, as endings should, and which I will not reveal, adds that ‘inevitable but unexpected’ ingredient that all short stories aim for. This story reminded me of one of the Untilled Fields stories by George Moore, by the way, and of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune by the late nineteenth century French writer, Paule Arene. The return from America, with or without that fortune has been a theme in European literature for a century and more! Blindness too has recurred as a story theme, with Ernest Bramah, in the nineteen twenties creating the blind detective, Max Carrados.

Threads of thought, imagination, and story weave themselves through the years, binding the storytellers, readers and listeners of many times and cultures into our common humanity.

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Sad news last week of the demise of ‘Thresholds’ the longly named International Post Graduate Short Story Forum, where all aspects of the short story genre(s) could be promoted, discussed, dissected and debated. (One could have even written about the difference between discussing and debating if the need had arisen I suspect.)

Lorree Westron, Vicki Heath, David Ashton and others must have put in hours of work to bring this vast ship of knowledge and opinion to our screen, from amateurs like myself and from professionals like others! What a ride over the last eight years: a prompt to thought, revision, reaction, and interaction. (I’ll mix my metaphors, you make your own cocktails)

And, for us all, a place to read and write about the ‘baby sister’ of the novel (irony intended)

What I especially valued was the chance to look back over the genre to forgotten writers and to rub their shoulders with those of today’s practitioners.

But what to do with the essays now? There are lots of outlets for essays, but I can’t think of one that would be so inclusive, catholic (small c), and welcoming: one that would let you come in as yourself, and be yourself, without having to become part of someone’s club, class, team, or political identity. Thresholds seemed to me to be the perfect meeting ground, the open space into which all might venture and be ‘heard’, without being dragooned into anybody’s army, without being tarred by any brush but their own.

I can’t see another niche like that anywhere in our identity-ridden world.

So, for the time being I’ll have to use the blog, but suddenly my world seems a much lonelier, emptier, and more distant place.

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

The Reading As A Writer course moved up a notch, from individual words to sentences, at the last session.

A seventies’ English Grammar split the language into two basic forms: Messages and Labels. It’s an interesting, and useful approach.

‘Shit-hot businessman’ is a label. ‘He was a shit-hot businessman’ is a message. It’s the verb that makes the difference. You can find examples of both everywhere – even in Dickens. In fact, the ‘montage’ that Dickens bequeathed to D.W.Griffiths and the modern film can be found all over the place. A sequence of Labels inserted among the Messages of all sorts of prose. In fact, that faux sentence you just read, was one of them – a label, I mean, whereas this one – you’re reading now – is a message, or as we might more conventionally say, a sentence.

There are two types of sentence too. There are those that add to what we know, and those that add to what we don’t know, having to wait for a key piece of information to unlock the meaning, and significance of all the previous components. Some sentences are both at once, changing from the first to the second type or vice versa, and even back again.

In narrative fiction the first type, which I think of as ‘open’, adds speed and clarity, but risks becoming a rather tedious list. The other type, which I call ‘closed’, adds the tension of our not quite understanding, and the drama of the eventual reveal. It risks the problem of losing the reader, who must cling on to phrase and clause after clause and phrase of what doesn’t quite make sense, until that key element is reached. That element, as you might have guessed, will be the verb that turns the labels of those other components into a message, perhaps a multiple one.

A banal example might make it clear:

‘Leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled, John vanished from her life.’

‘John vanished from her life, leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled.’

Each segment of that second, open version of the sentence could form its ending and the thought would be complete, but in the first, closed version, none of it means anything, even though we can clearly visualise each segment, until that final piece completes the jigsaw.

Mix ‘em up as you like, you’ll find that everything you write is made up of these two types of message, along, of course, with those incomplete fragments, the labels. Curiously, that movie connection I cited can be applied more widely. The messages, with their ‘main’ verbs, drive strings of words like a moving picture, whereas the labels, with incomplete verbs at best, are like a series of still shots inserted into the movie.

Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

I’ve running a course at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit, on how we might read as writers, in order to get some insights into how we might write! It’s not so much a matter of stealing techniques, as of noticing them as we read; of paying more attention than we might if we were reading for fun, and not really paying attention.

Most of what you might say on such a course is a matter of common sense: read carefully, but notice your own reactions to what is being read…and as k the question, why did that particular group of words have that particular effect?

An exercise I’ve used several times is to give students a paragraph or two of writing, and get them to score the individual words: for what they think is the emotional impact of them. Some words have none = 0. Some have a small emotional charge = 1 Some have a big one =2.

It’s a rough and ready exercise, too ragged perhaps to be called a system, but it throws up, nevertheless all sort of interesting facets of the way a piece of writing has been written, and read.

For example, you tend to get clusters of scoring words. They aren’t evenly distributed throughout the piece. Often they cluster at particular places, like drunks on street corners, with highly charged words, and a bunch of lowly charged hangers on at paragraph beginnings and endings. Sometimes it works the other way, with groups gathering in the centre of paragraphs, and leaving the change points bereft.

If you carry out the exercise far enough into a piece of writing, you might start to notice that you’re scoring the same words differently, and perhaps an explanation for that might be that the words surrounding them are enhancing, or diminishing their powers. There’s also the reminder that words, quite simply, don’t carry the same weight for all of us: the strength of their meaning is not set by the dictionary definition, but by the circumstances in which we have encountered, and used them. This is one element of language that the nascent AI might struggle with, and, presumably, might erode or even destroy.

The exercise is one that a writer can carry out on their own writing, of course, and who knows, it might give some useful insights into how they think it will work…..

 

I’m reading at the Maryport Settlemnent on Saturday 29th September, as part of the celebration of the moment, fifty nine years ago (in 1959), when Cumberland poet Norman Nicholson met painter Percy Kelly, in this very place.

There are events throughout the Saturday, and on the Friday. My part is two-fold. A bit part in the morning’s event with Brian Chaney of the Norman Nicholson Society, who will concentrate on Norman’s poems, and a bitter part as one of the lunchtime poets (from 12.30 till 2.00pm) at which I’ll do a set of around 20 minutes.

It’s always difficult at events like this to know what to read. There’s a fashion at regular poetry readings for writers, for poets to present their most ‘famous’ works, and their most recent.  The thing about recent work, whether it’s poetry or prose, is that we think it’s our best (weeks, months – possibly days – later, of course, we think something else is, and not necessarily something written since!).

There was a plan for me to read alongside the late (great) Nick Pemberton, but as you probably know, he passed away earlier this month. There’s a gap nobody will be filling! So among the poems I’ll be reading will be ones that I think Nick liked, or would have liked. There’s a sort of signature poem too – which is as near as I get to that ‘famous’, and yes, one or two ‘recent’ poems, that may, or may not be ‘the best’.

I mentioned in a blog a few posts back, the story of literary critic Cyril Connolly and his ambition manque – to write something that would last ten years. If he had, one must imagine, it might well have been his ‘best’, but would he have recognised it at the time, or even thought so ever after? 

The cover picture for this collection of 49 short stories, flash fictions and monologues was the last photograph I took with my Olympus digital camera. It was taken on Lindisfarne, and after I’d taken it I put the camera in the pocket of my waterproof jacket, because, as you can see from the picture, it was threatening rain. The rain came, heavily, and the jacket was waterproof! So was the pocket.

But the zipper wasn’t and let the rain in. When I came to retrieve camera it was sitting in about an inch of cold water. So much for my Olympus; but at least the SD card came out with the pictures intact, and I thought this one might resonate with the story Haven, one of the flash fictions inside. It might even have nudged (rather than inspired) me towards the story.

The title story, full title, Eight Frames for Rosie Wreay, is one of those compilation stories, in this case of eight parts, which unwind in reverse order the life of the eponymous heroine. There are also two sets of ten flash fictions, grouped as Final Accounts, and Men. Readers of the blog might have picked up on the fact that I don’t view the ‘flash fiction’ as a particular type of story, but rather a story that just happens to fit into whatever word count has been decided on. These flashes, I think, all worked within a 500 word limit! Two of them marked a change point for me, in the way I tackled stories, though it might not show from a reader’s perspective!

Ten longer stories follow, comic ghosts stories, stories of isolation and reconciliation: stories I’m passing on rather than inventing, but many years after they came to me.

The collection also includes a half dozen Kowalski stories, but these, not in the old grump’s own voice, but those of his exasperated spouse, Mildred. Completing the collection are three separate tales under the heading, Anomalies, because I don’t know where else to put ’em!

OS&RW was published in 2016, the third in an ongoing series of collected short stories.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 

BHDandMe was (were?) at Keswick’s TBTL (Theatre By The Lake) a couple of afternoons ago (one of the privileges of being an old tosser) on a trip to see Sense and Sensibility.

I’m a bit of a Jane Austen virgin. I might have read Pride and Prejudice (but I’m not sure I have – if so it was sooo long ago). I have, of course, seen umpteen TV versions of it, which no doubt capture the events, but don’t, I imagine, do anything for the language…and even the facial expressions of people today are mirror images of the faces of their own time, not of the period in which the story was set, and written.

So I came to the adaptation of S&S without a clue what, or who it was about – and yes, TBTL has won me over to reading the book. If the adaptation can be this good, the original must be, well, even better.

And the adaptation was, is good. If you get a chance to go and see it, take it.

The cast was uniformly convincing. I never doubted they were who they pretending to be even for a moment. And what a clever story..though, having encountered several hundred (possibly thousand) stories over the last few years I kinda guessed one of the ‘surprises’ that the plot springs on us. It is a clever plot though, and the play brought that out. I liked the way there was a sort of graded version of ‘love’ on display…the sort that hits you like a hurricane, the sort that grows on you (like roses….?) and the sort that you miss by a long whisker and regret forever. I suspect most of us have tried two out of the three, and possibly the full set (age, now!)

My wife, who has been a professional textile designer, wasn’t too keen on the shiny fabrics – but hey….take a look at the TBTL website here, then go take a look at the play there!

On the subject of plays BHDandMe (well, Me really, with writing buddy Marilyn Messenger) have a small play on in The Studio at TBTL on Saturday, October 20th. It might be worth going along to take a look at that too (but Jane Austen it ain’t). It’s called Telling, and is paired (or rather trio-ed) with two other short dramas. Marilyn and BHD did a collection of short stories together a while back:

 

Here’s a thing…I didn’t realise this was going to pop up…but Reflex Fiction have kindly published BHD’s short story (call it a flash fiction if you will), Caught In Timehere

There is an old saying, along the lines of ‘never put off until tomorrow what you can put off indefinitely’.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Arthur Rimbaud – well, the only thing really (the gun running stuff reads like a Carry On/B Movie crossover, and what I liked most about the Illuminations – at least, the ones I’ve read, was the fact that they were called by that name) – is the fact that he managed to walk away from writing. Others have tried; some repeatedly. Philip Roth for example, who died shortly after succeeding at his last attempt (which might be the trick).

Quitting while you’re ahead must help, but quitting – bearing in mind the adage that ‘you ain’t beaten till you quit’ (which doesn’t necessarily imply being beaten into quitting) – isn’t just a matter of having been a success or failure. It’s also an acceptance that your ‘body of work’ is suddenly a dead body. It isn’t going to grow any more. It is, in fact, a ‘corpse’ of work (and calling it a corpus only sugars the pill), and perhaps one that won’t be preserved too well: it will begin to disintegrate, to rot. Bits will detach, moulder away, be mis-laid, lost, buried, perhaps in an unmarked grave.

Walking away from writing (the phrase itself rather a circumlocution – I mean giving up; stopping doing it; finishing it; putting down the pen; switching off the keyboard.) is like stepping out from cover. Suddenly you’re exposed; stripped; dispossessed; not even failure, perhaps, to hide behind; success already receding into the background.

Suddenly you’re a has been, or (no worse but just as bad), a might have been, a certainly wasn’t, a who? A what’s your name? A what do you do? Nothing.

Quite an undertaking then. Worth putting off, I’d say, with one more attempt at least to write something worth having written.

BHD being toast?