By the time you get to read this blog-post, I’ll be heading back from a few days in Scotland….In the few days before I set off, the house was busy with builders and plasterers, drumming up a storm of dust and rubble, and settling it down again to a smooth, white finish. Consequently I didn’t do much reading: but I did do some writing.

Not among it was this story, written a long time ago, and included in Southlight 19, south-west Scotland’s literary magazine. I hope it keeps you amused, until next week’s blog (or possibly even longer!) Curiously it came out of a writing exercise I set for the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop (and as always, had a go at myself). The exercise was to add a story to the front of the last ten words….much more interesting than adding stories to given beginnings!

 

Charlie Davies

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

C’mon Charlie, have a smoke on me.

Tailor-Mades, Mr Pike! You’re spoiling me.

Charlie took the cigarette and Mr Pike held out his lighter. They were behind the court building, waiting for the van to arrive. The security guard who was handcuffed to Charlie Davies stood impassively, ignoring both of them. Mr Pike lit his own cigarette and blew out a gout of smoke into the chill November air. He would go for a walk in the park after Charlie had gone, savouring the air, the grey-green of the winter grass, the dark metal of the river, the cawing of the crows. Prison was a waste of time and money. Charlie’s time; everyone else’s money. He’d been sending Charlie off like this for half a bloody century. What a bloody waste of a life.

Your name came up, Charlie, he said looking at the older man. When I was up north, a couple of days ago. A bloke said you was his landlord. Mr Pike glanced at Charlie, but Charlie remained impassive, savouring his cigarette. I never had you down for one of the landowning classes. Charlie took the cigarette from his lips and held it between two fingers. He looked at it as if he’d never seen one before.

That was a long time ago, Mr Pike. When I was married.

Dave Wilson, Charlie. Remember him? He remembered you. Said he had regrets from those days, about a moral decision he had to make.

I remember that, Mr Pike. I offered him fifty quid to take a parcel  up to Scotland.

That must have been some parcel, Charlie, that was a week’s wages back then, and you only lived ten minutes from the border..

Silly bugger turned me down, Mr Pike. He had a car you see. Wouldn’t have taken him more than an hour. A week’s bloody wages for an hour’s work, and he turned me down.

You’d have been just starting out then, Charlie; and me, for that matter.

He had no ambition, Mr Pike, no initiative.

For Nick Romano, if I remember rightly.

Who?

Come on Charlie. You remember Nick. You was one of his young hopefuls. Poor old Nick. Know what happened to him, Charlie?

No idea, Mr Pike.

He ended up under a bridge pier somewhere, unless I’m very much  mistaken, and you know me Charlie, I’m hardly ever mistaken.

He had a poxy job with the Council, Dave Wilson.

We were playing golf together, Dave Wilson and I. We do that sometimes, when I’m up in his part of the world, your old stamping ground. I like a round of golf now and then. Of course, I’ve not much of a swing Charlie. I don’t get in the hours, you see. But I like a stroll in the open air, all that grass. You’re not much of an outdoor man Charlie, never were if I recall. Probably as well, considering.

Drove a piddly little Vauxhaul, Dave Wilson did. I was offering’ him more than the f-ing car was worth, and you know what he did?

What did he do, Charlie?

He asked me what was what in it.

He’s retired now, Dave Wilson.

He asked me what was fuckin’ in it, the parcel.

He remembers you Charlie. Nice house, nice job, nice wife, little girl, you had back then.

I mean, what did he think was fuckin’ in it? Fifty quid, I ask you!

 

I don’t know about that Charlie, he never mentioned that, but he did say he regretted not having made love to your wife, when she gave him the chance.

The van backed up to the gate, and the guard turned towards them and said, that’s us. Mr Pike threw down his cigarette and stubbed it out and walked away.

END

 

There are more BHD stories here.

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Another collection of old stories dropped on my mat today (metaphorically that is – it was actually left in a box outside the house).

It was the previously mentioned Westward for Smelts, a series of tales loosely based on Boccaccio’s Decameron – in structure and style – and put into the mouths of some Thames ‘fishwives’ as they are rowed home by the putative narrator, Kinde Kit of Kingstone! The tales are sometimes described as bawdy. Most are about cuckolded husbands and their sexually predatory wives. They bring a thrill – Joyce gives Leopold Bloom a taste of it – to all submissive hetero-sexual males – of female dismissal! The tales were published in 1620, but may have been passed around orally before that. They pre-date Defoe’s Apparition of Mrs Veal by a century, but it’s that story which academics seem to plump for when looking for the start of the ‘short story’ in England (or indeed, in English).

I would go rather with Kinde Kit, and with that possible oral tradition. The short story belongs to the fishwife, and her cuckolded husband, more than to the printing press, or even the hand written story that might have preceded it. Short stories, Tales, as Coppard always referred to them (to Bates’ irritation), are of the voice, and are short. They belong with the anecdote rather than the blockbuster or the three volume novel.

They are to be told (not shown), heard (or, if written down and printed, imagined as being spoken), and reacted to: job done! They are held in the mind as a whole, and sometimes days later might give us the kick of an aftertaste as some little detail slips into place. Primarily though they operate in the here and now of the telling, however often we recall them, and when we do recall them, we perhaps re-read them and get the espresso kick of their point.

There is another form of prose fiction that goes before these fishwifely tales. Those are the cumbersome, stylised – dare I say tedious? – stories of the Elizabethans. I have but one collection – Euphues, Pandosto & Piers Plainness, which individually make watching paint dry seem entertaining, and taken together make having teeth pulled seem pleasurable.

Not at all like a tale told from the experience of life – remember Pritchett’s assertion, that short stories ‘reveal what real life merely suggests’? – these highly formalised fictions bury story under the detail amassed as long sentences of contrasting clauses vie for the prize of having said the least in as many words as possible. They are Jenga-towers of paired statements, built to dizzying heights, to impress fellow practitioners rather than to entertain the passer-by.

Curiously, these relatively short – albeit tediously long – pieces could be seen as the fore-runners of the novel, rather than of the short story, though the title page says they are ‘very pleasant to reade, and most necessary to remember,’ which reminds me that the thousands of lines of Homer were intended to be recited from memory!

I’ll still take my fishwives’ tales though, as the first glimmerings of the short story in print, in English, and have a chuckle, or a wince, depending on which one I read.

One final curiosity. My copy, a print on demand one, came from India. The English, it seems are not interested in their literary roots; though I could have got a free copy online, had I possessed the technology to read it. Maybe the fishwives are lurking on I-phones and tablets all around me, but no-one is telling!

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You’ll have noticed that the world didn’t end last Sunday. You might have noticed that my blog didn’t appear either.

A big truck did it, and drove away: Took the phone cable right off the side of the house. That was the Thursday before. A week later and there was still no cable. But the world didn’t end for you, and it didn’t for me. It was just the phone line that was down. Eight days later, and we’re re-cabled and ready to go, but have learnt something about being cut off, and not cut off.

You’ll know, if you’re a regular reader of the blog, that I make a point of offering my own publications for purchase from time to time, but this week I’m going to push a little harder.

It’s not for anything I’ve written though, nor published. Despite being an aficionado of the short story form I do read novels too! And two novels I’ve recently read, and for the second time, are from the writer Jane Fathers Davidson.

Jane, who currently lives in north Cumbria, describes herself at the back of A Place Beyond Hearing, as ‘an adoptee and retired addictions therapist’.

Jane’s novel draws on her experience to tell the story of Robbie. It’s a hard-edged read, and for one who has worked with people living difficult and self-defeating lives, it’s perhaps extra-hard, because it is so true to life.

Set in Canada and England it sets out the struggles of Robbie, a sixty year old runaway and alcoholic, as she learns to understand the forces that have driven her, and to come to terms with them. There are times in the early part of the story when you almost want to turn your back on Robbie, it’s such a tough tale, and some of the other characters do! But as the novel progresses, and the size of the metaphorical mountain she has to climb becomes more apparent, and more threatening, you find yourself drawn to rooting for her, and drawn to caring. I’ve written about three tissue weepies before, but this is an altogether more dry-eyed story: painful, unflinching, but ultimately cathartic in its assertion of the value, and values of human life, and love.

When you get to the end, you’ll feel you’ve earned it; and it’s the sort of ending you need to feel you’ve earned.

 

By the same author, and drawing on the same understanding of human motives, for good and ill, is Blood Pudding. Jane, in a back cover blurb calls this a ‘funny, traditional sleuth driven romp with a surfeit of dogs.’ There are just about the right number of dogs for me, plus chickens, sheep, and a herd of cows (bulls, according to the character who gets chased by them). It’s a murder mystery set in the northern reaches of Cumbria alongside Hadrian’s Wall, in which a retired police detective tracks down the serial killer of several neighbours and friends. Told with panache and quiet comedy, it never quite loses touch with the  insights of a retired therapist,  which enable the author to furnish the story with a fistful of intriguing and bizarre characters, all of whom, at one point or another become the objects of our suspicions!

 

Available in paperback, or for Kindle, these two novels are available on Amazon, and would make great Christmas presents, or suitable indulgences for a fireside read – perhaps with a whisky and water – as the year turns autumnal. They are both, in their different ways, really good reads. You can find them here.

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I was recently speaking with the artist, Sam Cartman [http://www.samcartman.com/]. We were comparing notes on how we work towards being better writers and artists of one sort and another. There seemed to be much in the way of process that we used similar, if not exactly the same, words to describe for our respective genres.

One specific issue was the value of looking – in the case of the visual arts – and reading – in case of writing.  Sam, in addition to producing his own work, takes on the role of picture framer for other artists, which, he told me, has led over the years to him looking at masses of paintings. They’ve not all been good, he said, nor all bad! But they have been wide ranging and varying in style and subject – or what, for writers, I’d call form and content – and in the competence with which they were done.

Just that very act, Sam said, of looking at so much of the art form he works in, has been of great value to him as an artist. To frame a picture Sam has to make all sorts of judgements about what the picture is, and how it should be viewed, and framed.  I was for a long time, reluctant to accept the idea that something very similar is true for writers, and the act of reading.  I have no doubts now, though, that such is the case.

To say that reading ‘even’ bad writing is good for you doesn’t perhaps make the case of why that should be so: but the evidence is in the word itself. If you know – or believe – that a piece of writing is bad, or good, you are making a judgement of it, and that judgement must be in relation to some template that – rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly – you will have in mind for what a piece of writing could, and perhaps should be: of what you will seek to make your own writing, consciously, or unconsciously.

Like a muscle to exercise, our understanding of what we’re about when we set out to write, will, hopefully, develop the more we do it, but also the more we make judgements on what we see of it having been done.

My latest acquisition of Flash Fictions has more explicit farting in it than I’m used to.

That might be because it’s not technically Flash Fictions. I’ve bought a copy of the 1970 publication Jest Upon Jest, a compilation of short tales, anecdotes and (almost) one-liners culled from Jestbooks and ‘Collections of Merry Tales,’ originally published from the Reign of Richard III to that of George III (mad, I know), but probably handed down orally (and, in the case of the farts, aurally and olfactorily) for generations before that.

The true Flash Fiction, so we’re told, must have that flash of a white page being turned, but what that relatively new, and print linked genre has reminded us of over the last couple of decades is that we like a short, sharp, and often shocking short story, or tale.

Jest Upon Jest, in the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron, and of much else I don’t know of, no doubt, shoehorns 244 pieces of bawdy, scurrilous and politically incorrect humour into about 120 pages – with as much again in the way of ‘sources,’ notes, and bibliographical detail, not to mention an introductory essay by the editor, John Wardroper.

There is much cuckolding, a deal of showing the law to be an ass, one delightful finger up a bum, and much else, including the farts. Writers with a political axe to grind, or a social conscience might be outraged, but there is much here that made me laugh out loud (as well as, occasionally, silently wince!), as it puts its finger, literally as well as metaphorically on the things about being human that still amuse, disappoint, and embarrass us.

On my trusty high steed of being ‘a writer’ and looking for guidance from the past, it reminds me how comic timing can be thrown away when the words aren’t in quite the right order, and how powerful statements depend sometimes as much on not what they say, but precisely when they make the point of the saying. (I’m not sure how a good a sentence that was…but if you know what I mean, perhaps it will do!)

One of my favourites tells of the woman who went home to her husband after a night at the theatre, to report her purse stolen. She had hidden it beneath her smock, next to her petticoat! Didn’t you feel a hand? the husband asks… ‘Yes, quoth she, I felt one’s hand there, but I did not think he had come for that!’ (Number 41…The Unsuspected Hand, in the notes attributed to Henry Peachum, The Art of Living in London, 1642 – with an additional tale in French, that is even funnier, in my translation.)

Split into five ‘chapters,’ covering the interaction of the sexes, religion, manners between men, the common man and authority, and a section of ‘quips, retorts, tricks and blunders.’ Being a poor seafarer, one of the ‘retorts’ that struck a chord with me was: ‘I pray, hold still the ship a while till I vomit.’

Number 80, Brothers in Christ has an uncannily contemporary right to it, telling of a Scottish preacher exhorting that ‘all men are one another’s neighbours,’ and listing ‘the Turk, the Jew and the Moor,’ and then adding: ‘Yea, and the very Englishman is our neighbour too.’

The bawdy ones I like best, and not least because, coming from a time we like to think of as being less feminist than our own, so many of them have the women running rings round the men. More difficult to accept, but not without their elements of truth, are the ones that touch on rape, or rather, on alleged rapes, where often the ‘wenches’ seem to have been willing:

‘she took up her smock very willingly.’ ‘O Lord, sir, says she, if I had not done so, he kept such a wimble, as he had bored a great hole in my smock…’

Old tales like this, bawdy, unvarnished, unguarded and full of assumption, test the boundaries between vulgarity and coarseness, sensitivity and touchiness, rough and tumble and assault. In some cases we have moved on, and in others we have not: in some case we would have been best to stay put, in others a move is long overdue.

My introduction to these tales came, as others have done, from Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories, in which I found Number 8. Of the man that would have the poet stand thereas he would. In this tale the husband repeatedly tells the wife where to stand the  pot (of boiling meat), which she dutifully does….until she loses patience and upends it over his head: ‘And now ben the pottage there-as I would have them.’

In the section on ‘manners and men’ violence is never far below the surface, and often an aggressive humour that seems to impose a strict social control:  ‘..if any man takes away my bread by my trencher, I must strike him.’ And in battle, ‘…there is an arrow sticking in your arse.   ……I know it as well as you do.’ Masters and servants here, jostle for primacy as do the sexes in the previous section: when Lord R. accuses his servant of being at an inn, instead of on duty, the servant comes back with….. ‘I did not see you, for if I had, I would have given you a quart of sack.’

The ‘Friars, Priests and Nuns’ are no holier than we, but have their own insights. A minister, during his sermon hears a man snoring: ‘Go wake that same snoring fellow. He’ll wake my Lord else.’

In as much as human folly is driven by the same motives as it always was, these tales retain their potency, to make us laugh, and to make us wince. Their characters may speak in outmoded dialects and use words the meanings of which we have to (and usually can) guess, but we know where they are coming from, and all too often can see where they will end up; we see ourselves in their antique mirrors.

TalkingtoOwlsFor me one of the pleasures of the short story form is the way it can trace its lineage back from story to story through the ages, and through the cultures, not merely of my home continent (Europe!), but to the middle east and the orient.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron is one of the pools of stories on that river through time and place, a gathering of tales that spill over into [or ‘which spills over into’ – which do you think?] my own island sub-culture, in, among others, the stories of ‘Westward for Smelts.

My fount of all wisdom with regard to the short story, Hammerton’s wonderful 20 volume treasure trove –The World’s Thousand Best Short Stories of circa 1933gave me the clue to this one, in its introduction to The Tale Told By The Fishwife of Strand-on-the-Green. While we’re on titles, I might as well reproduce the whole title of the chap-book from which it came, in 1620: Westward for Smelts: The Waterman’s-Fare of Mad Merry Western Wenches whose Tongues, albeit like Bell-clappers they never leave Ringing, yet their Tales are Sweet and will much Content you. Written by Kind Kit of Kingston.

Now that’s what I call a title! (and me writing my way through a collection of flash fictions with one word titles at the moment!).

The Fishwife of Strand-on-the-Green’s tale is based on the Ninth Tale, of day two in Boccaccio’s collection: Bernabo da Genova is tricked by Ambrogiuolo, loses his money and orders his innocent wife to be murdered, She escapes and, dressed as a man, enters the Sultan’s service. She meets the trickster; brings Bernabo to Alexandria; the trickster is punished; she returns to woman’s clothes; and they go home wealthy to Genoa. (from The Folio Society, 1954 edition, vol I)

The oriental origin is implied in the description, but in the English chap-book version, the action has moved to England, and to the period of the Battle of Barnet, and the struggle for power between Kings Edward and Henry! The sequence of events though is similar, and the issues raised, of trust between men, and between husbands and their wives, are the same. The authority of overlords is not questioned in either, and nor is the ‘proper’ relation of the spouses.

It’s not the content that interests me here though, so much as that lineage, and what it tells us about the free movement of stories, and the free access we have to them, which neither diminishes nor undermines, but rather enriches and enlarges our own storytelling culture.

I’m for writing another version of the tale, by the way, and would invite you to join me…..I’ll happily put any attempts on the Samizdat page of the blog, if anyone would care to join me! (It could be that stories are like children – they don’t have to be good, but only to be loved. Though, it must be said, if they’re not good, they might not do so well in the world!)

Kill your darlings, was, I think, Stephen King’s advice to budding writers….Well, this gone-to-seed writer has been doing just that over the last couple of days…

In particular I was hand-murdering a particular darling that I had been rather taken with. The fact is, King is not telling us we need to cut out the bits we don’t like. That would be one thing! (And maybe even then not too easy). But he was telling us to slaughter the darlings that we do like, if they’ve wandered into the wrong story.

My particular darling was about a pool of blood, which I wanted to describe as ‘a crimson lake, its surface shiny as a freshly painted steam engine.’ Eagle-eyed (or buzzard, I don’t mind

which) readers of the blog, and of my other writing, will have noticed a tendency to include steam engines whenever I can, and I’m not going to try to sell you the idea that this particular description is a great piece of writing, but I do confess, I did like it.

The reason, of course, that I did, was nothing to do with the story I had dragged it into. It was the fact that ‘Crimson Lake’ was the official name of the colour that some L.M.S. steam engines were painted, in the days when they were painted what you or I might call maroon! I rather liked slipping that hidden little snippet into the story – but the story wasn’t about L.M.S. engines. It wasn’t even set in that part of the country. It wasn’t about any engines, anywhere! And besides, as was pointed out to me, it wasn’t the sort of thing my first person narrator would have said.

That narrator was a carpet fitter – who might have had an interest in steam engines, but didn’t so far as the story was concerned –   and he wasn’t a carpet fitter who seemed to be interested in metaphorical comparisons. I’m sure there are such carpet fitters. Here’s my writing buddy and mentor, Kurt Tidmore’s take on just what sort of carpet fitter he would have needed to be:

I want to meet this carpet layer who actually talks about crimson lakes and the ferrous smell of blood and the slow dark water. Perhaps he’s a former Romantic poet with a university degree who only lays carpet as a hobby.
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Kurt never lets me down! One dead darling later!

If you want steam engines, you could look in my novella,  A Penny Spitfire where a few do turn up, and belong in the story too. You can buy it here.APennySpitfire-frontcover

Recently a writer, speaking on Radio 4 stated that all writers were ‘deeply damaged’ individuals, and ‘needed to be’ if there writing were to be any good.

The assertion raises a lot of questions. That ‘deeply’ is a key one. How deep is your damage? How deep does it ‘need’ to be. I’m reluctant to accept the idea that an ‘undamaged’ person has nothing to tell me, nor that they might not be able to articulate it sufficiently well. When I think about it though, I wonder if any human can be undamaged entirely: I wonder if being human is about how we deal with the damage, unintended and intended, inflicted upon us by the activity of living.

I can see how knowledge of that damage, or ignorance of it, might lead us to write. Something out of balance spills over in the need to tell somebody else, or in the need to be seen to be telling, or in the need to tell ourselves. Narrative therapy is recognised as a way of helping the traumatised to move on successfully into their own futures, and don’t we all rehearse the narratives of our lives until we have one fit to live with, fit to have lived with?

Narratives like this are often, perhaps always, about the past, which is when the damage was done – fear of future damage is just another symptom of past damage one supposes! Stories can be speculations about that damage, even when neither we, nor our readers, recognise the fact. And perhaps, even unrecognised, those narratives can help to repair such damage. We shore up our own crumbling lives by telling stories about other ones; by telling stories we, and our readers, do not realise are not entirely imaginary.

On the other hand, despite what we might reply to an interviewer’s questioning, we know that much of what we write is the mangled, disguised, re-structured, and above all distanced, narrative of our own damaged lives.

Here’s some collateral damage from BHD and Me:

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12 more essays on short stories and their writers

I ran a day-workshop for writers yesterday, as part of the Lanercost Festival. The subject of putting in, and taking out came up again. I’m a putter in by nature, rather than a taker out, but writing advice, and practice is often focussed on the ‘taking out’. Some years ago I worked as a dealer in second hand books, and many of my customers were gamers. This brought me into contact with sculptors of model soldiers. They had two basic ways of working : one was equivalent to ‘putting in.’ I think, and the other to ‘taking out.’ It seemed to me then, and does now, that the methods held more than passing metaphor for other meanings, and I wrote the poem you can read below. I can’t remember whether or not it was ever published, but it did get read out aloud on several occasions.

The Ways of Working

 

The sculptor will tell you how you can

If you wish to make a man

With some it’s what you take away

With others what you overlay

So start with wire

Or start with stone

I know a hundred ways to be alone

 

With wire you make an armature

To shape your man on true and sure

The stone you prize out of the earth

As much as makes a whole man’s worth

Wind the wire

Carve the stone

I know a thousand ways to be alone

 

Add the sinew mould the face

But of your fingers leave no trace

Gouge out a mouth chip out some eyes

Finely etch a skin of lies

Bury the wire

Polish the stone

There are a million ways to be alone

 

[Mike Smith, out of notebook 19 or 20]

Power doesn’t confer authority, and sometimes authority can be powerless. On Thursday the UK citizens of the EU will use their votes to empower the UK government to take a course of action that will be accepted as authoritative by all 28 members of the EU.

This is an authority that citizens in many countries never equal.

As far as I know, no other group of countries has ever attempted anything remotely like the European Project….Empires and countries have expanded by conquest, taking in what one group will regard as ‘inferior’ groups, but Europe has attempted something quite different: to take in groups by consent, and to preserve their individuality, their languages, customs and cultures. Alternative projects have involved suppression – in the UK, though English itself evolved from a fistful of quite separate languages as an answer to the Norman French  conquest, we have gone through periods when indigenous languages have been physically suppressed (Nach eil? Tha gu dearabh!).

Choosing Brexit, whatever its effect on the economy and immigration, may give hope – however ill founded – to the enemies of democracy, free speech, and rule of law wherever they are; those who favour coercion over compromise, intransigence over co-operation,  censorship over free speech, diktat over rule of law. It will neither empower nor authorise them, but it might embolden them.

Apparently, a neighbour of mine, campaigning for the referendum, was beaten into unconsciousness at the weekend by someone who, presumably, thought his own arguments would be unconvincing. The relevant campaign will doubtless repudiate the attacker, but he will continue to believe he is supporting it. Perhaps you will encounter him, if he has been released on bail,  at a Polling Station near you. We all have to stand up for democracy, unless we are prepared to suffer the consequences of its loss.

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