Boswell’s London

Looking for something else I stumbled on a copy of James Boswell’s London Jounral (1762-3) which a friend had given me years ago and I had never got around to reading.

I can remember Boswell from school, where we were tasked to read his Tour to The Hebrides (with that old so and so, Johnson). I found him dreadfully dull and boring, and read Ulysses instead.

But I picked up the copy of the Journal and flipped it open. I read a paragraph, and laughed out loud. Then I started at the very beginning, and have been laughing out loud (and wincing occasionally) ever since.

It’s a Reprint Society edition, hardback – no dust jacket – and in generally good condition. Published in 1952, which turns out to be only two years after the ‘first’ publication. The manuscript had sat undiscovered, and then withheld, to protect the family dignity, for nearly two centuries.

There’s a lot to like in it; not least that it’s an ‘easy’ read, by which I mean that the sentences are comprehensible at a first attempt, in the main. Part of the interest is in the view of eighteenth century London life – at least among the non-labouring classes – the tea drinking and the coffee-houses, the steak houses and the theatres. Boswell enjoys it all, along with various ‘amores’, one of which ends in what, I suspect, is the most famous dose of the clap in literature. He’s a self conscious writer, but his finicky dissection of his own thoughts and actions reveals more, I think, that he perhaps intended, and sometimes I found myself laughing at, rather than with him.

Unexpectedly there are gems, of politics and social observation that seem particularly relevant to today, and not least among these, the conversations he reports, and reports upon about the practice, and usefulness of being a writer.

I suspect most of what he covers would have seemed boring to me if I had read it at the age he was when writing, but as a man about to embark on extra time (by the three score years and ten criterion), it seems like a litany of common sense, and folly, that I might have done well to come to grips with several decades ago!

There are two endpaper maps in this edition. They show the London of his time. Only two bridges cross the Thames: Westminster Bridge and London Bridge. They, and Boswell’s text, show how much, and how little the city has changed, and in many ways it dominates his story. What I particularly liked was Boswell’s repeated references to having ‘sauntered’ away a morning or afternoon, which I must admit I myself enjoy doing in any city!

A curious connection to my own life and times occurs in the introductory essay, in which it is revealed that at one point in MS’s history, a half-share in it was left to Carlisle’s Cumberland Infirmary, and by a Mrs Mounsey…the Mounsey name is still known in the Border city. Boswell’s London, and his United Kingdom seems so far from, and so close to our own. Equally surprising, and relating to a blog post on this site a few weeks ago, are the repeated references that Boswell makes to the character MacHeath from John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera. MacHeath, you might recall, is the whoring Highwayman of this eighteenth century romp, in which the eponymous hero is brought down by his dependency upon and his abuse of the women in the story. Seemingly without irony, Boswell compares himself to this character, and in doing so perhaps underscores the most significant difference between his time and ours… or then again, perhaps not.

As for that ‘so and so’, I was amazed how interesting I found what Boswell takes from, or puts into Samuel Johnson’s mouth. Not least among them was this pithy explanation of what might be going on at the moment: ‘Thus it is better in general that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, although it may at times be abused. But then there is this consideration: that if the abuse be enormous, Nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupted political system.’

Advertisements

I was talking to a fictional friend of mine about writing. He said, professional writers are like fashionistas, who dress to impress. But you, he said, pointing at me, are like someone wearing a red carnation in his lapel and carrying a rolled up copy of The Times, and who hangs around underneath the station clock hoping to be approached by someone who has mistaken you for the person they had gone to meet.

I told him, I wish I’d said that!

The better I get at reading, the worse I realise I am at writing!”

 

There’s something I need a short story to do. And however startling the events, however moving the content, however beautifully written the individual sentences, if the story hasn’t done it, I will consider it to be flawed.

For me, this is the X or Y chromosome of the genre (don’t ask me which sex it is!).

So what is this unique element? It’s that the story must take me to a place where I am left wondering, contemplating, reflecting upon, why the author has had his or her narrator bring me to that particular spot, at that precise word in time, and facing in this particular direction.

It often isn’t the most dramatic point in the story, but it is the point of the story; the point of the telling of the story – and if anything before, or, more importantly, after that point distracts me from that view and contemplation of it, I will consider the story flawed.

Novels suffer no such constraint. They can close down their main plot line, resolve their central theme, dispose of their principal characters and then go ambling off through the future lives of minor characters, explanations of dangling sub-plots, and authorial musings on the meaning of life and joys of freshly baked scones, all without suffering the least damage. It’s just another addition to the numerous trips a novel will have been taking us on.

But a short story isn’t a cruise or a road trip. It’s a crossing. It’s a crossing from here to there, or there to here, and it leaves us with a view across the there that must come next, or of the here that we have reached, or of the there that we left behind us; and all of those views will have that shocking quality of unexpectedness, and inevitability.

That doesn’t mean that the view or the significance of it need be obvious, though sometimes they are. The most successful short stories, perhaps, are those that hang around in the consciousness for hours, days, weeks, even years, nagging away at you, before you finally catch up with the insights that their author has shared.

Which means, of course, that when you read a story that seems to go on beyond what might have been its ending, to something that seems, well, pointless and unnecessary, you can never be quite sure whether the fault is in the writing, or in the reading.

Just heard a rather good short story on Radio 4 (read by Bill Nighy…written by I don’t know who…?) Didn’t get the title either, and missed the first few minutes. However, it made itself clear, and you could see what was coming well before the end, sufficiently to make you wonder, I mean, but not so obvious it gave the game away!

But the ending, which I did hear, and was spot on, came a few lines before the story finished. Why, I wondered, were the extra lines added?

Now this is a hobby horse of mine. The nearer the end is to, well, the end, the better I like it, and this story seemed to ramble on a bit past a perfectly judged ending. It’s wasn’t a case, as with several I’ve looked at before, where a striking event isn’t the ending. There were striking events; two in fact, and they weren’t the end., but it seemed to me that somewhere else distinctly was (but it wasn’t at the end!).

I reckoned there were three possible explanations. The obvious one, obviously, is that I might be wrong! But it might also be that the writer had misjudged…perhaps it was a novelist (!). (Perhaps it has a different idea to me of what a short story is.)

Or could it be, that with that BBC timed slot to fill you just have to provide the right number of words, even if some of them end up being the wrong words for the story? (It was good to hear, or rather not hear, a very light extraneous addition of BBC sound effects and background music – in case the words don’t do the job – as this story didn’t need anything except that voice!) Worth listening to if you can find it (or reading for that matter): Pauzwang Syndrome – unattributed today on the BBC webpages.

 

 

A friend gave me Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (ed Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin 2017). I was the only person he knew, he said, whom he thought would like it.

I did.

Within pages I’d dropped onto a little gem; one of those stories that, when you write about it you probably will write more words than are in the story itself. Under the portmanteau title of Three Short Stories is Ivan Bunin’s (1870-1953) very short story ‘un petit accident’. At just over a single page it gives us the ‘flash’, in one definition of the ‘flash fiction’, of the turning page, though without that extra title it probably wouldn’t. It might be seen as a prose poem, though, perhaps being in translation, it seems more prosaic than poetic. Rimbaud’s own term, ‘illumination’ is more the mark, for Bunin gives us a camera-pan sweep of a Paris evening, as darkness falls and the city lights blaze.

Beginning with a sunset, the narrator takes us through a panorama of the city centre. We see the Seine, the Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower, and, coming down to earth, we see the lights of the city, and then ‘the fast moving headlights of the automobiles’.

The narrator’s eye moves on, narrowing its focus, until we are shown (or told of) a single vehicle, ‘vividly yet softly lit’. One more word stops down the depth of field even further: ‘inside’. What is inside in that soft but vivid light is ‘Someone’, and he is ‘slumped over his steering wheel’.

The story is nearing its end. The person is described. He wears a ‘white silk scarf and a matte top hat for a night out’. One sentence remains. We are told of his ‘closed eyes and his young, tritely classical face’, but it is the last five words that hammer home this story: ‘already looking like a mask’.

Even those last few words are cleverer than we might at first notice, for ‘already’ turns the otherwise passive ‘looking like’ into an ongoing process, that of a corpse settling into its death mask.

This is one of those stories where the detail is plentiful, but always finely chosen. We end on a death, but we began with a ‘sunset’, and ‘A winter sunset’ specifically, two endings to begin the story. Light and dark are presented to us: ‘Slim spikes of greenish gas flames’. Some ‘flicker like lightning’, others have a ‘crude opulence’. And always they are contrasted with darkness: ‘the Palais Bourbon looms dark and heavy’, the ‘twilight deepens’, and eventually they become almost inseparable as ‘darkness blazes’. The context in which we will recall these images when we have reached the end, will transform them all into metaphors for life and death. Not one is wasted.

So to with the ‘avalanche of cars’ which speeds through the city centre, with its ‘many-pitched horns’. It is an ‘orchestra’ of light, and sound and movement, conducted by an ‘unseen hand’, which ‘flinches’. A ‘gridlock’ develops, ‘slowing down the flow’, which our dead driver is not the cause of, but merely a ‘Someone within this tidal avalanche.’

Many short stories these days, I feel, are buried under detail, by writers who are trying to ‘be a camera’. Tedious, irrelevant and overwhelming swathes of detail bury their stories beyond finding, but here, Bunin’s story is awash with a detail that is the story, and is a metaphor for what is happening in the story in every one of its elements.

Among the editorial notes, two on Bunin’s little tale stood out as being particularly helpful. The first is a quote from the writer himself: ‘..even with the greatest writers, there are only isolated good passages, and between them – water.’ The second, from Bryan Karetnyk, is an observation useful to us as readers, of anyone…’Bunin.s miniatures…..conceal the author’s intent…..,inviting a mode of reading that rewards attention paid to the minutest detail.

I’m out of Paris…you’ll have to make do with Venice -BHDandMe

Here’s a little story of deep philosophical intent;

Democracy.

I knew who he was. All those images of him. And all that bling. Gold rings, amulets, pendants on heavy gold links.

So, I said. You couldn’t agree on anything.

Not a thing, he said, and he shook his head from side to side, not so much to emphasise the point it seemed, as to express his disbelief in the fact.

I knew he wanted to say more and waited.

It was as if he didn’t understand who’d won.

Uh-uh, I said, wondering where he was taking it.

He said, he kept on talking about compromise. I mean, who needs to compromise when you’ve won?

I cocked my head and pulled what I hoped was a hard to interpret face. It’s no use falling out with these people, in a situation like this I mean. We would be spending a lot of time together after all.

He shook his head again.

He told me it was a matter of consent. Consent to what? I asked him? And he said, consent to what you propose to do.

And you told him? I prompted.

I sure did. I said I’m not asking you to consent. I’m telling you how it’s going to be.

He shifted himself into a more comfortable position and grinned. Now we get to it, I thought.

He said, that’s when I pulled the gun on him. I shoved it in his face, and said, stick ‘em up.

Not very original, I thought, but then, are they ever? And what did he do? I ventured.

He stuck ‘em up of course.

 

There comes a moment in every story where you think you know what’s coming.

 

And?

Well, it all seemed to be going well after that. I said, do this and do that, and he did this, and he did that. So I put the gun away and turned around to get on with something else that needed doing.

And now you’re in here, I said.

He raised his arms in a painful shrug, making the chains rattle.

I decided to have another go at reading Rex Pickett’s first novel, Sideways. The author is described as a ‘screenwriter’, which might explain a thing or two, for the novel was turned into a mildly amusing film that was credited with almost destroying the Californian merlot growing wine trade – throughout the movie that particular varietal is roundly condemned and derided by the main protagonist.

Picking up the book I was surprised to see that I’d managed to read all the way to the end of ‘Friday: Uncorked’, which is the first chapter. That’s a whole 45 pages. Actually, it’s only 44 and a small fraction, for the forty fifth has a useful amount of white space on it…a welcome rest after the crossing of the textual desert, perhaps left there by the publishers for pencilled diatribes, suicide notes and the like.

In fact, and I’d forgotten this, I had so used that white space:

 

‘Where do you start?

With how glad I was to find this oasis of white space after so long in the desert of words.

Finding a single sharp sentence every two or three pages only just kept me going.

It’s like a film script; like a screenplay; a shooting script.

There’s nothing left to the imagination. What you see is everything you get. Descriptions you don’t need: detail, detail, detail.

I don’t care which fuckin’ street you drive down. I don’t care about your tedious binge in the Bullpen. Tell me the fucking story, don’t show me all this irrelevant crap!

The writing is awful.’

 

Not actually relenting, I added a line right at the bottom, reminding myself that the book had been a gift from my daughter with whom I’d watched the film, at Theo’s Air B’n’B overlooking the Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s Northland. I seem to remember she’d fallen asleep during the film.

As I write, I’ve ploughed on to page 52, leaving only another 300 pages to cross. There’s an ‘Acknowledgement’ appended to the novel, which begins with the statement: ‘I want to thank profusely my erstwhile agent, Jess Taylor for resurrecting me from the dead.’ Necromancy, we must remember, rarely turns out well. The next sentence: ‘Without him I would not have written the book…’ Jess. Jess. What can we say?

Neither boredom, nor my sense of duty (to readers of the blog) could be sufficient to drive me on through this wasteland. The film was ‘easy’ watching. A pair of buffoons boorishly, but amusingly drink their way around some vineyards, encounter some people, get into one or two social scrapes and go home, with the hope of, perhaps, living happily ever after.

I can hardly call it a review to assume that the book follows the same meandering course.

I did find something interesting, on page 52. Our two buddies, hungover and on the road for vineyards of ‘Burgundian. Pinot and Chardonnay.’, get into a discussion of the Chardonnay grape. A snippet of the conversation is worth considering:

‘”I like Chardonnay. I like all varietals. I just don’t like the way they manipulate it, especially in California. Too much time in oak, too much secondary malolactic fermentation.”

“What’s that?”’

 

And cue a ten line explanation of the process, in the middle of which, a single sentence reminds us this is two fictional characters in a story talking to each other:

 

‘Jack turned very slowly and raised his eyebrows. “Sucrosity?”’

 

You know you are going to learn a lot about the techniques of wine making. But you might also have got an echo here of another book by an American author. I’m thinking of that old salt Herman Melville, and in particular, of Moby Dick. Of course, Melville intersperses groups of ‘story’ chapters with whole chapters of Cetacean interest, rather than mere paragraphs, but the technique is a venerable one.

 

I think it was Melvyn Bragg who once pointed out the futility of reviewing something you didn’t like – he may have been speaking about editorial policies on the South Bank Show – and I can see the sense in that approach. If you can’t find something good to say, don’t say anything, and leave it to someone else to find it.

So I’m a reluctant reviewer of the written, Sideaways, even if it does borrow a technique from one of the world’s great novels. But this review isn’t simply about saying how difficult to read I found (and am finding) the book. It’s about what I think might be the cause of that difficulty (apart from my own obvious limitations).

One of the subjects that I’ve tried to deal with in several workshops over the years has been the issue of detail in storytelling. Another is the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ – a particular interest of mine. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, or have been to a workshop of mine, you’ll know that the advice to writers to ‘show, don’t tell’ really winds me up! Words, I say, can only ‘tell’, one word at a time and in order. Films (TV and stage), can, and must ‘show’, everything, and all the time, and here’s a novel, written by a screenwriter, that tries to do what cameras do – but still has to use the words, one at a time, in order.

The result, for me, is a form of overwriting. There’s simply too much of everything. Foreground and background are always there in an image, but not necessarily all in focus. We notice, or don’t, the little details that might or might not be significant. Everything is in front of us, and we have a soundtrack on top. A few seconds of movie footage, if described in words, can run to pages.

With him being a screenwriter, perhaps this author was actually writing out a movie idea. Rather than wanting to ‘tell’ us a story, he really wanted to ‘sell’ one: a story that would film well (as it did). Interestingly, the dvd case cites the film’s accolades: Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Picture, musical or comedy, and another Golden Globe (unspecified). Also, The Funniest Film of the Year (Go Magazine). I’m not sure which year, nor how the vintage was rated.

Some speculative, post Brexit stories on show from BHD, in the collection Days to Come, with a mild Cumbrian flavour, now available on Cutalongstory.

The Non Swimmer

I’ve no idea where this particular story came from. Often I can recall the spark, and even the route the fire took as it spread, but with this one your guess is as good as mine, and perhaps better. Migrancy has been in the news, I know, and we’ve been exhorted lately to do one thing or another. Perhaps that’s where it came from. Either way, it ended up (alongside The Remainer and seven stories by other writers) in the Strands Flash Fiction Competition shortlist….going on to take a shared 3rd place!

Andy Hamilton nailed it on his Radio 4 programme last week, talking about class. He told the story of how, at Cambridge (university, just in case…), he played the fool, pretending not to know that there was a tradition of rich boaters (not the hats) burning their winning boat and expecting fellow students to buy ’em a new one. The toffs’ spokesperson, he said, patiently explained to him how the system worked, assuming (presumably) that Andy was indeed ignorant of the tradition, rather than simply stupefied by the mind-blowing arrogance of it.

What struck me on reflection (and after my laughter and rage had ebbed away) was that whereas one of the conversationalists was pretending to be incredibly foolish, and knew it, the other was not, and didn’t. What also struck me was that one represented a group that entertains the country, and the other a group that has taken-back-control of it.