Triangles we’re sometimes reminded, can be eternal, and when they are we’re usually talking about relationships between three people, and the tensions within them. Triangles, in a different context, that of engineering, are stronger, more secure, than quadrilaterals. You can’t distort a triangle, without breaking it apart, unless of course, you can adjust the length of the sides.

Triangles can tessellate. They can mirror. They can be equilateral, right angled, obtuse or acute. They can be appear stable, or top heavy; broad or narrow; immovable, or poised to tumble from one face to another. The points of a triangle can become the centres of circles to which the other two points are circumferences, perhaps intersecting arcs. And each of those descriptions might be a metaphor. No wonder they are so useful, as a concept on which stories might be constructed.

As a preamble to Carlisle’s Borderlines Book Festival, Mike Smith, who writes fiction as Brindley Hallam Dennis, will be leading a writers’ workshop at Carlisle Library (Thursday 5th October, 10.00am-12.00 noon.) that will explore some of the ways we might take the ‘triangle’ as the basis for creating the situations in which our fictional short story characters might find themselves (or create!).  You can get tickets here.

A week later, from 1.00pm to 3.00pm on Thursday, October 12th, in Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, he will be leading a workshop on locations in short stories: how do we use them? How much to put in? How much to leave out? And when to tell?

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You see, never to be left out of it…now BHD’s gone and got something else into print….in Issue 4 of the Black Market Re-view which that was a link to, back there <. Thankfully, he’s buried among lots of good writing, from all over the place. So, why not go and take a look?

Also, while we’re here….Did you know BHDandMe are leading a workshop as part of the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle? 10.00am-12.00 noon, Thursday 5th October, at the Library (in the Lanes)? Come along and play around with ideas of how the humble (or even arrogant) triangle can inform the situations we create for our fictional characters in the short story.

Did you know that Acumen #89 is now out? And it has a wee article by me on Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Neutral Tones’ – now, hasn’t that got to be worth a peek?

 

A week last Thursday night….I went to see  As You Like It at Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake. It’s the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage, at Birmingham Rep, with, seemingly, half the cast of Crossroads in the company. Good old Burton Boys Grammar School (I’m being ironic, you should know), had gone to pains to teach us that when we call a Shakespeare play ‘comic’, we don’t mean it’s funny. Birmingham Rep blew that piece of disinformation right out of the water, and won me over to Shakespeare despite everything that the Education system threw at him.

It must be twenty years since I’d seen the play, and last night I was amazed at how much of it – almost every line – came back to me, though I couldn’t have written down more than a few of them without that prompting. It’s remained my favourite play, though I can see it’s not the slickest (and yes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream pushes a hard second).

The TBTL production was as good as I had come to expect, and celebrated the essential romanticism of the play. Jessica Hayles made a fabulous Rosalind – all Rosalinds should be fabulous. I can remember Eileen Atkins in her Ganymede jeans, and still have the theatre programme somewhere! But Layo-Christina Akinlude as Celia/Aliena gave a master-class in how to play the part that is on stage a lot of the time, but has few lines and very little action. With nods, head-shakes, grins, eye-rolls and other micro-movements she mirrored, re-inforced and nudged our responses to what the other characters were saying and doing. It’s a fine line sort of part to walk between too much and not enough, and she was absolutely spot on.

One slight change to Shakespeare’s script puzzled me. An exchange of words, very near to the end, one that you wouldn’t notice was missing unless you were expecting to hear it, had been excised; like a sprig of bitter herb left out of a gourmet dish.

But Bravo! Theatre ByThe Lake, cast and crew.

There’s a short essay by me just published on the Thresholds International Short Story Forum

Arthur Miller is best known as a playwright. I know his short stories better than I do the plays, and fine stories they are too. But here I found a short story embedded in his autobiography Timebends. It’s an account of an unexpected meeting with a friend of his mother’s, and like a ‘proper’ short story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

I wrote about Miller’ short story The Misfits, in the second of my collections of essays on the genre and its writers, Love and Nothing Else, examining the differences between the short story and the screenplay, also written by Miller, that was based upon it.

Some struggle with the past, some with the future. Games are played. Plans go awry. Belief defines perception. Hopes are confounded, fears realised. Encounters. Speculations. Surprises Confirmations. Twenty-Five Tenpenny Tales by Brindley Hallam Dennis on CUTalongstory.

The Flash Fictions in the collection were written, mostly, during 2016/17 although a handful dates from earlier.

The Flash Fiction label is a mixed blessing, not least because it doesn’t seem to have settled down yet into any specific meaning. Discussion centres around that word flash. American originators of the term meant the flash of a single white page being turned, which could mean a four page story, of two facing pages and the leaf that was turned. At around 400 words per page that could be 1500 words or more!  Competitions organisers have set maximums as widely as one thousand words, down to a mere six.

Some writers I know feel the story should have some sort of jolt, or flash, at the end: Ta Dah!

All except one of the stories here are less than 500 words. Other than that, they are simply short stories, as varied as any other group of stories I might produce!

One facet I look for in all short stories, however long or short, is that they have a narrator who knows why he, she, or it, is telling the story!

MY ebook entitled Twenty-Five Tenpenny Tales

CUTalongstory is the short story publishing arm of the National Association of Writers in Education NAWE.

In Nicolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, sometimes cited as the short story from which all (but especially Russian) short stories flowed, the opening paragraph (in Ronald Wilk’s translation, in Russian Short Stories, Folio Soc.1997) describes with comic irony ‘a certain Department’ of Government, or rather, the way that people might feel about such a department.

Capturing, obliquely, both the time and the place in which the story is located – the time a matter of manners, the place a milieu of particular behaviours – that opening indicates the fundamentally comic intent of the story. The second paragraph goes on to describe Bashmachkin, the hapless protagonist.

The Overcoat was published in 1842.

Some dozen years earlier Prosper Mériméé published the story Mateo Falcone. This too is cited as being one of the beginnings of the short story. Of course, writers like A.E.Coppard trace the form much further back, into the oral tradition, whence it escapes the slur of being a younger brother, or sister, of the novel.

Mateo Falcone begins with a description of the ‘maquis’, the word rendered into italics in the French original, signalling the its exceptionality. The maquis is a type of wilderness, farmed, if that is the word, by Corsican shepherds, who burn off the old top growth each year and plant a crop into the ashes. It is a hard country, in which brigands hide out and a code of honour demands compliance.

As with Gogol’s story, the description of the setting in which the story is located – time and place – sets also the ambience of the telling, and these two stories are quite different in their ambiences. The former is tragic-comic, the futile struggles of an un-empowered man against the system; the latter is tragic-serious, the working out of a lethal formula in the case of a wilful child.

Gogol had worked in institutions and so perhaps had a template upon which to build his imaginary department, but Mériméé had never visited Corsica. In fact, when he did so, many years later, he was surprised and delighted to find that his description of the maquis, taken from books and imagination, was uncannily accurate.

It has been said of W.E.Johns, who wrote the ‘Biggles’ and ‘Gimlet’ books among others, that he had visited few of the many countries in which his stories were set. Yet it was the locations of his stories rather than the plots, particularly in the later Biggles books, that were so interesting, at least to this reader in the early 1960s.

The use of real places, described from imagination and second or third hand report, can be found in Shakespeare, and earlier. In these days of global travel – at least for the top few percent of the world’s rich (and that includes most Europeans) – it’s all too easy to find fault with those imaginary locations, and to find ones that can’t be held up to such scrutiny becomes increasingly difficult. There are still patches on ‘the map’ that might be tagged ‘here be dragons’, but they are fewer, and likely to appear on TV at any moment, seen through the head-cam of some explorer-presenter. Writers have long since been driven to space, outer and inner, to find locations that cannot be questioned.

All such places, along with the real places, and the lucky descriptions, like Mériméé’s, fulfil a function in the storytelling. It is to give the ‘there and then’ of the characters’ ‘here and now’ – to be credible, even when they are not authentic. And it is to provide a base upon which the ambience of the story can be built, the comic, tragic, absurd or grimly realistic feel of the story, to the teller, and to the told.

I recently discovered myself reading Charles Dickens’ ghostly short story, The Signalman. In fact, I have it now beside me, in a folding paper copy of the ‘Travelman Short Stories’ series. In this story a visitor to an unspecified railway cutting meets a signalman in charge of a box guarding the entrance to a tunnel. The man tells of an apparition that appears to warn him of impending disaster.

I’ve read the story several times. It is one of the writer’s better known short pieces, so well known in fact that in 1976 – the year of the Lynerd Skynerd air crash – it was turned into a BBC TV movie by Lawrence Gordon Clark.

It’s an almost ‘perfect’ adaptation, if by perfection you mean that it adds nothing to, and takes very little – save for the act of imagination, which Mr Dickens might have thought worth something – from the original. One curiosity, and an amusement to me, was the fact that in the shown story, the unfortunate signal man – and here’s a spoiler – is driven down by the engine whilst standing in the centre of the tracks and facing it. In the told story, we do not see the accident happen, but the narrator arrives afterwards, and has it reported to him -in the shown story, we get both the incident and its report – including the detail that ‘his back was towards her’, which seems to me to make the whole thing a little more believable, if not quite so dramatic.

There is another aspect of the adaptation that struck me as I watched. That was the detail of the train. I have a book on railways in film (Railways on the Screen, by John Huntley, Ian Allen, 1993). There, taking up a mere sixth of a page, is the information that the film was made on the Severn Valley Railway using the Kidderminster Tunnel plus a faux Signal Box. I would have guessed that it was a GWR engine – I know a little bit about that sort of thing – but the genealogy of the coaches would have defeated me (they were GWR too). Of course, in Dickens’ story no detail of coaches or locomotive was included. A problem of the shown story, is that it cannot be, where the told story can, non-specific, but must locate itself where, in this case, the stream train was to be had. Both the writer and the film-maker will strive to get in what they need to get in, and to keep out what they need to be out, but the wordsmith has an easier job of the latter than does the cameraman. The signalman in Dickens’ story refers to the train crash in the tunnel in a dozen or so words: the TV version has flames and wreckage and rescuers searching for bodies. We see the event (or at least its aftermath) directly, rather than getting the signalman’s report of it (and thereby its effect on him – how we describe a thing often tells more about us than it, as in ‘what sort of car was it? Oh! a Great one!’). As the story is about him, rather than about the train, this is a watering down that appears to be a beefing up!

More ghostly, perhaps, than anything in the short story, is the uncanny fact that Denholm Eliot, playing the signalman in the TV version, whistles the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Tit Willow’, which, of course, was not written until several years after Dickens’ death! Mind you, that would put the story (at 1885 or after), more nearly into the time at which that particular locomotive and carriages were in use! Another show/tell conundrum here, for you, as a writer can say ‘he whistled a sad tune’, and the reader will imagine it, but the filmmaker, must either leave it out or pick one – one that perhaps, who knows, following an unexpected event in a cinema, makes you laugh every time you hear it!

The told story, of course, is located in your mind, and on a railway of your remembering, as it no doubt was in Dickens’ mind, for we must not forget that he was involved in the dreadful rail disaster at Staplehurst in the summer of 1865, as it tells me on the cover of that Travelman sheet. What it doesn’t go into is the detail that he was travelling back from France with Ellen Ternan and her mother, whom, for propriety’s sake, he had to pretend during the rescue, were strangers whom he had merely encountered in the debris. Peter Ackroyd, in his 1990 biography of Dickens gives an account of this event stretching over several pages. He also, very briefly, mentions the short story as being included among the Christmas stories for 1866.

Yet the purpose and enjoyment of the two stories seems untouched by the adaptation. In both it is a mood piece, a shiver down the spine, as the fears of an isolated man in a shadowed cutting near a tunnel mouth are played out in reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve tried writing ghost stories myself, but they always disintegrate into comedy…some even start that way! Insubstantiality and The Hotel Entrance’ – that ‘ance’ and its pronunciation being significant – are the type, and both to be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 

A friend passed on to me The Lemon Table, a collection of short stories by Julian Barnes (Vintage,2014). The half-title page asserts the usual qualification for writing a worthwhile short story – ‘Julian Barnes is the author of eleven novels.’ My heart always sinks at this, not simply because I expect novelists to be a bit shaky when it comes to the older genre – they often aren’t – but because it reinforces that second class stereotype which the short story still suffers from.

There’s some fine writing here, as one would expect, and some powerful ideas about people and how they relate to each other. The Story of Mats Israelson, is a wonderful tale of two people bound by their respective cultures to first miss, and then to misinterpret their potentially adulterous loves for each other. It has more than a whiff of Emma Bovary about it! At 24 pages, it seemed longer. Perhaps that was because it is so dense, but perhaps too it might have been because it laboured points and repeated ideas that we’d already got safely lodged in our heads.

There was also a good deal of marking out of ground in the beginning: the setting up of a metaphor that would be returned to later on, setting up that involved all the small detail that novelists are so good at.

 

‘In front of the church, which contained a carved altar brought from

Germany during the Thirty Years War, there stood a row of six horse

Stalls.’

 

The opening sentence is a good starter, but a page and half of elaboration to tell us that ‘Ownership of each stall was a matter of private election.’ betrays the novelist’s need to create a credible and whole world, rather than the simple pool of light within which short stories are played out.  

It is a gripping story however, though at several passages I looked towards a denouement that I knew must come (and which did eventually), only to find that it was being put off to make way for another round of context building that seemed too like the one that just been completed.

Through a series of meetings, Ander Boden and Barbro Lindwall, engage in a faux affair that attracts the attention of the community, but which in reality is only a series of innocent conversations which neither recognises as having the potential that both community and spouses assume is being actually realised. Then passes a period of two decades in which each goes his and her own ways, until the dying Anders summons her to his hospital bedside. By this time both have realised what they did not consummate, but manage to snatch misunderstanding from the teeth of infidelity. He dies, and she returns to acquiescence in a failed marriage. The horse stall is allocated to a previously un-introduced character. Life, Barnes might be telling us, slips away, while we aren’t paying attention.

There’s a lot of repetition, of phrases rather than scenes: references to places that are passed by and described by him, to her. There’s a good deal of timber lore – Anders is the manager of a sawmill – and again, one wonders if this is the novelist’s need for detail, or just a symptom of that modern desire to fill stories with detail, as if we were not writers, but cameras.

Despite all this carping, I found the tale moving, and convincing. It’s the second story in the collection, and carries more conviction, I felt, than the first. That is A Short History of Hairdressing.

We always read stories in a context. That might be the context of what has just happened, or is about to, in our lives, or it might be that of what we have just read. Barnes’ hairdressing story is told in three parts, each of which takes place while his protagonist, Gregory, is in the barber’s chair. The three haircuts are at different stages of his life. The first as a child, taken unwillingly by his mother, the second as a truculent young adult, and the third as a middle aged man.

Co-incidentally, I had been reading Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, only a few weeks before and had discovered in it a section which might have been a short story – an incident in a barber’s shop, in which Miller encountered an older female friend of the family and experienced an epiphany of sorts which led him to a singular resolution about the plays he wrote, and the characters within them.

By comparison, Barnes’ three part story seemed overlong, and unfocussed and lacking in that snap-shut tension that a short story demands – even if that snap is silent and subtle. But there was more to it, for Barnes’ protagonist seemed also hard to see, hard to believe in. Something about the language given to him seeming not quite authentic, or at least, credible: as if an outsider had tried to capture or create a voice that was not his own: a voice that would be difficult to place in class, era, or place, a voice that foisted ill-fitting words upon a character, rather than drawing them out of him.

But the narrator too seems to be using words not his own, and notably the important word ‘geezer’, applied to the barber: ‘….the barber….resumed his standing crouch over a white-haired geezer.’ The word jars. Does it belong to Gregory and his world? Or to the world of the narrator? If to the former it seems atypical. If to the latter, again, it stands out from other words, for the narrator does not seem to be telling the story from within the language-world of his characters. It’s as if the narrator has lapsed, or rather stumbled, into another linguistic identity, momentarily. He does it with the word ‘loony’ too. ‘Most of all the torturer-in-chief was the same, a loony with big hands’. The torturer reference clearly places the narrative in Gregory’s mind, though it is throughout a third person narrative, and one in a quite formal, Received Pronunciation, Standard English.

The endings of short stories are what they about, and those endings seen within the context of the unfolding story – which is often, and perhaps necessarily, a context that contrasts with or revitalises our view of whatever is being offered at the ending, which we will recognise either from our own lives, or from earlier in the story – and here we have a sequence of endings, as we would at the chapter-ends of a novel. The first of these is a simple ‘yes’, to being shown his own, unrecognised skull in the barber’s mirror. The second is Gregory looking forward to the weekend – for which he has bought ‘something’. There’s an iconic reference here. Barbers, certainly in the fifties and sixties, and reportedly for the next few decades, were said to offer ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’ as Barnes’ does here (I cannot recall ever being so offered), and what was being offered, in those pre-pill days, was a prophylactic – a condom! The third part ends with the same proffered mirror as the first, but this time the answer is ‘no’. Gregory, having lived his life, and seen it mirrored, wants to see it no more – or rather, wants to reject it and has done so for a while: ‘his timid victory was repeated every time.’

The circularity between first and third parts strengthens this ending, but I’m not sure that Barnes has ‘revealed what life only implies’ as Pritchett said a short story should.

Reading The Things You Know, the third story, reminded me of Coppard’s exasperated reply to a commentator, that a story described as one in which not much happened, was a story in which ‘something was trying very hard to happen’. In Barnes’ story the ‘known’ of the title is what neither of the two elderly widows will share with the other, though they share their breakfasts, every two weeks at the Harborview hotel. That known but unspoken is what they think they know, each of the other’s dead spouse: that one was a ‘faggot’ and the other a ‘groper’. Like an ultimate weapon, held in reserve, as they snip away at each other, by praising and misrepresenting both their respective husbands, and themselves, the two reveal their truths to us through interior monologues. As with the first story, Barnes splits this into three numbered sections, like chapters, though each picks up and carries on their morning conversation without a discernible break in either time or place. It would make, without much tweaking, a decent dramatic conversation on film, or perhaps even as a short stage play, one of those stories where what little narrator comment there is might be turned to stage direction (and those interior monologues given as either voice over or soliloquy direct to audience).

It’s a great feeling when you strike gold.

Hygiene is the fourth story in the collection. It’s not an original story. I can remember a TV film along very similar lines from a couple of decades ago, but short stories aren’t all about originality. The friend who loaned me the book commented on how well written the stories in it were, even when, he felt, they probably weren’t worth telling, and here’s one that didn’t really need telling again, but was very well written; so well written, I would argue, that it was worth re-telling – because it’s the telling of the stories that is worthwhile.

As with the previous two, in this ‘age-themed’ collection, there’s a pervasive sadness as a retired officer jaunts from Shrewsbury to London, to do some shopping, and spend an afternoon with Babs, his whore of twenty-three years – who has come out of retirement for a once a year sip of champagne, and a reminisce about when they used to fuck. Of course, on this occasion, poor Babs, whose real name turns out to have been something quite different, has passed on, and Jacko returns home without ‘hanging one on it.’

It’s not a pessimistic story though, and that’s what I liked most about it. Like most readers, I read for what a story is about, rather than how it’s written, and this is about coming to terms with old age, and perhaps more than that, for as Jacko arrives back on the train, he is ‘hoping to see his wife on the platform.’ Without doubt it’s the strongest and most positive ending of all the stories so far, which makes this, for me, the most successful of those stories.

But content is served by form – the how it is written – and this story is written in a particular voice, the voice of Jacko’s self-created sense of himself. Using a military vocabulary that we recognise right from the beginning as being nostalgic, he tells himself –through the offices of a third person narrator – and tells us, what he hopes will happen and what does happen, and what it feels like afterwards.

Most pleasingly, it is without doubt, a short story – its eleven pages seemed more like six – untainted by the whiff of the novel. I wasn’t sure though, about the accuracy of Barnes’ assertion about the ready availability of Stilton and salad spinners in Shrewsbury.

 

The Revival reverts to the chapter numbering. It and Vigilance, which follows, both seem overlong, coming to life briefly with bursts of vulgarity – cunt and fuck being deployed, and quite amusingly at times – the ‘strong’ language that validates so much that the media loves. But the stories: an old man regretting that he has not put into practice a lust that he didn’t really feel for a much younger woman. What is it about ‘much younger women’ that attracts old men? Seriously! That’s The Revival. The other one is a first person account of bad behaviour at classical concerts, the narrator’s attempts at reaction becoming progressively more extreme until they become a more pungent example of it than the behaviour itself – all without, of course, the first person narrator realising it.

There’s something old fashioned about the stories in this collection, and not merely the fact that many of them are specifically set in the past. They seem to have no obvious connection, references even, to any of the issues of contemporary life. I suppose the strength of that impression depends upon what your own contemporary life is like – and of course, the issues they do contend with, love and ageing, are timeless.

Bark follows, begging the pun, and the bite is good – as sour as that of the hero, Delacour, who chews a slice of bark, instead of taking ‘proper’ food, in order to prolong his life. Yet it is a story set in the past, quaintly dated, in convincingly nineteenth century style to 18-. Concerned with the viewpoint of its hero, who is by turns a gambler, a gourmand and an ascetic, Barnes sets up a couple of maxims that the old man adopts, and then, shortly after, applies them to his own circumstances, bringing the story to a quick and lethal close. I found it to be very much in the style of the nineteenth century French storytellers (Francois Coppee and Prosper Merrime sprang to mind). There’s a detached, veiled amusement in the voice of the narrator, which in the hands of French writers of that era comes across as rather a lightness of touch, a hint of joie de vivre amidst their awful truths. Barnes’ tone seems a little more serious perhaps.

Curiously, and who knows but intentionally, the next story is called knowing French. An epistolary story – written in letters – I confess to not having waded through it. Nobody’s paying me, you know. And then come two crackers, Appetite, in which the wife of a man suffering from dementia manages a sort of conversation by reading out recipe books to him, and The Fruit Cage, in which a stroke cuts short a long suffering husband’s bid for freedom from an abusive wife. The last story, The Silence, is a first person account by an ageing musician who is failing to produce his 8th Symphony. One wonders to what extent it is an oblique observation on the difficulties any artist might face; a writer, for example?

The fact that I liked some stories more than others… much more…is no reflection on the writing, but a reminder that being ‘objective’ about whether or not a story is ‘good’ or ‘very good’, marking them in effect against some notional perfection, is a pointless, and meaningless undertaking. A story is as good as your enjoyment of it, and that’s as much about you as it is about the writing. We must remember C.S.Lewis’s warning not to ‘flood wretched material’ with our own imaginings, but remember too that defining that ‘wretched’ is virtually impossible except in cases of extreme incomprehension (like Jabberwocky, one might ask?).

Lazy grey cattle dozed in the August heat, between sharp falls of rain from dark explosions of cloud, a half mile or so to the west of Crag Lough, where the Whin Sill marks the vertical edge of the old Roman Empire.

Nearby lay a dip to Turret 38, stuck in the bottom of a gulley with hills to the west, east, and north. What a stupid place, you can’t help thinking, to put a watchtower, when a hundred yards to one side or the other would have brought you to a hilltop with views 360 degrees around, and for miles in each direction. It tells us something about the men who made the wall, the men who planned it that is. It wasn’t a military mind, I think, that planted the watchtower there, but a bureaucratic one, marking off the right number of paces from tower to tower –there’s a mile castle on the Cumbrian coast does something similar, missing the hilltop viewpoint by a few yards. And that tells us something about the wall, and what it meant.

This wasn’t a line of passive, desperate defence. There are too many holes in it for that. This was a base line for attack – doors at the cavalry forts made two horsemen wide to get a unit through as quickly as possible, not to make it difficult to shore up under attack. Every garrison having its door to the north, so that they could get into the field at short notice, not so that an enemy could beat it down. The turret in its dip could pass it’s messages of smoke and fire, I expect, as well as necessary, but there are no doorways through to the killing grounds of the north at turrets, where pickets of two or three at most, passed the time with dice and Brigante girls until the next message has to be sent through. Nobody, I suspect, ever thought of storming this wall while it was being defended. It stood at the back of the tribes to the north, offering quick and powerful support against enemies further north still, not facing them.

Whenever I visit Hadrian’s Wall I remember a poem by Andrew Young, called simply, The Roman Wall. Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland Poet, told me that he had met Andrew Young when Young was a hale and hearty old man, still in love with the English countryside, though he was a Scot by birth, and lived most of his adult life in the South of England. He is associated with the Georgian Poets, and his nature poetry was always said to be written from direct contact with, and observation of his subject. I have the first four volumes of the Georgian’s, but his work is not included, presumably because he was younger, and slower to come to prominence than his contemporaries.

I have Young’s poem almost by heart, save for the second verse being so like the third that I always mix them up. It’s a simple, descriptive poem, reminding us how the wall evokes its past, ours. Five stanzas, each of four lines, the lines rhyming AB,AB, and with a short line of 6 syllables at first and third, a longer one, of ten, for second and fourth.

That sort of formality isn’t favoured by the cognoscenti nowadays, but this simple poem is a song. Read it aloud, and enjoy the rhythm, the music, of what is a reflection upon time passing and things changing, staying the same. There is a man in this poem whose experience you can replicate, and at the very same place. Two thousand years have not changed it.

A generation of state educated poets grasped the idea that rhyme belonged to poetry, and sacrificed the meanings and the sounds of words to it. Rhyme suffered as a consequence – being seen as something that turned poems into meaningless jingles. It has fought back over time, because it does have a lot to offer us, bringing emphasis to key words, and music to lines. Some have pointed out that we only know we have a rhyme when we get to the second sound-alike, but that’s not always the case. Where the rhythm is strong, a line can seem to demand a rhyme – hence that jingle risk!

In Young’s poem the rhyme scheme, allied to the long and short lines, gives a particular effect, particularly in the last two stanzas. In the fourth, for example, ‘once’ is not quite rhymed with ‘stones’, though both end words have a soft, rather than a hard consonant. So too in that final stanza, and here, perhaps the shortness of the first and third lines emphasises the sharpness of the single syllable rhyming words, while the longer lines, at lines two and four make their  effect from the softer endings of their rhyme words.

One rhyme in The Roman Wall always worries me. I’d like to have heard Young read the piece aloud, so that I could get the proper sound: He rhymes ‘thorn trees sough’ with ‘lapping on Crag Lough’ – did he sound them both like ‘cough’, or like ‘prow’, or am I way out in both cases? Certainly people these days, in my hearing, rhyme Crag Lough with ‘tough’, and ‘sough’ is a word I’ve never heard spoken. ‘Saughtree’, not far off across the Northumberland fells is sounded more like ‘saw’, but with a rougher ending than that ‘w’, and but a little tuning would bring it to rhyming with ‘trough’, but is it the same word?

  Here’s the poem, for your enjoyment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Roman Wall, by Andrew Young (1885-1971)

 

Though moss and lichen crawl,

These square-set stones still keep their serried ranks

Guarding the ancient wall,

That whitlow grass with lively silver pranks.

 

Time they could not keep back

More than the wind that from the snow-streaked north

Taking the air for track

Flows lightly over to the south shires forth.

 

Each stone might be a cist

Where memory sleeps in dust and nothing tells

More than the silent mist

That smoke along the heather-blackened fells.

 

Twitching its ears as pink

As blushing scallops loved by Romans once

A lamb leaps to its drink

And, as the quavering cry breaks on the stones,

 

Time like a leaf down-drops

And pacing by the stars and thorn-trees’ sough

A Roman sentry stops

And hears the water lapping on Crag Lough.

 

[from Ten Twentieth-century Poets, ed. Maurice Wollman, Harrap,1965(1957)]

 

For me the poem has something of that question and answer quality that you get with a Petrachan sonnet, where the poem splits, not quite at the half way mark and takes a different tack. The change here is with that ‘Twitching its ears…’, which brings the poem back from a more reflective description, to an action of the moment. There’s a subtle change too, in the structure, for the meaning, and the sentence flows over from the end of the fourth and into the fifth stanza – the previous stanzas have all been complete observations – which begins with a present tense leap – into the past!

You might have noticed that three out of the last five lines begin with ‘and’. This might cause problems for some – it certainly did when I used about a dozen to kick off paragraphs in a short story – but one of the effects is to roll the meaning on at gathering pace, it is after all, unlike ‘but’, a joining word rather than a separating one.

The choice of words to end on, having to rhyme with the soft-ending ‘sough’ – however you sound it – means that the final line does not carry the punch of ‘A Roman sentry stops’, but it does echo the gentle lapping of the water it refers to, which is in keeping with the reflective quality of the poem, and its philosophical observation. I almost experience the silence and stillness of the sentry as he listens.