OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe name L.A.G.Strong was vaguely familiar to me, though I couldn’t properly place it, and I still can’t, but I did drop on a copy of his short story collection Travellers, which was published in 1945, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in that year.

My first inclination – a fault of upbringing or heritage – was to ‘place’ him, but I could not, so I began reading the stories instead. It’s said that short stories have no characterisation in them; that such intricacies are the stuff of novels, but I hadn’t read far into Strong before I realised I was dealing with a writer who was no mere thumbnail sketcher.

The lead story of this collection is The English Captain, told retrospectively by man looking back into his own youth, during the summer of 1914, and remembering the fortnight during which he knew the eponymous officer. Set in the year Joyce published Dubliners, I thought of Joyce several times as I read. Strong was of Irish parentage, though born in Devon, and his narrator here is an Irish protestant, living in Dublin and hanging out with a group of schoolboys in the charge of an Catholic priest.

The forty foot hole, and Howth, and Rathmines, were all names (words might be a better description) familiar to me from reading Joyce, and came with that jolt of recognition where disparate fictions meet at a common reality. If there was an undercurrent of Joyce, and the question raised of whether or not Strong was merely writing about the same country, and people, and time, or whether he was writing conscioulsy in the shadow of the man who had written before him, there were other undercurrents too. The English Captain knows that the war is coming, and he knows too that the boys he tries to befriend, by the swimming pool, are ambiguous in their treatment of him. One in particular will go on, it is implied, to fight and die in the Easter uprising, and we know, long before the first person narrator realises it, that the Captain forsees his own death in the near future, and is in effect enjoying the last fortnight of freedom, and human contact that he will know.

If there is an undercurrent of Irish and European politics, there is also too an undercurrent of homo-eroticism. The boys are naked or nearly so throughout, and there are no girls in this story. This is a story about men and boys reaching out for each other, and one told with no sense of potential abuse, but only the possibility of a ‘man to man’ love that we would have to see in the light of its time. Yet, with Strong’s book being published in 1945, the setting could be as retrospective for him as it is for his narrator. Other stories carry similar undercurrents, and have that recreation of the immature young man’s widening and deepening understanding of the world around him, and of its mortalities.

In The Rook the eponymous bird is shot, but dies slowly. Structurally it is a complex tale, one that I felt shouldn’t really have worked, though it undoubtedly does! Split into quite different phases, the first is the story of an old man protecting his garden, by shooting the rook. The second, told from the rook’s perspective – though by the same third person narrator – deals with its flight and eventual falling to the ground. The third, switches perspective again, this time to an elderly priest in a nearby schoolroom, whose young assistant goes out, humanely, to despatch the wounded creature, off-stage, with a pointed stick. The old priest, watching from the schoolroom has a revelation, about himself, and mortality. I found this story profoundly moving, even as I thought that it shouldn’t be! And it carried for me a similar potency to A.E.Coppard’s Arabesque-The Mouse.

There is a strong Irish voice in the first few stories of the collection, and Coppard hovered in my thoughts as I read them, for he too chose to tell his tales in an Irish idiom from time to time. The rural and the poor here too are neither patronised nor misrepresented. They are certainly not viewed through floral spectacles. In Storm the unreasonable anger of a man towards his lover is picked apart pitilessly, and shown against the background of the eponymous precipitation -OK, that’s the last eponymous, I promise! But the fact that there are so many of n them perhaps tells us something about the way this writer uses his titles.

In The Gates, an elderly railway crossing keeper oversleeps, allowing the 7.01 to ‘foul’ the gates (that the story is named after, perhaps). But the story is about the changes that this oversight wreaks upon his character. In Prongs two young brothers fight, and are drawn into an arrangement with a group of men who, having intervened without thinking, are fearful of the brothers’ violent father. Strong’s world is not benign; yet it is never empty of love.

In Travellers, the story after which the collection is named, another young man witnesses something of the lives of the ‘gomachs’ in what I might call ‘the sticks’ – or ‘the boonies’ if I were feeling international – and hears a fading opera singer present a tour-de-force.

Having read the first handful of stories, Strong placed himself, for me, alongside writers like Pritchett, Bates and Coppard, of whom he was a writing contemporary. Perfunctory research showed that he was indeed closer in age to the first two than to the older Coppard, and that he was heavily influenced by the writers of his ancestors’ land, notably Yeats and George Moore. I can see something of The Untilled Field in his ‘gomachs’ and his priests, but I can see too the Ireland of Claire Keegan’s Walk The Blue Fields.

The Gurnet, which I shall leave you to find and read, ‘suggested a caricature of humanity’. ‘he was a figure not without dignity’. And the story of what happens to him is perhaps a comment too upon the fate of such figures.

Frank Swinnerton provided an interesting Preface to the collection, having some pertinent comments to make about the short story form, as well as about this particular writer’s use of it. One quotation will give fat enough to chew upon, I think, for those of us interested in such things:

 

‘..unless we have decided what a short story should be, how can we say whether a short story is a good short story, or otherwise?’

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