Father Christmas, or one of his collaborators, left me, under the Christmas Tree, a set of the new Penguin Book of the British Short Story, in two heavyweight hardback volumes. The collection is edited by Philip Hensher and he has equipped it with a fittingly long and thought provoking introduction, brave man.

Notable among his musings are those on the words of the book’s title, especially the B word, and the SS words. Nothing can quite so divide us, I suspect, as the B word – and of that you ain’t seen nothing  yet. British is a word that separates those who feel that the UK belongs to them from those of us for whom only one constituent part is that to which we belong (however much we might like another). The word ‘Norman French’ springs to mind, but I didn’t notice it in Hensher’s careful stepping through the minefield. He tackles the SS words too, and puts a wrong foot I think, when quoting the right man (Poe), but giving us the wrong quote. (You know which one I’d prefer to see – if you’ve read much of this blog!). My goat was also rattled out of its cage, and to the end of its tether, by his assertion that the ‘possibilities had narrowed’ for the short story writer of late, whereas in fact they have broadened immensely. I can only put it down to the possibility that he believes it’s more important to sell short stories than to write them. Here’s a sheep and goats issue. Selling is about getting money. Writing is about something else. Doctor Johnson said that to write for any other reason than to get money was to be a ‘blockhead.’ You either accept that, as Hensher appears to do, or you don’t. I hope that fellow Blockheads had a Merry, positively Dickensian Christmas and will have a very Happy New Year, and I wish the others lots of money.

In fact, the possibilities for short story writers have never been so great: including self-publishing and sharing their stories through readings, workshops, general good fellowship with other writers, and readers, etcetera, etcetera…. I read only about a thousand short stories a year, but among the twenty or so percent of those that are unpublished I find some of the very best. Perhaps others don’t have that experience, but it is noticeable that collections like this, which are taken as sort of snapshots of ‘the story so far,’ are always limited to stories that have been widely published already. Is that because the editors aren’t reading anything else? or have no faith in their own judgements? Or are under the cosh of publishers who don’t know a good story unless their accountants have told them about it? Or am I missing something else (I’m generally missing a lot…)?

So far, so good then..Even the introduction to these massive tomes is an as good and thought provoking read as the average novel! Then you turn to the Contents pages. I was aghast to see that one of the best three short story writers England has ever produced was missing (H.E.Bates – preferably with The Little Farm). Yet I was heartened to see Arthur Morrison in there (with a decent ‘Behind the Shade’ –tho’ not a patch on ‘Lizzerunt’). V.S.Pritchett got ‘The Camberwell Beauty’ – a safe bet, but not as delicious as ‘The Fall’ would have been. D.H.Lawrence didn’t get in with the Odour of Chrysanthemums, but at least it wasn’t that wretched Rocking Horse Winner as it usually is….Coppard disappointed, and with so many to choose from! And in what sense was Elizabeth Bowen ‘English’ (tho’ the story is fine, but not my favourite!)?

We can all play the game at thinking about our own favourites, who and what of them we would have included, and that such a collection as this enables, challenges, and even demands that we should is one of its triumphs! It reminds us that though Hensher has described the trajectory of his own perception of ‘the British Short Story,’ he has evoked the consciousness also of our own. He is like a man describing a meteor shower: those of us who stand beside him to watch the show will catch our own glimpses and see our own shooting stars. They will begin, fly and extinguish in our circles of vision, and that will depend on where we stand, on where have come from, and in which direction  we are facing. These will be circles of vision that unite us with him in their overlapping with his circle, but none of us will see the whole show, any more than we can see and experience the whole of time and place. Collections like this will remind us of what we know, and introduce us to what we don’t know, and they will do that not only for the short stories that they contain, but for our perceptions of the selves we bring to the viewing.

Best of all, without getting to the stories themselves, is that section of the introduction where Hensher attempts to describe (rather than define) what makes a story, rather than a writer, British. This is just what such a collection needs, and his description is inspiring and encouraging, especially for those of us who think comedic writing is worth our time, and the reader’s.

All this from just the introduction and the Contents pages! And the stories still await our discoveries and re-discoveries. Having an opinion is still a minefield though, and one in which Mr Hensher has already blown my socks off (but luckily, I got some of those for Christmas too!).

Sock kindly providded by Olly Bowden & modelled by BHD's right foot

Sock kindly gifted by Olly Boden & modelled by BHD

For those interested in bibliographical details: The Penguin two volume set, in hardback is heavy enough to hold open the largest of doors, and, I would suggest, in a fresh breeze. As far as its table-stabilizing qualities are concerned the two volumes stacked one above the other would prove a little deep for any except the most horizontally challenged of surfaces, and in fact, any table requiring this degree of levelling would probably be better recycled for firewood.