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In the world of short stories and writing in general, it’s always competition season, but lately it has been non-fiction competitions that have been exercising my …what should be the word?… Imagination?
In fact the Nottinghill Editions’ Hazlitt Prize, and the Thresholds Features Competition are both currently open for entries. I seem to have spent more time this last six months writing essays, mostly for this blog, but also for Thresholds, than I have writing fiction. Thresholds’ competition has two categories: ‘Author Profile’ and ‘We Recommend.’ Both invite recommendations of a sort, though I suppose one could do a hatchet job on an author! But thinking about what I might submit – I never seem to have anything sitting around just waiting for the opportunity – it struck me that there are a number of assumptions underlying those categories that I don’t necessarily buy into.
The author profile, for example, might be taken as throwing unnecessary attention on the author, rather than on the authored. I’ve written about that here on the blog a few times, for I always have this uncomfortable feeling that knowing about the author’s private life, and even, perhaps especially, about what might have driven him or her to write particular pieces, far from helping, gets in the way of our responses to their work. If someone tells you a story, whatever the medium, you don’t want them to tell you also what it’s supposed to mean, or what emotions and understandings it is supposed to trigger. You want to find out those things for yourself, and in relation to your own past, not to the author’s. Putting authors centre stage is part of our society’s obsession with celebrity – the focus on those who are known for being known of.
That rather brings me to the ‘We Recommend’ essays, for the assumption there might be, and I strongly suspect is, that we are going to recommend a story the reader will have already heard of, and by a writer already popular. It might be argued that to submit an essay on an unread story by an unknown author would be pointless. To submit one on an unpublished story, by a writer who is not even trying to get published would be madness! An unknown story by a known writer would be OK. A known story by the unknown ‘Anon’ might be acceptable. What chance, seriously, is there, that even if the essay was well written, it would be picked up, if the subject was unheard of? I mean, you might be making it all up?
Yet, rather in the spirit of an explorer – think of me as a sort of literary Indiana Jones; which in my case would have to be a Staffordshire Mike Smith – I rather fancy recommending stories that I have encountered working with local writers over the last ten years; some of which are undoubtedly at least as good a read best as any that I have read – including in all those forays I’ve made into the multi-volume ‘World’s Best Thousand Stories.’ In fact, the particular one I have in mind, not only remains unpublished, it has, so far as I know, never been submitted for publication. Now here’s a gem, it seems to me, for a literary explorer to bring back from Darkest Wherever. But will his traveller’s Tale be believed?
If you’d like to check out Mike’s Essays on the Short Stories of A.E.Coppard, you’ll find the collection English of the English, responses to the Tales of A.E.Coppard here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6
When I looked, there was no blog post in it…So here’s a short story, and a reminder that you can now find BHD’s short stories on Kindle, and My essays (on A.E.Coppard’s short stories) too!
by Brindley Hallam Dennis
I never intended the rabbit to become a pet. I always intended to eat it.
But the way it sat docilely at the foot of my work bench intrigued me. It had wandered into the workshop unseen, presumably from across the fields. Yet it was not a wild rabbit. It was large and comfortable looking, and seemingly unconcerned by the proximity of me.
At first I stiffened and fell silent, as one would do if any wild animal had intruded into the barn. Barely daring to breathe, let alone move, I assumed that once it spotted me it would turn tail and bolt. But it crouched beside the rough wooden leg of the bench, all its attention upon the stalk of grass that it was chewing. I relaxed and let out a breath, but still it did not run, and merely glanced at me as it continued to chew. Then it hopped in a quite desultory way, passing even closer to me, into the dark corner of the barn.
Well, you’re a cool customer, I said aloud, and it ignored that too! That was when the thought first struck me that it was tame enough to catch, and, without any images of killing, I pictured to myself a rabbit pie.
I was used, in those days, to plucking and drawing pheasants which my neighbour, who held regular shooting parties on his land, would leave for me. After shoots, during which the air rippled with muted, distant volleys, like strings of sharp farts, he would hang a brace of pheasant, one male, one female, roped together at the neck, from the old iron hook beside the barn door. It was a practice from before my time, and before that of my predecessor at the house.
Sometimes, when I looked at them hanging, paired there, I would imagine that they had been a couple in that romantic sense, living and dying together. It was an absurd notion, I know, yet I also knew that among the dozens, perhaps even hundreds shot during each drive there must by many pairings. It was only at the gathering of the corpses, the pulling of them from that pile of bodies, and the joining of them by that unholy knot, that the element of randomness was introduced.
As I watched the rabbit making itself at home under the frame of the old wheel-less wagon, the thought of eating it faded from my mind. After that, for a number of years, it lived amicably beside me at my workplace, neither of us especially acknowledging the presence of the other. I never named it. It, presumably, never named me. I never gave it food. It never brought in titbits of salad for me. I laid an old china bowl on the slab floor near to where it had established itself, and this I kept topped up with fresh water, but that was my only concession to what you might call a parental responsibility. My wife, had she still been around, would no doubt have brought it cabbage leaves and old carrots from the kitchen. She would have bought for it a cage too.
Clients who visited to collect newly made or restored pieces would often not even notice it. Those who did, however, would make wry comments and weak jokes. Who’s your friend? And then, when I answered, I was talking to the rabbit! Or, you’ve not eaten him yet, I see. Those of a certain age would reference the cartoon films of their childhoods: Oo dat wabbit! Or, Hey, what’s up Doc! I would smile and glance down into the shadows where it crouched beneath the old cart, nibbling leaves it had brought in from outside.
At nights, or when I was away, I would secure the building, not for its sake, but to protect the finished or part-finished items I was working on. That, and my presence when I was working, kept the local foxes from it, and the barn owl seemed to show no interest.
I haven’t revisited my home town, in the English Midlands, for more than a decade. When I used to, and particularly in the first few of the forty or so years I have lived elsewhere, locals would remark on how I’d picked up a northern accent.
Up north (oop north to some) I’m still told, though not quite so often these days, on the basis of my voice, that I’m not from round here. This helpful observation, repeated over the decades, has led to me thinking of myself as the Incomer I’ve been labelled, rather than as the ‘adopted northerner’ I’d romantically imagined myself to be in the beginning.
But my voice has undoubtedly changed, and not only in the vowel sounds, but in the order of words, and in the selection of words, varying away from, and, more recently, back towards my remembered Midland accent. It’s not all to do with being up north of course. Language, and the way we speak it changes over time, and over the voices we hear, which in the modern world are as often as not coming from long distances away from where we are actually hearing them.
Being cast as an incomer, and having what is oddly referred to as a white skin, in a predominantly white skinned area, means the identification is mostly down to voice. Yet the writer A.A.Gill has pointed to his own RP accent as masking his Scottishness, and in our so called multi-cultural society we often encounter people whose physiognomy might deceive us as to their origins.
But speech and language are learned, not inherited, and they are learned by listening. I remember a Scottish tour guide in Austria telling us how her Bavarian learned German amused the locals in the Tyrol. ‘Gruss Gott’-ing a Rhinelander, one imagines, might be like ‘ay up me ode’-ing a southerner. And the many varieties of Europeans I encountered – in addition to us – in the hotel trade in Cumbria sometimes spoke a mouth-watering Cumbrian dialect. How we speak reflects how we have heard, and how we have listened, and what we have engaged with. Those who maintain the ‘purity’ of their accents might be revealing more about their attitudes to those around them than they know. I wrote a poem about this several years ago, inspired by my conversations with the late Jimmy Robinson of Martindale. It later appeared in a Loweswater village newsletter! Here it is:
Y’ud think dog were delinquent
To hear Jimmy shout
Face red wi’ effort: Come On COME ON YE BUGGER
Y’ud think it were cowt
Doowin’ somat wrang
Up on t’fell
Nat bringin’ down t’yows
Y’ud nat think sick a frail auld chap
‘ud be sae strang in lung
as tae giv tung seck clout
t’owd dog knaws its nowt
tae fret about
Comes by an’s browt tae heel
Aye well, we tell each other
I slip into t’auld twang: his not mine.
I’m midlands: up cum fut
But folk as stand
And talk together
Start to sound alike
It’s them as doan’t
end up apt te misunderstand.
(poem by Mike Smith)
The ‘up cum fut’ was what, at Charlotte Mason College in the nineteen seventies, I was told to lose, if I wanted to be a teacher, but the vowel (vaahl in Midlands) sound has never entirely gone away. Writing the poem required me to recapture my Burton accent, as well as to try to capture the accent with which I heard Jimmy speak. Neither proved easy, and reading it aloud is always like walking a verbal tightrope. Much later, when I came to write the story called ‘The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer’, I reached for that Burton voice once again. I can still detect it on strangers, across a crowded room, and maybe fall a little bit in love with it! The novella A Penny Spitfire (by Brindley Hallam Dennis) was set in the re-imagined town, but narrated in standard English. You can find it on Amazon in paperback & e-book forms.
A couple of years ago I read all the published short stories of A.E.Coppard, issued in a baker’s dozen of books between 1921 and 1947. More than half of these were issued within the first less than half of that time, and less than half of those I liked best appeared in the second more than half of the run.
I hadn’t set out to read them all, but I was so inspired by some of the first few, that, like a prospector panning for gold, I went on digging for more gems, and struck oil right through to the last volume. Then, being a fully paid up member of the chattering class, I wanted to share what I had read, and what I thought about it. The result, in 19 essays, is the collection ‘English of the English, Responses to the Tales of A.E.Coppard’, published on Kindle, and available for a pittance. Piled high, and sold cheap, not necessarily the cleverest, nor most perceptive, but almost certainly the bulkiest amount of writing about this forgotten English writer, the essays might, I hope, provide encouragement for the would-be reader, and the prompt for a better literary critic.
English of the English, response to the tales of A.E.Coppard(1878-1957), essays by Mike Smith Kindle edition at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6 -offering an overview of Coppard’s baker’s dozen of short story collections, brief discussions of some of the major themes and sub-genres to be found within, and a closer look at a handful of individual stories.
A rather good collection of V.S.Pritchett (1900-1997) stories arrived here recently: On The Edge of the Cliff, Selected Short Stories is another offering from Indie publisher, Turnpike Books (www.turnpikebooks.co.uk). You might remember that they published an A.E.Coppard collection (Weep Not My Wanton) back in 2013. Pritchett, along with Coppard and H.E.Bates, was writing in the mid years of the twentieth century, all three beginning to publish in the early 1920s, with Pritchett producing his last short story collection as late as 1989, in his 90th year!
On the Edge of the Cliff, has 8 stories including the title story. Pritchett was a journalist and critic by profession, living in and working abroad, initially in France, and later Spain before moving back to London. His writing covers a broad sweep of genres, including novels, travel, essays, journalism, and short stories. Curiously, his short stories are almost all set in England and focus on the ordinary lives of very ordinary people. Martin Amis is quoted as describing Pritchett’s characters as having a ‘peculiar ordinariness.’ My favourite in the new selection, is The Wedding, in which a battle of wits, and emotions, is played out between a local farmer, and an independent girls’ school teacher.
The book is well presented, with a perfect cover illustration. Turnpike Books specialises in publishing short stories from the twentieth century, and offers, in addition to Coppard and Pritchett, a collection by J.B.Priestly, What A Life! Their website is well worth a look, and the well-produced paperback editions are a good buy for those of us who like our books printed on paper!
If you’re of a Kindler disposition, you might like to check BHD’s recent offerings:
Cat Alley Blues is the latest individual story by BHD to be added to NAWE’s CUT site: http://www.cutalongstory.com/stories/cat-alley-blues/10392.html
I hadn’t done due diligence in advance, but friends had told me about it – local film, interesting old house, elderly parents. Well, I thought, many a good cheese fiddled on an old player.
It was probably the best decision I’ve made all year. The festival programme quotes a local publication – ‘a darkly comic examination of family life, marriage, age and love.’ There are no clichés in the film. The opening long shot of protagonist Daniel striding through the rough moorland beneath Carrock Fell, from one side of the rock steady frame to the other is a suitable metaphor for the steady gaze that the film will hold as it confronts the absurdities of mortality and old age.
Radiator is full of these visual assertions: the breath of the wind on a water surface, home-made model boats drifting apart on the wide ocean of a lake, morning sunshine on a toothbrush in its glass. In places the poignancy is almost unbearable, and the humour cuts you to laughter like a shard of Lakeland slate. The subtle wordplay as Daniel spars with his father, Leonard – played by Richard Johnson – reminds me of my own mother’s last years: testing words, delivered with a sly, almost child-like, upward glance from wary eyes; the most unreasonable demands couched in the most reasonable of terms.
The uncredited star of the show is the house in which nearly all of this action takes place, buried beneath the real lifetime’s clutter of writer and director Tom Brown’s own parents’ lives. A ripple of laughter spread through the theatre from those in the know, as, during the question and answer session after the showing, someone asked about the ‘props.’
The named stars, Richard Johnson and Gemma Jones – playing Mariah, Daniel’s at-her-wits’-end mother- were totally believable with Johnson, I think, getting a mangy lion’s mane share of the good lines and the on-screen time. As in a classic novella there is a palpable and shocking turning point, beyond which the story rattle sticks its way to an inevitable conclusion.
If you get to see only one film this season, make it this one (if you get to see more, count your blessings!): no blocks are busted, but world weary cynicisms and emotional up-tighteries are simply blown away.
When I was at school we had one music lesson that stood out from others long forgotten, in which, exasperated, the teacher sat down at the piano and began to play the blues. He told us of his playing in clubs in America where the crowds ignored him, eating and drinking and talking.
Contrast this with the concert hall, where we sit in silent awe while the orchestra performs. There is an interesting comparison here too, with the literary concert and the live-reading club. Speakeasies of one sort or another are common these days. We have one in Carlisle. Lancaster has its Spotlight Club. Liars League runs in London, New York and Hong Kong, and elsewhere!
In all these cases, so far as I have experienced, the audience is more like the concert hall one, than the one in the noisy blues club to which my music teacher played. Yet that might be a cultural phenomena. There’s an interesting account near the opening of James Fenton’s ‘An Introduction to English Poetry’ (Penguin, 2002) in which he describes a discussion between an African and an America poet. The American has criticised the African for his drumming and singing, which makes it harder, the American says, for the following ‘voice only’ poet. The African points out that in his culture the audience must be subdued by the performance; that there is no automatic grant of attention, such as the American poet (and the European) expects.
Fenton rather favours the African, and suggests that ‘the words may be no more than a notation for a performance’ or ‘may be written for the page’. The implication, seeming to distance the page from the possibilities of reading aloud, which in its turn is conflated with ‘performance’.
My own experience, and I’m sure I’ve cited this before, threw up a ‘performance’ in which I had my wife throw a flat cap up on to the stage for me to wear while reading a poem about a Lakeland shepherd. Years later I bumped into a man who remembered that performance – you’re the chap with the cap – but not the words of the poem. Norman Nicholson, in his poem ‘The Whisperer,’ says he cannot command our attention by the ‘force’ of his work and personality, but must look for those ‘lit’ with the ‘grace’ of listening.
The confrontation between the African and the American might, in part, have been a misunderstanding of what they were both doing. If the performance is to aid presentation of the words there are different criteria than if the words are to aid the presentation of the performer. In an age of celebrity this latter case might be considered the norm.
The reading of words aloud might be a performance, and thinking back to my music teacher, I’m reminded that there was a popular song a few decades ago which told us explicitly that it was ‘the singer, not the song’, but surely it could also be ‘the writing, not the writer’.
The Christmas Jumper
She had knitted him a Christmas jumper every year since he was two. She took great delight in poring over possible patterns and yarns.
He answered the door and took in the parcel, recognising his grandma’s shaky handwriting. He unwrapped her woolly creation and felt a surge of warmth as he admired the garment fashioned with such care and love. He admired the intricate design for a few moments, before folding the jumper and adding it to the pile for Oxfam.
(sent in by Janet – our most recent recruit to Facets of Fiction!)
The Plausible Explanation
When I was very young my parents warned me that if ever I caught a glimpse of Father Christmas, I should keep quiet about it. If ever, they told me, he caught a glimpse of you catching a glimpse of him that would be the last time he ever called. So I resolved to keep my eyes closed and my head down under the covers if I heard anyone moving around in my room on Christmas night. Besides, there were no Father Christmas suits in our house, and if I’d seen who was leaving the presents beside the bed it would have been game over there and then.
Janey was the daughter of a friend of the family. The friend’s name was Betty. I can’t remember how we met Betty, nor why we lost touch with her, but for a few years we saw each other pretty much on a weekly basis, visiting each other’s houses and sharing meals together. Betty was a divorcee who had thrown out her husband, who was one of the nice guys, and had replaced him with a string of unsatisfactory boyfriends, who were not.
Betty always had plenty of cash and liked to spend it. She believed that five shopping bags full of cheap crap was better than one half full of quality. In fact we took to using the word Betty for an assembly of shopping bags. That’s a real Betty of bags we’d say, when we came out of the supermarket with a trolleyful.
Discussing the redecorating once, Betty was horrified to learn that my wife had paid twelve pounds a roll for wallpaper, for the spare bedroom. You can get woodchip for fifty pence a roll, she said. I don’t like woodchip, my wife told her. At fifty pence a roll you can learn to like it, Betty said.
Don’t get me wrong. Betty was generous. She bought a lot, but she gave a lot away too. I would guess that she passed on to us almost as many children’s clothes as we bought, and I mean unused children’s clothes, still sealed in their plastic bags, and that Janey had outgrown, rather than grown out of.
At the age of fifteen Janey was balanced on that dangerous knife-edge between childhood and adulthood. She was a sensible kid though and not in the least rebellious, leastways not obviously so. There was just one thing that my wife and I could never get our heads around. That was the fact that, at fifteen, Janey still claimed to believe in Father Christmas.
Our little girl, who, as you’ve probably guessed, was a couple of years younger than Janey, had twigged the scam by the age of five. Don’t be sad. She’s in her twenties now, and come Christmas time we still play the Father Christmas game with the same childlike enthusiasm as we did when she was four, all three of us, whenever, that is, we get the pleasure of a Christmas visit these days. When she’s not there, my wife and I play it on our own. By which I mean, we hang up our Christmas stockings, and creep around in the early hours, trying not to wake each other, pretending we have not been woken, and stuffing, in the dark, a dozen or so small and generally not valuable presents into each other’s. When I say stockings here, I’m being traditional. I’m not talking about your nylon stockings. Those are for entirely different sorts of games. The Christmas stockings are usually hiking socks which, being large and stretchy, will accommodate the necessary presents.
Sometimes we get a bit sophisticated, and set up duplicate stockings, using the other one of the pair, so that in the long reaches of the night we need only work a quick switch. Once I had a to substitute a Wellington boot, my wife having taken the second stocking out of badness; but I thought the boot was a pretty good revenge, and if it hadn’t had her name written on the inside in black felt tip, I would have passed it off as one of Santa’s, and cited it as evidence of the lengths he would go to for his clients. Think of it, having to visit the rest of the world, on a night like that, with one bare foot.
Betty’s house at Christmas time was done up like a Christmas present! It was done up like a Christmas stocking! It was done up like a Santa’s grotto! There were garlands of fake greenery. There were swags of red and gold fabric. There were waterfalls of lametta. There were streamers and baubles, and fairy lights, and we haven’t got anywhere near the tree yet, which filled the entire bay window of her Edwardian terraced house, from which the curtains were drawn back for the whole season, so that the entire street could benefit from her efforts. Background music of a seasonal persuasion, both secular and divine, played relentlessly.
The decorations were not what amazed us though. It was the Santa Clauses, the Father Christmases, the Pere Noels, who, from life sized to miniature, made of cloth, pot, painted wood, plastic, metal and several unidentifiable materials, stood, lay, sprawled, sleighed, skied, dangled and abseiled, upwards of a hundred of them at our last count, on every horizontal surface, from every vertical one, and off the ceiling as well, and which filled every recessed nook and cranny, every flung open cupboard, and every bookshelf in the room. Some of them emitted intermittent ‘ho-ho-ho-and-a- merry-Christmas-to-you’s, in Hollywood voices, while others produced snatches of Christmas songs that were neither naughty nor nice, but had sure as hell arrived in town. One, fat, large and recumbent, merely breathed stentoriously, his ermine and red swathed chest rising and falling rhythmically, accompanied by the sound of snoring. Perhaps he was as overcome by it all as we felt sometimes.
But this was only the window dressing to what really intrigued us, which was how Janey, despite the undoubted efforts of her school friends to disabuse her, could still believe in this mythical figure; that and why on earth her mother should want to prolong such an illusion so far into her daughter’s adolescence.
With that many fake Father Christmases on show, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Betty always managed to persuade someone to dress up and do the business vis-à-vis Janey, but of course her problem would have been the same as that of my parents, except in her case the game would have been blown on account of it being a familiar face wearing the suit, rather than one not wearing it. Although, as you can imagine there were a lot of movies played, on TV and video, every Christmas, in which the most surprising people turned out to be the real SC.
Perhaps we needed to lighten up a little, you’re thinking? After all, it was only a harmless little subterfuge, wasn’t it? Or was it? What about science, I used to ask when we got home from a visit? I mean if nothing else, what must it have done to the girl’s grasp of objective reality? Did she really believe that there was some man, who once a year visited, within the space of a single night, every house in the world? I mean, look at the logistics of it. It’s absurd. It’s crazy. How could she have believed it?
We considered the possibility that she did not. That she merely went along with the sham in order to preserve her mother’s illusions. But which illusions did she think she was preserving? Illusions about Father Christmas? Illusions about her? Was it her mother that she was trying to protect? At fifteen she was beginning to take subjects like psychology at school. Could she have come to the conclusion that her mother was subject to chronic, though arguably harmless, delusions that must be pussy-footed around rather than confronted, at least while they seemed to present no difficulties for her in terns of making a living, or having a sustainable social life?
Or did she think, which was the interpretation that we were coming around to, bit by bit, that the whole thing was a doomed attempt to hold back the tide of womanhood that Betty must have known was about to sweep her daughter away from her? This seemed a good theory to us, but not one that a fifteen year old girl would have been likely to formulate. Having said which, Janey must have been well aware of her mother’s general dissatisfactions in the area of adult heterosexual relationships.
But there was always that haunting feeling that perhaps Janey did believe in Father Christmas, for all her apparent level headedness and maturity; that she had this one blank space in an otherwise logical mind, that was filled, not with the usual illogicalities of the human condition, those spiritual beliefs that send us on lifelong quests for understanding and knowledge of what can neither be understood nor known, but which was filled instead with the image of the fat man in the red suit who claims to have entered your bedroom via a chimney, that you, as a child have examined well enough to know that not even a thin man, in or out of the suit, could have a hope of squeezing into; and what about the issues of fireplaces, open and closed, leaving aside wood-burners, radiators, gas fires and electrics?
You can see that the issue is one that wound me up, and still does. Because the fact is, that when Janey fell pregnant and gave birth about three weeks into September of the following year, having just turned sixteen, and her mother asked her, not unreasonably, who the hell the father was, and when it had happened, Janey told her that it was on Christmas night, and that it was a man in a red suit, who had come down the chimney, and whom she thought, naturally, must have been the real Father Christmas.
And what, out of that, either of them believed, I don’t have the foggiest idea.
For the last three years, around this time, the Facets of Fiction crew has been getting together for a Christmas dinner, organised by fictioneer Alison Twigg. This year was no exception. To while away the hours between courses, or over coffee, we set ourselves a task, to tell who has written the anonymously submitted 100 word micro-fictions on a theme provided earlier by Alison…This year’s theme was The Christmas Jumper.
As usual, I guessed all but two wrong…and one of those was the one I wrote…So here are 9 The Christmas Jumpers, for your amusement….written by (but not in this order): Alison, BHD, Carol, Lizzi , Marilyn,Hazel, Hugh, Deryn & Zoe. Fictioneers are rumoured to ape the style of their co-writers, which may explain something, but not particle physics or global warming.
The Christmas Jumper
The three men had gone before her, following the star into the snowy night. But the old woman had left later, for she too had wanted to take the child a gift. When she’d finished she packed away the needles and the wool, wrapping the gift in cloth. Swaddling herself in blankets she left the cottage, setting out into the bitter cold.
And when tiredness overcame her, and when the winter decided to take her as his own, she lay down in the crisp snow. Gazing at the heavenly blaze in the sky, she lifted her gift to the light.
The Christmas Jumper
Soft, so soft… reminds me of our mother; she knitted wool, angora, cashmere, mohair… Fair Isle patterning, or the twisting cables she crafted on four double-pointed needles… their clack-clacking the backdrop to evenings bickering with my brothers in front of the telly – Starsky and Hutch, Bodie and Doyle, The Dukes of Hazzard… male buddies sorting out the bad guys. Car chases, fist-fights, shoot-outs, explosions. Women like my mother knit our lives for us, and if we’re lucky, we take notice of their gentle crafting, learn from them how to knit our own lives, if not quite these jumpers…
The Christmas Jumper
We don’t use the cradles when there’s ice and snow about. The last thing you want when you’re sat twenty-seven floors up against the glass is compacted ice and snow under the pulley wheels. It can lift you off the cables like it was peeling a banana.
So it’s my job, when the mercury hits zero, to go up on the roof and check out the winding gear. That’s when I see that Christmas Jumper, arms stretched wide on the ledge. Just what I need on a day like today, I tell myself. Just what I need
1000…2000…3000…4000…check. Above me the orange and white canopy is reassuringly swollen. Below me the farmland is spread out like a patchwork quilt, and beyond lies the glittering sea.
Suddenly I am flat on my back, with the feeling that I am motionless, and the world is spinning around me. Did I pass out? Crash land? I hear stamping and snorting behind me and hope that I am not about to be trampled by cows.
“Are you ok?”
I open my eyes. The man standing over me looks rather hairy for a paramedic. And shouldn’t paramedics wear green…not red?
The Christmas Jumper:
Working on Christmas Day; Michael couldn’t have been more annoyed.
He was stuck flying rich businessmen half-way across the world to Molokai, in a cramped flight deck,
with a grumpy co-pilot while his family and friends would be sitting down to succulent turkey with all
the trimmings. No presents, no crackers, no twinkling lights. Michael was missing everything he
loved about Christmas.
Although, he mused, thinking about last year. No presents means nothing from Mum. Nothing from
Mum means no Christmas jumper. He sighed, a small smile touching his lips.
Maybe this isn’t so bad after all.
THE CHRISTMAS JUMPER
Where is it?
The bloody gun you’re minding for me!
Oh, that gun – I’m looking after it, right.
You’d bloody better be looking after it.
He wanted it, right now.
When he called again, two days later, I knew I had a problem. He wouldn’t call again to say thank you. I’d posted it, hadn’t I? made sure it didn’t feel like a parcel with a gun inside? I remembered being surprised – the parcel felt so soft and light.
His voice cracked.
I didn’t ask you to send me a fucking Christmas jumper.
The Christmas Jumper
‘How long has he been up there, PC Pickering?’
‘Twenty minutes, sir.’
‘Says he wants time off at Christmas.’
‘Don’t we all!’
‘And he’s not happy with the outfit.’
‘Who does he work for?’
‘No sir, he wants a new outfit – anything but red.’
‘On their way, sir, and a vet.’
‘There are animals with him, sir.’
‘So there are! Hang on, they look like…’
‘Is that one wounded, it’s nose is red… it almost glows… Oh my God, Pickering, think of the children? We have to stop him!’
The Christmas Jumper
He snuggled in further – this was a nice warm place to relax. The smell of turkey was making him sleepy.
Just as he was nodding off he felt movement, they were being lifted up in the air. Then a voice close by said
‘Do you think Fluffy would like the giblets?’
A large hand appeared through the fur. It wasn’t turkey but it did look tasty.
A piercing shriek filled his world
‘EEEEEKKKKKKK Fluffy’s got fleas’
And in a moment a huge flat object came down towards him.
The Christmas Jumper
The first time I found the sixpence in the pudding I was seventeen and thought you were kidding around, as brother’s do. “You can go back to any Christmas you want, just for the afternoon. Stand beneath the old pine and wish hard. We won’t know you’re gone.”
Instead of choosing a year when we both believed, I chose the year they were divorcing. Remember, mum lost it and everyone went to the pub without her? This time I stayed home. Just me, mum and the pudding. She laughed with delight at my sixpence and shoved it in the pudding.
A few weeks ago I heard Clive James on Radio 4, talking about poetry. Among other things, he was bewailing the proliferation of Creative Writing Courses, which he said were leading to the creation of much poetry that was not quite good enough. We should leave it, he was more than suggesting, to thoise who do it (as judged by?) best.
I’ve been a fan of Clive James for years, though I haven’t read any of his poetry, and the fragment he read on air was, well, too fragmentary to sell it, but I can’t agree with his opinion on CW courses, though he might well be right about the poetry they produce. The fact is, what I don’t buy is the idea that the creation of the superlative is the only reason to write, anything. It might be so for the individual. Probably it must be so, but we never all agree on what that superlative is in my experience, and there’s no reason why we should. The act(ivity) of writing, and more specifically, of creating in language, is part of being human, and the more people that do it, the better.
Moreover, I don’t think he would have taken the same tack about almost any other human activity. In my childhood kids played football and cricket in the street, and played it badly, as well as not quite well enough. It was out of this rag-tag rag-bag assortment of amateurs (amo, amas, amat, and all that) that the ‘greats’ of those sports emerged – and emerged at least as well as the graduated of our present day exclusive academies I suspect. More importantly, the audience for those players, was in a sense, their peers; and more importantly still, it remained those amateurs who were the owners of the games.
Telling stories, whether in poetry or prose, or in an illuminating hybrid of the two is a fundamental human activity, and so is listening to them. Writing them down comes later, and it’s this sophistication that has enabled the idea to creep in that less done better is better than more done enjoyably. The need to learn to read and write has created the class of mediators with their arcane knowledge, and the gate-guards of taste and excellence. But we may not need them as much as they need us.
I was at a country wedding a few years ago, and in one of the speeches were some lines of what would have to be called doggerel, written by the speaker. They were excruciatingly bad, but they were his words, spoken to us, at an important turning point in his life and in those of his family and close friends. They reminded me that poetry belongs to us all, good, bad, and indifferent, and we should never, ever try to take it (or short stories) away from anyone, and we should resist with all our might when people try to take it away from us.