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I’ve been reading the Selected Short Stories of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. (Penguin,1957) Born in the mid nineteenth century he lived into the middle years of the twentieth, was a Cambridge lecturer and prolific writer across several genres. Popularly known as ‘Q’, he was one of the team of editors who put together my favourite short story repository, Hammerton’s Thousand Best Stories (of all countries and all times), into which he got three of his own tales.
This morning’s story was Lieutenant Lapenotiere, a tale of the man who brings to the Admiralty the first news of Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar. He arrives in the small hours, dragging Barham (First Lord? How good is your naval history?) from his bed to read Admiral Collingwood’s despatches. The story is driven by the excitement experienced by the characters, who are coming to terms with the great victory, and the great loss, and I wondered if it was to communicate a sense of what that experience might have felt like that was the purpose of the story. If it was, that’s quite a modern idea of what story is for, compared to idea that a story enables us, not so much to share the experience, as to judge the nature of that vaguely defined human condition, and its moralities, wisdoms and follies.
The story is one of ordinary, and extraordinary men and situations which bring them together, but it doesn’t end there. Q goes on to introduce a ghostly element, for when the eponymous hero leaves the building, on the way to his lodgings he encounters a post-boy who has instructions to take him to Merton. In fact, he has note requesting that, written in the hand of Nelson himself. The lieutenant makes the journey, and we are told that when he retells the story, he recalls walking in silence with his dead hero, before the door is opened by a ‘beautiful woman.’
The story is set about a century before it was written, and another century has passed since then, and a lot of its potency must depend upon what we know, and understand about the significances of the events and people described. Those significance are not set values. They will have changed, from the people involved, to the contemporaries of the writer, to our own times, our relation to the ‘facts’ and our knowledge and understanding of them must have altered progressively, and this is one of those stories, I feel, where those changes impact on our ability to be moved by the story. In my case, it was the ‘Merton’ reference that was not clear. I’ve heard of Lady Hamilton, but I don’t know for sure if she’s the woman in question. I could find out, but there’s something about the short story that demands we’re on the inside of it, and references to what’s on the outside have to be ones that we are familiar with, if they are to work – because the work they have to do is work on our emotions or intellects. in the case of the woman at Merton that necessity is even for greater, for it comes at the end of the story. The lieutenant’a arrival there is what the rest of the story has been contextualising. The very last words of the story have our hero reaching for the ‘private letter’ which he carries, ‘and the shade at his side left him to face her in the daylight.’ The true resonance of the story demands that we have at least an opinion of what that facing might entail.
The ghostly element, and the romantic element – the presence of Nelson’s ghost, and the idea of bringing a last message to a significant other from the recently dead, has, of course, a potency even if know nothing of who the individuals concerned are…but knowledge of the context of those individuals, of, perhaps the disparity between their public and private faces, would, one imagines add more power to the denouement.
To what extent, I wonder, can we make sure, or indeed should we strive to make sure, that the universality, in time and place, outweighs their contextualities?
http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/my-hundredth-tale A.E.Coppard’s ‘Hundredth Tale’ considered by Mike Smith AND
http://www.cutalongstory.com/stories/final-accounts/10643.html Ten New Flash Fictions on last words, last actions and last loves, by BHD
(Academe comes free….Art has to be paid for…a philosophical or economic conundrum?)
Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a fan of the French short story writers – a friend recently gave me a copy of Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon Moulin so I can have a go in the original! I’ve already found La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin (where’s that blasted accent key?), which, in English, is in Hammerton’s Thousand Best Short Stories along with two volumes of French writers stretching back to the Medieval period!
The French do some pretty mean poetry too, and I’d like to draw your attention to Louis Aragon, and the poem Ballade de celui qui chanta dans les suplices. You can find this, with an English prose translation – the best way with translations of poetry I suspect – in The Penguin Book of French Poetry (1820-1950), which is as good a feast of poetry as you’ll find anywhere. Aragon’s poem, built around a single statement repeated – though not as a chorus – throughout the piece, is resonant and powerful, and based on, as we say, ‘a true story.’ That striking line, by the way, is ‘Et si’il etait a refaire/Je referais ce chemin…’ which sends a frisson down my spine whenever I recall it.
Having read it again, I recalled something from many years ago, about a quarter of a century in fact, and was moved to write a poem of my own (a rare thing these days); Here, for what it is worth, it is:
I remember walking a camp-site lane
in the Belgian Ardennes a long time back,
where under hedgerow trees I found these stones
engraved with names of some who had been shot
in the last few weeks of war.
They were not forgot – fresh flowers lay.
Written there too, this message:
mort pour vous
In conversation about the Borderlines/TWQ festival, it was suggested to me, that by organising a series of events – under The Writers Quarter ‘brand’ – I was effectively excluding ‘readers’ and separating the TWQ from the rest of the festival. How do I plead to this? Well, guilty, and not guilty, your Honours.
Certainly the core idea behind the TWQ was, right from the beginning, and remains, fundamentally different to that of the rest of the festival. Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival, not unnaturally – the clue is in the name – is primarily about books. Backed by a local bookshop, and by the Country Library Service through its Reader Development Officer, books are central to their agenda. Both, and other festival partners, by virtue of their core objectives are interested in maximising numbers across the whole of the general public. Evangelical, you might say, for book readers, and book purchasers. Festival partners, like the City Council and Cumbria Life, are also, equally committed to reaching larger numbers, rather than specific categories of people. Bums on seats, basically, fulfils their objectives, and the more the better, which means that what sells in the greatest numbers, is what they must opt for.
TWQ by contrast – and yes, the clue is in this name too – has no similar agendas. It’s not interested so much in numbers of people, as in a type of person: the type that recognises themselves in the label ‘writers.’ They might well be readers too, in fact, I expect they will be, but in a sense that’s irrelevant. They might be bakers too, or car mechanics, or jobbing gardeners – like me. Nobody has accused me of excluding them, but if logic is in this somewhere, then they too are being excluded, if the readers are. Of course, readers aren’t being excluded, and no one else is either, but it is writers specifically that TWQ is reaching out to, with the simple offer of here is a series of events, designed to enable you to meet up with other writers, and to share your enjoyment, and practice with them. Writing is a cultural activity in its own right.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to offer a forum where writers can meet, discuss,share and practice their art. I think, as a writer – though not as a jobbing gardener, reader, guitar player, fellwalker, amateur photographer, pastrycook and anything else I’ve ever done-er – that I would rather like to have the chance to do just that.
Of course, that such is the case does not make the case that the TWQ offer should be part of a Book Festival. Nor does it mean that other writers share the same wish. Some, though, undoubtedly do.
Where does this leave us? Well, with a decision to make, I think, which is whether to offer to continue, and to develop the TWQ strand within, yet different to – and perhaps, by virtue of that difference, seemingly separate from – the main festival, or whether to try to develop it elsewhere and possibly even at a different time, or indeed whether to abandon the attempt altogether.
Facets of Fiction Workshops at Todd Close, Autumn 2015
Stories grow out of the interaction between characters and locations (in space and time) and these three workshops look at different aspects of those interactions.
These workshops are writing-centred, with exercises, readings and discussion. Each workshop stands alone, but all three are built around the same triangle of forces from which stories emerge. £20 each (£45 for all 3)
Dates: Saturday September 26th
Saturday October 31st
Saturday November 21st
Workshops run from 2.00pm – 5.00pm
I’ve been reading Adrian Bell’s memoir of a year on a Suffolk farm (Corduroy, first published in 1930, but set in 1920/21). You don’t have to be interested in farming, nor indeed in Suffolk, to enjoy it. A liking for how stories unfold, and how the English language might be used will suffice.
Bell’s agricultural apprenticeship took place in the rural England that A.E.Coppard often wrote about, and it was instantly recognisable. In particular there was a paraghraph or two devoted to a description of ‘the higgler,’ both as an individual and a type. The only other place I’ve come across this character, except in an old dictionary, was as the eponymous hero of Coppard’s most famous tale. The descriptions of other labourers recall stories such as The Old Venerable and The Poor Man, and of course, the VC winning itinerant labourer of Weep Not My Wanton. The story of Coppard’s renting of his cottage in the woods is borne out here too, in the prices quoted for such lettings. [you can read more of Coppard and his tales here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/English-Responses-Tales-E-Coppard-ebook/dp/B00UEONRV6 ]
The writing style is clear and simple, yet rising from time to time, as in a later section telling of the barley harvest being taken in, to the level of lyric poetry. What struck me most in retrospect though, was the way a turning point in English social history was caught. Here horse drawn carts and muscle power co-exist with motor cars and both steam and petrol powered machinery. Bell’s host farm looks to the future, but that of the farmer’s father-in-law clings to the past, making do and mending, and codging up ancient machinery with bits and pieces bought at local auctions. In fact, as the wartime HMSO publication about ‘the land at war’ makes clear, after a bright false start following World War One, with a strong ‘back to the land’ movement, British agricultural nosedived into one of its darkest decades in the nineteen thirties, so that on the eve of World War Two a crisis of food supply, in the face of submarine warfare, would have been imminent without the various government ‘dig for victory’ campaigns and the almost immediate introduction of rationing.
And what came upon me after the recognition of this unique moment of past turning into future, was that a memoir of any period, and of any place, might also catch such a momentary, and unique turning point. For as time rolls on, only change is constant, and as writers this should reassure as much as daunt us. We do not have to wait for a significant moment in history to arrive, so that we might observe and record it, for all the moments through which we live have their significances. And, even if we are not aware of them, to observe and record what passes before us, will be to preserve such moments for those who come later, fully equipped with the twenty-twenty hindsights that will make those significances plain.
Adrian Bell went on to publish, among other titles, two more in this rural trilogy: Silver Ley (Penguin no.278) and The Cherry Tree (Penguin no.264). Corduroy was published as Penguin no.247. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corduroy-rural-trilogy-Adrian-Bell/dp/0571240836 Seven of Coppard’s stories, including the little gem that is Weep Not My Wanton, were recently re-issued by Turnpike Books.
‘She is a major writer’… So says one of the blurbs on the cover of a paperback short story collection. But just what does it mean? I’ve read the collection. I enjoyed it. It purports to show, in chronological order, the ‘collected’ works of a single writer (if you’ve been reading the blog recently you might guess who). I didn’t think there were any great stories in it. None of them took my breath away, like some by other writers have: by their sleight of hand (A Canary For One), their clever plot twist (Weep Not My Wanton), their unexpected ending (A Horseman in the Sky), their poignancy (The Little Farm), their point of view (The Fall), or their uncanny insights (Arabesque-The Mouse). I could (as I’m sure you know) go on! And all those stories I referenced have other qualities too that made me sit up and take note.
But the stories in the collection were enjoyable stories. What made them not ‘great’, and made me wonder in what sense their creator was ‘major,’ is perhaps more to do with me, than with them. They were written from a class perspective that is so far removed from my own, in both time and place, that it’s hard to relate to, or care about. More than that, the narrators and characters in the stories are never pushed, to revelations, reactions, and perceptions that match any of the heightened emotions in the stories I’ve cited. I got no sense of tragedy. There was none of Aristotle’s pity or terror, for me, in these stories. Could that too, be something to do with the distance in time and space from my world of the world in which they sit? In fact none of them are any further away than the other stories I’ve cited. If an urgency or desperation has been lost it has been lost in the same time frame as that in which the other stories have retained it. In fact, Bierce, who wrote A Horseman in the Sky, had been dead –we now know – for almost a decade by the time the first of the stories in the collection I’m writing about had been published.
One story stood out from the rest, but only in that it was different from them. It was not different from stories in general.
The cover blurb says also – ‘she is what happened after Bloomsbury….the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark’. And I realise that I have no idea what that means, any of it! That this is a limitation in me, I have no doubt, but might it also reveal something about the ‘ownership’ of literature, and in whose hands the ‘gift’ of words like ‘major’ once lay?
I don’t know if people enjoying popular culture – whatever that is, or has been – discuss it. I know I talk with people about what I’ve been reading, and they with me. There was a time, when for discussions of that nature to be printed, they needed to be between people who were of a certain class, whatever the subject of the discussion. It was, in any given discussion, and probably still is, and rightly perhaps so, that the writer was of importance to the people doing the discussing that made the writer ‘major’, however minor, in the wider world, they might have been.
I was copying up a couple of days ago a story that had been sparked by the recollection of a statement I think was attributed to Raymond Carver – or was it Chandler? It was that if ever you were stuck for the beginning of a story, you should have a man holding a gun come through a door. Having copied it up, I wondered, if variations on that theme (as the story in fact was) might form the basis of a collection….It wouldn’t have to be a man, nor a gun, and not necessarily a door……but it would have be someone, or something, with something, and making an entrance.
Here’s the story I was copying up…a little reflective, flash fiction…..
But what about the rest of the collection……….?
Through Carver’s Door
An attractive looking middle-aged woman came through the door of the cafe holding a shopping bag.
She seemed familiar but Carver could not place her. She looked from side to side before settling her bag on one the chairs at the next table, and seating herself beside it. She rummaged in the bag and brought out a bulging leather purse. Then she turned her attention to the menu.
Carver watched her covertly. A waitress came over and took her order, and it was after that when she looked for the first time, at Carver. He saw recognition reconstruct her face. She was trying to place him. He turned towards her, expecting her to speak, but not sure yet if he wanted to be recognised. It was as if her face had not resolved itself into focus.
You’re Carver, she said, Carver Johns. He could see that she wasn’t quite sure, but he knew now who she was. Her voice had deepened and softened. Yes, he could remember her.
Would that be a good thing, he asked? As if he could deny it now. She relaxed into a smile, sensing his recognition.
It wouldn’t be all bad.
That’s something, he said, and smiled.
Was it too late for apologies? They would need explanations, limitations, negotiated boundaries, reciprocation.
It’s been a long time, he said, and she nodded. It would need to be, he thought. An expression, hard to interpret, unsettling him, crossed her face.
Do you still like to..? The memories flooded back and he felt his cheeks burn.
Yes, he said, forcing himself not to look away. But I haven’t, not in a long time. It was always such a disappointment.
Not always, I hope.
Then her coffee and scone arrived and he glanced at his watch and saw that he was out of time. He rose and muttered an excuse that he hoped she would not misinterpret, and went over to the counter and paid his bill and smiled across at her as he crossed the threshold. On the table, next to the empty cup and the plate, and the crushed paper napkin that was slowly opening like a pale flower, where he had left it, she saw his card.
It raises some questions, the most obvious being, from what, and into what? There are some equally obvious putative answers: from obscurity into celebrity, for example. There is the more metaphorical option too: from darkness into light. And note that it is the writer that is assumed to be emerging, rather than the writing. Some assumptions stand behind that, I think.
Emerging is a process, and as such might be transposed into a trajectory, and trajectories are a popular attribute of writers viewed over the time-span of their ‘careers.’ But if we’re talking about gaining public attention – careful with my ls there – perhaps the trajectory is ours? Writers might be emerging, but is it our perception of them, as readers, that is changing? A.E. Coppard, for example, was said to have a shed-load of stories written before he was first published. His emergence, arguably, was a reflection of how well he was known, rather than how well he was writing. The same might be said of poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins, and even more so of Emily Dickinson. Do we readers, emerge from ignorance into awareness?
When it comes to ‘getting known,’ which is what ‘emerging’ seems to be about, as the term is currently used, individual pieces of writing could also said to be going through it. Even writers who, as individuals might be seen as being still in the larval stage, can have poems, or stories, that seem to have emerged quite a long way.
I wrote a very short poem a very long time ago, which seemed to emerge, being picked up by more than one publication, including a local newspaper (I suspect the brevity was the attraction). It also won a local competition, and I have since recorded it for Vimeo. (So Still, read by Mike Smith on Vimeo at BHDandME).
A short story of mine has also developed a life of its own…being published – hacked to death, and without my knowledge or permission, put on a website by an editor who removed it when I offered readers of my blog a comparison with the original – he became abusive, and told me it was a rubbish story anyway, which of course, after his treatment, it was! – Highly Commended in a competition, published online, and then in a printed ‘Winners’ anthology (HISSAC 2015), included in CUT’s downloadable short stories, recorded for Vimeo, due out in an Inktears anthology, and, taking me by surprise again, appearing in the Eden Arts online magazine The Carrot#2 http://www.thecarrot.org.uk/category/issue-2-killing/. This story, (The Turkey Cock) has definitely emerged, with or without me!
There are other qualities of emergence though, which might be relevant to writers and writing: vulnerability, and exposure, for example, but those editorials always imply the ‘from obscurity’ trajectory, and it always the writer, rather than the writing. It’s this focus on the singer not the song, that hallmarks our ‘celebrity’ conscious society. We celebrate individuals, not primarily for what they are doing, or have done, but for being ‘known’ …for having emerged. But as writers, should we be striving for our own emergence, or for that of our work? Are the poems, or the stories, or whatever Art form we work in, the means by which we get to be celebrated, or are we the means by which they do?
Meanwhile plans progress for Bordelines, Carlisle Book Festival (http://www.borderlines.co.uk) on the first weekend of September (4th-6th). Today we popped up our pop-up Gazebo for the Pop-up Bookshops. Needless to say it didn’t pop quite as poppingly as we hoped it might, but after a few teething problems it popped well enough, and so we popped it down again. We’ll be popping it for the The Writers Quarter on Saturday 5th Spetember, on the grass outside the Great East Window of the Cathedral. We’ll be selling books by local writers from 10.00am till 4.00pm, so come along and make our day (we’d be blown away if you did – but hopefully won’t be otherwise!).