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In Ernest Bramah’s 1929 Short Stories of To-day and Yesterday, there are four tales extracted from his Kai Lung stories. Kai Lung is a storyteller from the time of an ancient Emperor of China …well, maybe the Emperor himself wasn’t all that ancient!
Told in an even more ponderous and pedantic style than the more contemporary stories in the same volume (from Max Carrados Stories and The Specimen Case), Kai Lung’s Chinese tales appear at first sight to give a simplistic, caricaturist’s version of that Imperial culture. You might even say that, in keeping with period in which Bramah was writing, there’s an imperialist’s hand at work, a racist’s even. This is the China of the Mikado, and Bramah makes reference to W.S.Gilbert and what he might do with a tale that Bramah himself is trying to tell!
The case is though, I am sure, that Bramah was not trying to give us any picture of China, or Chinese culture, but was hitching a ride on popular notions of it, on popular ignorance of it in fact, in order to have fun with the malleability of his own language. With tongue firmly in cheek, I believe, he constructed stories filled with sonorous pedants, gauche young men, and desirable, and very clever, young women, who in wonderfully ponderous circumlocutions, fight battles of wits with each other.
The Story of Hien is representative of the selection. Here’s a sentence from a ‘fight’ scene: ‘And to impress Tsin Lung with his resolution he threw away his scabbard and picked it up again several times.’ Bramah himself joins in the game, larding their conversations, and his narratives, with cod proverbs that all have more than a touch of comic irony: ‘However high the tree the shortest axe can reach its trunk.’ The ability to do this, comes not so much from a colonial arrogance and contempt for other races and countries, as with the great void of knowledge about real places, that allowed fictional constructs to rush in and populate them. Nowadays we know so much about everyone, and everywhere, or like to think we do, that we cannot make up fictional countries and peoples without someone calling foul, and without causing offence. (I tried something like it in ‘Turnip Farm Number Three,’ which I wanted to inhabit a totally fictional and unspecified country, and involve entirely uncorroborated, unchecked, un-researched and made up ‘facts’ – you can find it in Nine Arches Press Under The Radar #15. http://ninearchespress.com/magazine.html)
The purpose of these fictions, and contemporary versions of them, was and is, of course, to examine ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time they could be set only a few hundred miles away, like Prospero’s Isle, but by Bramah’s day, the far side of the world was almost too near to pull off the same trick. Before his life was out, space itself had become ‘the final frontier,’ and we could let our imaginations run riot there, in both actions, and words. Here’s Bramah making a meal of Thang-Li, wise and dignified father of the beautiful Fa-Fei. The eminent gentleman (see how easy it is to slip into it?), has got himself stuck in a hollow tree whilst spying on his daughter, and two would be suitors. In a long, protracted conversation, Thang-Li is trying to persuade them to pull him out – but not by his pigtail!
‘Yet, if this person may without ostentation continue the analogy, to grasp him firmly by the shoulders must confer a higher distinction and would be even more agreeable to his own feelings.’
Language, rather than people or place, is where Bramah is really going, and it is the language of those around him, only slightly skewed into the pompous and the pretentious. In fact, the pleasure of reading the Kai Lung stories, comes down largely to trying to work out exactly what anybody means! Word on the Wicki is that Bramah’s Kai Lung tales remained in print for a hundred years, and they may still be for all I know! It’s worth pausing here to reflect that Gordon Lish, that famous editor who cut text to the bone, was not working in an English tradition. The English of the English, to borrow a phrase, is a rich stew of origins and usages, and the more, is often – think Gilbert and Sullivan – the merrier.
Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop has sponsored a pop-up Bookshop for The Writers Quarter, as part of Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival. Here’s a sneak preview of the banner…look out for it on our Gazebo, in the Cathedral grounds on Saturday 5th September….If you’re a local writer and would like to offer your books for sale through the pop-up, please get in touch with me, by e-mail on brindleyhd@aol (using the subject line FofF Pop-up).
As I work towards the end of Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected short stories, I’ve reached The War Years section. The bulk of the collection is behind me now, written during the twenties and thirties. The last two sections combined are smaller than The Thirties, and I’m struck by a sense of her trajectory being on a downward curve. That isn’t to say that the individual stories are not strong, but that the sense of an ending coming is so much stronger.
The second story in The War Years section is departure though, an experiment in storytelling that appears nowhere in any of the preceding sections. Oh, Madam… is a true wartime story, far more than the preceding Unwelcome Idea, set in an oddly British, rather than foreign and neutral, Dublin. It’s not the time and place that make Oh,Madam… so innovative in Bowen’s work. It is the choice of narrative voice, and perspective. This story is in effect a monologue. Not merely a first person narrative, it is one half of a dialogue spoken between a housemaid and her returning mistress.
‘Oh, madam……..Oh, madam,here you are!’
Even the opening is radically different, for the title is echoed twice in the first four words. I can’t remember seeing another story in this collection, or indeed any other, where this technique is used. To reference a title tends to ‘use it up’ rather than emphasise it. It is often a revelation to reach the reference that will throw the title into sharp meaning, but here is a repetition that we must be reluctant to categorise as ‘mere’. It’s worth noting too, that the title includes those three dots that will come to signal the mistress’ words, and their implied meanings.
The house has been blitzed, and Bowen, in the maid’s, not the mistress’ voice, speaks. Rows of dots mark where unrecorded replies are made, and from the responses to them we guess, perhaps with less certainty than people who lived through the blitz would have guessed, what has been said.
‘I don’t know what you’ll say. Look, sit down just for a minute,
Madam; I dusted this chair for you. Yes, the hall’s all right really;
You don’t see so much at first-only, our beautiful fanlight gone.’
The subtle introduction to what has happened is remarkable. Only at that fanlight do we get an inkling, which makes us revise our understanding of what we have previously been told, about why, for example, the chair needs dusting. Bowen winds us in to a fuller understanding of what has taken place, exactly as madam is wound in, with the words of her maid. Even that comma, after ‘only’, signals the hesitation that comes before the revelation.
There is nothing remotely like this in any of the earlier stories: not the perspective, not the voice, and of course, not in the subject matter. In a Bowen short story context, this is a shot in the dark, an experiment in form, and a response to entirely new circumstances in the world around her. If short stories truly are about situation, as Florence Goyet suggests, then here is an actual situation unfolding before the writer. If the earlier stories are reflections upon what is, and has been the norms of Bowen’s life, her class perspective, here is a story about what is happening now, a response rather than a reflection. In that sense it is a journalistic, as much as a literary story.
Yet the detail of the content, as opposed to its location and ambience, is still the same. Bowen is looking at the minutiae of daily life in the sort of middle class household that employed staff, and travelled extensively, and had connections that would allow them to move to the country to live with ‘her ladyship,’ as the unvoiced mistress does here. She is also examining the relationship between the two women, and the relationship between them and the house that has been blasted.
‘Oh, I’m quite all right, madam. I made some tea this morning. …..Do I? Oh well,
that’s natural, I suppose.’
The unreported comment is implied by the question that follows it, but Bowen becomes more overt as the maid talks about other houses that have been hit.
‘Little houses aren’t strong, madam.’
She is talking of her sister’s house, and of the poorer houses throughout the city. Yet what is more striking, is Bowen presentation of their differing attitudes to what they must do next.
‘But you couldn’t ever, not this beautiful house! You couldn’t ever….
I know many ladies are.’
The thought precedes the outburst, but her lady is abandoning the house. It is the maid, who has already offered, referring to the fallen plaster, to ‘have it all off in a day or two.’ Her lady is made of less stern stuff though, and after the discussion of what needs to be removed, it is the maid who offers to stay to whatever bitter end will follow: ‘That really is what I’d rather, if you have no objection.’ This is the strongest indictment so far in the collection, I feel, that Bowen has levelled against her class, and though we perceive it through the maid’s words, it is not an indictment brought by the maid herself. Perhaps because neither is named, they become representative, rather than being characters, yet the maid’s voice is not stereotypical, nor a caricature. Angus Wilson,though, in his introduction, cites it as an example of a ‘fault’ in Bowen’s ear:
‘…on the level of the H.M.Tennent matinee performance that it became.’
I’m not familiar with this, but, if he’s suggesting the maid’s voice is lacking credibility, then perhaps there’s a fault with my ear too. Perhaps the passage of time has blunted both the voice and the hearing, but however accurate, or stereotypical the voice may be, it is what the maid has to say that makes this story worth our attention; not necessarily because of its meaning, but because of its method of approaching the content.
What the house, and the life within it, has been is obliquely probed, as well as what it has become. Coming to a story like this, at this moment in a collection, and perceiving it to be so different makes it like a mirror, for mirrors show what stands behind us. The stories that stand behind, that went before this one, seem homogenous in their differences. But if we go on beyond Oh, Madam, we get to Summer Night, and it is as if the mould has been broken, for here again, Bowen is trying a form that we have not seen before anywhere in the collection.
Reading Elizabeth Bowen’s early short stories, those in her first published collection, I experienced a growing irritation. The stories were written in the second decade of the twentieth century, so comparisons of their characters’ lives with our own are difficult. In material terms her upper middle class lifestyles are not so far removed from our average working class ones. Even someone on half the national average wage might manage to eat as well, and dress as well, and be housed as well. Someone on the full national average wage might expect to do so. Many of us will have travelled as far, or further, and as often, though not, perhaps, for so long. We’re unlikely to have maidservants cooking and cleaning for us, at least not full-time. Yet for Bowen’s characters, the phone, the radio and the motor car, though already invented, are virtually unheard of in these early stories. What we take for granted would seem very grand, I suspect, to most of them.
It is not material comforts that make these people stand out for the reader of a century later than the writing. It is the ideas which she puts into their heads, revealed in thoughts and asides. It was these ideas that irritated me, and they must have irritated Bowen too, for they were what she chose to present, rather than take for granted and ignore. They are the ideas that control how the characters behave within the situations she imagines; the ideas that limit the characters’ appreciation of each other, and of themselves.
Sometimes it is only an emphasis, indicated by italics: ‘Gardening?‘
Sometimes it is more explicit: ‘Cicely was a fool: he’d teach her.’ ‘Damn it all,’ he said querulously, ‘I can’t get used to another woman at my time of life.’
These two are the brother and sister from ‘The New House,’ but the married couples fare no better. In ‘The Shadowy Third,’ Martin’s second wife is introduced to us as ‘The only woman of value to him,’ hardly a ringing endorsement. His thoughts: ‘What a funny little woman she was!’ The petty disparagements – Martin belittles where his wife has planted some flowers, and confiscates a thimble that reminds him of one owned by his first wife, replacing it with one that does not fit – undermine the relationship in a series of verbal eye-rollings.
Written when Bowen was in her teens or early twenties, these stories fix a piercing eye on both the selfishness and the limited vision of the partners, whether they are engaged, newly wed or long married. Even strangers, coinciding rather than meeting at lunch exhibit similar tendencies. Towards the end of the story ‘Lunch’ the animated conversation has drawn to a climax. ‘He turned towards her quickly, his whole face flushed and lighted up for speech.’ But a car has pulled up. In it is the person she had intended to meet. Calling his name, ‘she […..]dived to gather up her sketching things.’ The conversation, and the stranger are instantly forgotten.
What Bowen has shown us, in the thought, speech and actions of her protagonists from a hundred years ago, is not so difficult to compare with the same attributes of our own characters, or of ourselves. Perhaps it’s that fact which is the root cause of my irritation.
I’ve just had a stroke of luck (rather than the luck of a stroke). I’ve found my copy of Blount’s Glossographia!
It’s one of the first English language dictionaries (interpreting hard words) ever to be published. I’d never heard of it, of course, but stumbled on this tatty copy at a book fair many years ago. There’s no date of publication, but textual clues suggest 1659, and pencil notes from previous owners suggest 1674. Oldish then, compared to most (let’s be fair, to ALL) of the other books on my shelves. The printing could be much younger, though the layout is early. The paper is poor, thin, and without the chain lines of that thicker C18th version. The ink, in places, has started to rub off!
More surprising perhaps, is that it cost me £2 (two quid!). Of course, it is a tatty copy. The title page and prelims (whatever they were) are missing, and had been for a long time: An (arguably) C18th century hand has written in black ink ‘Blount’s’ above the heading to page (1) ‘A’….
The spine’s off too..but tucked in, which is good, because it has the word Glossop, a town in Derbyshire(?) in gilt capitals across it…ending in an unlettered space long enough to get ‘ogr’ on, but nothing else -and what’s that beautifully executed ‘P’ doing there anyway? And how are you going to get rid of it…?
Imagine the gilder, hammering away! Perhaps he was a Derbyshire man….getting on famously…G,L,O,S,S,O,’ and that ‘P’ just slipped in (sometime between now and 1659), and there it was…buggered (that’s a technical term in bibliographic circles, I believe).
Which, I have to confess, does endear me to this particular copy, and I’m glad to have it back. There are 706 pages, the last of which bears the inscription ‘finis’, which is reassuring. I have several old dictionaries, and dip into them from time to time. Whatever the age of the book’s construction, the ‘hard words’ it ‘interprets’ are from the mid C17th, and that’s the real interest.
The hardest part of Blount’s is the use of a heavy Gothic script for the actual words….but you can usually work out what they are, from the more easily read definitions (and the order of course). I looked up ‘Gig’, to give a me a link to the next bit, but found instead ‘Gilp (Sax.) a brag, a boast or ostentation,’ which is still a link….but not the one I would have gone for…:
Ambiguous Encounters, Tuesday, 26th May, 6.00pm, The Open Book, Wigtown. Short stories from Marilyn Messenger & BHD http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1508981485
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
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’.