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Lazy grey cattle dozed in the August heat, between sharp falls of rain from dark explosions of cloud, a half mile or so to the west of Crag Lough, where the Whin Sill marks the vertical edge of the old Roman Empire.

Nearby lay a dip to Turret 38, stuck in the bottom of a gulley with hills to the west, east, and north. What a stupid place, you can’t help thinking, to put a watchtower, when a hundred yards to one side or the other would have brought you to a hilltop with views 360 degrees around, and for miles in each direction. It tells us something about the men who made the wall, the men who planned it that is. It wasn’t a military mind, I think, that planted the watchtower there, but a bureaucratic one, marking off the right number of paces from tower to tower –there’s a mile castle on the Cumbrian coast does something similar, missing the hilltop viewpoint by a few yards. And that tells us something about the wall, and what it meant.

This wasn’t a line of passive, desperate defence. There are too many holes in it for that. This was a base line for attack – doors at the cavalry forts made two horsemen wide to get a unit through as quickly as possible, not to make it difficult to shore up under attack. Every garrison having its door to the north, so that they could get into the field at short notice, not so that an enemy could beat it down. The turret in its dip could pass it’s messages of smoke and fire, I expect, as well as necessary, but there are no doorways through to the killing grounds of the north at turrets, where pickets of two or three at most, passed the time with dice and Brigante girls until the next message has to be sent through. Nobody, I suspect, ever thought of storming this wall while it was being defended. It stood at the back of the tribes to the north, offering quick and powerful support against enemies further north still, not facing them.

Whenever I visit Hadrian’s Wall I remember a poem by Andrew Young, called simply, The Roman Wall. Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland Poet, told me that he had met Andrew Young when Young was a hale and hearty old man, still in love with the English countryside, though he was a Scot by birth, and lived most of his adult life in the South of England. He is associated with the Georgian Poets, and his nature poetry was always said to be written from direct contact with, and observation of his subject. I have the first four volumes of the Georgian’s, but his work is not included, presumably because he was younger, and slower to come to prominence than his contemporaries.

I have Young’s poem almost by heart, save for the second verse being so like the third that I always mix them up. It’s a simple, descriptive poem, reminding us how the wall evokes its past, ours. Five stanzas, each of four lines, the lines rhyming AB,AB, and with a short line of 6 syllables at first and third, a longer one, of ten, for second and fourth.

That sort of formality isn’t favoured by the cognoscenti nowadays, but this simple poem is a song. Read it aloud, and enjoy the rhythm, the music, of what is a reflection upon time passing and things changing, staying the same. There is a man in this poem whose experience you can replicate, and at the very same place. Two thousand years have not changed it.

A generation of state educated poets grasped the idea that rhyme belonged to poetry, and sacrificed the meanings and the sounds of words to it. Rhyme suffered as a consequence – being seen as something that turned poems into meaningless jingles. It has fought back over time, because it does have a lot to offer us, bringing emphasis to key words, and music to lines. Some have pointed out that we only know we have a rhyme when we get to the second sound-alike, but that’s not always the case. Where the rhythm is strong, a line can seem to demand a rhyme – hence that jingle risk!

In Young’s poem the rhyme scheme, allied to the long and short lines, gives a particular effect, particularly in the last two stanzas. In the fourth, for example, ‘once’ is not quite rhymed with ‘stones’, though both end words have a soft, rather than a hard consonant. So too in that final stanza, and here, perhaps the shortness of the first and third lines emphasises the sharpness of the single syllable rhyming words, while the longer lines, at lines two and four make their  effect from the softer endings of their rhyme words.

One rhyme in The Roman Wall always worries me. I’d like to have heard Young read the piece aloud, so that I could get the proper sound: He rhymes ‘thorn trees sough’ with ‘lapping on Crag Lough’ – did he sound them both like ‘cough’, or like ‘prow’, or am I way out in both cases? Certainly people these days, in my hearing, rhyme Crag Lough with ‘tough’, and ‘sough’ is a word I’ve never heard spoken. ‘Saughtree’, not far off across the Northumberland fells is sounded more like ‘saw’, but with a rougher ending than that ‘w’, and but a little tuning would bring it to rhyming with ‘trough’, but is it the same word?

  Here’s the poem, for your enjoyment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Roman Wall, by Andrew Young (1885-1971)

 

Though moss and lichen crawl,

These square-set stones still keep their serried ranks

Guarding the ancient wall,

That whitlow grass with lively silver pranks.

 

Time they could not keep back

More than the wind that from the snow-streaked north

Taking the air for track

Flows lightly over to the south shires forth.

 

Each stone might be a cist

Where memory sleeps in dust and nothing tells

More than the silent mist

That smoke along the heather-blackened fells.

 

Twitching its ears as pink

As blushing scallops loved by Romans once

A lamb leaps to its drink

And, as the quavering cry breaks on the stones,

 

Time like a leaf down-drops

And pacing by the stars and thorn-trees’ sough

A Roman sentry stops

And hears the water lapping on Crag Lough.

 

[from Ten Twentieth-century Poets, ed. Maurice Wollman, Harrap,1965(1957)]

 

For me the poem has something of that question and answer quality that you get with a Petrachan sonnet, where the poem splits, not quite at the half way mark and takes a different tack. The change here is with that ‘Twitching its ears…’, which brings the poem back from a more reflective description, to an action of the moment. There’s a subtle change too, in the structure, for the meaning, and the sentence flows over from the end of the fourth and into the fifth stanza – the previous stanzas have all been complete observations – which begins with a present tense leap – into the past!

You might have noticed that three out of the last five lines begin with ‘and’. This might cause problems for some – it certainly did when I used about a dozen to kick off paragraphs in a short story – but one of the effects is to roll the meaning on at gathering pace, it is after all, unlike ‘but’, a joining word rather than a separating one.

The choice of words to end on, having to rhyme with the soft-ending ‘sough’ – however you sound it – means that the final line does not carry the punch of ‘A Roman sentry stops’, but it does echo the gentle lapping of the water it refers to, which is in keeping with the reflective quality of the poem, and its philosophical observation. I almost experience the silence and stillness of the sentry as he listens.

 

There is a 1937 collection of H.E.Bates short stories, Country Tales, to which the author has added an introductory essay called The Writer Explains. Though only four pages long, it throws light on a wide range of issues that might concern us as writers, and even eighty years later holds much that resonates with current experience.

Bates asserts the supremacy of the short story: ‘…it is in every way a finer means of expression…..than either the novel or poetry.’ He bemoans the lack of newspaper and magazine support for the form (in the UK), and cites the importance of other forms of publication: ‘The existence of the short story seems to depend largely therefore on its survival in volume form’. He gives a reason for writing: ‘…for pleasure, and out of a passionate interest in human lives.’ And he writes about his development as a writer: ‘I had the choice either of repeating myself……or of consciously trying to widen my range of sympathy and develop myself’.

This last undertaking, the transition from a writer of ‘the dreamy world of the subjective’ to ‘a wider, harder, more objective world,’ is one that, in some form or another, I suspect any self-conscious writer must eventually confront.

And those outlets he complains about the lack of – and the poor rates of pay: how, I wonder, would he regard the upsurge of magazines and journals devoted to the form, yet which pay nothing. Curiously, he compares the short story to the ‘heroic couplet’ in ‘the age of Pope’, which, perhaps unintentionally raises the issue of to what extent the writers of those times were actually commercial in any real sense. The sonnet was a form that writers of Shakespeare’s time used to show off to each other, surely, rather than to make money from? And even a writer as late as George Moore, according to one biography, was priming the pump of his publications with inputs of money that eventually ate up the value of his Irish landownings.

That assertion of the ‘fineness’ of the form is still relevant, especially in the context of Bates’ associated remark that it is ‘still in its infancy’, something that his writing contemporary, A.E.Coppard, was entirely at odds with – tracing it back to the oral tradition. Bates attacks this idea vehemently in his The Modern Short Story, fearing that it might lead to writers not being paid for their work. Digital recording, podcasts and streaming, and those non-paying magazines, might be seen as proof of this pudding. But also, could be seen as a return to the days when those who want to write do so, among other reasons, for the pleasure of entertaining each other, rather than for money (making them, according to Doctor Johnson, of course, ‘Blockheads!’).

There’s perhaps an irony too, in the title of the collection in which this introduction appears, for that ‘Tales’ was the term that Coppard always used for his short stories, and which so irritated Bates that he condemned it in his history of the form.

It seems to me that when we are interested and engaged in the making of things, be they wooden chairs, or clay pots, or short stories, the means of making must interest us to a much greater degree than they do those who only sit upon them, or fill (and empty) them, and read them!

There’s a poem by Me, showing on the Acumen Website (a guest poem!). Guest people, it is said, are like dead fish…after three days, they stink. Hopefully the poem might hold up a little bit longer. Here’s the link: http://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/richard-weiser-mike-smith/

You can find more poems by him, Here.

I had the privilege of reading Marion Hughes’ memoir of her life as a Barnardo’s child (Not Written Off, Backworth Publishing,2017) before it was published.

Born in 1947, one of the ten children of a widowed Northumbrian miner, Marion, along with four of her siblings, was sent into an orphanage at Hexham, where she remained, more or less continuously until she was eighteen. It is a remarkable account of 1950s life, not least because it is told, seemingly without the intention to do anything more than recall what was an enjoyed childhood and adolescence.

I got no sense of any wish to expose or whitewash the practices of the time, but merely to tell of them. Perhaps this is why what is exposed seems all the more shocking. We all know that old adage of L.P.Hartley’s that ‘the past is a foreign country’. Well, here is an account of that country from one who lived there, an insider’s account, apparently unconscious of what its norms, and peculiarities will look like to us outsiders.

Three little examples picked at not quite random might give a clue. Early on in life, playing with friends at the nearby infants’ school, the subject of ‘mums and dads’ comes up:

‘What’s a Mam and Dad? And why haven’t I got them?’

And following an accident with a knitting needle, illicitly carried in the pocket:

‘I started to cry, not because my leg was hurting but for fear of what might happen to me for disobeying that rule.’

            Perhaps most shocking of all though, in this post Saville world, was when the children were encouraged to write to ‘pen pals’ and Marion Hughes received a letter from a sixty year old bachelor who was a friend of the Superintendant.

‘…saying he wanted to befriend me and that I could call him Uncle Mac.’

This relationship, always uncomfortable, was continued throughout her life at the home, and involved presents, trips away and holidays. She was always accompanied by a chaperone it must be stressed, but even so, to contemporary eyes it seems extraordinary.

The memoir is frank and affectionate. Marion Hughes enjoyed her childhood, and was grateful for it, grateful in fact for elements within it that might now make us shudder. The story is told with clarity and simplicity, and, where even she was conscious of something not quite right, with surprise rather than bitterness. It shows a world where ‘right’ was striven for, but seemingly without any affection or real human contact.

Having worked for thirty years in Child Care, she says things are different now, and of that we should be glad. She says too, that she survived ‘unscathed’.

[this review first appeared on the Good Reads web platform – should that be decking?]

A recent editorial bemoaned the fact that poets ‘can’t’ read their own work these days – can’t read it well that is. If that’s true, might the reason be that we’ve been persuaded – or at least some of us have – that the poem is a thing of print and writing, rather than sound, and speaking.

Writing, that oh so useful recording system for saving the memory (dumbing down you might call it), has been confused with the practice of putting words together, and perceiving them that way. The solitary, silent imagined-voiced reader has (or perhaps had for a while) supplanted the hearer of the real voiced speaker. And as we consume our poetry that way, so we begin to think of producing it that way too. Gone is the voice music that made poetry memorable, and that brought emphasis and meaning in the right place, and in the right tone of voice and at the right volume, tempo and pitch. If you haven’t written with that in mind then you will have difficulty foisting it on whatever you have written. And if the rhythm, and the stresses are broken or absent, or inconsistent (or inappropriately consistent) then read out loud – never mind the whistles and bangs of a performance that will distract us from, rather than focus us on the words – the language will be broken too.

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet, told me once, that the length of his lines was mostly controlled by the stretch of his breath. A reminder, perhaps, that poetry is of the body’s making as well as, and maybe more so than, of the intellect’s.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the experience of hearing someone attempt to read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as if it were a ‘rap’. It wasn’t a rap, though, and hadn’t been written as one, and it fought back, imposing its own rhythms and music on the reader. Though not the intended ‘liberation’ he might have been expecting, it was a useful lesson, at least for this listener, in the power of a good poem to fight its corner, and win.

It goes almost without saying that when I’m writing prose fiction, let alone poetry, I do so with the intention that it should be read aloud. Even when I’m writing essays I take account of how they ‘read’ – and by that I mean how they read out loud. Do they roll off the tongue smoothly, powerfully, and coherently? Or are they fragmented, disjointed, jerky. Do they stick in the throat and choke the reader? Do they run out of breath and mangle their meanings? If you can’t read out a piece of your own writing well, you’re taking a hell of a gamble on whether a stranger – who has no idea what you are trying to say, but only what you have said – is going to be able to, whether in a voice that is being imagined or one that is real. It’s not just about your competence as a reader, but about the piece’s readability.

When I get my copies of poetry magazines, short story collections and journals though, I have to confess, I don’t read ’em all out loud! Words in the mouth and in the ear might still be the home of language, but the ink mark on paper (or its digital equivalent) makes a good holiday residence.

The poem, number four in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, shook me when I first read it (and still does), with its opening words: ‘Life, friends, is boring.’

You can’t say that, I thought, and read on: ‘We must not say so.’ That brought a chuckle, but the line is poignant, especially that ‘friends’, because Berryman was one of our literary friends who took himself away by self-murder. Yet he takes too, the words out of our minds, as he did here for me, and shows them to us. Of all jobs perhaps none is more the poet’s than that.

The ending of the poem is no less powerful: ‘…leaving/behind: me, wag.’ That double entendre, evoking the tail of the dog that has taken itself ‘considerably away’, but also casting the poet in the role of joker, echoes the poignancy of the opening ‘friends’.

In a quiet way this poem is all about isolation, and perhaps not of Berryman only, but of all of us who write, and wonder if can at all help us. The middle lines expand on that boredom. The poet’s mother charges that ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no //Inner Resources.’ And Berryman does confess to the charge.

Yet the very iconoclasm of what bores him amuses and well as challenges us, for it is ‘literature’, and ‘especially great literature’. But not only that, Henry bores him too, ‘with his plights and gripes’, and Henry is Berryman’s proxy in the written world, and we all, in one form or another, must have our own Henries, who gripe and plight, and love ‘people and valiant art.’

There are lovely sounds in this poem, the half rhyme of ‘drag’ and ‘dog’, the stately unrolling of the lines, even when short, that refuse to jingle, but come down on sonorous emphases: ‘…., because I am heavy bored.’ And throughout there are not quite repetitions, like distorted echoes: ‘Peoples bore me./Literature bores me,…’ and beginning the next line: ‘Henry bores me,….’

There would be something sour, I think, about this poem, something of the Malvolio – except that Berryman does not threaten revenge on any of us, but only on himself. And that dog, abandoning him at the end, not only gives us the weak pun of ‘wag’, but is, of course, man’s best friend. Leaving the poem we wonder, will it leave us too, and as what? Here’s ‘Life, friends, is boring’ on YouTube

 

I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of having been writing for so long, or of not being able to write so easily, but I’ve noticed that I’m looking back more often over what’s been written, and looking back further.

I’ve been keeping records of the short stories in particular more assiduously than I used to, setting up a file each year since 2008 to include all the stories written during the year – in whatever state they are, that’s where they go – plus one or two brought forward from previous years for reconstruction, re-titling, tweaking. Distance helps us to see what we’ve written more clearly, to see where it failed, where it was flawed. And they nearly always are flawed, failed stories – otherwise they would have been published, isn’t it? Of course, if they have been published (flawed as they still  might be, almost certainly will have been) we can relax and forget about them, until or if someone wants to re-publish them again. Then we have to decide which side of that argument we are on between Tobias Wolff and H.E.Bates, about whether or not one should tinker with a ‘finished’ tale.

Distance gives us a chance to fix what we realise is broken, and hindsight or experience might just give us the tools to fix it, tools of perception or technique that we didn’t have when the stories were first written. Form and content can both be fumbled, but in my experience it’s usually content that we haven’t understood properly, that I haven’t fully grasped, rather than the form. Form serves content, but good content will stand a messy serving better than poor content served to perfection, at least in the long run. And it is the long run that’s important, isn’t it?

As a reader I find I’m more often reading stuff that’s been around a while. I don’t hang on the coat tails of literary any more than any other fashion. Even when I’m responding to an up to date review it sometimes works out that I end up reading something that was published a while back. Recently I bought a copy of Yiyun Li’s ‘essays’ (Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, HH2017) on the back of an LRB review – not something I can usually afford to do – but I ordered the short story collection too, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which is already a decade and more in print!

Unless we’re doing it for the money, and getting it, we might, as writers, be interested in people who find our short stories ten years down range, and think they’ve been worth the wait. And, as writers, we might be pleasantly surprised, looking back over ten and more years, to find we still think our writing worth reading, and worth fixing where necessary.

I seem to have spent most of the day re-writing pieces of work. An essay for Vicki Heath at Thresholds, short stories for a long overdue Inktears Showcase. At least both re-writes seem to have worked. The essay just needed some additions, which I already had in mind. But the short story is a different matter. Though I’m a putter in, a short story remains like a metaphorical Jenga tower, a pile of bricks, a house of cards…add too much in the wrong place and it loses its balance, its coherence, its focus, point, structure. The whole thing falls to pieces in an instant, and the better story it is, the more fragile it is, the more vulnerable to overloading and collapse.

Cheer Up. Nobody’s Forcing You.

A friend of mine recently had an exceedingly good poem rejected (with positive comments) by a magazine. Rejection slips can tell you a lot more about your writing, and not all of it negative, than acceptances are ever likely to. You’ll never know, probably, why something has been accepted, but you might get an inkling of why it was rejected – and that might turn out to be an element you wouldn’t want to change!

I decided to do some statistics – I keep a submissions log, on an Excel spreadsheet, adding a new sheet each year. This year’s, 2017, had, on 15th June, 54 entries, which cover 47 pieces of work (some are duplicated, having been sent out more than once). Of these, 20 are ‘out’. 2 were longlisted, 1 shortlisted, and two taken for publication/performance. 1 special case had been brought forward from an earlier sheet because it had been included in somebody’s Top Ten Stories of the last ten years (Liars League), and I wanted to see it on the current sheet, for a bit of encouragement. 12 have not been sent anywhere. 16 were rejections.

I don’t how that compares with your submission log – a writer friend once told me she had never, ever had a rejection slip (I told her it was time she did…I mean, let’s do the thing properly, hey?). Neither do I know if what I’ve shared here helps, hinders, or just puzzles, but rejection is one of the things that most of us who write have to live with. I might also add that acceptance, when it does occur doesn’t bring with it any changes, or at least it hasn’t for me. I don’t expect it ever will. Nothing happens as a result of it. Except, perhaps, – and this is best pay-off of all, though you have to take it in faith – that somewhere, somebody reads something they wouldn’t have had the chance to read, and says to themselves, and perhaps to someone else too, YES! That’s how it is in the world.

I’ll repeat my writing buddy Kurt’s exhortation, quoted from I can’t remember who: You ain’t beaten till you quit!

No thoughts this week, but here’s a link to Silas Hawkins reading BHD’s story Parvati’s Visit for Liars League.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I’ve been playing that back of a fag packet game (though not on the back of a fag packet – fags are cigarettes in English argot, btw) of writing down my ten favourite short stories. The list is, well, fluid, but several stories are always there:

The Little Farm – H.E.Bates

Weep Not My Wanton – A.E.Coppard

The Fall – V.S.Pritchett

Arabesque – the Mouse – A.E.Coppard

The Blush – Elizabeth Taylor

Monsieur Seguin’s Goat – Alphonse Daudet

The Dead – James Joyce

The Magic Shop – H.G.Wells

Fitter’s Night – Arthur Miller

Sorting Office – Vivien Jones

 

It would be easy to go on for another ten…..And I could justify all of them for one reason, or several.

A variation on the game struck me though while I was writing. What about the top ten collections? Curiously enough, when I started to think about that, I found it harder to compile, and was surprised to find that they weren’t necessarily the collections in which the stories above might be found, even when they were by the same author.  It was also the case that only a half dozen of the forty or so collections on my shelves really stood out from the others. In fact, only two of them include a story from the above ten, and another is by the author of one from above.

 

Perfect Ten – Vivien Jones

Travellers – L.A.G.Strong

Provencal Tales – Michael de Larabeiti

Presence – Arthur Miller

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison

Lettres de Mon Moulin – Alphonse Daudet*

*the collection is in a French edition, but I have most of the stories in translation too.

There’s something about the way we assess a collection that’s different from the way we assess a single story. Not necessarily that all the stories in a collection must push against the same door, it’s more to do with some collections being very satisfying as a whole, but not throwing up a single story that stands out. Other collections might have an outstanding story, but the collection as a whole disappoints.

My late father in law, a catalogue bookseller of international repute, used to tell me that to make a catalogue ‘sing’ you simply had to remove the dross…what was left would look much better, and something similar must be true for collections of short stories, and of poems for that matter. There’s another issue of context: stories that won competitions – a one off flash-in-the-pan event – might not stand up to the re-reading that makes a collection one you go back to time and time again.

Coming back from a writers gathering in Dumfries recently, a group of Facets of Fiction Workshoppers fell into discussion on this, recognising that children – and the child in us perhaps – like to read, and to have read, the stories they have remembered, not those they have forgotten. We re-read, not to find out what happens next, but to re-experience the telling of the story. That we might get more than just that is a bonus that some stories, and some readings, give us.

It’s all subjective, of course, which is the way it should be, must be, if we are to assess on what the stories mean to us rather than in relation to some arbitrarily set standard (that will almost certainly be based on what they mean to some other individual).