I spend a lot of time teaching people about stories.  There is a long running debate – with strong opinions on both sides – about whether or not it’s possible to teach what we now refer to as ‘creative writing’. Sometimes, it seems to me, the people on opposite sides of it can be talking about two quite different concepts. Sidestepping the issue might help clarify: You can quite clearly teach someone to use a camera, without teaching them to be a good photographer. You can also show them what you think are good photographs, and perhaps also you can explain why. But when each photographer goes out, armed with his or her technologies and their techniques, it’ll still come down to what they point the camera at, and when they press the shutter release; it’ll come down to what they chose to show us, and from where they show it.

We’ll be talking about stories and how they work at my next Phil & Lit Society Workshop, on the evening of February 15th (7.00pm-9.00pm, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, England. Tickets from Darren Harper info@philandlit.org £10/£8 concession) In particular we’ll be looking at how particular stories work on us as individuals, and we’ll be finding out through a series of little experiments performed on actual texts – none of which will be injured in the process!

And stories do work on us as individuals. There’s not a one-story-fits-all, though we can all struggle into the same story, where some of us will find it too tight, and others way too loose.

You can read about how short stories have worked on BHDandMe, and how we think they’ve done it in the Readings For Writers series of books, available by clicking on the images, or here.


Why not take an hour to watch how the British Establishment go about their business, with the excellent ‘Waitangi – What Really Happened.


The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts even the possessor of only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly but secretly in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’


‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’


There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-told for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

A fistful of BHD stories can be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Three More Writers Workshops from BHDandMe* for the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society 7.00pm-9.00pm Room 8, Fisher Street Gallery.

February 15th,

LPW3 Emotional Language – How Writers Wind us Up!

A workshop that explores how writers use emotionally charged words to create their effects on the reader. We’ll examine extracts from several novels/short stories to see how they affect us individually and how those effects differ from person to person.

April 19th: Tense Exchanges – Playing with Past, Present and Future in the short story

June 21st: Changing Your Story – how film adaptations can put an original story to new uses (in First Blood, Chocolat, & Lord of the Rings)

Book through Darren Harper at philandlit.org or by Email to info@philandlit.org. 

*Mike Smith, aka Brindley Hallam Dennis

Among the Christmas goodies that turned up in my kilt hose were several collections of short stories: by the Italian Giovanni Verga, by the Swede, Isaak Denisen, and, perhaps most noticeably, by the American film star, Tom Hanks. Hanks is one of those rare ‘A-listers’ who gets, and has got for decades now, not only good reviews of his film roles, but also and consistently good reports of his ‘real’ persona.

Of course, real personas, even for those of us who are not listed at all, not even under ‘Z’ are not all there is to our stories, and nor should they be. All of which is easing round to a confession that it’s difficult to make a judgment about the first collection of short stories to be published under the name of a famous and well liked actor. If we damn them, we’re at risk of being thought of as pressing sour grapes; if we praise them we court the label of sycophant.

I wondered too, as to whether or not this was, as well as being a first collection, a collection also of first stories. Has Tom Hanks, I wondered, been learning this new trade in secret, in nom de plume and alias, in the pages of and on the websites of the unpaying magazines and e-zines that most of us inhabit? Or was it a matter of jumping in with both metaphoricals, and enjoying the revenue from sales that would undoubtedly follow the publication of stories by the hero of Saving Private Ryan, and Sleepless in Seattle, and Sully (et al)? Has the man done his apprenticeship?


Uncommon Type, subtitled, rather originally, I thought, some stories, is a collection of tales that all involve, include or at least refer to a (usually) named make and model of typewriter. Typewriters, it appears, are a passion of Mr Hanks, and why wouldn’t they be? I have fond memories of typing stories and poems on my Olivetti Dora, a neat, manual portable typewriter that carried me through the first phase of my writing life – when I was a poor poet. That machine has long gone, but I’m still a poet of that ilk.

I’m coming round to the belief that there is no ‘good’ writing, but only degrees of liking, or disliking any specific example of the form, sometimes with what might be called objective, but often with what must be recognised as subjective reasons.

I liked Tom Hanks’s short stories. Especially, I liked the one called Christmas Eve 1953. Reviewers in the press have drawn attention to the battle scenes in this, referring back to those in Saving Private Ryan, and it should be recalled that Hanks was also involved, though not as an actor, in the more ambitious Band of Brothers. He also, in interviews, has referred to reading William Manchester, who wrote Goodbye Darkness, a very original personal history of the Pacific War. The battle scenes, though, are not what the story is about.

This is a Christmas story, and very much a character study, which shows us two ex-World War Two soldiers, dealing with their post-war issues. One has physical injuries, the other mental ones. It throws a powerful sidelight on how we cope, rise above, or fail, to deal with the cards we have been dealt, while the main protagonist struggles to get his wartime buddy to agree to visit over the festive season.

In Christmas Eve 1953, I like the way he leaves it till half way through before dropping into the story the nature of the particular injury that his main protagonist suffers from. I can remember telling students, repeatingly, that if ever you need to give a character a wooden leg, or a glass eye, you’d better get it in early on, so that readers aren’t fooled into imagining the wrong sort of person as they progress into the story. Of course, the advice doesn’t work if, like Hanks, you need to be making the point that the injury has not crippled, though it may have challenged, the character in question.

At just short of 25 pages in the Heinemann hardback edition (no doubt there will be paperbacks to follow), it seems about average for the collection (which has some that are longer, and some that are shorter). The longer ones make me think Mr Hanks might try his hand successfully at a novel one day (tho’ that would be a shame, if it drew him away from the senior genre). The writing style is clean, by which I mean that I can understand it, sentence after sentence, all the way through, even though it’s written in that foreign language named after my mother tongue. One or two words, I admit, in the collection generally, were totally meaningless to me, though I got the sense of them from their contexts. Stephen Fry, on the dust jacket, says that author is ‘smart, engaging and humane’, which seems true. Steve Martin calls him ‘wise and hilarious’. I’d go for ‘insightful’ too, and a ‘neat technician’, who can pull some clever tricks with language, and with stories told in it.

The press reviews are more universally negative about the collection. Several mention the length of the book – even the Irish Times, which took a generally positive view (‘But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print.’ -John Boyne in the Irish Times). Mostly though, they don’t like the writing, the tone of voice, or the admittedly cosiness of most of the stories – ‘Hanks’s stories – Alan Bean Plus Four aside – are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.’ The Guardian (no byline). ‘It’s rare that a book is actually painful to read, but getting through Tom Hanks’s short-story collection, Uncommon Type, was like pulling teeth.’ – The Independent. I can sympathise with that last comment, having experienced it with an A.S.Byatt collection, but doesn’t the reviewer mean having teeth pulled? Pulling them, surely, would be more enjoyable? Amazon, in its sales pitch, says that Hanks is ‘as good a writer as he is an actor’, which strongly suggests that they know very little about either art form, other than with regard to how well individual examples of them might sell.

The Guardian review hits a nail though with its ‘mere competence’. The stories are competently written, but competence alone is not enough. A similar criticism was made about contemporary poetry by the editor of Acumen recently. She put it down to the widespread teaching of ‘Creative Writing’, which can teach the competence, but not the reason for telling any particular story. I found Hanks’s stories likeable, but they didn’t shake my beliefs to the core, nor open my eyes to that which I hadn’t seen before, neither did they remind me, either forcefully or subtly, of deep truths that I had forgotten. They are the sort of stories I would be happy to listen to at forty thousand feet, in a metal cylinder that I feel has no business staying in the air, and which delusion I’d prefer to be distracted from.

Tom Hanks’ stories are the stories of an amiable and garrulous companion, but are they entirely what stories have to be, if we are to think of them as good, or even as short stories? In my part of the world we have something called the Cumberland Sausage. Unlike other sausages it is constructed as a single, long tube, not split, like ordinary sausages, into links, each of which can be described as ‘a sausage’. When the Cumberland Sausage is cut into sections, each section remains simply that, a section of, rather than a Cumberland Sausage in its own right. There’s something similar about writing, a similarity that makes us think that some poems are merely ‘chopped prose’, and, perhaps, that some ‘short stories’ are merely descriptions or accounts of people, places, and events.

Do Tom Hanks’ stories pass the test that all stories to some extent are at risk of failing, which is that of whether or not they need to be told? The answer to that lies almost always with the ending of the short story, rather than (as in the case of novels) with its crisis. Tom Hanks, I found, reminded me a little of Chekhov in this regard, for I had to turn the tales over in my mind for a time, considerably so in some cases, trying to get an idea of why he had brought me to those specific words that were his endings, and of what he expected me to, or hoped, I would see when I got there.




Acumen poetry magazine issue 90 is now published, and available here. With one of Mike’s poems inside. Other poems of Mike’s are in An Early Frost, which you can buy following the link on the image:

I’ve written about Daudet before, exploring the connection between the title, and the ending of his story Belisaire’s Prussian.

The Two Inns is a very different sort of story, but well worth looking at for the intricacies behind its seemingly simple structure. Briefly, the first person narrator chooses to enter the inferior looking of the eponymous inns, which flank the carriage road from Nimes.

The inn he rejects is busy, noisy and joyous, but the one he enters is gloomy, dilapidated and deserted, save for a sorrowful woman, made ugly by grief. It is, the narrator says, ‘an act of charity to stop there and drink a glass.

Despite her surprise at his choice, she serves him poor food and wine, and tells him her story. The inn across the road has become what her inn used to be, by stealing her trade. It is run by ‘a woman from Arles,’ who has enticed away the customers, and who employs ‘husseys’ as chambermaids and serving girls.

There are other tragedies too, in the life of the woman at the poor inn. Her two daughters have died. There is no explanation for this, merely the fact of it having happened. To cap it all though, the woman’s own husband has been seduced away by the woman from Arles, and it is his voice that can be heard singing loudly from across the road.

In what seems to be the typical Daudet style, there is no redress for these evils, but only the narrator’s bleak presentation of them. The poor woman’s predicament is summed up by the last lines of the story:

And she stood there, as if in a trance, trembling, with her hands outstretched, and tears rolling down her cheeks, which made her look uglier than ever, to hear her Jose singing for the woman from Arles.’

The appended two lines of his song, a country love-song, seem almost superfluous. But behind Daudet’s bleak, uncompromising account, there lurks, I think, a more positive message, though it is an uncompromising one. It is the burden of a later song….. ‘laugh and the world laughs with you/cry and you cry alone.’ This revelation though, is not made by the narrator, but by the woman herself, who speaks ‘with a heart-broken air, but with utmost gentleness’. ‘What can you expect?’ she asks. ‘Men are made that way; they don’t like to see people cry;’


The Two Inns can be found, in translation, in Volume 4 of the Hammerton 1920s’ twenty volume collection, The World’s Thousand Best Stories, along with another 15 of Daudet’s tales – few writers get that many!  If you fancy the original French, you will find it in the excellent 1997 paperback pocket edition by Arcadia of L’Arlesienne, which includes d’autres Lettres de mon moulin.

This is another of those stories from long ago and far away – if you live when and where I do – that can form the basis of a useful exercise. We still have inns, and hamlets, and High roads, and travellers who must call in, and might even hear stories if they do. Our choices might be between different brand names, but they are essentially the same as those that Daudet’s narrator would have been faced with.

To re-imagine, and to write such stories, is not merely a matter of transposition from one time or place to another, but a chance to explore what it is in the human experience that crosses the gulf between times and places, and to create the voices in which such stories would now be told, and by implication, what ears we might wish them to be heard by.

I’ve been re-reading The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate. It’s one of my favourite novels and I’ve read it several times, but this time I was reading with a particular purpose in mind. For the next ten weeks I shall be using this novel as one of the texts to draw on for examples of writing techniques for the Creative Writing course I’m leading at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit, and looking for those examples requires a close focus on the text.

What surprised me was that despite having read the book before, there was so much detail that I had not consciously registered, or at least retained in the memory.

Something else, though, of more general interest came out, and that related to the background ideas that Colegate presents us with about what life is and how we might think it should be conducted. Now this novel was written, or at least published, in the early nineteen eighties, but it was set a lifetime earlier, in 1913. My adoptive parents were born in 1907 and 1908. I grew up in the 1950s.

There’s a quotation from about two hundred years ago – some attribute it to Sydney Smith – about what hasn’t been ‘reasoned in’, being difficult to ‘reason out’. Brought up to date, it means what we’re taught before we are old enough to rationalise its wisdom, is so taken for granted as to be virtually hard wired into us. And how old do we have to be before we even recognise, or learn about that process, and see that we have been exposed to it? My guess is that the learning, the recognition, comes later than the age at which we visit it on our own children.

As a counter-current to that, there was – but not necessarily only – a nice little change between the novel’s text, and the ‘same’ scene as recreated in the film version (which followed soon after publication). That involved a Derbyshire ‘peasant’ expressing his distrust of Welshmen. In the film, this had been expanded to include Jews. What agenda, I wonder, was being addressed by the addition, for it made no significant difference to the story, only to our perceptions of that working class individual. Stories, whenever they are set, whenever they are told, carry the stamp of the time of the telling, however historically accurate they might try to be.

But still it occurs to me that the ideas I’ll will have had not reasoned into me, are likely to have been those that were not reasoned into my parents by the generation  before. My maternal grandmother was born in 1876 (and her husband, I think, a few years earlier). She told me once of watching the soldiers go off by train to war. I presumed she meant the Staffordshire Regiment, and the First World War. She said she had been a young girl at the time though, and would have been in her thirties by then. She recalled the sight in the early nineteen sixties. The surprise was, that she remembered them wearing red uniforms. This must have been the early Boer War, or even one of the colonial slaughterfests of the late nineteenth century, when we had ‘the maxim gun, and they had not!’ Thus the slow pace of change, generation to generation. Thus the surprising similarities of thought, and assumption, in the minds of my parents, and the characters of a novel set in 1913.

Downloadable from CUTalongstory, a collection of 25 Flash Fictions from BHD: Twenty Five Tenpenny Tales.


The Facets of Fiction course in writing short stories kicked off last week at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit Society, and threw up an interesting moment.

I had the group doing one of my favourite exercises: putting back together a short story that I’ve cut up into paragraphs – or groups of paragraphs. The purpose of the exercise is to remind us just how much we know about short stories already. The process of reconstruction draws on, and brings to the fore, our in-built ideas of what the beginnings, endings, and middles of stories ought to look like. Of course, individual stories often fool our expectations – whilst at the same time conforming to them. In retrospect, even if we’ve got it wrong, we can see that a story has done what we expected, but not quite in the way we expected.

Even if we don’t manage the reconstruction we do spend time focussing on the story in question in a deeper way than we might if we were doing what Edgar Allen Poe told us the short story was for doing: ‘perusing in an hour or two’!

The story we were looking at in Carlisle was L.A.G.Strong’s The Seal. This is a remarkably simple story, at least as far as ‘events’ are concerned. A woman goes to a beach, sees a seal, and sings to it. Her husband, a galumphing, insensitive sort of chap, blunders down the dunes to join her, driving the seal away. He does see it though, briefly, as it flees, and noisily enthuses to her, as if she might not have seen it at all.

It’s a story about their relationship, of course, but as we discussed it, it became apparent that there were different areas of interest on which we might focus. A single word in the story, used to describe the seal, had led me to one interpretation, but another course member had seen a much more specific reference in it.

For me, the core of the story was that relationship, and specifically the insensitivity of the husband to the wife. For my colleague, the seal represented the child that the marriage lacked, and, implicitly, would not produce. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but on reflection, I favour hers over mine!

What was revealed, though, was not merely about the story, but about the agendas we bring to story as readers. I had focussed on the relationship, and in particular on what the story was telling me about the husband. My colleague was more alive to the woman, and to the lack of a child in the marriage.

Curiously enough, part of the discussion, of short stories, rather than of this particular one, had revolved around the issue of what stories mean to their writers, and what to their readers, and which is more important, and to whom. Here’s a good example, I think, of a story being important in different ways, to different readers, whatever its importance might have been to the writer. It’s worth remembering that we read, at least in part, and perhaps in the most important part, to see more clearly ourselves in the ‘mirror of art’, rather than to see an author. Put another way, what we’re stuck with in stories, is our own limitations as readers!

The picture below, by the way, is of a beach not a million miles away from the one that Strong might have had in mind, from a clue in the text!

Eigg on my Seascape