BHD has a couple of Flash Fictions in #5 of the Black Market re-View. You can access it here

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Last week there was a comment on my post about short stories. Why was there no Chekhov? He was, after all, ‘the master of the genre’.

I made a reply, but not a full one. He was master of the genre, but not ‘the’ master, only ‘a’ master, one among many.

That’s not the reason he was not in my list. It was, when all is said and done, a list of favourite stories, not of favourite authors. There is a difference. A favourite author might be one who provides several ‘favourite’ stories, none of which might be in my top ten. Because what makes a story your favourite, or mine at least, is not who it was written by, nor even, necessarily, how ‘masterfully’ it was written. Picking a favourite is not like marking an exercise. In fact, I’m not even sure that ‘picking’ is an appropriate verb. A favourite story, for me, is one that has acted upon my emotions and understanding in a striking way. It picks me, not me it. It’s not a logical, detached, judgemental process, but one more like a lightning strike, and has less to do with the mastery of the genre possessed by the writer and more with that much despised quality of story: what it’s about.

What a story is about has to be, for the ‘ordinary’ reader the main point of relation.  I can admire the skill and technical ability of a story without giving a damn about what it’s telling me, and I can also be moved profoundly by one in which the flaws are only too obvious. That’s possibly a disturbing fact for some commentators, but for me it seems a vital one. Stories are not merely exercises in mastery, they are testimonies about what life is, has been, and might well be in the future, and when that successfully challenges, or reveals, or reinforces our own perceptions we experience a moment of meetings of mind..a moment of communication with the not present author, or, if we are that author, with the distant reader. That’s one of things stories are for, and something to be valued.

So, the sad fact is, that however much I might recognise Chekhov’s skill and approach, I have to say that of the (only) fifty or so stories of his that I have read (and enjoyed), not one of them has struck me with the force that any of the ones in my list have done. That fact might imply all sorts of things about me, but it doesn’t imply anything about Chekhov, other than that, as with the rest of us, he can please, perhaps, some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.

– a mathematics teacher: ‘Remember you are the cream, you are the top two percent.’ ‘those of us who are not built for speed can support those who are’. It never crossed his mind (sic) to suggest that those not built for Art (of any stripe) should support those who were. This bully had a neat head swipe, delivered from a standing position, facing his, always shorter, victim. It was fast, painful and caught the back the skull – a nice strike against an unresisting target. I would love to have seen him try it on a black belt karate, or even Judo Master, but sadly, never did.

– a geography teacher: ‘never be an urchin’ (frequently delivered from a virtually supine position, slumped to chin on his desk – klosetedeckelhorizont springs to mind). In conversation once he intimated that he had not heard of plate tectonics – which was not on the syllabus. He called me a liar once, because he could.

– a Latin Master: ‘A little unfairness goes a long way.’ ‘You’re not here to think.’ The latter summed up the ethos of the entire school at that time I think, except for the English Department. He boasted that he could tell you which lesson he had delivered – from Ridout (?) The Latin Way, for every week of his teaching career at the school.  Rule of Thumb saying at Charlotte Mason College of Education during my time there: Where there has been NO LEARNING there has been NO TEACHING. The saving, human grace was his childlike enthusiasm for passing airliners, which he would run from one side of the classroom to the other to watch. I like to think that he dreamed of an escape from what must have been as unpleasant an experience for him as it was for us – well, certainly for me!

Staff generally: BGS was a football school. The football in question was ellipsoidal. This led to conversations in which any knowledge of a team called, for example, Manchester United, would be denied, until a revelatory exclamation of ‘oh! You mean soccer!’ could be deployed.

‘Tug’ – I never asked what he tugged. ‘I don’t want to know your christian name. This isn’t a girl’s school!’

My shame is that I didn’t resist more vigorously. Never Forget. And also remember, you have no authority to forgive. £50 million?

 

We have an all day poetry symposium in Carlisle (England) on Saturday, May 19th, at the Phil & Lit Society on Fisher Street (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries).

I’m one of the poets who will be reading. I have a twenty minute slot to fill. I don’t do introductions, or at least not the twenty-minutes-to-introduce-a-twenty-line-poem sort of introductions. It seems to me that if the poem doesn’t speak to you it’s no use the poet telling you what it should have said, and besides, the poem you experience is the one you hear, not the one the poet tells you that you are going to hear. So it’ll just be the poems, mainly, apart from a word or two.

There’s a Neil Young concert, with Crazy Horse, I have on CD – you remember those – at the beginning of which someone yells out ‘They All Sound the Same!’, and Young shouts back, ‘It’s all one song’. The perfect grammar makes me wonder if it was a plant…but either way, if my poems attracted the same sort of comment I’d have to give a similar sort of answer.

I set about choosing the poems I won’t be introducing.

I have a new collection out, which I should attempt to promote…we’re having a pop-up bookshop too, so I’ll bring a few copies to sell…. and I’ve included a couple from that, at the end of the reading.

But which other poems? Well, I thought, pick ones you like. Pick ones you’d like to have read if you were never going to read in public again, and who knows if you are ever going to read in public again? Who knows if you are going to make it through to the 19th of My anyway?

I discovered I liked quite a lot of my poems. That’s why I wrote ‘em, I suppose.

A.E.Coppard, that short story writer whose stories I rather like, published a couple of collections of poems, and he too liked his own poems. He got into a deal of trouble for mentioning that. Perhaps I shall too.

And then there’s the matter of which order you read ‘em in. I sent fellow poet Andy Hopkins – whose event this is – a copy of the intended poems, and he suggested which one I start with. I’d placed it nearer the middle, but the suggestion unlocked the logic of the ordering.

Start with the poetry, then the biography, then poems that matter, to me, and perhaps, if I’ve done the job properly, to you too. End with the poems in the collection you’re trying to promote (I added one extra comic poem – always good to end on a high note, if there’s time to squeeze it in).

There are several others readers, too good to be among really, and lots of ‘open mic’slots in between. The show runs from 10.00am until 5.00pm. Come along. Listen. Read. Buy books. Ask questions. Chat. Make sure Andy reads some of his poems too!

There was a Southlight magazine launch recently at gatehouse of Fleet, and if the car had been running right (no quote intended) I would have attended.

Perhaps because I’ve got an essay on one of Kipling’s short stories in this edition, Viven Jones asked me to talk briefly about the short story form. So, here are 25 short statements about the short story that I would have made:

  1. The short story is nobody’s little brother or sister
  2. It is the child of an oral tradition going back to before the invention of writing
  3. The novel belongs to the age of printing
  4. The short story to the storyteller
  5. The short story in the age of printing became longer, but even the printed short story is still more like a musical score than is the printed long story.
  6. The short story can be read ‘at a sitting’ – Poe suggested we could ‘peruse in an hour or two’.
  7. The short story is a strand
  8. The novel is a rope
  9. The novel is a cruise
  10. The short story is a crossing
  11. Short stories are poetic rather than prosaic ( via Pritchett)
  12. Short stories are similar to films, and different
  13. Short Stories are told in words, one word at a time, in order.
  14. Films shown in images with (or without) sound
  15. We all see the same images, hear the same sound, which we observe and hear
  16. Words have to be imagined, whether read or heard
  17. The told story takes place in your head
  18. The shown story takes place in front of your astonished (or otherwise) gaze.
  19. The short story is about situations and how characters experience them
  20. And about how you imagine them, and imagine dealing with them.
  21. Thus the short story is about you, more than about its characters
  22. The novel creates a world for you to visit
  23. The short story intrudes into your world
  24. From time to time I make a list of my top ten favourite short stories: it varies, but several are usually included: The Little Farm (H.E.Bates), Weep Not My Wanton (A.E.Coppard(, The Fall (V.S.Pritchett), Fitter’s Night (Arthur Miller), Monsieur Seguin’s Goat (Alphonse Daudet), and more recently, La Lupa by Giovannin Verga, and Kipling’s The Eye of Allah. Vivien Jones’ Sorting Office. The Venus of Ile by Prosper Merrimee, Little Brother by Mary Mann.

When I list my favourite collections, the top ten stories aren’t always there! Perfect Ten (Vivien JOnes), Letttres de Mon Moulin (Alphonse Daudet), Tales of Mean Streets (Arthur Morrison), Provencal Tales by Michael de Larrabeiti, Travellers, by L.A.G.Strong. If I do either list twice, it’s unlikely to be exactly the same.

One of Me’s poems is Guesting on the Acumen poetry website at the moment. Why not take a look! Here.

 

 

On the other hand, you could click on the Just Giving page and donate for his 15 mile hike in aid of The British Heart Foundation…in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, on May 20th. Here.

 

 

You could do both, I suppose!

One of the things that irritates me is when I read, or hear, a short story and have no idea why the writer thought it was worth telling. It can happen with the best of writers, which gives a clue to one possible explanation; but it also happens to the worst, which points to another.

In the case of The Mont Bazillac, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, or ‘Q’ to his students (I’m told), the explanation may be neither of the above. The two I mean are that the reader/listener hasn’t got a clue because, well, he or she hasn’t a clue, or that the writer hasn’t got a clue because…you’ve got it!

Q can tell a good short story though. I’m sure of that.  Captain Knott is a thought provoking tale of old ship-mates who meet at a West Country pub in the time of John Wesley, and fall to discussing the ‘souls’ of ships. The eponymous captain though has been a slaver, and it is his soul he, and we might be thinking about. In The Lairds Luck he tells a tale of foretold death on the field of Waterloo. In another he tells of the news of Nelson’s death being carried to his mistress. Other tales in Selected Short Stories (Penguin, 26, 1957) are of more domestic matters.

Yet The Mont Bazillac seems a tale without the need to be told. Briefly, a vicar’s wife puts the family on the wagon. The son, a student at Oxford, tells a neighbour – who narrates it all to us – of a wine he drank in France, the eponymous Bazillac, and of the hallucinatory consequences. The boy has secreted two bottles of it, which he offers to share with the narrator, who has drunk the same wine, and, implicitly, with similar effects. But, as a villager tells the narrator, the vicar, and two churchwardens have been given the two bottles by the self-same vicar’s wife,  at a meal for which a Bishop, for mundane reasons, has not arrived. The wife has found the bottles and thinks to get rid of the wine, and save her son! But the vicar and his churchwardens suffer the same effects as the son and the narrator: the churchwardens end up fighting in the street, and blowing kisses to the Bishop as he finally arrives. The vicar’s antics are only hinted at – but he ‘wanted to be a statoo’.

The story ends with the narrator reminding us that the wine no longer exists, the vine destroyed by phylloxera.  All bottles are now gone, and he speculates if the last two bottles, kept by the French innkeeper who supplied it for his daughter’s wedding, created a ‘comparable apotheosis’.

It’s a well written story. It’s readable, and amusing, but so diminished by the hundred years of social change that have passed since its first publication in 1913, that it seems, well, hardly worth telling. Those final words were, I suspect, expected to release the power of the story, but in 2018 they go off like the proverbial damp squib.

Here’s a case, I suspect, where it is not my failure to find what is hidden in the tale, nor Q’s to have had something to hide, but the simple fact that would have shocked and amused a readership before the First World War, now seems tame, ordinary even, and not worthy of comment. The fact that the story was included in the Penguin paperback, fifty years after its first publication hints that the changes had not by then taken place. I recall the actor Dudley Moore making a feature film about a drunken Lord. It was a hit movie, and considered wildly funny. Only a few years later a sequel flopped at the box office: the drunkard had become in the intervening years a spectacle that was regarded as tragic and embarrassing, rather than comic and funny. It’s not quite the same  for Q’s vicar, but what would have, presumably, shocked and outraged but amused when the story was written, now calls forth a sort of bemused ‘so what?’

Stories, like many other things, have their flowerings, quite apart from the way they are written. Perhaps what should surprise us more though, is the stories that go on flowering, sometimes for centuries!

Rime’s an odd concept. I don’t mean that crust of ice that clings to cold metal, but the poetic technique that sings the last syllable of some preceding word, often at a line end; absurd, round the bend.

It brings us up sharp against the subsequent word, or down heavyily on it, logically without warning, but if the rhythm’s right, the poem’s like a song and to not get the rime, at that point precisely in the tune would be somehow wrong. Rimes can be weak or strong. Sometimes, when we hit them, unintentionally as we speak, they sound out of time. Some poets put them in the middle of a line, which is fine. Others, I’m thinking Wilfred Owen I suppose, does something not quite the norm – echoing consonant but not vowel – but no-one cries foul! (or thinks him a fool or it bad form). Riming two syllables at a time often sounds silly, weakens the line, willy nilly.

It comes down to the tune, more often than not, and whether it will scan, but there’s one poem springs to mind, where it does not.

I’m thinking of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice where the rhyme scheme is rigid, but instead of singing like music, it turns each line to come down like a mechanism, a verbal steam hammer rather than the lyric of a song. Instead of marking a musical beat, it makes the line-end an anvil on which the sense rings true, and is beaten out on the two rimes in it: the words of the title, echoed, pile driven home: ire, ice. The fact of the actual rime of ‘Fire’ being ‘ire’ adds a little something that must surely have been fortuitous!

Find it here.

I wrote a few days ago about failures, of one sort and another, quoting William Faulkner. If you’d like to experience Me attempting to be a (failed) poet…here are a couple of collections where you can:

A successful poet, you might think, is not one that gets published, but one that nails the poem.

This seems to be simmering along nicely……

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That William Faulkner quote popped up recently in a promotional e-mail…the one about novelists being failed short story writers; short story writers being failed poets….made me wonder what sort of failure poets are?