A recent review touched on the subject of Cyril Connolly. I’d not read anything by, or even about this writer, but I had encountered the name. He features in War Like A Wasp, an account of London’s Fitzrovia and its arty types during World War Two. The review mentioned how the well known and influential writer and critic had failed to achieve his ambition of writing something that would hold for ‘ten years’.

Two things about that ambition, and the failure to achieve it, struck me. The first was that ten years seems quite modest, if you mean that the piece of writing remains potent for that long. The other was that here was an apparently successful member of the London literary ‘elite’ suffering the same sense of failure as many of the rest of us probably are.

Of course, it’s not only the potency of the writing that he would have been meaning, I suspect, but its fame. Something can ‘work’ in the sense of being understood, and being relevant, for decades perhaps, without being known about, or seen to work, and maybe, at the bottom of it, what we would really like is someone to know we’ve written something that’s lasting for a decade, and maybe a lot of someones!

So I felt a kinship with Cyril, and that rather surprised me. It cheered me too. I read a poem recently, at an event locally, and somebody in the audience mentioned afterwards, how he’d been hoping I would, as he had remembered it from a reading a little over ten years before! I think Cyril would understand my reaction to that. In writing, as in many things, we’re all more alike than we sometimes recognise.


Or should that be, Reading as Writers? While not the opposite ends of a telescope there’s little doubt that writing can help you to become a better reader and reading, to be a better writer.

Mike Smith is running a six week course, starting on September 11th (7.00pm-9.00pm) at Darren Harper’s Carlisle Philosophical and Literary Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, UK), called Reading As A Writer. Using extracts from published texts, we’ll look at ‘close reading’ and what we mean by it, and examine how single words, sentences, paragraph breaks and chapters in longer works do their jobs, and what those jobs might be. We’ll also consider how the passage of time in fiction tries to re-create in words the experience of time passing in real life – and how different storytelling forms differ in their handling of time.

Course Fees:

£54 full

£43 over 60

£27 students/benefits

Booking via info@philandlit.org


Overheard in a Carlisle Travel Agents yesterday: The Virgins come in cheapest…..

You might not have noticed, but the British Government is running a TV recruitment add for Her Maj.’s Armed Forces. It involves a young man telling us that he was ‘born in Carlisle’, but ‘made’ in one of the services. What makes it more than usually interesting, is that he speaks with a strong north-eastern English accent. Carlisle, England, in case you didn’t realise, is a city in the north-west of England, and has its own regional accent.

It turns out his story is true, and his is the face we see, but the voice has been dubbed by an actor, with a different regional accent. The reasoning behind that decision must be fascinating. The implications too, are worthy of speculation: that no one who matters will care that two English identities have been mis-represented, and that no-one who cares will matter.

Writers, of course, always care about voices and who they speak to (and even to whom), and with what attitude and inclination.

Voices in plenty here:

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Recently I’ve been reading John Steinbeck, and in particular his short story (included in a collection of ‘shorter novels), Of Mice and Men. A level students in the UK might well be familiar with it, but in the stage-play format, and there are two movie versions, from 1939 and sometime in the early 90s. It’s one of those stories from which we get the chance to look at storytelling over several genres -where the story stays the same (or the changes give us opportunity for speculation), but the telling differs.

In the written story everything happens in our heads, triggered by what the words mean, and, make no mistake, by what they mean to us as individual readers, which will not necessarily, in fact will certainly not be exactly the same as they do to the writer. With the adaptation for the stage, much of that triggered meaning will be presented to us by the appearance of the stage, the props, lighting, sound rigs and, not least, the actors. The willing suspension of disbelief that I was taught about when I was a student – our suppression of the knowledge that what we are looking at is not real sky, and real landscape, and real buildings – leaves us to imagine and fill in what the theatre has to leave out. With the further adaptation into film, much of that unreality is made real, and real in a way that might quite different from what those original words conjured in our minds. Disbelief, when we’re talking about movies, might suffer more of an irresistible overwhelming, than a willing suppression.

Which brings me to documentaries on the TV.

Have you noticed, how even when apparent facts are being given, by erudite and enthusiastic presenters, we are being nudged into responding to them in a particular way, not only by the back-scenes – Neil Oliver’s lovely hair blowing in the wind, for example – but by an entirely unnecessary musical soundtrack, a subtle, insidious, almost subliminal indicator about how we ought to feel about what is being said….? After all, these people aren’t telling us something so that we can make our minds up about it. They are recruiting us into the mindsets that they have already adopted.

Back to the original written word.

How do the writers, without the enhancement of emotion-tugging violins, or rousing drums, achieve the same sort of influence?

Here’s a poem I wrote about fifteen years ago. I haven’t tinkered with it since.

It must have been around that time, I also wrote the story Alcedo the Dipper. Set in a futuristic mall (that seems quite dated now!), the story world had people wearing hi-tech, electrically generated ‘veils’, to avoid being seen by CCTV, though the veils themselves had become their distinguishing features. That was the background to the story, but its intention was more about the creation of a street argot or patois, based on terms re-cycled from the trading floor of Stock Markets. I was interested in how words could be taken completely out of context and re-purposed. It ended up in The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer, a collection of short stories that are longer than my usual. 

There had been around then, I think, an article in a women’s magazine showing photos of pairs of eyes and asking readers to guess the emotions in them. Men, apparently, scored worse than women at the test. It might have prompted the poem, or perhaps it was Jack Straw’s reported discomfort at interviewing masked constituents?

And perhaps Boris has missed a point or two, for the Burqa and the Niqab are not fashion statements, and what they look like is beside the point. It’s why they are worn, and where the practice began, and when, that matters. If you need a comparison, then compare them with the suits worn by the operatives clearing up after the Novachuk incident, for they were, and presumably are, for protection, in cultures where the gaze of men might lead to an assault, the cause of which would be regarded as the ‘irresistibility’ of uncovered women. Worth noting, that in current western culture we do not believe that women can be so irresistible, even when dressed provocatively.

Different cultures reveal and conceal different parts of the body for different reasons, and with differing messages. An open hand can signify no weapon, or largesse, or be the weapon (kara-te – no kidding). We can have face, or no face, or side, or no side to us. The public hangman, when we had one, was hooded, and thus masked, and so have been other executioners, authorised and otherwise.

Two masks I can think of in western culture that were ‘positive’ rather than negative, were the Lone Ranger’s one, and Zorro’s – both, perversely, covered the eyes, and nothing else. I am reminded too of that statement in The Virginian –When you say that, stranger, smile. To which the masked man might reply, I am smiling, underneath his Burka! Some things have to be taken on trust.

Perhaps I should have added, to the poem, a verse about hoodies….and there are so many ways to wear a bandana…. maybe I should try out a few at the local branch of my bank (while there still is one).


Shrouded Woman With Bum Bag & Coke Can

(a poem about cultural baggage, by Mike Smith)


Covered robed and hidden

Like a man from KKK

Hood black as balaclavas

That they wore in IRA


Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face


Out upon the turnpike

With pistol or with knife

Masked Highwaymen demanded

Your money or your life


Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face


Even knights in armour

With colours on a shield

Had to raise their visors

For intent to be revealed


Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face


A little Hiroshima

A Dresden on a plate

Only one girl in a thousand

Would choose to take her place


Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face


She twists a metal ring pull

There’s a package at her waist

Her eyes are saying something

But I cannot see her face….

This is about that poem that the publishers were apologizing for last week.
A writer-friend sent me this link. You should follow it, and find out what you are.
You don’t need to read the poem that the article is about. It doesn’t matter whether the poem was good, bad or atrocious. The article isn’t about the poem, directly. It’s about the right of someone to write it, and of someone to publish it, whoever it offends. And it’s call of ‘shame’ on a publisher who fails to stand up for that freedom, because, make no mistake, a publisher who is not standing up for that freedom, is a publisher who eventually will seek to limit not only what you can say, but what you can think.
And here’s a credo of mine:
It’s also about the right for you and me, and everyone else, to own whatever words we find on the sidewalk, or pluck from the air, because once words are on the air, or on the page, or screen, or in our ears, they become our words, and nobody has the right (though they might have the wish, and power) to stop you or me or anybody else using them. It’s about an assault on freedom of expression at its most basic: the right to use the words we encounter in the world!
There is no language, anywhere that belongs exclusively to anyone, unless they keep it silently within their heads. Language let out into the world is as free as the air, as free as the molecules of the sea, as free as space dust. It’s there for you and me and anyone to take and use, and to interfere with anyone’s ability to do that is to infringe their rights and their humanity. My voice is not the consequence of my skin colour, or genetics, but of the voices that I have heard, and copied. Some of those voices were urged on me by others (Speak proper, our Michael), others were encountered by random chance, some sought out. At college I was told to lose my ‘up, come, foot’ – by which was meant the accent I’d picked up in the English Midlands. Twenty years later, Midlanders thought I talked like a Northerner…northerners still hear the Midland, me duck!
Those who wish to keep their words for themselves, should keep them to themselves – for if we catch a glimpse, or hear a whisper, then those words will be ours to keep, and share, and pass on, and re-use, and re-interpret, because language belongs to all of us, and not just to you, or me, or anybody else.
I’ll finish with a quotation from the article, which might suffice, if you choose not to follow the link.
We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” – Grace Schulman on the NY Times website, 6th August, 2018, in The Nation Magazine Betrays A Poet – And Itself.

One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.

The issue of form and content comes up over and over again in writing, and thinking about writing. What is the relative importance of one versus the other? Does one serve the other? Should one dominate, or both be equal?

It’s an obvious subject for discussion in such genres as poetry, where the form can often be on display, but it’s there also in prose fiction where style and story arcs come under scrutiny. The essay, too, though more obviously concerned with content is a structured piece of writing. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis is a rule of thumb I remember from schooldays.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the possibility that the issue might be raised at the micro-level of the sentence itself. Looking to work on a first draft recently, I was trying to frame a question that would help me bring some dispassion and analysis to the re-drafting process. What, I asked myself, could I ask myself about what I’d written, with a view to making it more readable, and more worth reading? And there it was: form versus content again.

Look at each sentence I answered myself, and ask if it makes sense, and ask if the sense it makes is worth having made. The basics, I guess, never change, they just look different from different perspectives.

You might have seen my prize-winning essay on the word ‘Vaach’ in Anton Chekhov’e short story, Rothschild’s Fiddle. It’s in Readings for Writers volume 1 along with essays on several other short stories and their writers.

In that piece I wrote about the way the word -not even a word really, though definitely an utterance – dominated and seemed to sum up the entire story. Unusual, unexpected, and unknown words often crop up in short stories. A.E.Coppard’s The Higgler gave me the word ‘mogue’, which one dictionary described as a word used by ‘low people’, citing tailors as an example. Coppard’s father, curiously, was a tailor. My spellchecker doesn’t like ‘mogue’, but then, I guess it’s not a low spell-checker. The word means, by the way, to trick or deceive someone and can be used as a verb.

Recently reading John Steinbeck I cam across another word I’d not heard before (or rather had heard, but forgotten). That was ‘Bindle’. It’s not in my OED (shorter Version, of course), nor in any of the half a dozen other dictionaries I have going back to 1659. I don’t have a Funck and Wagnall, but I bet it’s in there! It’s in Eric Partidge’s sanitised dictionary of slang, but as a 1907 English word meaning ‘a howler’. He guesses it to be a blend of Swindle and Bungle, and maybe it is. But it isn’t Steinbeck’s American word, which means a blanket roll.

He uses it in the story Of Mice and Men, leading to the wonderful expression, ‘Bindlestiffs’, used by Curley’s Wife in the 1992 version to describe George and Lennie. Bindle and Mogue, and Vaach, come to that, have something in common, with each other, and perhaps with many other words, known and unknown, that we encounter unexpectedly for the first time: the contexts gave us the meanings, even if not directly, and that’s something important about language.

Wickipedia suggests it might come from the German, or Yiddish ‘Bundel’, which might have given us Bundle.

Words belong to us as individuals. They take their resonances not from the dictionary definitions alone, but from the contexts in which we first, and subsequently, and sometime traumatically, meet them on the road. Yet they remain in joint ownership, and their use is influenced by the contexts in which they were encountered, and subsequently used by others. That fact alone puts us on our guard to see beyond the narrow confines of our own understanding of them.