A little while ago I went to see Theatre By The Lake’s production of the Terrance Rattigan play, After The Dance. Responses, the programme told me, to the first run of this were ‘euphoric’.

It’s an interesting word to use. The play tells (or should I, of all people, say shows?) the decline of a group post World War One generation of wealthy people – living on ‘private incomes’ into alcoholism and despair. It makes a nice comparison with that old favourite of mine, The Shooting Party, Isobel Colegate’s retrospective analysis of a similar, but somewhat more upmarket, group from the eve of the same conflict. Rattigan’s bunch are living, in 1938, in the shadow, not of the approaching war, but of their own immediate post-war past, of the gay (as opposed to GAY) world of the nineteen twenties, when they partied and drank late into the night and early in the morning. Fifteen years on and the now pushing middle aged crowd are not flagging, but they are beginning to fray at the edge.

What they fear most is to be seen as ‘boring’, though as the play develops – with a dialogue that was thought provoking, but neither witty nor snappy – we see that it is not actually to ‘be’ boring that frightens them. They keep alive their own myth of the eternal party, the light, skimming across the surface of life, not being drawn into anything serious – like work, or politics, or even love itself.

There are four main characters: David, on the verge of cirrhosis (I spelled that first time! Amazing!) of the liver, who goes on the wagon to please his soon-to-become lover – who turns out not to be a major character, though she fools us for a while – Joan, his long suffering wife, nursing the secret that she actually loves him (which would be too boring to bear if it came out, she thinks), Peter, David’s amanuensis, a drippy Oxford grad, and that lover’s present boyfriend. He gets dumped and does a George Orwell (Down and Out in London, you know). Then there is John, a parasite on David’s wealth who earns – a much  misused word – his keep by playing Jaques to David’s ‘Duke’. An unpleasant character, cynical, mercenary and ascerbic, we’ll come to him later.

When we left the theatre after the show – I couldn’t bring myself to accept the invitation to join in a question and answer with the cheery looking cast. I was too down cast. It reminded me of coming out of Carlisle’s old cinema some forty years ago, having watched   The Elephant Man: that sepulchral quiet of an audience too stunned to chatter.

Did you enjoy it? My wife kept asking, and no, I thought, I didn’t. The phrase that sprang to mind was ‘slit-your-throat’, and I made a note to that effect in my notebook. ‘Terrance Rattigan’s slit-your-throat play’. But I had been engrossed. I had been entertained (which I take to mean ‘held between other things’, like what went before and what came after).

The costumes were fabulous, the set, perfect, the actors, apart from one, absolutely believable. The story, absolutely believable too. But what sort of moron, I wondered, is euphoric after a story like that? The sort that frequented the Roman Amphitheatres?

But as the days wore on, I turned the play over and over in my mind – which, like a slow Rubik Cube, is what they’re for – and found the seam of silver, or even solid gold, that I was looking for. That’s in the character John, the outsider, the man with the jaundiced eye and the sharp retort – the man, it might be said, who looks on and understands – the man, perhaps, most like a writer.

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I’ve got to that stage – I came across a handful of magazines not on the ‘boasting shelf’. How they’d been overlooked I don’t know. Perhaps because they were so ragged: covers off, staples rusted, pages dog eared – dog eared? Fighting dogs I suppose.

Even the names I’d forgotten, of the magazines, that is. The names inside sprang back to mind. Half of them must be dead by now, the others half dead. Radix, Muse, Raven. In one I was ‘Midland Poet of the Month’ with a half a dozen poems about Burton-On-Trent that I couldn’t remember writing, until I read them again.

I found also, two ‘Oakleaf Poetry Cards’, with front cover illustrations by artist Steve Muscutt – last seen running Fred Holdsworth’s bookshop in Ambleside – and inside poems by David Watkyn Price. Stockghyll in Autumn Flood ends with the couplet ‘fighting on the edge/to keep the earth.’ It’s a fitting pair of lines to remember David by, and he used it if I remember correctly, as the title of a collection, though I can’t recall the publisher. Perhaps there is a copy still lurking somewhere on my shelves. Here’s a glass raised to both him, and to Steve.

Poems come harder now than they did back then – the magazines date from the nineteen seventies – but the better for it, I hope. I remember faintly the excitement that publication brought with it in those days. It’s a different feeling now, more of gratitude than excitement; more to do with recognising a compliment being paid than with any sense of an opportunity being offered; a sense of acceptance, which of course in that obvious sense, it is.

I was a publication tart in those days. I sent my poems to every magazine I could find, and something like forty of them were accepted. It didn’t change my life, nor that of any reader I expect. I’m less promiscuous these days. I try the occasional ‘fresh’ magazine, but most of the poems I think of as worth having a go with are sent to Acumen. Few get a second chance if they are not taken there. Patricia Oxley has published perhaps a dozen of my poems over the years. She put me in the 60th, celebratory, issue. That earns a first refusal in my book.

Of course, some have gone elsewhere, mostly to local magazines, out of sense of neighbourliness. To be published locally is a privilege.

Finding those old poems reminded me that they have, or have not – and the poet is perhaps the last to know of it – a life of their own, quite disconnected from that of the poet.

Looking ahead, we’ve got two BHDandMe items on the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society programme: a workshop in December, and a ten week course beginning in January 2018.

The first, on Thursday 14th December is a two hour workshop (7.00pm-9.00pm) on ‘ambience’ in the short story, looking at how the mood/tone/atmosphere or ambience of a story is created, and used to put the reader in the right frame of mind to experience the eventual ending. (£10 – or £8 concessions). Booking and more details online at philandlit.org or from Darren Harper at info@philandlit.org

The second is a ten week Facets of Fiction course on Creative Writing (short story) weekly, Thursdays 1.00pm -3.00pm, from 11th January to 15th March, 2018. Beginnings, Middles,Ends, Narrative Voice, Locations (in time and place), character and ambience are among the subjects explored in a series of exercises, readings and discussions.  (£70, £49 over 60, £14 in receipt of benefits). Booking and more details online at philandlit.org or ffom Darren Harper at info@philandlit.org

The Carlisle Phil and Lit Society meets in Room 8, Fisher Street galleries, Carlisle, England.

I’d never stayed in a posh hotel before. I’d not even stayed in a bed and breakfast. People like us didn’t do that sort of thing. I’d stayed in caravans, or camped, or lodged with my parents’ friends, once or twice. After the age of about five we didn’t take that many holidays. The business couldn’t be left, my parents said. I can remember a holiday with my mother, and one, a few years later, with my father. At the age of twelve, confronted with the prospect of learning French, I really couldn’t see the point. What one earth would I need to know a foreign language for? Unless, of course, there was another war.

The posh hotel had nothing to do with holidays. It was a business course that my father sent me on. Run by a multi-national it was based at a training centre out of town, where they’d mocked up a whole business we could play around in, but they put us up, for four or five nights, in a four-star, city centre hotel. I was the youngest on the course by a decade, and the next youngest was more than a decade younger than the rest. They were all men. Men, in the main, still fronted businesses in those days. They weren’t businessmen though, even if that’s the way they might have been described. That’s why they were on the course – to learn how to run their businesses.

A business is an organisation set up to make a profit for its owners. That was, and I suppose still is, the mantra. Those of us on the course – the older ones that is – hadn’t cottoned on to that. They thought it was something to do with putting your skills to the service of your community, and making a living in exchange. What they were, in the main, was craftsmen who, by virtue of being self-employed had found themselves owning businesses. The multi-national needed them to be more efficient, at selling its product, at keeping themselves afloat.

I remember the first session we took part in, when we were asked question we didn’t even understand, let alone know the answers to. How many times do you turn over your stock in a year? Let me put it another way. How long does it take you to sell the amount of stock you can hold? Blank paper in front of us. Blank faces. The age differences fell away.

We were each given six pounds in cash– to buy ourselves whatever we needed during the week. It seemed a fortune then – before the first oil crisis.

In the evenings we spent our six pounds – it must have been six pounds a day, surely? – on a meal, and drinks, and sat in the bar and talked. These were men who had been young in the war – the 1939-45 one – but were now middle aged, and pushing old. The younger one said he had a tart waiting in his room, if anybody wanted a go before he went up. I think that was to impress me, but he had to explain what sort of tart he meant before I got the allusion, which perhaps took the shine off it for him. I declined the offer anyway.

Fifty years on and I wonder what changes and what stays the same, and at how ideas drift slowly from place to place, colouring the future and coloured by the past.

The entertainer, Harry Secombe, probably best known for being one of the ‘Goons’, was staying at the same hotel and wandered in to the lounge late one night where we were sitting. He did the voice of Neddie Seagoon for us and asked if we were having a good time, ‘boys’? Then his minders steered him away. Celebrities seemed further from us in those days, though, I think, they were probably closer. The old men on that course had lived through the same war as Secombe, Milligan, and Sellers. Wherever they had started out that common experience gave them a connection to Secombe that was not purely to do with having seen his act on TV, and I can recall sensing it as I slumped in my leather chair and witnessed the exchange. The Goonshow now has an online page, is still aired and can be bought as discs or downloads.

I did two courses over a period of a couple of years before leaving my father’s business, which he retired from and sold a couple of years after that. The first taught rudimentary accounting and budgetary control, the second, marketing and merchandising. My father never learnt to be a businessman, in the way that the multi-national meant. I never learned to be a craftsman – not even in words you might think I should add.

Carnivale was written after my first encounter with Venice in October of 2016. I found the city amazing, I might even say awesome, if I knew the word. Right down to the window catches and the door latches, it caught and held my attention. What helped, perhaps, was that I was staying – for two nights only – in the north west, not far from the old Jewish quarter. It is an area of workshops and old houses, of decaying brickwork and all the narrative killing description that had to go into the story of Carnivale. The places in the story you could find, with a little luck (and that canal-side bar comes highly recommended), including the costumier’s shop. It was not open on the day I walked past, but the window, both literally and metaphorically, was a window onto another, imagined world: a world for which the word ‘imagined’ seems a pale representation. It was a fantastical world, and the perception that were you to dress in those clothes you would be changed utterly, and the world changed with you, was immediate and overwhelming.

It was that epiphany that I wanted the story to evoke, but also the realisation, that for each of us, as individuals we have to have the wit to see the gulf, and the courage to o’er leap it. (That’s the first time, I think, in sixty and more years that I’ve used the word ‘o’er’).

The Carnivale that you see in the Black Market Re-view, and, potentially in a ‘2017’ collection, intended to be published in 2018, is the 6th draft. It was a problem story right from the beginning – having to decide whether it was about Venice, or about its protagonist for example. And all that detail. It had to be overpowering within the story, but not get between the story and the reader. It had to be readable, yet the images had to be crowded in on each other. I wanted those narrow twisting streets with their four and five storey buildings, and their insistent detail, to crowd in on you – but not to the extent that you gave up on the reading.

Then there was the ending. A much earlier edition was sent out and got a useful rejection slip, with the sort of commentary that tells you it’s worth working on. That editor didn’t like the ending, wanting a more definitive one. I’m all for sharp endings, that stick it to you so you know where and how deep! But here I found myself wanting to leave it unsaid – to let the reader’s disposition tip the balance. Short stories, after all, are about the reader to some extent. How would they feel, think, and act in the situation? What would they expect their partner to do?

Later versions got into Longlists. Longlists can mean everything that was submitted – but in these two cases I think did not, and, like that helpful rejection, they can be an encouragement. Particularly pleasing about the BMR acceptance, was that it was made with so little tinkering required. A missing word here, a changed word there, a couple of re-ordered, rather than re-written sentences. In a 2000 word story (long for me) that was pretty minor – though it shows I could have paid more attention! In fact, reading through the story again did make me pay more attention, which is a curious thing. Knowing that someone is about to publish a story, sharpens the senses more than hoping they might, it seems.

Writing Carnivale came at an important time for me. I’ve been writing short stories for nearly twenty years, and two decades seems to me to be long enough to convince yourself you can’t do it. The last eighteen months or so have been a conscious last push before giving up. In fact, I’ve wrestled with the problem of just how to do that.

There has been a series of stories over that period that have been consciously different, at least in my mind, from those that went before. A series of so called ‘flash fictions’ also began to come to fruition during this time. Getting a higher than average proportion of them into print, with magazines, e-zines and journals, and perhaps into competition shortlist and prizes, might be a last gasp validation, perhaps, of that twenty year undertaking. Yet, the true, and proportionate success must always be that you’ve said what you felt needed saying, whatever anybody else might feel. You can find Carnivale in The Black Market re-View #4, here.

 

I have to confess that it was Kipling’s short story, The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, that I didn’t get through in Hensher’s recent compilation of British short stories for Penguin. I’ve found some of Kipling’s shorts impenetrable, or at least too hard a work to do for fun. Yet I can remember absolutely loving The Jungle Book(s) when I was a child, and could recite several of the poems of the ‘camp’ (old meaning assumed, back then) animals. The White Seal was one of the stories included, and I remember that with affection – if not in detail.

Reading H.E.Bates and Frank O’Connor on Kipling though, in their respective histories of the short story form, I can’t help feeling that there is an agenda being brought to (at least) his short stories that goes beyond what one might actually find in them. Kipling is rightly criticised for his support of the Imperialist ethic, and its indivisible racism, but I’m not convinced that the stories, at least, many of the ones that I’ve read, do, in fact, promote that ethic.

Two features of the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills stand out for me. One is that they seem to be very journalistic, by which I mean that they have the quality of seeming to be written by a close observer, which Kipling obviously was. The other is that Kipling quite often seems to be satirizing, not only the characters and manners about which he writes, but the narrators in whose mouths he places the telling.

In these stories at least, and often right at the end, where the ‘meaning’ of the short story is frequently – perhaps always – signposted, Kipling’s narrator makes comments that seem to undermine, rather than underline his ostensible ‘agenda’.

In the story Cupid’s Arrows the dead-shot toxophilist, Kitty, deliberately loses an archery competition, in order not to be given the prize bracelet by her unwanted suitor, Barr-Saggott. At the end of the story, facing the opprobrium of the crowd, and of her ambitious mother, she is whisked away by her young, and favoured lover, Cubbin. The narrator’s comment closes the tale ‘-the rest isn’t worth printing.’ This more than hints at a story that most of us would find more interesting, unless we are of the same cast of mind as the narrator. More starkly, in Yoked with an Unbeliever, where an Englishman is made ‘a decent man’ by his ‘Hill woman’ wife (and saved from his mem-sahib ex-fiance), the closing comment is ‘Which is manifestly unfair.’, which we know it, manifestly, isn’t.

Compare those with the ending of Consequences where Kipling’s formidable Mrs Hauksbee has the last word: ‘What fools men are.’, which it seems to me, we are meant to take absolutely seriously. IThere are a lot of women in Kipling, and rarely, if ever shown in a patronising light. They always have admirable qualities, though they may be abused for it by the men in the story, and by those undermined narrators.

In the first story of the collection Lispeth, another Hill-woman, falls for an Englishman whom she believes she will marry. He, and the people at the Christian Mission where she is nursing him, play along with the idea, until he has recovered sufficiently to abandon her. When the truth is finally revealed Lispeth returns to her original culture, for which the Mission people accept no responsibility, seeing it, not as a reflection of their dishonesty, but of her origins. The story hardly reflects a racist contempt, or even an imperialist one, for the abused heroine.

An odd story in the group is A Bank Fraud, in which a manager, from his own salary, perpetuates the belief that his dying assistant – who has been sacked – is still employed, and will recover. The skin colour of the two men is quite irrelevant to this tale, as is their class. It is their personal qualities that matter. The dying man, it must be said, is no friend to the man who is paying him, and keeping his hopes alive. At the end of the story, again, in the character’s rather than the narrator’s voice, we get the statement: ‘I might have heartened him to pull through another day.’ The protagonist in this story is so explicitly altruistic that we cannot doubt him, even though we might marvel at him.

Over and over again, Kipling points up the human qualities behind the choices people make, and the actions they take, whoever they are, and wherever they come from. At the end of The Bronkhurst Divorce-Case the narrator remarks ‘And my conundrum is the most unanswerable of the three.’ That conundrum is ‘How do women like Mrs Bronkhorst come to marry men like Bronkhorst?’ When we’ve read the tale, we’ll tend to agree with him, I suspect.

Then there is the almost flash fiction, at least by length, of The Story of Muhammad Din. The eponymous hero is an Indian child who strays into the sahib’s house, but whose intrusion, though scandalous to his father, is not resented by the sahib. Kipling always puts the ‘S’ word in italics, along with its memsahib version. The eponymous boy never repeats his mistake, but is met in the garden from time to time. The first person narrator greets him ‘with much state’, but then inadvertently destroys ‘some of his handiwork’, a concoction of ‘six shrivelled marigold flowers in a circle’. The destruction is assumed to be deliberate. Then the child falls ill, and despite the grudging treatment of the sahib’s doctor – grudged by the doctor, it is made clear – he dies. The story ends with the first person narrator encountering the father carrying his son to the ‘Muslim burying-ground’. If there’s condescension here, I don’t recognise it, and I think that if you tried to re-write this story and set it in an English country garden, you would struggle to tell it with more, or even the same degree of objectivity. In fact, I might just have a go at that! Frank O’Connor, in his chapter on Kipling  (in The Lonely Voice), writes of doing something similar with Kipling’s The Gardener, and quotes his own alternative first sentences. But they form an example that illustrates the dangers of such an experiment, rather than the value.

I have read only a small portion as yet of Kipling’s short story output, so might well find all that Bates and O’Connor alerted me to. It seems important to me that I have found other than that in what I have read. Reading someone’s short stories might be a route to knowing them, but before and more importantly than that, it is a route to knowing the stories, and, perhaps oneself.

One of my favourite authors is, or put more correctly, several of my favourite stories were written by, James Joyce, but I have a more than sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t have liked him, nor he me. The ‘singer not the song’ is a symptom of commercialism and its attendant need for celebrity. Not merely ‘the stories’ of a writer, but each story stands alone, to be understood, assessed, and enjoyed on its own merits, within the limits of our capacities as readers.

I felt like a shit today. But there was no need to worry. I didn’t need to go out and look for one. I already had me at home.

The fact is I gave a cold caller a hard time. It was unforgivable really. If I’d known I was going to I wouldn’t have taken his call. Perhaps, subconsciously, I did know, and that’s why I hadn’t asked him to call in the first place. But, the guy was just doing his job, following his script, trying to make me an offer that I wouldn’t refuse. It wasn’t as if I was in a bad mood. I’d just heard that I got a funny story into the longlist of a competition. I know. A long list is a long list. It’s not a short list. It’s so far off a commended as to be out of sight. It’s so far off the money as to be not worth worrying about. But hey, I don’t get into a long list every day, and besides, I re-read the story, and even if it doesn’t get into the shortlist, let alone any further than that, it made me laugh again. So I was in a good mood – when the guy rang.

He told me I was overpaying. It doesn’t matter what for. He told me his name was Dave. He had an interesting accent, for a Dave. Most Daves that I know don’t have interesting accents at all, from my perspective. I’m sure Dave knew he’d struck a bad one almost as soon as we got going. I could hear it in his voice, and if I’d been any sort of a gentleman I’d have pulled up there and then, put on the brakes, hauled down the mast, mixed myself a stiff metaphor, and put down the phone.

Yes, I said, to being the man of the house. What a quaint concept, by the way, and my guess is, that being a professional Dave knew right away that he was on a sticky wicket. My guess is Dave probably likes cricket. Personally I can’t stand it, but then they made me play it at school, and like most of the other things they made me play…well, let’s put it this way, it has been the things they tried to stop me from playing that I’ve always enjoyed the most.

But Dave went on, gamely, politely, professionally. He knew, he said, I was paying twenty pounds more than I should be. So that was where I jumped in with my size nines, and demanded to know how he knew that! Well, he said, they’d carried out a survey. But who did they ask, I asked? Was it my suppliers? Outrageous, I said, and I thanked him profusely for tipping me off, that someone out there was blabbing about my private affairs. I’ll take it up with them, I told him, and then I put the phone down.

It was a shitty thing to do. I mean, the guy’s just trying to make a living. Industry, and commerce, and services have got to be bought and sold. What’s the guy supposed to do?

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I’ve felt like a shit ever since, but as I type this, there’s a fuckin’ big grin on my face too!

I told my writing buddy about the new anthology launch – at the Sun pub in Drury Lane, near Covent Garden – London, you know – on Saturday 16th December (4.30-7.30pm) – why not come along and see what’s on offer?

I said, they’ve described my writing as ‘modern noir’, whadcha think of that? She said, it sounds like the name of a paint. I’ll wear tweed, and a black raincoat, and brown leather shoes (which my father warned me against when I was quite young).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seems to me it sounds more like the name of a dark chocolate, but hey, as long as you enjoy watching it dry!

So the BBC had their man interview Tom Hanks yesterday, about his new collection of Short Stories (power to the man!)…but asked him how he felt about becoming ‘ a novelist’. Shades of Muhammed Ali – what’s my name? – but no blows rained sadly.

Today they topped it off with a decent short story on Radio 4 ….and you’ve guessed it….. ‘by the novelist…’

When will these people learn?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a date for those of you in or near Carlisle, England: At Darren Harper’s Phil and Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Friday, 3rd November 7.00pm-8.30  English Short Stories between the Wars… a talk by Me (with help from BHD), looking at A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and others. (£4.50 members, £6 non-members). Book through website https://www.darrenharper.net/

In the midst of this unexpectedly re-kindled interest in my Valanga form, here are the first and third examples I wrote. The first, of course, is where the name came from:

The Avalanche

We cannot speak.

Our past is spoken for.

So we must keep our silences.

 

Don’t catch my eye.

We cannot speak,

and I will only look away.

Our past is spoken for.

There is no more to say.

So we must keep our silences.

 

Nothing will change.

Don’t catch my eye.

We have resolved to wait.

We cannot speak.

The distance is too great,

and I will only look away

across the field of years.

Our past is spoken for,

in forests where we lay.

There is no more to say.

I love you now as then.

So we must keep our silences.

 

Our love endures.

Nothing will change.

Only illusions fail.

Don’t catch my eye

while listening to this tale.

We have resolved to wait,

and you were always true.

We cannot speak

about this love we share.

The distance is too great.

Besides here’s not the place,

and I will only look away

to see you in imagination

across the field of years

with tears upon your face.

Our past is spoken for,

and we do not forget,

in forests where we lay,

on paths we walked together.

There is no more to say.

Make no mistake.

I love you now as then.

It’s only hearts we break,

and we must keep our silences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marooned

And I no longer look for ships.

We passed in darkness not in light

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

It seems so long ago,

And I no longer look for ships,

And leave the beacon fire unlit.

We passed in darkness not in light.

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

All loss lies in the past.

It seems so long ago,

And time slips by so fast,

And I no longer look for ships,

But sit with closed eyes on the beach,

And leave the beacon fire unlit.

The past is always out of reach.

We passed in darkness not in light.

Who learns the lesson this would teach?

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Until we are alone at last

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

So keep the vigil on your side.

All loss lies in the past

Among the ones whom love divides.

It seems so long ago

We made our separate trips,

And time slips by so fast.

We’ve no regrets at all,

And I no longer look for ships

(There is no rescue yet)

But sit with closed eyes on the beach

To see what I recall,

And leave the beacon fire unlit

In case you see its signal flame.

The past is always out of reach,

And all fires burn the same.

We passed in darkness not in light,

But yesterday still grips.

Who learns the lesson this would teach?

By candle glow and lovers’ talk,

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Beyond the sound of human speech,

Until we are alone at last.

I would be there if yet I might,

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

 

No Valangas here, but a collection of poems written overlooking Ullswater, and including the Ullswater Requiem.