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Coppard’s published short stories ran to thirteen collections – with several duplications in short run special editions, often illustrated by artists including Robert Gibbings – usually of about twelve to fifteen stories. There was a ‘Collected’ edition, published in the USA with around fifty, chosen by Coppard himself, and a British ‘Selected’ with less than half that number. A recent collection of seven tales – Coppard’s preferred descriptor – was produced in 2013 by Turnpike Books, and on Goodreads you will find a ‘Coppard page’, listing other available selections and collections. His current popularity in Britain might be judged by the fact that this morning it had 2 followers!
Out of the two hundred or so stories he published, a handful crop up again and again: The Higgler, Dusky Ruth, and The Field of Mustard are three of the most commonly referred to. All three concern the love lives of women, and the men who fall for them. They also hint at another regular Coppard theme: that of poverty, usually but not exclusively rural. My own favourite tale is Weep Not My Wanton, a four page masterpiece in which a family of itinerant farm labourers pass across a beautifully painted English landscape while playing out the brutal game of their family dynamic – and raising a question of why that should be. In a line I’ve quoted often enough, an American commentator wrote of Coppard’s England as one in which ‘accidents of heredity’ outweighed all other factors in determining the course of the lives that Coppard described.
Coppard himself came from grinding poverty –as a child he worked picking oakum (one of the tasks given to felons in the English penal system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in a Whitechapel sweatshop, having left school at the age of nine. Frank O’Connor accused him of having an ‘issue’ with ‘unearned income’ – surely not an unreasonable one!
I became interested in him a few years ago, while reading about H.E.Bates and V.S.Pritchett, with whom he was often compared, and seemed in some way to hover behind. Writing over the same inter-war decades as them, he was, however, of an earlier generation which was publishing in the 1890s, with writers like Mary Mann, who wrote of poverty in rural Norfolk, and Arthur Morrison, who wrote of poverty in London’s East End. What I discovered was that there is relatively little published about Coppard or his writing, save for the bare bones of biography, and a couple of dozen short-ish press reviews.
English of the English, a collection of 20 essays on Coppard’s tales and their themes, was an attempt to redress the balance. It is available as a paperback, and for Kindle, here.
Mike’s poem L’On Y Danse is one of the guest poems on the Acumen website and features in the current issue (Acumen #86)…You can find it here.
I recently sent an old writing buddy of mine a copy of a short story I’d just written. He wrote back to say he liked it, but that the last word was unnecessary, the sense it conveyed being implicit in what had gone before: its meaning could be taken for granted. It went without saying.
I wrote back to him, pointing out that the very last word was the whole point of the story. What ‘goes without saying’ can be left unsaid for so long that we’re in danger of forgetting it, and that particular story, by saying explicitly what could safely be left implicit, was intended to bring the issue back to light. My hope was that the reader would be surprised at the inclusion, because, obviously, ‘it went without saying,’ didn’t it? That moment of re-evaluation, of doubt, and eventual re-assertion was the view that the story was bringing him to (and, seemingly had!). The events described were to give context to the concept, the context in which the word’s meaning might, and perhaps should be obvious to all!
Readers don’t always find what we want them to in our stories (or poems come to that), which sometimes is no bad thing…but often in short stories I find there are elements at the end that seem to be bolted on…That favourite of mine, Weep Not My Wanton, for example (by A.E.Coppard) has a whole scene following the shocking revelation that is the climax of the story…if we think the story is the events being described. Why does Coppard add that scene, I ask myself every time I read it, and the answer I give myself reveals what I think must be his purpose in telling the story. (I’ve written about Weep Not My Wanton both here, and on the Thresholds blog, and on Liars League website if you want to go searching!).
I’m not going to reveal the title of my ‘excessive’ story, but if you come across it, I hope you’ll think that last word was unnecessary too, but only after having thought about it.
Earlier this weekend (which means Friday and Saturday) Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and Carlisle Writers Group staged a pop-up Bookshop in Waterstones, Carlisle. Thanks to everyone who helped, and especially to those who visited the stall and bought our books! Especially, specially, thanks to Waterstones Bookshop, who made the space available to us, provided what we hadn’t thought to bring, and encouraged us all around. We couldn’t have done it without you Waterstones! And Watch That Space – because we’d like to come back!!
Somerset Maugham was born in 1874, four years before A.E.Coppard. But their lives, and stories diverge more widely.
Maugham was educated at Canterbury and Heidelberg, and considered training as a doctor. By the age of twenty three he had published his first novel, by 1919 he was an established novelist and playwright.
In 1921 a curious convergence occurs though, for that was the year in which both Coppard and Maugham published their first collection of short stories: Adam and Eve Pinch Me, and Little Stories of the South Sea Islands respectively.
Education, travel and class separate these two English writers more widely than do their years, and it shows in the sort of stories that Maugham went on to produce, and in the points of view from which they are narrated.
Typical of his South Sea story narrators is the worldly wise and slightly cynical traveller, who has seen much and recounts stories of planters and traders, steamer skippers and their crews, and itinerant writers, exiles and ne’er do wells who move from port to port. In bars and club houses they drink to forget, and to remember, mixing uneasily with each other, and with the native peoples they encounter.
There is poverty here, but not the same sort of poverty as afflicts Coppard’s Old Venerable or his Poor Man. Maugham’s protagonists have the poverty of those who have left comfortable worlds behind them in Europe. They live as self-imposed exiles rather than in circumstances that have been forced upon them. The backgrounds to their lives, and to those of their narrators, have little in common with those of Coppard’s characters. England is a memory, or some other European country is. They are a community of isolates, in their clubs, on far flung estates, or aboard the wandering ships of the archipelagos.
Stories like Mabel, where a would be wife chases her man from Malaya to China, begin with the narrator ‘at Pagan in Burma, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay.’ He hears the story at a ‘riverside village’ and passes it on to us. Nothing is rooted in these stories. Neither events nor narrators, nor, by implication we ourselves. We are just another passing traveller to whom another passing story is told.
‘The Book-Bag’ is another in which a narrator arrives somewhere, is befriended by a planter, and is told a story as strange as any in the eponymous holdall. Like many others, this story is inconclusive, indecisive, a story about strangers, passed onto strangers, concerning strangers. Whereas Coppard is rooted in places, Maugham is blown about the seas. His characters belong nowhere, and that is where their stories are traded.
Who these characters were, and in what sense they were truly British is a subject for discussion, but they did exist, and Maugham had met them, and in the clubs and bars, and plantation houses in which the stories are set, he listened and noted. When his South Sea Tales began to appear it seemed, to the people whose stories they were, often recognisable as individuals, an act of betrayal, to the extent that Maugham felt unable to visit the area again.
Yet there is little in them, save for the details of location, and the specifics of events that could not be found in the stories of any peoples at any time and in any place. Lust, greed, fear, disappointment and the striving to hold or to gain power over their own lives and those on whom they depend are present in all humanity’s stories. Coppard’s characters might also recognise themselves, and not be so happy to do so, yet Coppard’s narrators seem to be closer to those they describe than do Maugham’s. But what of either of them’s readers?
Though that may be true, it remains that the element which made Maugham’s stories so attractive when they were first published, the whiff of the far flung unknown location, is what makes them worth reading now. What has changed is that whereas a hundred years ago, those locations were exotic by virtue of their distance in space, they are now made so by their distance in time.
Nineteen essays, on themes and threads in Coppard’s tales, eight on individual stories, plus a bibliography that tells you where to find which of the tales! Previously available only on Kindle, but now in paperback…..
I’ve been reading Adrian Bell’s memoir of a year on a Suffolk farm (Corduroy, first published in 1930, but set in 1920/21). You don’t have to be interested in farming, nor indeed in Suffolk, to enjoy it. A liking for how stories unfold, and how the English language might be used will suffice.
Bell’s agricultural apprenticeship took place in the rural England that A.E.Coppard often wrote about, and it was instantly recognisable. In particular there was a paraghraph or two devoted to a description of ‘the higgler,’ both as an individual and a type. The only other place I’ve come across this character, except in an old dictionary, was as the eponymous hero of Coppard’s most famous tale. The descriptions of other labourers recall stories such as The Old Venerable and The Poor Man, and of course, the VC winning itinerant labourer of Weep Not My Wanton. The story of Coppard’s renting of his cottage in the woods is borne out here too, in the prices quoted for such lettings. [you can read more of Coppard and his tales here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/English-Responses-Tales-E-Coppard-ebook/dp/B00UEONRV6 ]
The writing style is clear and simple, yet rising from time to time, as in a later section telling of the barley harvest being taken in, to the level of lyric poetry. What struck me most in retrospect though, was the way a turning point in English social history was caught. Here horse drawn carts and muscle power co-exist with motor cars and both steam and petrol powered machinery. Bell’s host farm looks to the future, but that of the farmer’s father-in-law clings to the past, making do and mending, and codging up ancient machinery with bits and pieces bought at local auctions. In fact, as the wartime HMSO publication about ‘the land at war’ makes clear, after a bright false start following World War One, with a strong ‘back to the land’ movement, British agricultural nosedived into one of its darkest decades in the nineteen thirties, so that on the eve of World War Two a crisis of food supply, in the face of submarine warfare, would have been imminent without the various government ‘dig for victory’ campaigns and the almost immediate introduction of rationing.
And what came upon me after the recognition of this unique moment of past turning into future, was that a memoir of any period, and of any place, might also catch such a momentary, and unique turning point. For as time rolls on, only change is constant, and as writers this should reassure as much as daunt us. We do not have to wait for a significant moment in history to arrive, so that we might observe and record it, for all the moments through which we live have their significances. And, even if we are not aware of them, to observe and record what passes before us, will be to preserve such moments for those who come later, fully equipped with the twenty-twenty hindsights that will make those significances plain.
Adrian Bell went on to publish, among other titles, two more in this rural trilogy: Silver Ley (Penguin no.278) and The Cherry Tree (Penguin no.264). Corduroy was published as Penguin no.247. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corduroy-rural-trilogy-Adrian-Bell/dp/0571240836 Seven of Coppard’s stories, including the little gem that is Weep Not My Wanton, were recently re-issued by Turnpike Books.
Weep Not My Wanton
A Canary For One
A Rider in the Sky
Arabesque – The Mouse
The Little Farm
The Gift of the Magi
A Christmas Carol
Blondeau The Cobbler
You expect me to keep count as well?
You want the authors? A.E.Coppard, Ernest Hemingway,Ambrose Bierce,V.S.Pritchett,James Joyce,Coppard again,H.E.Bates,Arthur Miller (twice),O Henry,Charles Dickens,Abbe Bourdelot,Bonaventure des Perriers,
And there was Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle too, should have been in that first ten, not to mention some stories by friends of mine…Kurt Tidmore’s Prairie Song for example, and Hugh Thomnpson’s The Italian Fisherman, and Marilyn Messenger’s unfinished story (she knows which one I mean), and nearly all of Vivien Jones’ Perfect Ten collection, and one from her White Poppies collection, and a Daphne Du Maurier, and D.H.Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums…..
And then the question, why is it that the women writers come in so far down the list, and so few? And then, the question, why are there no Jewish Writers in there (for all I know, Miller might have been Jewish, and so might others…I don’t enquire into that sort of thing), and what about redheads, or people who are left handed (like me), or adopted (like me), or apparently heterosexual (like me)? Or who don’t have beards? And does it matter anyway? If I listed my favourite poems, one of Josephine Dickinson’s would come in the first half dozen (Instead of Time), and if novels, Isoabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party would be there with Silas Marner.
If I’ve read all of Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories, and two collections of Alice Monro’s, and one of Miranda July’s, and yet none of their’s appear in my over-stuffed top ten, does it tell you anything about them, or anything about me? And does the fact that my two Coppard entries are from over two hundred stories, and my two Miller’s are from sixteen? From my own several hundred attempts I think four stand out, and one of them I’m still post-creatively infatuated with! And there’s another ought to be in there, but…. Why are there no African stories, or South American, or Asian ones? Why are there none from Wigton, or Wigtown for that matter? Why none from China? How many have you read from my home town, by the way?
And I sort of know that if push came to shove, I’d rescue – desert island disc style – two from the waves (Weep Not My Wanton and The Little Farm – I think…..)
And what about all the ones I have forgotten, for the moment, or really forgotten? How many of them, if remembered, would spring into that top ten? And in fact, isn’t the ten of your top favourite anythings of anytime, just a snapshot of where you are, and when, at that place, and that moment?
(and Christine Howe’s Dancing With Johnny)…oh, yes, and ……
When I looked, there was no blog post in it…So here’s a short story, and a reminder that you can now find BHD’s short stories on Kindle, and My essays (on A.E.Coppard’s short stories) too!
by Brindley Hallam Dennis
I never intended the rabbit to become a pet. I always intended to eat it.
But the way it sat docilely at the foot of my work bench intrigued me. It had wandered into the workshop unseen, presumably from across the fields. Yet it was not a wild rabbit. It was large and comfortable looking, and seemingly unconcerned by the proximity of me.
At first I stiffened and fell silent, as one would do if any wild animal had intruded into the barn. Barely daring to breathe, let alone move, I assumed that once it spotted me it would turn tail and bolt. But it crouched beside the rough wooden leg of the bench, all its attention upon the stalk of grass that it was chewing. I relaxed and let out a breath, but still it did not run, and merely glanced at me as it continued to chew. Then it hopped in a quite desultory way, passing even closer to me, into the dark corner of the barn.
Well, you’re a cool customer, I said aloud, and it ignored that too! That was when the thought first struck me that it was tame enough to catch, and, without any images of killing, I pictured to myself a rabbit pie.
I was used, in those days, to plucking and drawing pheasants which my neighbour, who held regular shooting parties on his land, would leave for me. After shoots, during which the air rippled with muted, distant volleys, like strings of sharp farts, he would hang a brace of pheasant, one male, one female, roped together at the neck, from the old iron hook beside the barn door. It was a practice from before my time, and before that of my predecessor at the house.
Sometimes, when I looked at them hanging, paired there, I would imagine that they had been a couple in that romantic sense, living and dying together. It was an absurd notion, I know, yet I also knew that among the dozens, perhaps even hundreds shot during each drive there must by many pairings. It was only at the gathering of the corpses, the pulling of them from that pile of bodies, and the joining of them by that unholy knot, that the element of randomness was introduced.
As I watched the rabbit making itself at home under the frame of the old wheel-less wagon, the thought of eating it faded from my mind. After that, for a number of years, it lived amicably beside me at my workplace, neither of us especially acknowledging the presence of the other. I never named it. It, presumably, never named me. I never gave it food. It never brought in titbits of salad for me. I laid an old china bowl on the slab floor near to where it had established itself, and this I kept topped up with fresh water, but that was my only concession to what you might call a parental responsibility. My wife, had she still been around, would no doubt have brought it cabbage leaves and old carrots from the kitchen. She would have bought for it a cage too.
Clients who visited to collect newly made or restored pieces would often not even notice it. Those who did, however, would make wry comments and weak jokes. Who’s your friend? And then, when I answered, I was talking to the rabbit! Or, you’ve not eaten him yet, I see. Those of a certain age would reference the cartoon films of their childhoods: Oo dat wabbit! Or, Hey, what’s up Doc! I would smile and glance down into the shadows where it crouched beneath the old cart, nibbling leaves it had brought in from outside.
At nights, or when I was away, I would secure the building, not for its sake, but to protect the finished or part-finished items I was working on. That, and my presence when I was working, kept the local foxes from it, and the barn owl seemed to show no interest.
A couple of years ago I read all the published short stories of A.E.Coppard, issued in a baker’s dozen of books between 1921 and 1947. More than half of these were issued within the first less than half of that time, and less than half of those I liked best appeared in the second more than half of the run.
I hadn’t set out to read them all, but I was so inspired by some of the first few, that, like a prospector panning for gold, I went on digging for more gems, and struck oil right through to the last volume. Then, being a fully paid up member of the chattering class, I wanted to share what I had read, and what I thought about it. The result, in 19 essays, is the collection ‘English of the English, Responses to the Tales of A.E.Coppard’, published on Kindle, and available for a pittance. Piled high, and sold cheap, not necessarily the cleverest, nor most perceptive, but almost certainly the bulkiest amount of writing about this forgotten English writer, the essays might, I hope, provide encouragement for the would-be reader, and the prompt for a better literary critic.
English of the English, response to the tales of A.E.Coppard(1878-1957), essays by Mike Smith Kindle edition at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6 -offering an overview of Coppard’s baker’s dozen of short story collections, brief discussions of some of the major themes and sub-genres to be found within, and a closer look at a handful of individual stories.
A rather good collection of V.S.Pritchett (1900-1997) stories arrived here recently: On The Edge of the Cliff, Selected Short Stories is another offering from Indie publisher, Turnpike Books (www.turnpikebooks.co.uk). You might remember that they published an A.E.Coppard collection (Weep Not My Wanton) back in 2013. Pritchett, along with Coppard and H.E.Bates, was writing in the mid years of the twentieth century, all three beginning to publish in the early 1920s, with Pritchett producing his last short story collection as late as 1989, in his 90th year!
On the Edge of the Cliff, has 8 stories including the title story. Pritchett was a journalist and critic by profession, living in and working abroad, initially in France, and later Spain before moving back to London. His writing covers a broad sweep of genres, including novels, travel, essays, journalism, and short stories. Curiously, his short stories are almost all set in England and focus on the ordinary lives of very ordinary people. Martin Amis is quoted as describing Pritchett’s characters as having a ‘peculiar ordinariness.’ My favourite in the new selection, is The Wedding, in which a battle of wits, and emotions, is played out between a local farmer, and an independent girls’ school teacher.
The book is well presented, with a perfect cover illustration. Turnpike Books specialises in publishing short stories from the twentieth century, and offers, in addition to Coppard and Pritchett, a collection by J.B.Priestly, What A Life! Their website is well worth a look, and the well-produced paperback editions are a good buy for those of us who like our books printed on paper!
If you’re of a Kindler disposition, you might like to check BHD’s recent offerings:
Cat Alley Blues is the latest individual story by BHD to be added to NAWE’s CUT site: http://www.cutalongstory.com/stories/cat-alley-blues/10392.html
Metaphor is one of the most useful tools we have for talking about story, especially when we are talking about how to find it, as a writer. I often use the metaphor of the loose thread. A story, I say, is like a loose thread that you tug on, gently. I can go on to say that you don’t necessarily know which end of it you’ve got hold of, the beginning or the ending.
Each story must have its original thread: something that you noticed, and just had to investigate, to see if it would come loose from the garment of life, or language. Knowing what that original thread was though might not always help from a reader’s perspective, nor perhaps even from the writer’s; not as far as writing, or reading the particular story is concerned. There might be some value though, to the writer, in knowing what sort of threads were pulled in a particular story, if only to give an idea of what sort of threads might be pulled, when we see them poking out.
What got me onto this train of thought was walking through my local village on a quest for eggs, and passing the local pub. It was this pub – The Royal Oak in Curthwaite – that was in my mind when I began writing the story Talking To Maurice, which is in effect the lead story in my Pewter Rose collection Talking To Owls. Whether or not there are any retired civil servants among the regular clientèle I could not say, but the place might have been in mind because, several years after the Foot & Mouth outbreak that the story recalls I chanced to have a conversation with a farmer – whom I had not met before, nor have since – who by chance had come to the pub for the first time since the disease. Being hit by the disease had changed his life, he told me, and not for the better. That conversation led me to recall others I had had during the outbreak itself, with vets, farmers, agricultural suppliers and others. The bizarre stories that they told – infected tongues thrown over hedges; farmers delirious with joy at having contracted the disease, others devastated by the news, of people barricading themselves in for fear of vets and Men-from-the-Ministry infecting them – meant that you need make nothing up.
The farm lane that Maurice drives back up at the end of the story is local, but the buildings I describe belong to a Staffordshire farm I used to visit, which had transformed itself, briefly as it turned out, into a rather attractive B&B.
Like the Irish stew, made out of water and a stone, in a story told by a tramp, this story of mine came together from lots of loose threads. Not least among them, of course, was the fact that I used to step outside at night and call to the local owls – who seemed to call back, sometimes from the direction of the village.
I don’t apologise for creating my short stories in this way. Indeed, I have very respectable precedents for doing so. Both George Moore and A.E.Coppard, both favourites of mine in the genre, did something similar. I also get a frisson of delight from the apparent irritation that this technique, when used so successfully by Coppard, seemed to cause for H.E.Bates, who, in his history of the short story, actually calls into doubt that it can be regarded as proper writing at all!
This is a welcome revival for Coppard fans, for it is forty years since the title story – to my mind one of the genre-defining examples of the English short story – has been in print. Amazingly, Coppard left this little gem out of his 1948 US Collected Tales, but Doris Lessing’s 1970s selection included it.
There are seven tales in Turnpike’s offering, all of them from Coppard’s early period, which pundits generally consider to be his best. There’s no doubt he hit his stride early on, after a late start at forty years of age, and the density of better stories is higher in the early collections, but there are gems among his later tales too.
This selection promotes the rural tales, with The Higgler, The Watercress Girl, and The Field of Mustard included. Of these three, The first is probably the most well known, the second, one of the most pungent, and the third seemingly the most loved by academics. The first two were made into TV adaptations in the seventies, which are worth watching and available on dvd from the States under the title ‘Country Matters’. Underlying all three tales, however, is a theme more universal than that of ‘rural England’: they are tales of love, passion even, frustrated and sated.
Another inclusion, Dusky Ruth, though set in a country inn, is also more to do with sexual attraction than anything else. Adam & Eve & Pinch Me, again, pushes the rural boundaries into other territory, this time into the fantastical, which became another strand in Coppard’s web of tales.
A lesser known story, The Wife of Ted Wickham combines several of Coppard’s interests. The love interest is here, and so is the rural, and, being set in a country pub, it reminds me that the rural ale-house is a recurring setting for Coppard.
Back to that title story though. Of the seven this is perhaps the purest examination of the rural decline that Coppard must have witnessed throughout his life, and especially in those few years he spent on the hard edge of rural poverty at Sparrow Pit Cottage in Oxfordshire. It is one of the simplest and shortest of short stories that you will find; a mere four pages. Yet it packs a punch more powerful, and unexpected than many a more elaborate tale. It is set in a landscape that is misunderstood, but not by the narrator, and hints at explanations and situations in both past and future that question the significance and causes of the events portrayed. It is finely wrought tale, as most Coppards are: see how he manipulates our perception of the man, by simply switching from an ‘a’ to a ‘the’.
Ford Maddox Ford famously observed that Coppard had given to the genre ‘the quality of English verse’ and it is a poet-like love of language that gives the tales their unique appeal as much as the sharp eyed observations, and the wry humour. Coppard is a ‘narrator present’ writer in the main. He does not follow the Joycean path of ‘refining himself out of existence’. The Watercress Girl’ in fact, ends with a Coppardly comment that at least one commentator has deprecated. Coppard’s narrator is nearer to Fielding, engaging directly with his readers, as the oral tale-tellers on which he modelled himself would have done, of necessity, with their listeners. The Ted Wickham story is a good example, for here even a simple first person narrative gets a twist at the beginning, and that narrator has quite an axe to grind!
If you’ve not read any Coppard, this is fine starting place, and if you enjoy it, there are another 200 or so tales to go at, if you’re prepared to search the used book market. If we were to recognise an ‘English’ school of short story writers, in the way there are Scottish, Irish, French American, Russian and so on, Coppard would be a contender for not only its pre-eminent member, but perhaps also its originator.
The cover art for this attractive volume is by Eric Ravilious, who went missing on active service as a War Artist, in World War Two.
Published on Amazon: English of the English, responses to the tales of A.E.Coppard by Mike Smith: