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I recently discovered myself reading Charles Dickens’ ghostly short story, The Signalman. In fact, I have it now beside me, in a folding paper copy of the ‘Travelman Short Stories’ series. In this story a visitor to an unspecified railway cutting meets a signalman in charge of a box guarding the entrance to a tunnel. The man tells of an apparition that appears to warn him of impending disaster.

I’ve read the story several times. It is one of the writer’s better known short pieces, so well known in fact that in 1976 – the year of the Lynerd Skynerd air crash – it was turned into a BBC TV movie by Lawrence Gordon Clark.

It’s an almost ‘perfect’ adaptation, if by perfection you mean that it adds nothing to, and takes very little – save for the act of imagination, which Mr Dickens might have thought worth something – from the original. One curiosity, and an amusement to me, was the fact that in the shown story, the unfortunate signal man – and here’s a spoiler – is driven down by the engine whilst standing in the centre of the tracks and facing it. In the told story, we do not see the accident happen, but the narrator arrives afterwards, and has it reported to him -in the shown story, we get both the incident and its report – including the detail that ‘his back was towards her’, which seems to me to make the whole thing a little more believable, if not quite so dramatic.

There is another aspect of the adaptation that struck me as I watched. That was the detail of the train. I have a book on railways in film (Railways on the Screen, by John Huntley, Ian Allen, 1993). There, taking up a mere sixth of a page, is the information that the film was made on the Severn Valley Railway using the Kidderminster Tunnel plus a faux Signal Box. I would have guessed that it was a GWR engine – I know a little bit about that sort of thing – but the genealogy of the coaches would have defeated me (they were GWR too). Of course, in Dickens’ story no detail of coaches or locomotive was included. A problem of the shown story, is that it cannot be, where the told story can, non-specific, but must locate itself where, in this case, the stream train was to be had. Both the writer and the film-maker will strive to get in what they need to get in, and to keep out what they need to be out, but the wordsmith has an easier job of the latter than does the cameraman. The signalman in Dickens’ story refers to the train crash in the tunnel in a dozen or so words: the TV version has flames and wreckage and rescuers searching for bodies. We see the event (or at least its aftermath) directly, rather than getting the signalman’s report of it (and thereby its effect on him – how we describe a thing often tells more about us than it, as in ‘what sort of car was it? Oh! a Great one!’). As the story is about him, rather than about the train, this is a watering down that appears to be a beefing up!

More ghostly, perhaps, than anything in the short story, is the uncanny fact that Denholm Eliot, playing the signalman in the TV version, whistles the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Tit Willow’, which, of course, was not written until several years after Dickens’ death! Mind you, that would put the story (at 1885 or after), more nearly into the time at which that particular locomotive and carriages were in use! Another show/tell conundrum here, for you, as a writer can say ‘he whistled a sad tune’, and the reader will imagine it, but the filmmaker, must either leave it out or pick one – one that perhaps, who knows, following an unexpected event in a cinema, makes you laugh every time you hear it!

The told story, of course, is located in your mind, and on a railway of your remembering, as it no doubt was in Dickens’ mind, for we must not forget that he was involved in the dreadful rail disaster at Staplehurst in the summer of 1865, as it tells me on the cover of that Travelman sheet. What it doesn’t go into is the detail that he was travelling back from France with Ellen Ternan and her mother, whom, for propriety’s sake, he had to pretend during the rescue, were strangers whom he had merely encountered in the debris. Peter Ackroyd, in his 1990 biography of Dickens gives an account of this event stretching over several pages. He also, very briefly, mentions the short story as being included among the Christmas stories for 1866.

Yet the purpose and enjoyment of the two stories seems untouched by the adaptation. In both it is a mood piece, a shiver down the spine, as the fears of an isolated man in a shadowed cutting near a tunnel mouth are played out in reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve tried writing ghost stories myself, but they always disintegrate into comedy…some even start that way! Insubstantiality and The Hotel Entrance’ – that ‘ance’ and its pronunciation being significant – are the type, and both to be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 

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Radio 4 pissed me off this week. (No! Never! Well, hardly ever…). They announced a short story slot with the phrase ‘by the novelist’.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week Radio 4 aired the first part of a dramatisation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel, Cloud Howe, the second in his A Scots Quair trilogy. I’ve read only the first novel (and made a start on the second since hearing the dramatisation), but have become a fan of LGG’s writing.

Several Facets of Fiction hallmark this writer, not least his use of punctuation. Commas are used to connect, rather than to disconnect, strings of complete sentences. Full stops are used to break up the clauses of long sentences. Even paragraphs fulfil the same function from time to time, beginning with such no-noes as ‘but’ and ‘and’. The effect of this is to speed up the reader’s progress through the text: the commas keep us going where a full stop would halt us. The full stops slow us down, making us take in the image of each clause or group of clauses, but the logic of the sentence as a whole carries us forward. It’s like having a present, first person narrator inside your head, though the narrator is in fact third, and sometimes second person. The voice is that of a garrulous conversationalist, and he has a strong – though not precisely authentic apparently – accent. In fact, the regional dialect that LGG presents is utterly convincing, to the outsider, but apparently mediated to make it more palatable, and perhaps more persuasive. LGG issued a glossary with the American edition of his work, which suggests to me that he expected his reader to struggle. In fact, I suspect that he wanted his reader to have to pay attention – which seems like a bold, but good idea!

Similarly, in both Sunset Song, the first book of the three, and Cloud Howe, he precedes the story with a breathless resume of the entire history of the places in which they are set. Apparently some readers skip these. Bad move. They aren’t there just for show. By the time we have read them we have become locals of those imaginary locations. We have those prejudicial thumbnail accounts, our personal mythology of what they are like, and perhaps of what they ought to be like, and of how we ought to feel about them. LGG is a storyteller who wants us, I believe, to hear the story he is telling, in the voice he is using. He is not doing the Joycean thing of refining himself out of existence, so much as making sure we are getting our ear in, for what he has to tell us. Readers of the blog will know I have issues with the tag ‘show, don’t tell’. Here is an author who is telling us the story. He is not giving us the option of seeing it the way we might want to, but doing everything he can to tell it the way he thinks it was (or is!).

Another facet of the writing is the sparsity of dialogue, made more potent by LGG’s trick of hiding it among the text. Of all his techniques this is perhaps the one dearest to my own heart, though I picked the idea up from George Moore, long before I’d read any LGG. Thoughts, and direct speech is buried in the paragraphs of narrative, among those seemingly misplaced commas and full stops. We have to pay attention there too!

All of which is of necessity, missing from the dramatisation. What we are left with is the speech alone. It’s good to listen to. The voices are engaging, the words powerful. The story, or rather the events that the characters are commenting on, is well evoked. But the storytelling itself is missing. So, however much you enjoy the radio 4 version, make a point of reading the novel too, because, to borrow a line, it ain’t what he says, it’s the way that he says it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am the privileged possessor – I nearly wrote ‘proud’, but we must avoid the cliché, and the propensity for alliteration to obliterate meaning – the privileged possessor of the original drawing, by A.E. Rickards, of Arnold Bennett that was used on the cover of the Penguin edition of The Grand Babylon Hotel. The drawing was given to me by my late father-in-law, who was a theological bookdealer of international repute. He turned up many treasures in his passage through this world, and passed this one on to me because I am a Staffordshire man.

I tell you this because on Friday last the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Great Lives’ featured Arnold Bennett. This writer has fallen into obscurity, desuetude – not unnaturally -was the word used in the programme, and I must confess, that in all the years I have possessed the drawing, and in those before, I had not until the evening following the programme, read a word of this writer’s output. The programme was inspiring though, and has achieved its presenters wish that at least one person would go on to read some Bennett. There, lurking on my shelves, among the Penguin histories of English Literature as it happens, was The Grim Smile of the Five Towns.

Now I really did know nothing whatsoever of Bennett, save for his connection with The Potteries. In my Midland childhood they were still a place of smoke and grime – though I think I had that by rumour rather than experience! And in the programme, though the words ‘novelist’ and ‘journalist’ were mentioned, no reference at all was made to my favourite form, the short story. This put me in the curious position of embarking upon the first story in the  collection of short stories that is The Grim Smile of the Five Towns in the mistaken belief that I was reading the first chapter of a novel. Ignorance may or may not be bliss, but it is certainly a strange feeling to read a short story in the mistaken belief that you are reading a novel. Indeed, I wish I had realised earlier what I was doing, so that I might have paid more attention to those peculiarities. Of course, had I known, the peculiarities would not have existed. The penny, if that is the appropriate coin, dropped within half a page of the ending of the first story, The Lion’s Share, but it had been shoving at the slot – to extend the metaphor – right from the beginning. This was, I thought, an odd, though engaging and enjoyable, way to start a novel. It seemed to skip so lightly through the lives of Horace, and Sidney, and Ella at what, for a novel, seemed an almost indecently giddy pace. I can distinctly remember thinking, somewhere just after the middle of the story, that Bennett must be preparing for some ‘after’ story, that would commence when these preliminaries had been got out of the way. Dickens’ opening chapter of Bleak House might be said to do something similar.

The experience I might compare to boarding a train, and finding that you were travelling by boat – except for the fact that I have never done such a thing.

What, of course, Bennett was preparing me for – and for me – was the ending of his story, which, like all good short stories, carries the punch in its final words. So, for this reader at least, there was the double delight, not only of reaching the end of a good short story, but also of finding that I was not, in fact, reading a novel! There was also that glimmer of insight into the differences not only between the two forms, but also between my expectations of them.

I would commend the experience to you were it possible to replicate, but without that blissful ignorance, and the mistake it led to it’s hard to see how such a replication might be achieved. What I can do, of course, is to recommend a reading both of the author, and of this particular collection, on their own merits.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was cheering The Archers this week. Out there in the Borsetshire Triangle strange, subversive events are unfolding. The rich kids of the eponymous family are taking work out of the hands of the poverty stricken Emma and Ed. The depiction of Ed and Emma’s struggle to get by on a low income has been well handled, and the plotline, in which Josh gets offered £30 per week to help out with the Carter-Tucker hens is all the more delicious because Neil Carter is, of course, Emma’s dad – an innocent abroad, offering his daughter the odd £10 hand out to stave off starvation, while the comfortably-off Josh gets what all good rich kids deserve – more money! At least we know he won’t be forced to spend it on anything boring, like food and shelter. I’m looking forward to the day when, with the backing of the guileless but loaded Peggy, Josh, in partnership with Tom Namesake, the acceptable face of rapacious free market trading, drives both Neil and Hayley out, and the entire Tucker-Carter clan, shoeless and wrapped in threadbare blankets will be forced to seek shelter, hopefully on Christmas eve, in the dark stews of Borchester. A Dickension Christmas then, in Ambridge, to look forward to.

Radio Four also came up with the goods in respect of an interview with the dapper octogenarian Tom Wolfe, he of Bonfire of the Vanities, which has had the odd mention on this blog before. It was great to hear the old guy tell us what was what in the world of American writing, and who was who, or even whom! My favourite line was about young Ameerican writers in the post Second World War period: They were taught to write like Frenchmen, and did their best. Who are we being taught to write like, and, from a purely personal perespective, not least by me? Worth giving this one a run on Eye Player if you dothat sort of thing.

While I’m on the BBC, I might as well mention how irritating I find it when that great and much loved organisation is reporting its own achievements, and/or misdemeanours, that it refers to itself in the Third Person. Stalin was fond of this practice too, and the comparison is not reassuring. Why can’t they settle for saying we? Do they really think we don’t realise they are talking about themselves as they read out their various navel gazing news items?

You’re getting this blog post a day early this week, because I’m slotting it in between appearances at the Maryport Literary Festival, at the Senhouse Roman Museum. I’ve just come back from the Poetry Lunch. Grevil Lindop & Carola Luther had run workshops during the morning session, and lead the readers in an afternoon of poetry. It’s amazing how much talent we have in all sorts of genres, poetic, prosaic and dramatique in the county – something, I suspect, that we have in common with the rest of the UK, rather than separating us from it! Here’s a roll call of our readers, in no particular disorder: Sue Banister (with one ‘n’, note!), Joanne Weeks, Mike Baron, Mark Carson (who was Highly Commended TWICE in the poetry competition, and Sue Kindon (who WON the aforesaid competition), and Martin Chambers, who also ran; Sam Smith (publisher of The Journal), Chris Pilling, Jacci (got it right that time) Garside, who, like BHDandMe has several identities – but none, I hope, in crisis -, Hazel Stewart, Zoe Thomson, reading one of spouse Hugh’s poems, Gillian Greggain, Michael Bohling (hope I’ve got that right), Ann Ward, Charles Woodhouse, and Angela Locke. Several fine poets sat it out! Malcolm Carson among them! Uncle Tom Cobley and All – the all included Mick North who turned up with a sheaf of Fire Cranes – if you can have a ‘sheaf’ of them? As always, from this marvellous mix of voices, a sort of harmony, rather than a discord, emerged. A tremendous lunch was served, seemingly without effort – because its all done out of sight – by Jayne and her wonderful staff at the museum. A good thing to be involved with whether you’re in the procession or swelling the scene. Another swell at the scene was the inimitable Mary Birkett, to whom respect, as they say, or said… And tomorrow………

I’ve just finished watching the 1972 BBC Adaptation of War & Peace. Those of you who follow the blog will know that I recently read the novel. I had seen the TV series before too, on its original broadcast, presumably in 1972 or ’73!

I can remember being hooked by the series, though apart from Anthony Hopkins I couldn’t remember any of the actors in it, by name or face. In fact, when I came to watch it again I didn’t know all that many. Rupert Davies I knew, and Eric Chitty (who took a small role), but most of the rest slipped by me. I can remember that at the time of that first showing my friends and I thought it was a good watch! Several of us made a point of viewing, despite being students, and the local pub open when it was on… there were no large screen viewings in the bar-room in those days.

I enjoyed seeing it again, and took the 20 episodes over about 8 evenings, mostly two at a time. The story is substantially the same as the novel, but the what I saw was not what I remember having seen. My memory told me that the action was good – the battle scenes at Borodino and Austerlitz especially. In fact the battle scenes, compared to those we are now used to, with CGI and hand held or helmet mounted cameras, were not only tame, but quite unconvincing in many respects. Cinematography has moved on, but storytelling is still storytelling.

Tolstoy didn’t have to create a visual representation of the Napoleonic battlefield, only evoke one, by his use of words – even in translation that worked – but TV had to show it to us, and that meant working within limitations, of cameras, special effects, and casting. There were thousands of extras, well hundreds at least, and said to be of the Red Army. The movements though were not convincing, and neither were the numbers. It was one of those situations where the viewer, suspending disbelief, has to say ‘we know what you mean’, even though we’re pretty sure it’s not what you’ve said, or in this case, shown.

I had another carp too. Moscow, as Tolstoy makes plain, at some length, was a wooden city. That’s why, he says, it burnt so easily, having been abanadoned by its authorities. There was wooden furniture, true, but nary a wooden structure in sight!

Tolstoy’s book isn’t about tactics though, nor about architecture. It’s about people, and society, and the TV captured that aspect of the book remarkably well, I thought. The long philosophical authorial asides of the book were put into the mouths, or minds with voices over, of the characters. In particular, Napoleon, convincingly portrayed, spoke much of what Tolstoy had speculated about him.

Even the first Epilogue was present, showing the post-war family of Pierre, and the political discussions it was involved in. This for me was one of the notable features of both book and film which I had not recalled from my youth. Tolstoy was pointing out to his contemporaries, in what to some extent was a ‘state of the nation’ novel, that if the Russian ruling class did not effectively manage change, it would be swept away by revolution from below. Strange, that as the TV series was being made the same might be said of the Soviet regime, which fell less than twenty years later.

One aspect that caught my attention was how the needs of the different media, text and film, meant that long passages of the book could be accomplished in a few seconds of film – an internal monolgue, for example, such as goes on in Andre’s head as he lies dying – whereas a passage quickly passed over in words, might be stretched to the greater part of an entire episode in film. I’m sure this is something to do with creating the context in which the burden of a passage is carried. A few words can suggest an enduring and wholly imagined background that in film, requires an elaborate set and continuous action to represent. Which brings me to an image to finish on, that of the long column of retreating French soldiers, wagons and prisoners, plodding across a snow swept landscape, to my mind, from this second viewing, the most powerful of all the images given us by the BBC version.

 

Another image, not quite so stark is that of the cover of BHD’s new collection of short stories, due out at the end of the month from Pewter Rose Press. Talking To Owls, a collection of 22 short stories, flash fictions and monologues, will be in their online shop, as paperback and e-book versions, from 31st of October. Just in time for Christmas then!!

www.pewter-rose-press.com