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I’ve just finished reading Karen Blixen’s short stories, The Diver, and The Ring, two of the five stories in Babette’s Feast & Other Stories in the Penguin Modern Classics series. The back-cover blurb tells me that they were among her late stories.

They have the assuredness of stories by a writer who knows what is being done. Mythical, magical is a word that both the blurb and foreword use, and complex the stories, like the woodland glade in The Ring seem at the same time specific and diffuse.

A heightened, perhaps archaic voice, though it’s hard to tell with translations, if that’s what they are, emphasises the mythic, medieval quality, creating a sense of timelessness though, rather than of any time in particular.

There was no good reason to read these two side by side. One opens, and the other ends the collection, and I’d read Babette’s Feast much earlier. Perhaps, yes, certainly, it was because of the remaining four these two were the shorter, and more suited to a snatched half hour.

Yet, as stories by the same writer, at the same period of their writing life might be expected to do, they resonated with each other, despite the superficial differences. The Diver purports to be a Persian tale, beginning in Shiraz and reading like a folk tale, until it reaches a line break, just before which a first person narrator is revealed, and in which the statement ‘ “This,” said Mira Jama, “is the first part of my story.”

The sudden presence of the narrator surprises, though the story opened with ‘Mira Jama told this story:’ Which does not make explicit that he is actually telling it in the present moment of the reader reading!

That first part has concerned a young man of religious fervour who has created wings by which men might fly among and meet with angels. This has frightened the old men of the city, who have contrived a trap for him: the beautiful dancer Thusmu, who seduces him, passing herself off as an angel, but who then falls in love with him and confesses her deceit.

The second part of the story is not directly about the young man, but about Mira Jama himself, who finds him in later years, a happy man, who has come to great wealth, though he has lost his faith, at least in angels. He tells Mira the story of his life, and of his wealth, gained as the eponymous diver.

Whereas the first part of the story has concerned birds, and flight, this part concerns fish, and the idea that they are the perfect expression of God’s work, for they are ‘supported’ in all the dimensions of their environment. The story ends on the ‘maxim’ ‘apres nous le deluge’, which some of us will surely recognise from our school-days’ history as the prophecy of a French king. I confess to finding this a weak joke at the end of a strong story.

That strength, in part, lies in the conversation between Mira and the man, which touches on stories, and myths, and in particular on the shock that Mira experiences on discovering who the man, the diver not so much is, as had been. For Mira has sought him out as a source of story, not knowing that he is the same man who made the wings in what Mira thought was a story he had made up. This conundrum, like the impossible tangle in a time-traveller’s tale, where past meets future, is a knot at the heart of The Diver, and just before that final quotation it has been touched upon as the core of the fish’s philosophy, which has been told to the man telling the story to Mira: ‘Man, in the end, is alarmed by the idea of time, and unbalanced by incessant wanderings between past and future. The inhabitants of a liquid world have brought past and future together…’

Had Blixen ended her story there, might it, I wonder, have been the stronger story for it?

In The Ring there is no such false note.

Shorter by a half this is a simpler story, but it still has that segmented structure. A young, newly married couple stroll through their farmland to see the sheep. All seems idyllic, but ‘all the time one knew one was playing’. The husband is a farmer and ‘had studied sheep-breeding’, but his young wife thinks ‘what an absurd person he is, with his sheep!’

The cracks appear swiftly, after the opening page of married bliss! Worse to come, the two hear a story of sheep-stealing by a wolf-like thief, and Blixen makes sure we jump to the right image: ‘She remembered Red Ridinghood’s wolf.’ While the farmer and his shepherd discuss the sheep, and that savage thief, Lise walks slowly home, and looks for a secret place in the woods that she has stumbled on before. More than that, she is conscious of being alone for the first time, and when she thinks of that wolf ‘a pleasant little thrill’ runs ‘down her spine.’

She of course encounters the man: filthy, desperate, armed, injured, and having made himself at home in her special, secret place. His right arm, the hand holding his unsheathed knife ‘hung down straight between his legs’, and when he sees her ‘he bent the wrist and slowly raised the point of the knife till it pointed at her throat.’ The sexual symbolism may be implicit, but it is unmistakeable.

She drops her handkerchief which he wraps around the knife blade before re-sheathing it. Blixen makes a feast of this, ending with ‘it went in’. By this time Lise has taken off and dropped her wedding ring, and he has kicked it away. When she leaves the dell to re-join her husband her marriage is over, at least in her mind.

She tells him, rather than confesses, that she has lost her ring, and he, in a sort of denial, babbles on about replacing it, but it is the ending of the story that strikes the most powerful note. Asked if she has ‘any idea’ where she lost it, she replies ‘I have no idea at all.’

In contrast to The Diver this story takes place over what is in effect only a few minutes, certainly within an hour or two, yet it has the same mythical reach, and her answer implies a length of time that stretches back long before the week of their initially idyllic marriage.

Time is one of the elements, it is said, that short stories writers are, and perhaps have to be, adept at manipulating, and we see Blixen doing that in both these stories. In the first, it is the long time of a man’s life encapsulated in the space of the telling of a story, itself held within a story. In the second it is the decision of a lifetime, or rather a realisation, experienced within the moments of a chance meeting.

And both have that touch of certainty about them, not only in the characters presented, but in the voices of the storyteller. There is an assuredness that comes across in the telling, that asserts the truth of the stories. They are not told as speculations as to what might have happened, but, despite their logical absurdities – in The Diver it is a fish with horn-rimmed spectacles that tells the man who tells the story to Mira about the truth of God and fishes – both have the tone of absolute conviction. They are not doubted by their teller, nor, perhaps, by us.

Writing about stories written by someone else is a curious business. What is worth saying? Writing about our own stories, the answer is obvious. Nothing is worth saying. But with other people’s stories there’s a more complex answer. Should we tell readers what the story ‘is about’? After all, that’s the question we’re likely to be asked when somebody catches us reading a story. Should we try to say how it has been written? That’s what interests other writers, perhaps. And if we do either of those things, aren’t we actually getting in between the story and a potential reader, rather than helping that reader get closer to the story? And is getting someone closer to a story something we should be trying to do anyway?

What we can do is point out what has caught our attention in a story, and by doing so strike a chord of recognition – of similarity or difference, it doesn’t matter – in another reader, in another human being.

What caught my attention in The Ring was Blixen’s portrayal of the fragility, and falseness, and the spontaneous potency of the relationships that can be entered into, managed, mismanaged and lost between individuals.

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Children don’t ask for their favourite bedtime story because they’ve forgotten what happened in it, but rather the opposite. The same is true with the films they like to watch over and over again.

But there are those who can’t read a book twice, or watch film a second time. It’s similar with places to visit. Some like always to go somewhere new; others like to go back to where they’ve been.

I’m a re-visiter, a re-reader, and a re-viewer. To not want to take another look at a film, or a book that I’ve enjoyed, or a place that I’ve only scratched the surface of, would be like not wanting to meet someone again whom I’d taken a liking to.

But re-telling stories is not the same as re-reading them. Re-making films is not the same as watching them for a second or subsequent time. Our favourite stories can sometimes be the ones that have been not only read, or watched over and again, but re-told, and re-made, and often, in the case of told stories, adapted for showing.

I’m thinking of stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s only one told version so far as I am aware, but there are many shown versions, beginning with Scrooge, from the turn of the century and leading to the Muppets and beyond. Such adaptations are rarely quite the same as the original – and when they are, it can be, perhaps surprisingly, quite a disappointment: a re-telling that seems only to save you the bother of imagining. More usually they are specific interpretations, sometimes so far from the original as to seem like high-jackings!

Told stories, when they are re-told rather than adapted to shown stories, might undergo similar changes, but that becomes less likely as they move from the oral to the written tradition. The printing press seemed to set a story, not only in letters but also, at least metaphorically, in concrete. Digital technologies may be breaking that down to an extent, but we’ll not see many trying to re-write Dickens’ Christmas story in their own words.

What I can imagine, and have done myself, is the taking of a story as a point of inspiration for, not so much an adaptation, as a transposition in time and place, form the world – and world-view – of the original writer to that of the re-writer. As an exercise in examining what has remained constant and what has evolved in the human experience this can offer insights to writer and readers, but even if the original story is not known to the reader the transposed version can still be a good story in its own right.

Preface

Perhaps it’s the heat, or the pressure of work, or that I’m just running out of ideas, but I don’t have a rant or speculation, response or investigation for you this week. So I’m putting up a short story, a votre service, instead:

 

 

 

 

Eau de cologne, nescafé?

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

By the time I realised that John Bee was a thief he had graduated from packets of soup and small items of tinned food. He had gone beyond hand tools and other household goods. Indeed, he could have set up a modest home on the basis of all he had acquired. Don’t let me mislead you though, into believing that it was for money that he embarked upon his shoplifting sprees. He had no intention of profiting financially from them.

It was Yvette who drew me to John Bee. It was because of her I became, before, to and after the fact, an accessory.

The first of these occasions may well have been when John Bee gave me the contents of a bottle of hair shampoo. The curious fact that he did this by decanting the pale and viscous liquid into a half pint beer glass, rather than simply passing over the plastic bottle, should, in hindsight, have alerted me to the possibility that more was going on than might have got into the eyes. However, I was somewhat distracted by his comment as he read from the empty bottle.

There’s good advice to be had these days, he said, from the packaging of consumer goods.

I gazed at him quizzically.

Seek Help, he read aloud, for healthy looking hair.

I took the empty container from him.

Sea Kelp, I read silently, for healthy looking hair.

The best of course, he added, is on shirt packets.

I looked at him quizzically again.

Keep away from babies and small children. He said.

I could see the sense in that.

“Pret a manger.” John Bee said, holding up the film of plastic from a supermarket quiche.

“Pret a manger.” I corrected, in my best Grammar School accent. “Ready to eat.” I told him.

“Ready to be eaten.” He corrected.

Then again perhaps that had been when the seed was sown and the shampoo was purely co-incidental.

Yvette was small, dark-haired and boyish. She was on secondment to the college from a French university as Assistant, that is assistante you understand, to the French department.

John Bee was not a student of that department, but had, for some reason, decided that he would learn her language. This is what had led to the shoplifting.

John Bee, I always thought, was an original man. Whereas you or I would have transferred to a course in the language department, John Bee decided that he would teach himself. To this end he withdrew from all lectures and tutorials to which he was assigned so that he might devote himself totally to his unofficial linguistic development.

Perhaps he intended to forge more intimate links with Yvette. Or maybe he used her in pursuance of his studies. I am still undecided. Whatever the explanation, I am sure that Yvette was a purely innocent party: a victim of circumstance. A petite filou caught in the machinations of a deranged man in a foreign country.

The first time I saw her, she was wearing a little black dress, upon the shoulder of which she had sewn, quite neatly, the famous circular icon of the nineteen sixties peace movement. C’est tres chic, n’est ce pas? She said, sensing my curiosity.

One of the great innovations brought about by the rapid and progressive globalisation of our economies has been the necessity for labelling goods in several languages. It was in this practice that John Bee saw his opportunity.

John Bee had resolved to teach himself French from the multi-lingual labels of everyday consumer products. This began, innocently enough, with items already in his possession. John Bee was mis en bouteille a la propriété. He learned to Tirez ici, pour ouvrir. He cooked with Tomates peléés entieres au jus de tomates

But the consumer products that he regularly purchased could not bear the weight of his researches. He must have realised, almost from the beginning, that he would need to acquire a far greater range of domestic items than any normal household would require: more, certainly, than he could afford to buy. We were all students at the time, even Yvette.

One wonders when that fateful moment came in which he recognised that felony would be his only practical answer to this problem. Was it an instant of inspiration? The allure of some Gallic label overwhelming his Anglo-Saxon sense of propriety? Or was it a long thought out strategy, a grim decision, taken at length, all other alternatives having been weighed and judged impossible?

He began simply enough: slipping the extra can of this, packet of that, into the deep inner pockets of his anorak. He took to shopping at the smaller, street corner grocers, where security was patchy, and was focussed on younger men in hooded tops. He branched out into independent department stores where bored sales girls in heavy make-up discussed arcane sexual acts, and nail varnish shades in preference to paying attention to their customers. He learned the hard way that market traders had eagle eyes, and looked out for each other across the jostling crowds in the alleyways between their stalls.

Then he had the problem of what to do with what were, when all was said and done, unusual items, in both type and quantity, for a man in his position to have in his possession.

His dustbins had all the mad inexplicability of Modern Art. Instead of discarded boxes, cartons and torn wrappers, John Bee’s bins, don’t you love that alliteration, overflowed with the unused goods that he had neither needed nor been able to give away. Whereas other people sneaked their rubbish into neighbourhood skips, filched second hand goods from them, John Bee sneaked torn packaging from them, slipped unobtrusive unused items in.

A shift of emphasis, the need to acquire simple instructions, led him towards clothing that carried the grimly puritanical exhortation to “laver seulement” or needed to be “laver a main”.

He began to take Yvette with him on his expeditions.

Armed with a cavernous holdall each, they would take the bus and do the malls and supermarkets of the nearby towns. They carried a small toolkit, which enabled electronic devices to be removed surreptitiously from within the folds of hanging garments.

How, one wonders, did the counter staff explain the discovery of the various abandoned tags, each still attached to a neat square or circle of cloth? Who would want to steal a garment with such a disfiguring hole within it?  How, one wonders, did the eventual recipients of these garments, explain them away? How did they disguise them? Why did we not suspect their origin?

For a time John Bee considered taking only the labels. They were, after all, the major interest in his eyes, but, having a practical cast of mind, and abhorring waste Yvette persuaded him to go the cochon entiere. She did not fully understand, I’m sure, what she had become involved in, for as you would imagine, his grasp upon her language remained tenuous, to say the least.

I met them once, unsuspectingly, after one of their ventures, in a bookshop coffee bar. John Bee was reading the label on a can of some chemical concoction: if swallowed, seek immediate medical advice, he said. I thought of Jonah.

Yvette showed me a garment in cerise with a lacy hem, and warned me that it might inflame. John Bee glanced across. Catch fire, he said, is what she means. She had meant what she said, I thought.

Hence, innocently, no doubt, Yvette acquired several items of clothing that would have been quite useless to John Bee, and I received a pullover into which he would have fitted three times over. Other garments followed. But there was a limit to washing and ironing instructions. Soon he was on the lookout for more complex processes.

Small electrical items offered a brief introduction to the language of wiring plugs and the excitement of “danger de mort ou de blessure grave”. John Bee’s ambition soon outgrew them.

Something that must be assembled, as well as cared for, John Bee decided, was what he needed. White goods and furniture, he reasoned, must be his next objective: but they do not fit into a holdall. Not even into two.

I had a car.

Take us to Ikea. He begged.

Pour moi, cherie. Yvette said.

Well? Why not, I thought. It would be a day out.

Back at the halls of residence he stacked the flat packs in the corridor and set off eagerly into the assembly instructions. Don’t ask me how he’d got it all out past security. I’d gone across the car park to a Computer World, come back with a laptop. I’d needed a new one, and it was one of those offers you really can’t refuse. When he came in to tell me how well he was getting on I was still struggling with the instruction book, trying to set it up.

His eyes lit up. The book was in about a dozen languages, but even so, the French section must have been a quarter inch thick.

Security’s much better at Computer World. They got him about four paces from the front door. Yvette too. I’d just pulled up, like he’d asked me to, at the kerbside, and swung the passenger door open. When you looked at it on the CCTV footage, you had to admit, it did look just like the classic getaway car.

That was the first time I realised John Bee was a thief. Beware of theft, it had warned me, on the back of the parking ticket I’d taken at the machine.

Ne jamais mettre a l’avant un siege pour enfant oriente vers l’arriere*, as they say.

 

[*never put a rear facing child seat on the front seat.]

 

Postface

This story was published in Second Time Around, a short collection from 2006. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was based on actual events, and actual confessions, and ‘real’ people…. but then they all are….. Apart from Turnip Farm Number Three, which was entirely made up, and can be found in Departures.

Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a chorus to an unpublished autobiographical poem I wrote a few years back:

Burton on Trent, Burton on Trent

A job at the brewery might just pay the rent

The town wore the smell of the maltings like scent

And the shunters were calling in Burton on Trent

 

 

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

And it’s true that two of my strongest memories of the town are of hearing the cries of shunters in the darkness, along with the clank of coupling chains, and then the whistles of steam engines, and the steady chuff of them pulling away, and of smelling the awful stench of the breweries in the days of the nineteen fifties when it still pervaded the town.

Perhaps that’s why I fled to the mountain air of the Lake District. Perhaps it’s why I was in my twenties before I could face even the idea of drinking beer. But whatever you drank, the pub was a noticeable feature of the town. There was, seemingly, one at every corner. The Barley Mow, The Staffordshire Knot, The Punch Bowl, The Queen’s Head. For a time, in my early teens, I even collected pub names, much the way that others collected the numbers of steam trains, or the registrations of motor cars. A difference of course, was that you have to travel yourself, to find pub names. They won’t come past you.

The Pink and Lily, The Drunken Duck, Tan Hill, The Kitling Romper, Alice’s Pie Shop, The Cornish Chough. Pub names from all over the UK stick in the mind.

Lost among them is a distinction that for several generations now, we’ve not been likely to make – but it’s still there, in the architecture, in the location – the distinction between a pub (technically short for Public House) and an Inn. Inns, as even the Christmas story makes plain, are places where people expected to stay, and where food was served. Public Houses were where people went to drink. Travellers frequent the former, locals the latter. But of course, there will be people who live in the vicinity of inns, for whom they will be, the local, and people no doubt fetch up at pubs, especially country ones, and expect to be put up for the night. Cornelius Cardew does just that in Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party.

The quality of locals, of either category, is that they were places where people spent time in the company of others. At the inn end of the spectrum, the stranger is to be expected. At the other, conversation is likely to stop, if only temporarily, when the stranger walks in – even if not through batwing doors.

Not surprising then that these are places where stories are set, where stories are made, and where stories are told. Chaucer’s England had them. Fielding had them – the Inn at Upton being the most famous, I venture – Dickens had them, and not only the London pub, but those of his travellers, not least the Pickwickians. Hardy had them. Joyce’s Dubliners frequented them, and so did his Ulysses. You’ll find them in A.E.Coppard, scattered among his two hundred or so published stories.

In The Wife of Ted Wickham, the couple run a pub. In The Black Dog, the story takes place mostly in the eponymous pub. Monty Barlass, of The Truant Hart, is introduced as ‘a farmer and publican.’ The famous Dusky Ruth in the story named after her is working in a pub, and there are many others. Nearly always rural, they isolate characters from the world, yet bring them into contact with each other, acting as a sort Prospero’s Island.

Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knot roams the high seas over many years, but its events are recalled, and re-told in the Welcome Home Tavern at the head of Quay Street.’ More famously, Tolkien’s The Green Dragon has been re-created in real life, though in Peter Jackson’s faux Hobbiton, rather than at a movie-set Bywater (the beer, though, as you might know, is excellent).

In The Green Dragon

George Moore’s mould breaking novel, Esther Waters has a pub as its setting and for similar reasons: the bringing together of characters. There is also the possibility that writers like Moore would have been unlikely to encounter people of his heroine’s class elsewhere. The working class of domestic service and their lives would have been invisible to him by comparison to the landlord and his wife (or husband). TV soaps from Eastenders to Coronation Street would be, possibly literally, unimaginable without their pubs.

        The ground before the bar in an English pub is open ground for truth and lies to meet and mingle. So long as the tales flow as freely as the beer, all is running properly. Sedition and plotting has to take place in corners and alcoves and around little tables over which the conspirators can hunch, like those in a story from Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets.

 

 

‘He was a long-bankrupt tradesman, with invisible resources and no occupation but this, and no known lodging but the Red Cow snuggery. There he remained all day, “holding the fort” as he put it; with his nose, a fiery signal of possession, never two feet from the rim of his pot;’    -from The Red Cow Group

 

But even the absence of a pub, can give it an insistent presence, as in V.S.Pritchett’s short story, Many Are Disappointed, in which a group of cyclists, long overdue for a beer and having passed the only pub on the road, mistake a private house, and have to settle for tea!

 

‘There isn’t a bar’, she said. ‘This isn’t a public-house. They call it the Tavern, but it isn’t a tavern by rights.’

 

It’s difficult to imagine a place where such a wide variety of people could meet with such a wide variety of freedoms to speak, as in the English pub, and for all the drinking culture that the English have been infamous for over four centuries, I can’t help thinking that it is the freedom of speech allowed, at least until things become threatening, that has been the more important characteristic.

Yet pubs and inns have changed. They have had to. A story emanating from a pub called The Barnaby Rudge (from the days when it was called something else) told of a local farmer who used to turn out at closing time so drunk that they would put him in his cart and un-tether the horse to take him home, which it would! One night, an impractical joker, unharnessed the horse, put the shafts the cart through a gate nearby, and re-harnessed the horse on the other side. That night the farmer took the gate, gate-posts and a few yards of fence on each side, away with down the road, until it became too heavy for the horse to pull!

The first time I visited Carlisle, in the late nineteen seventies, the pubs had only a few years before come out of public ownership. The State Management Scheme, brought in to discourage drunkenness, rather than to promote public houses, had left them run down, under invested, old fashioned and pretty miserable places (especially if you were sober). If you asked for food, they would look at you with suspicion verging on hostility.

Nowadays, drunken driving being somewhat more of a menace than horse-riven fencing, pubs need to sell something other than alcoholic drinks. Perhaps when we get the self driving car we’ll revert. The pub has become more like the inn, and the inn more like the restaurant. Even a local pub must draw in customers – diners – from far afield. No country pub can sustain a living selling a couple of pints two or three nights a week to those who live within walking, or horse cart distance. Somebody told me a few years ago that to make a ‘community pub’ viable it would need to sell a thousand pints of beer a night. I imagined the state the villagers would have to drink themselves into to achieve that, without the help of a busy restaurant. We just wanted somewhere for the locals to have a quiet drink, he told me.

At our tables set for four, we’re less likely to talk to strangers, or even neighbours, than we were at the crowded bar, or squeezed around those small round tables. Yet, there remains something of Fielding’s rough and tumble inn, of Chaucer’s and Dickens’. There remains the people, strangers and locals, with their stories to make, and tell, and pass on. At a pub beneath the flight path into Manchester airport I sat by a window table and listened to a man boasting that he had lived next door to a famous criminal exile (who would, years later come home to die). The locals clustered around him, and plied him with drink. Even if it was bullshit, and who would know, it was entertainment, and worth his pay.

I’ve used them in several short stories, and in each story, I’ve had a particular pub in mind as I wrote. They offer both familiarity, and anonymity; a sort of equality in which not only friends, but strangers can speak. They can of course, still say too much. In the prize-winning story (published ‘through gritted teeth’ by the prize-givers, I like to recall), The Ballad of Matty Lonin, the opening incident – a McGuffin perhaps – takes place in a pub, and was based on something that actually happened in a Cumbrian pub, though it didn’t end in quite the same way!