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There is a 1937 collection of H.E.Bates short stories, Country Tales, to which the author has added an introductory essay called The Writer Explains. Though only four pages long, it throws light on a wide range of issues that might concern us as writers, and even eighty years later holds much that resonates with current experience.

Bates asserts the supremacy of the short story: ‘…it is in every way a finer means of expression…..than either the novel or poetry.’ He bemoans the lack of newspaper and magazine support for the form (in the UK), and cites the importance of other forms of publication: ‘The existence of the short story seems to depend largely therefore on its survival in volume form’. He gives a reason for writing: ‘…for pleasure, and out of a passionate interest in human lives.’ And he writes about his development as a writer: ‘I had the choice either of repeating myself……or of consciously trying to widen my range of sympathy and develop myself’.

This last undertaking, the transition from a writer of ‘the dreamy world of the subjective’ to ‘a wider, harder, more objective world,’ is one that, in some form or another, I suspect any self-conscious writer must eventually confront.

And those outlets he complains about the lack of – and the poor rates of pay: how, I wonder, would he regard the upsurge of magazines and journals devoted to the form, yet which pay nothing. Curiously, he compares the short story to the ‘heroic couplet’ in ‘the age of Pope’, which, perhaps unintentionally raises the issue of to what extent the writers of those times were actually commercial in any real sense. The sonnet was a form that writers of Shakespeare’s time used to show off to each other, surely, rather than to make money from? And even a writer as late as George Moore, according to one biography, was priming the pump of his publications with inputs of money that eventually ate up the value of his Irish landownings.

That assertion of the ‘fineness’ of the form is still relevant, especially in the context of Bates’ associated remark that it is ‘still in its infancy’, something that his writing contemporary, A.E.Coppard, was entirely at odds with – tracing it back to the oral tradition. Bates attacks this idea vehemently in his The Modern Short Story, fearing that it might lead to writers not being paid for their work. Digital recording, podcasts and streaming, and those non-paying magazines, might be seen as proof of this pudding. But also, could be seen as a return to the days when those who want to write do so, among other reasons, for the pleasure of entertaining each other, rather than for money (making them, according to Doctor Johnson, of course, ‘Blockheads!’).

There’s perhaps an irony too, in the title of the collection in which this introduction appears, for that ‘Tales’ was the term that Coppard always used for his short stories, and which so irritated Bates that he condemned it in his history of the form.

It seems to me that when we are interested and engaged in the making of things, be they wooden chairs, or clay pots, or short stories, the means of making must interest us to a much greater degree than they do those who only sit upon them, or fill (and empty) them, and read them!


The Silent Life Within

I took the title for this collection of essays on the short story and its writers from George Moore. The phrase features in the story Home Sickness, one of the stories in The Untilled Field, which is the subject of one of the essays. The full sentence tells us something about why one might write: ‘There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself’.

I often cite Moore for his description of short story endings, quoted in the 1985 Uncollected  Short Stories, edited by Eakin and Gerber. They end, Moore says, in ‘Minor Keys.’ The phrase is evocative, but the qualifier he adds to it is more powerfully so: ‘the mute yearning for what life has not for giving.’

A contemporary of Moore’s, H.G.Wells provides the opening essay of my collection with his story The Magic Shop. A simple story of a father and son going shopping, spins into a magical yarn. Out of the increasingly fantastical events comes a profound insight into the relationship between parent and child, and the way it must change.

Mary Mann’s Little Brother, one of her 1890s rural tales set in the fictional Norfolk village of Dulditch, gives the last word, not to the middle class narrator, but to the poverty stricken Mrs Hodd who rebukes her.

Two European stories are the subject of the next two essays. Justus van Effen ran a magazine modelled on The Spectator and what interested me about his story was the way that a seemingly outdated, politically incorrect even, piece of social observation could turn out to be, in fact, quite contemporary on closer inspection. The French writer, Alphonse Daudet’s story Belisaire’s Prussian, allows a long look at how the order of words can change the weight of a sentence, and, when it is the last sentence in the story, might shift the focus of the story itself.

Three stories, of travellers encountering ‘a woman’ are compared in the essay Fellow Travellers. H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and Katherine Mansfield do something very similar, yet very different!

I take a rare visit to contemporary stories in the next essay, with Matt Plass’s almost ghost story, Next to Godliness, which is built on an elegant premise. Then we look at Elizabeth Taylor’s The Blush, an oblique study of a failed marriage and failed middle class life.

A group of Somerset Maugham tales, turned into mini-films, provide the opportunity to look at adaptation and the impact of changed agendas comes next, followed by a study of Mrs W.K.Clifford’s dark tale of class, snobbery and passionate love, The Heart of the Wood.

The penultimate essay discusses Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knott, in which three seafaring men with a history of piracy and slave-running between them meet in a Bristol pub and discuss the souls of ships, and of men.

Finally, I examine the trickery and sleight of word in Daphne du Maurier’s deceptive tale The Old Man.

The Silent Life Within, short stories examined is available here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADon’t I recall, from the late nineteen sixties, a brand of multi-coloured cigarettes called Calypso? You could buy singles of them at the local barber, as long as you were under age…..

When I first read Ulysses it was Stephen I identified with. I was going to be a poet too – and there was a chance I could be as good or as bad a one as Joyce had been. But at a later reading I was nearer the age of Bloom, and had been both married and divorced. Stephen haunts the book, just as Rudi, the prematurely deceased child of Molly and Bloom, does, but Bloom inhabits it fully. He is foretold in the opening chapters, and he is uppermost in Molly’s thoughts, and upside down in her bed, at the end.

A hundred and ten years on from the first one, Bloomsday remains…Bloomsday! Not Stephen’s Day, nor indeed Molly’s.

I’ve seen essays on Ulysses that I didn’t even understand the title of. University Departments have been dedicated to study of this book. Professors have made their careers, and livings, out of it. Far more, I suspect, will have been earned by them than Joyce ever saw from it!

Yet a writer like Anthony Burgess (Here Comes Everybody, Faber, 1965), can exhort us to believe that is really just an ‘ordinary’ novel, to be read for enjoyment. If that is indeed true, then it’s what appears to happen to the characters, and what they appear to think about it, that must hold our attention.

Breakfast at number 7 Eccles Street in Dublin is the beginning of our acquaintanceship with Leoplold Bloom. He eats ‘the inner organs of beasts and fowls’, ‘with relish’ and some of us choose to do something similar on the mornings of 16th June that we encounter!

Bloom’s day starts the way it will continue: we ride his consciousness through the routines of an ordinary life. H.E.Bates, writing in a Preface to one of his collections of short stories tells how he decided to stop ‘sucking the significance’ out of trivial events…Joyce sucks for all Leopold Bloom is worth. The opening chapter of this second part of the novel (it’s main part) sees Bloom make breakfast for his wife and for himself (including a trip to the butcher for some of those inner organs), and then a trip to the Calypso’s Grotto of the privy where he – reader I can put no finer point upon it – opens his bowels.

It was this level of domestic detail (among other, later things) that outraged the post Edwardian literary scene onto which Joyce elbowed his way. George Moore (let’s not forget him), had done something similar with the 1894 publication of Esther Waters, which, in this 1936 introductory note gave us the ‘straightforward presentment of men and women in their ordinary life.’ Moore’s previous four books had been banned from circulating libraries for ‘offending against Victorian proprieties’. Back to Ulysses, all through which, Bloom’s inner voice adds a commentary to Joyce’s own. Bloom is an advertising canvasser, and he frames the ads that might suit, or have fitted, many of the items he finds, sees, seeks and encounters as his day unfolds.

The comparison with the contents of Stephen’s mind is worth reflecting upon. To my mind, Stephen’s musings upon the cosmos and the nature of being, seem yet inward looking, while Bloom’s thoughts about the minutiae of what impinges upon his own life, seems to embrace the universe. Mostly, repeatedly, and with a wistful longing, Bloom reflects upon Molly. One of the things, for want of a better word, that this novel might bring you, is a sense of the gulf that Joyce was portraying between the immensity of Bloom’s longing for his wife, and her understanding of it. When we finally meet Molly and live for forty pages within her drifting thoughts, at the end of the day, we may do so in the context of Bloom’s thoughts about her. Because of her position – not in the bed! – at the end of the book, and because of the originality of Joyce’s presentation of her, there is a temptation to think that Ulysses is all about Molly, but my readings have led me, over and over again, to think that it remains, true to its original, all about the Irish Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. He journeys out from home; he journeys back: surely the most difficult journeys for anyone to undertake?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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!TalkingtoOwls

 George Moore published his collecion of short stories, The Untilled Field, in 1902, over ten years before James Joyce’s Dubliners appeared, yet the two collections are closer contemporaries than those dates would suggest.

Joyce wrote his stories mostly in 1905, adding its most famous, and most powerful story, The Dead, after the rest were finished. It was his long struggle towards publication that pushes the two collection apart.

The two collections, and the two writers, are well worth a comparison. Both were Irishmen, writing in English, and living in exile, Joyce at the time of his writing in Trieste, Moore in London. Yet they were from different classes, Joyce slipping down the urban middle class spectrum, Moore running through the fruits of his rural landowner’s estate. Both wrote for an international intelligentsia of British and American readers. Both sought publication in London. Yet Joyce, losing patience with Grant Richards tried publication with a Dublin company, Maunsel & Co., who pulled out of the deal after dithering for a year or so. Moore, like Joyce, something of a linguist, published his stories originally in Erse, a language which he did not speak, providing English manuscripts for translation. English editions followed, with deletions and additions, finally settling down into what might be regarded as a ‘standard’ text around the late nineteen twenties.

Both writers took their homelands for their subject, Joyce writing about Dublin(and continuing to do so for the rest of his literary career), and Moore, in this collection at least, writing about the rural Irish peasantry. Both collections have fifteen stories in them, and both authors cast a bleak, discerning eye upon the human condition as it is played out in the places they wrote of.

Joyce’s stories are said to be ones of paralysis, Moore’s, to my way of thinking, exhibit a similar sense of entrapment. In Joyce’s Eveline, the eponymous heroine cannot bring herself to emigrate with her lover: ‘She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal.’ But in Moore’s ‘Home Sickness‘, where the woman is abandoned as James Bryden returns to America without her, it is the author’s reflection upon the story that chills: ‘There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself.’

The parallels between these two writers, and their Edwardian collections, are sometimes in harmony, sometimes in discord, often in strange and haunting counterpoint, where the same themes are viewed from different perspectives. Poverty, Catholicism, emigration, and disjointed love affairs are their common currency. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Moore’s rural Ireland has its characters, some of whom pass from story to story, like Mary Byrne and Ned Kavanagh. Some of Joyce’s, of course, went on to populate Ulysses.

I discovered Joyce long before I had heard of George Moore, but over the years, I have found myself drawn to reading Moore rather than Joyce. Both men were writing about the past, about places in which they had lived, rather than in which they were living. Their stories are from the perspective of exile, and of memory, and are often about those two themes. They pose questions about why we are the way we are, about the difficulties of escaping what we have become. In ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say he wishes to ‘fly by’ the nets of convention, and culture, that constrain him. Both writers undertook similar flights, and from similar nets. The differences, and similarities between them, and their stories, make them a rich source of comparison, each illuminating the other.

Written a hundred years later, another collection to throw into the pot is Claire Keegan’s 2007, Walk The Blue Fields, from Faber. Also set in rural and provincial Ireland, a surprising similarity of themes connects all three, or perhaps, considering that the human condition does not change in essence, not so surprising after all.