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I take a long look at H.E.Bates’ grim story of abuse and exploitation, The Mill, on the Thresholds website – here. The study focuses on the three men in Alice Hartop’s life: her father, her abusive employer, and the compassionate and perceptive Albert, her employer’s son.


There’s a study of Bates’ short story, The Little Farm, in the first volume of my series of essays on short stories and their writers, Readings For Writers, available –here.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

An anniversary that you might have missed – I certainly did – was back in January, when the anniversary of the death of short story writer A.E.Coppard’s  passed without much of a ripple.

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.

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.

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

Picking up on last week’s blog, H.E.Bates goes on to say, in his introduction to Country Tales, that he found it easy to write his ‘early’ short stories. They were a ‘breakfast to lunchtime’ job, and written by – quoting Edward Garnett – ‘the facile devil inside.’

He goes on to say that to achieve his later stories required much harder work. He cites The Kimono and The Mill among others, as representing these later, deeper stories. I’m not a great fan of the former, but the latter is gritty and powerful without doubt, and my favourite, certainly in my top ten of all short stories, let alone those by English writers, The Little Farm, is one of these later attempts.

Conversations with fellow writers, and my own experience tells me that we all come to these change points in our writing lives, but whether we get through them, or think we have, into something significantly better is the test case. In fact, we probably go through several evolutions if we persist long enough.

A question might be, and I’ve raised this before in the blog, but it’s one of those questions you can ask over and over again, because the answer is always provisional, that of have we really got better, and even if have, will we be recognised for having done so? Perhaps, if we’re convinced, that doesn’t matter!

In poems and stories alike, I have often found that there are groups, sometimes widely spaced in the writing, over years, that hang together. Often this is to do with subject matter – content – but sometimes it is to do with the type of poem or story it is – form. Perhaps these represent attempts at moving to something better, or at least different.

Tom Pow, my tutor on the M.Litt course at Dumfries for a time, passed on to me advice given to him, which was, always, to ‘go deeper.’ Whether that’s deeper into content or into form, or into both, it’s got to be good advice, and it’s got to be the problem we’re always confronted with.  Working with students, and I see myself very much as a student in the context of writing, I tend to articulate the problem as one of having found out – to some extent – what you can do, but of having still to discover what you intend to do with it.

Reading through contemporary magazines (and my own stories), I find too often that what has been neatly expressed does not yet convince me of the necessity of it having been expressed, and certainly not of the necessity for me (or anyone else) to have read it. Even in anthologies like Hensher’s The Penguin Book of British Short Stories we can find stories that at first glance don’t seem worth reading, and at second glance don’t seem worth having taken the second glance! Just because something’s ‘good’ is doesn’t mean you’ll like it, and just because you’ve heard of the author doesn’t mean you should. We can get away with this purposelessness to an extent. Even a pot noodle, so I’m told, tastes good, though it might not feed you; and some dishes, taken cold or not, we can erroneously believe will do us good, by virtue of who has fed them to us. Yet there is no equivalent to nutrional value in a story, and way we say there is we’re using a metaphor. Stories are as good or as bad as what we find in them, though we may well often agree on what that is, or isn’t. Where we differ, our own sensitivities might have come into play, and our experience of own lives. I try to stop myself these days from making statements about how ‘good’ or  not stories are, and to recognise that all I know about them is whether or not I enjoyed them, and perhaps if so why, and if not, why not – I don’t always succeed. It’s good to think that someone might happily pass some time with one of your short stories, but it’s better, surely – don’t call me Shirley – if they have done more than that,


The printed bibliography is functionally obsolete. Stuck in the knowledge of its period of setting-up and publication, give or take the odd errata slip, it offers a mere snapshot in time of what was known, rather than what is. The digital database on the other hand, offers a continuously developing record of what is known and understood. Book lists can be amended with additions, deletions, and corrections. New knowledge can be incorporated, old knowledge can be refined. Of course, manipulation, falsification and misinterpretation can also take place, but as a means of finding out what was published and by whom and when, the database outstrips the printed bibliography without doubt.

That doesn’t mean there is no value in, or use for those old books of lists though. One such, a left over from my days of selling second-hand books, provides an interesting sidelight, not only on what was published, but on what was thought about it. It provides too, a reminder, that our impressions of the past can be inaccurate and misleading. The book in question is The Best Books of The War, and it covers UK publication across a range of subjects from 1939-45. It was published by W.H,Smith and Sons, in 1947, with an anonymous compiler who provides a Preface, and the initials F.S.S. That, I suspect, stands for F.Seymour Smith, who contributes An English Library (3rd,revised ed.CUP,1943) in the Literary Criticism and Belles Lettres section.

I was interested in the Fiction category, some twenty pages of titles by authors forgotten, remembered, and never known. It’s the surprises, in who was there, and how they were thought of, that are most interesting. Who was commented on, and who not so, in what the Preface tells us is a ‘bookman’s’ personal selection, challenges or reinforces our own perceptions.

The biggest surprise for me was to see Monkey listed. I remember this collection of ancient Chinese tales as a rather odd TV series of the seventies or eighties, but here it is, from Allen and Unwin in 1942, translated by Arthur Waley from the sixteenth century original by Wu Ch’ ‘eng-en.

            There are surprises too in the responses of our guide through the period. ‘Eroticism’ he tells us, ‘must not be encouraged’ but ‘may be enjoyed,’- in relation to The King Was in his Counting House, by James Branch Cabell,  Lane,1939 (let me know if you have, or do!) – neither of which, I suspect, would be said so simply and directly these days. Is this the tip (if that’s not too vulgar a word) of the surfacing permissive society iceberg?

James Joyce gets a gem of a reference, for Finnegan’s Wake: ‘It is not as daft as it seems, especially if read aloud,’ which is worth several hundred thousand words of the lit. Crit. I remember reading on it when I was a student! The short story is well represented, and so are women writers, with more of both than I would expect in a modern ‘100 books to read before you die’ listing. Authors who are still well known, and those who are not, caught my attention. ‘Old hands’ include H.E.Bates, Sir Osbert Sitwwell, and L.A.G.Strong. Bates is excluded (with a disparaging mention) by Hensher (The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, 2015), and Sitwell passed over, but Strong is a bit of a revival figure today, which pleases me. ‘Newcomers’, to F.S.S., include J. Maclaren-Ross, also in Hensher, and, surprising to me in so late a publication, V.S.Pritchett.

Elizabeth Bowen is included, with the comment, ‘a delicate touch for the short story,’ but also that ‘some of them in this volume are too literary.’

Our own assumptions, or mangled, half forgotten knowledge, of the past can be challenged or confirmed by such collections. F.S.S. quotes 61,000 books as being published during the period, of which he estimates some 20,000 will be long-lasting, serious additions to the ‘bookman’s’ trade, and life. That some have been, and others have not, reminds us that our opinions are of only passing worth, yet perhaps sufficient to occupy a minute or two of each other’s time.

A slim volume, of a mere ninety nine pages, this bookman’s selection was passed to me by my late father-in-law, Leslie Walker, a bookman to his fingertips, internationally known as Nelson’s Bookroom. He it was who told me that ‘any fool can sell books,’ thus encouraging me, as well qualified, to enter the trade – it was only half the story, I soon learned.



Readings For Writers, by Mike Smith. 12 essays on short stories and their writers.

Volume 1: Hemingway,Bierce,Chekhov,Wells,Parker,Joyce,Coover,:Lawrence,Bates,Pritchett,Arthur Morrison, & James Salter. For Writers cover

“Painters do not, as far as I know, visit the galleries in which their pictures are hung and retouch them there; nor do sculptors hack at their monuments after they have been erected in public places.” So says H.E.Bates in The Writer Explains, his introductory essay, to the 1938 compilation of his own short stories, published as Country Tales.

Neither should authors, he asserts. ‘The finished work of an artist, in a sense, no longer belongs to them.’ But Tobias Wolff takes a different tack. Writing in A Note from the Author at the beginning of his 2008 collection, Our Story Begins, he says: ‘If I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented.’

In fact Wolff’s whole ‘note’ – just over a page long – is a discussion of why a text is not ‘sacred,’ or indeed ‘original’ at a point of publication in any meaningful sense.

The debate is entered into by both these writers, Bates seeking to justify by his analogy with painters and sculptors, his innate belief that ‘The author should resist impulses to tamper with it,’ Wolff defending his belief that because ‘they (the stories) are still alive to me I take a continuing interest in giving to that life its best expression.’

Both make telling points, but ones that will not necessarily bend our own beliefs to their way of thinking. Bates questions the legitimacy of bringing to a published work ‘the touches of a mature experience and technique’ whereas Wolff questions the legitimacy of seeing any version of the text as “the original form” – the quotation marks being his, as well as mine.

In fact, I’m inclined to think that rather than representing the two sides of an argument that must be won and lost, these two viewpoints reveal the stances of the two writers to their writings. Both seem to be product oriented, but whereas Bates sees publication as a mark of completion, Wolff sees it as yet another stage in the process of editing, and re-editing. My own position might be, and probably is, that one can straddle the two standpoints. I’ve certainly found myself thinking of some earlier works of my own, that they were the best I could do at that time, and that they were somehow beyond making more of. In a sense they were, are, stories I have left behind – and the same might be said of poems, plays, and notably, essays. Others however, I have found myself dusting off, metaphorically, and re-fashioning with the benefits of hindsight. Mostly these have been unpublished works, but some have been previously used, and are up for re-use.

Theoretically I favour Bates’s opinion, but in practice, I feel with Wolff, that where I can see better, I’ll try to make it so, with the proviso that the story must still ‘live’ for me. Perhaps that is the key thing – a story that we use the analogy ‘alive’ for, is still in the process of being made. A story that is ‘finished,’ perhaps loses that metaphorical ‘life.’ To try a resuscitation, bringing it back to life, might be seen as a Frankenstein-like undertaking.

Perhaps a hidden question raised by the comparison between the two viewpoints is that of at which point in the creative process does one publish? Wolff makes much of the editorial input of the publishing team: ‘an editor had read it with pencil in hand,’ ‘another editor looked it over,’ I would have given it yet another going-over,’ ‘and done so again.’

Bates never mentions an editor: ‘Except in the ordinary way of proof reading I have not revised them at all.’

Do these widely diverse expressions tell us something about the differences between two authors, or about those between two publishing models spaced a three-score-years-and-ten and an ocean apart? Either way, the discussion might help us to see ourselves more clearly, which is always helpful (isn’t it?).

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATT cover2012 066OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I couldn’t sleep, what with the heat, so, as you do, I started to list, not my favourite ten short stories, but ten of my favourite short stories:

Weep Not My Wanton

A Canary For One

A Rider in the Sky

The Fall

The Dead

Arabesque – The Mouse

The Little Farm

Fitter’s Night

The Misfits

The Gift of the Magi

A Christmas Carol

Monsieur Oufle

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 ……


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