You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘H.E.Bates’ tag.
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.
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.
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.
“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?).
Weep Not My Wanton
A Canary For One
A Rider in the Sky
Arabesque – The Mouse
The Little Farm
The Gift of the Magi
A Christmas Carol
Blondeau The Cobbler
You expect me to keep count as well?
You want the authors? A.E.Coppard, Ernest Hemingway,Ambrose Bierce,V.S.Pritchett,James Joyce,Coppard again,H.E.Bates,Arthur Miller (twice),O Henry,Charles Dickens,Abbe Bourdelot,Bonaventure des Perriers,
And there was Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle too, should have been in that first ten, not to mention some stories by friends of mine…Kurt Tidmore’s Prairie Song for example, and Hugh Thomnpson’s The Italian Fisherman, and Marilyn Messenger’s unfinished story (she knows which one I mean), and nearly all of Vivien Jones’ Perfect Ten collection, and one from her White Poppies collection, and a Daphne Du Maurier, and D.H.Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums…..
And then the question, why is it that the women writers come in so far down the list, and so few? And then, the question, why are there no Jewish Writers in there (for all I know, Miller might have been Jewish, and so might others…I don’t enquire into that sort of thing), and what about redheads, or people who are left handed (like me), or adopted (like me), or apparently heterosexual (like me)? Or who don’t have beards? And does it matter anyway? If I listed my favourite poems, one of Josephine Dickinson’s would come in the first half dozen (Instead of Time), and if novels, Isoabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party would be there with Silas Marner.
If I’ve read all of Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories, and two collections of Alice Monro’s, and one of Miranda July’s, and yet none of their’s appear in my over-stuffed top ten, does it tell you anything about them, or anything about me? And does the fact that my two Coppard entries are from over two hundred stories, and my two Miller’s are from sixteen? From my own several hundred attempts I think four stand out, and one of them I’m still post-creatively infatuated with! And there’s another ought to be in there, but…. Why are there no African stories, or South American, or Asian ones? Why are there none from Wigton, or Wigtown for that matter? Why none from China? How many have you read from my home town, by the way?
And I sort of know that if push came to shove, I’d rescue – desert island disc style – two from the waves (Weep Not My Wanton and The Little Farm – I think…..)
And what about all the ones I have forgotten, for the moment, or really forgotten? How many of them, if remembered, would spring into that top ten? And in fact, isn’t the ten of your top favourite anythings of anytime, just a snapshot of where you are, and when, at that place, and that moment?
(and Christine Howe’s Dancing With Johnny)…oh, yes, and ……
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!
I’ve been reading Kathleen Jones’ biography of Katherine Mansfield. Ploughing through, I was going to write, but that seemed to insult what is a very readable book. It’s the life – lives in truth – inside, not the writing, that sticks like a heavy clay.
I’ve read more about Mansfield than I have writings by her. This is a bit of a theme with me, I’ve come to realise. I began reading Pritchett because I saw so many references to him, and so few writings by him. Coppard arrived the same way. Mansfield turned up, as a comparison to Coppard in both H.E.Bates’ and Frank O’Connor’s studies of the short story form. In fact, at present, I read more about short stories than I read short stories, and write more about writing them, and reading them, than I do of either!
Reading about Mansfield, as with the others, got me reading work by her. Someone lent me a copy of Bliss and Other stories, a 1920 collection – just predating Coppard’s first.. The differences, it seemed to me, between her and Coppard, were more obvious than the similarities. The first three stories in Bliss are all of middle class households, and told from a perspective of narcissistic self-indulgence. Compared to Coppard’s poor and venerable men, and haggling higglers, these people have nothing to worry about. Of course, that’s a glancing view. The heroine in the title story learns that the woman she dotes on is having an affair with her husband, which is a grim discovery however rich you are.
Jones’ biography is heavy on Katherine’s own narcissism and self-indulgence, and as I worked my way into Bliss I couldn’t help but see the same issues being written about as Jones’ was describing.
Knowing the biography does not necessarily help with reading the stories however, though it may undoubtedly cast light upon the sources of them. An example, straight from Jones’ book, concerns a D.H.Lawrence story, which I shan’t name for you. In writing this, Jones tells us, Lawrence was borrowing from the life of his friend, and Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. The story cited was one I had read and enjoyed. It has a deliciously insinuated sexuality that sticks in my memory, On turning to the shelves and lifting down the ‘Collected Tales’ I found that it was one of those stories I had marked up in pencil, trying to discover just how that quality had been achieved. It was a story that I could enjoy for itself without the knowledge that it carried echoes of two, or more, real lives, indeed such knowledge might well have distracted me from the experience of reading the story, towards searching for clues to the source of inspiration. Stories aren’t important, and enjoyable, surely, because of where they come from, but because of where they take us?
Where else, though, are stories going to come from, but our own lives, and our interpretations of those we see around us? If I seem sniffy about K.M.’s life, don’t worry: the more I disliked her, the more incidents of my own past kept on popping into my head! In a race, I reckon she and I would be neck and neck at the, and here I searched carefully for an adjective, self-obsessed tape!
The poverty into which she plunged though was not like that of Coppard. It was a poverty viewed against a background of great wealth and material comfort. It was a purely financial poverty in a world full of intellectual riches. She was rebelling against a solid upper middle class family. Coppard was was struggling against almost the exact opposite. When O’Connor accuses Coppard of having ‘an unearned income complex’ he may be on the mark, but Dickens too, if Peter Ackroyd has the measure of him, was also driven by a lifelong obsession with making money.
O’Connor made another remark about Coppard, and about D.H.Lawrence too, with whom he paired him as ‘great English storytellers’. This was that they shared the common class trait of ‘resenting’ their having been born into the English working class. Mansfield’s poverty may have led her, in the years before the First World War, to try to make breakfast last all day, but it was a hotel breakfast. Coppard’s eponymous presser was somewhat harder pressed I think.
As far as the comparison goes I’m still on the edge of the field, for though I’ve read, so far as I know, every tale that Coppard wrote, I’ve still only read a handful of K.M.’s stories… and of course, there’s the matter of it not being the amount you’ve read, but the depth of your experience of it, to take into account.
In The Modern Short Story from1809-1953, in his chapter on A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates complains at Coppard’s use of snippets gathered into notebooks, from observations in the field – literally and metaphorically – and pressed into service as parts of his shorts stories later.
It seems a strange thing to make a point of denigrating. Why shouldn’t a writer record what he has observed and find a use for it later? Part of the answer may lie in Bates’ attitude to his own writing. I recently got hold of a 1938 collection of Bates’ short stories: Country Tales, ironic in its name considering Bates’ comments about Coppard’s use of the term, published by the Readers Union. An unexpected bonus was that in addition to the thirty stories, was an essay by Bates himself, on his own writing processes. Dismissing a description of himself as ‘a writer with a carefully polished style’, Bates insists that he wrote ‘easily. Quickly and light heartedly, often between breakfast and lunch’, and, quoting Edward Garnett, with ‘a facile devil inside’.
But that devil, allowing Bates to write ‘quickly and happily’, might be much nearer to those notebooks than is immediately apparent. Isn’t it the case that Garnett’s devil is really a metaphor for the unconscious memory – the mind’s storehouse notebook, accessed automatically in the moments of creativity? We may not know specifically where our phrases, images and metaphors have come from, but surely, they come from our recollections and interpretations of what we have seen and heard, and read, over the years of our lives? The way we access those memories may be more mysterious than the way we might consult a notebook, but is it essentially different?
I am a notebook user myself – which perhaps explains to some extent my instinct to defend Coppard’s practice – and I know from experience that the mere act of writing down a phrase or a scene may be enough to lodge it in what we might call a ‘ready access’ memory from which it will be retrieved without the need to actually re-read it!
This is more than just a weighing up of two means of producing a story. It has implications for the reader too. For the words evoked by my memories will not necessarily evoke similar memories in those who read them. Indeed it may be that they necessarily will not. Groping to re-live our experiences we write down words that will evoke in the reader memories of theirs.
Striving for precision in our use of language, as writers and readers, we ought not forget that the meanings of words are not as fixed nor as narrow as our dictionaries might suggest. Even where we can pin down to a single moment in time, and place, the origin of a word, we cannot pin down its meaning to the next person who uses it, and look at convolutions lawyers have to go through, to frame laws and documents that are intended to achieve such pinnings.
Meanings and words are quite different things, and we try to couple them as securely as we can, but its worth remembering that the story – or tale – that a reader, or listener is experiencing is never likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the one that the writer intended to create. This is what gives the telling and receiving of tales its symbiotic quality, linking both writer and reader in a joint act. Neither does it require a death of the author to bring it about. The process of interpreting the words, both in their writing, and in their reading, or hearing, does that.
Watching a film, by comparison, is an act of mere observation and analysis. What you get is what you see. There is little to interpret, and no call upon memory to supply the images that words demand. By comparison, live theatre is something of a halfway house, with its ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
Here we are, back again, at ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ – and the difference between how we process what we are shown, and what we are told. Language, by its very nature, is an interpretive process.
Coming back to Bates, he goes on to say, in his introduction to Country Tales, that he needed to move on from being a writer who sucked ‘the significance out of trivialities’, to one who wrote stories ‘drawn directly from life and not from imagination’. That would be, I suspect, life as remembered, or jotted down in notebooks.
I had been reading about A.E.Coppard. H.E.Bates had made the point that Coppard had suffered from being influenced by Henry James. I hadn’t read any Henry James. (It’s always a good method of excluding people – by making allusions they might not understand, instead of saying directly what you mean, the wrong sort of people that is!) So, I thought, I’d better read some Henry James. It was that hot weekend a week or so ago. I was in Shropshire, and took a trip to the local second-hand bookshop, and found three slim Henry James novels, and lay in the sun and read ’em. Somebody’s got to do it! Washington Square, The Europeans, & The Spoils of Poynton, in case you’re interested. A week on and I can’t recall the damnedest thing about the first one, but I can remember thinking, about all of them, that Mr James writes a long sentence, and he spends an awful lot of time telling you, not what his characters are doing, but what they are thinking about as they decide what to do! I enjoyed the novels. When I got home I looked through my collection of short story anthologies, which has got a bit out of hand lately – I had that scheme last year to read one short story a day and so ended up collecting a few – to see if I had any Henry James stories. I found one. The Beast in the Jungle, or something. Friends, I never made it to the end of that short story. I lost the will to live. I lost the plot. I lost all sense of reason. I lost all perspective. I lost my sense of proportion. I lost a copy of The Field of Mustard, A.E.Coppard’s 1926 collection, too, and I still haven’t found it, but that’s another story. But, I think I might have found what it was that Mr Bates was carping about when he criticised Coppard’s later writings: a tendency, perhaps, to stray off the subject a little, and spend too many words on too little happening. I haven’t worked my way through all Coppard’s later stories yet. I’m up to about 1933 (so about fifteen years to go), but that’s what I’ll be keeping an eye open for.
This afternoon I read The Little Farm, by H.E.Bates. I was at Gatehouse of Fleet yesterday, and took a crawl around the lower shelves of the second-hand bookshop in the Mill on the Fleet! I thought there might be some Coppard lurking around the ‘C’s in ‘Fiction A to Z’. I didn’t want to crawl too long. Hey, I was wearing my Ted Baker trousers! What’s a guy to do? But I found a copy of Bates’ ‘Colonel Julian and other stories’ for £1.50! The Little Farm opens the collection. It’s a wonderful story, of trust, and betrayal, and it’s one of the stories in ‘Country Matters’ – a nineteen seventies Granada TV series of adaptations from Coppard and Bates, recently re-issued in America (2008) on dvd. If you can play Region One dvds without compromising your machine, I recommend it. The stories are great, and The Little Farm (in either version) one of the best. For the films, check out those yet to be famous faces, Michael Elphick, for example, in The Little Farm.