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There is a quality in short stories and poems (and other forms!) of being memorable. Without warning, day or night, weeks, months, years after you have read them they will pop into your  mind, often triggered by some seemingly totally unconnected prompt, and one of which you might even be completely unaware.

One such recollection sprang to my mind recently, in the form of three Latin words: Corvus moribundus est. I’m no Latin scholar (where there has been no learning, there has been no teaching, we used be told at Charlotte Mason College – but not at Burton Upon Trent Grammar School), but my understanding was – and is – that the young priest in L.A.G. Strong’s clever short story The Rook, is telling his colleague that the eponymous bird is fatally wounded.

Strong is a writer long forgotten, and I came across a collection of his (Travellers, Readers Union/Methuen, 1947) in the Mill on the Fleet’s bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet in South West Scotland. The Rook is one of several outstanding stories among the thirty-one included. In it an unsympathetically described gardener take a shot at a gathering of rooks. We follow the flight of the fatally wounded rook as it seeks safety in the trees, but falls through the branches to the ground. Incomprehension, panic and fear follow us, and the metaphorical implications are powerful.

The two priests are teaching a class of boys, and while the younger goes out with a stick to finish off the wounded creature, the other reflects upon life and death. It’s a simple story, and remembering those three Latin words brings all the meaning back to mind, all the images that the story had evoked in the reading; yet not necessarily the words themselves.

It is the content of the story, rather than its form, I suspect, that is likely to haunt the average reader (if there is such a thing).

And those stories and poems that we do recall, in part, in words and phrases, and images, are surely the ones that we must regard as successful. This won’t necessarily correlate with how many copies were sold in the author’s lifetime, or even the lifetime of the story to date, nor with the degree of fame, then and now. Success and the recognition of it are not quite the same thing. And what sticks in the memory is about the person whose memory it is!

Strong’s tragic love story, The Seal, is one of the stories examined in Love and Nothing Else, a collection of 12 essays about short stories and their writers.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReading L.A.G.Strong’s collection, Travellers, I’m struck by how many of the stories are narrated in, or have characters who speak with Irish voices.

Strong, H.E.Bates tells us (in The Modern Short Story), was ‘part’ Irish. Wikipedia says his father was half Irish, his mother wholly so, so some ‘part’! It also says he was born in Devon. What accent did he have I wonder. As a director of Methuen for twenty years, did he have a boardroom class accent too? We all have several voices, sometimes referred to as register. The telephone voice is perhaps the most famous, and despised, yet to match our voices to those we speak with might not be an act of parody or condescension so much as one of sensitivity. Serving petrol for pocket money in the days before Health & Safety, I’d change my register to fit the drivers I was serving.

As a writer I voice my stories in different accents, quite apart from those I give my characters. Is it patronising, or disrespectful, or even evidence of stereotyping, to do so? The idea that there is a Scottish accent (or an English, Irish or whatever one), rather than that there are Scottish accents seems to me to lie at the heart of the answer we might give.

In storytelling it’s credibility, rather than authenticity, that counts, especially when that authenticity is spurious. Voices belong to individuals, and might sound alike where regional, national or ethnic groups are concerned, but they will remain individual. That’s how we we can tell them apart, on the telephone for example. Imagine how difficult it would be to listen to radio plays if we couldn’t tell one Englishman from another, nor any two Scotsmen apart?

The imagined purity of accents (and genetics I would venture) is a political fiction, and when an author gives his narrator, or characters a particular type of accent, a particular voice, it’s the voice of the individual he is creating, not a template for all similar voices. The further we are from those voices, in terms of hearing them regularly, the harder it might be for us to distinguish between them: familiarity, in this case, breeds discrimination – in the older meaning of the word.

A friend of mine had lived in Glasgow all his adult life, and to me sounded like a native of the city, but he’d learned his English in his home town of Coventry, and I often wondered if the Glaswegians caught a whiff of his Midland vowels from time to time, as they would mine. As writers we write not only as we speak, but as we hear, and that, surely, is part of the witness that, as writers, we must bear.

Perhaps the more interesting, and more difficult question, is what we think the differing voices bring to our stories. Why is it that this tale, or that, seems more convincing in this, or that accent? What do they add to the tale? And what might we do as an alternative to them?

In the contemporary world more language than ever is generated in print, not necessarily on paper. Does that, will that, do away with the regional accent, replace it with a global voice? And if it does, if it is doing, what will be the markers of individuality that we then distinguish between, in our stories, and in our lives?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe name L.A.G.Strong was vaguely familiar to me, though I couldn’t properly place it, and I still can’t, but I did drop on a copy of his short story collection Travellers, which was published in 1945, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in that year.

My first inclination – a fault of upbringing or heritage – was to ‘place’ him, but I could not, so I began reading the stories instead. It’s said that short stories have no characterisation in them; that such intricacies are the stuff of novels, but I hadn’t read far into Strong before I realised I was dealing with a writer who was no mere thumbnail sketcher.

The lead story of this collection is The English Captain, told retrospectively by man looking back into his own youth, during the summer of 1914, and remembering the fortnight during which he knew the eponymous officer. Set in the year Joyce published Dubliners, I thought of Joyce several times as I read. Strong was of Irish parentage, though born in Devon, and his narrator here is an Irish protestant, living in Dublin and hanging out with a group of schoolboys in the charge of an Catholic priest.

The forty foot hole, and Howth, and Rathmines, were all names (words might be a better description) familiar to me from reading Joyce, and came with that jolt of recognition where disparate fictions meet at a common reality. If there was an undercurrent of Joyce, and the question raised of whether or not Strong was merely writing about the same country, and people, and time, or whether he was writing conscioulsy in the shadow of the man who had written before him, there were other undercurrents too. The English Captain knows that the war is coming, and he knows too that the boys he tries to befriend, by the swimming pool, are ambiguous in their treatment of him. One in particular will go on, it is implied, to fight and die in the Easter uprising, and we know, long before the first person narrator realises it, that the Captain forsees his own death in the near future, and is in effect enjoying the last fortnight of freedom, and human contact that he will know.

If there is an undercurrent of Irish and European politics, there is also too an undercurrent of homo-eroticism. The boys are naked or nearly so throughout, and there are no girls in this story. This is a story about men and boys reaching out for each other, and one told with no sense of potential abuse, but only the possibility of a ‘man to man’ love that we would have to see in the light of its time. Yet, with Strong’s book being published in 1945, the setting could be as retrospective for him as it is for his narrator. Other stories carry similar undercurrents, and have that recreation of the immature young man’s widening and deepening understanding of the world around him, and of its mortalities.

In The Rook the eponymous bird is shot, but dies slowly. Structurally it is a complex tale, one that I felt shouldn’t really have worked, though it undoubtedly does! Split into quite different phases, the first is the story of an old man protecting his garden, by shooting the rook. The second, told from the rook’s perspective – though by the same third person narrator – deals with its flight and eventual falling to the ground. The third, switches perspective again, this time to an elderly priest in a nearby schoolroom, whose young assistant goes out, humanely, to despatch the wounded creature, off-stage, with a pointed stick. The old priest, watching from the schoolroom has a revelation, about himself, and mortality. I found this story profoundly moving, even as I thought that it shouldn’t be! And it carried for me a similar potency to A.E.Coppard’s Arabesque-The Mouse.

There is a strong Irish voice in the first few stories of the collection, and Coppard hovered in my thoughts as I read them, for he too chose to tell his tales in an Irish idiom from time to time. The rural and the poor here too are neither patronised nor misrepresented. They are certainly not viewed through floral spectacles. In Storm the unreasonable anger of a man towards his lover is picked apart pitilessly, and shown against the background of the eponymous precipitation -OK, that’s the last eponymous, I promise! But the fact that there are so many of n them perhaps tells us something about the way this writer uses his titles.

In The Gates, an elderly railway crossing keeper oversleeps, allowing the 7.01 to ‘foul’ the gates (that the story is named after, perhaps). But the story is about the changes that this oversight wreaks upon his character. In Prongs two young brothers fight, and are drawn into an arrangement with a group of men who, having intervened without thinking, are fearful of the brothers’ violent father. Strong’s world is not benign; yet it is never empty of love.

In Travellers, the story after which the collection is named, another young man witnesses something of the lives of the ‘gomachs’ in what I might call ‘the sticks’ – or ‘the boonies’ if I were feeling international – and hears a fading opera singer present a tour-de-force.

Having read the first handful of stories, Strong placed himself, for me, alongside writers like Pritchett, Bates and Coppard, of whom he was a writing contemporary. Perfunctory research showed that he was indeed closer in age to the first two than to the older Coppard, and that he was heavily influenced by the writers of his ancestors’ land, notably Yeats and George Moore. I can see something of The Untilled Field in his ‘gomachs’ and his priests, but I can see too the Ireland of Claire Keegan’s Walk The Blue Fields.

The Gurnet, which I shall leave you to find and read, ‘suggested a caricature of humanity’. ‘he was a figure not without dignity’. And the story of what happens to him is perhaps a comment too upon the fate of such figures.

Frank Swinnerton provided an interesting Preface to the collection, having some pertinent comments to make about the short story form, as well as about this particular writer’s use of it. One quotation will give fat enough to chew upon, I think, for those of us interested in such things:

 

‘..unless we have decided what a short story should be, how can we say whether a short story is a good short story, or otherwise?’