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BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below! Hecho a Mano, by the way, means – roughly translated – a hand job!
If you’re passing through Hong Kong tomorrow (Monday 25th May), you could pop into the Liars League event, and hear a story by BHD! He’s had almost as many stories performed by Liars League HK as he has had published in Cumbria, and it’s a source of continued surprise, and great pleasure, to him that it is so: that people on the other side of the world to him, are yet interested in hearing the tales that he has written. What compounds both the surprise and the pleasure with this story is that it was written as one of those literary experiments that short story obsessives like BHD are wont to engage in from time to time.
It is, in fact, a re-imagining of a story first written in the seventeenth century, and attributed to L’Abbe Bourdelot. BHD came across it, in translation, in that twenty volume Hammerton collection from the early nineteen twenties of ‘The World’s Thousand Best Stories’, which he has been reading, and occasionally re-working for a couple of years now. When a tale comes from so long ago, and from so far away, you can be sure that much of its content, that was once current, relevant and existent, will have changed beyond recognition. Yet, there will be also much that is still recognisable, perhaps familiar, and even unchanged, human nature, for example.
For ‘Henry and Mr Oufle’, the title of BHD’s story, the starting point was a story called simply, ‘Monsieur Oufle.’ BHD’s story soon lost touch with that of the good Abbe, which revolves, in a slapstick sort of way, around the eponymous gentleman, who falls asleep, having taken a little too much to drink, in his chair, while dressed in a fancy dress bear suit. Planning to frighten his wife – without malice it should be said – Mr Oufle awakes to see his own reflection in a mirror, and panic, and chaos ensue. BHD’s story has a bear suit too, but it also has a pizza restaurant, which the original did not, and a circus, and a car-park……
Re-writing, or rather, re-imagining stories from long ago and far away can be a useful exercise for the tale-teller and short story writer. It’s not simply a matter of bringing them into the here and now, or even of transposing them into your own narrative voice and habit. But re-imagining a tale that has caught and held your attention, has entertained you after such a gap of time and distance, can seem like having a conversation with the original writer – telling him, or her, something about your world, and about what of theirs still lives on in it.
When I was at school we had one music lesson that stood out from others long forgotten, in which, exasperated, the teacher sat down at the piano and began to play the blues. He told us of his playing in clubs in America where the crowds ignored him, eating and drinking and talking.
Contrast this with the concert hall, where we sit in silent awe while the orchestra performs. There is an interesting comparison here too, with the literary concert and the live-reading club. Speakeasies of one sort or another are common these days. We have one in Carlisle. Lancaster has its Spotlight Club. Liars League runs in London, New York and Hong Kong, and elsewhere!
In all these cases, so far as I have experienced, the audience is more like the concert hall one, than the one in the noisy blues club to which my music teacher played. Yet that might be a cultural phenomena. There’s an interesting account near the opening of James Fenton’s ‘An Introduction to English Poetry’ (Penguin, 2002) in which he describes a discussion between an African and an America poet. The American has criticised the African for his drumming and singing, which makes it harder, the American says, for the following ‘voice only’ poet. The African points out that in his culture the audience must be subdued by the performance; that there is no automatic grant of attention, such as the American poet (and the European) expects.
Fenton rather favours the African, and suggests that ‘the words may be no more than a notation for a performance’ or ‘may be written for the page’. The implication, seeming to distance the page from the possibilities of reading aloud, which in its turn is conflated with ‘performance’.
My own experience, and I’m sure I’ve cited this before, threw up a ‘performance’ in which I had my wife throw a flat cap up on to the stage for me to wear while reading a poem about a Lakeland shepherd. Years later I bumped into a man who remembered that performance – you’re the chap with the cap – but not the words of the poem. Norman Nicholson, in his poem ‘The Whisperer,’ says he cannot command our attention by the ‘force’ of his work and personality, but must look for those ‘lit’ with the ‘grace’ of listening.
The confrontation between the African and the American might, in part, have been a misunderstanding of what they were both doing. If the performance is to aid presentation of the words there are different criteria than if the words are to aid the presentation of the performer. In an age of celebrity this latter case might be considered the norm.
The reading of words aloud might be a performance, and thinking back to my music teacher, I’m reminded that there was a popular song a few decades ago which told us explicitly that it was ‘the singer, not the song’, but surely it could also be ‘the writing, not the writer’.
This is not the blog I thought I would be posting! For yesterday I received an e-mail from the Bridport Prize Administrator. Don’t Panic! I am not a prizewinner – wouldn’t I be insufferable! I did get a flash fiction though, into the shortlist of some 50 out of the 2,700 entries.
The Bridport Prize has an interesting way of going about things, with an equally interesting rationale behind it. The shortlist will be published in October, but it will not show the titles of the shortlisted flash fictions, but only the names of their authors. This, the e-mail explained, would allow me to use the story elsewhere (bolstered no doubt in the hope-over-experience department by the knowledge that a fiction that has made 50 out of 2,700 might well be in the first three of a smaller competition with, say, a mere hundred entrants).
There’s an implication too, behind this way of doing things, and that has something to do with our ideas about celebrity. The prize, where there is one, is, of course, awarded to the person, but it has been won, anonymously in almost all the competitions I have come across, save one, by the story. Most shortlists give writer and written, but where we are chosing to give only one the choice is revealing.
I’m in the interesting position of being able to make a comparison here, for a few days ago I stumbled across an interview by Katy Darby, lioness of Liars League London. Talking about Liars League and its undoubted success – now in not only London, but Leeds, Leicester, New York City, and Hong Kong (Hong Kong performed my story Petra at the end of August, and I hope it will be showing on their website soon: New York City has just taken Hand-Jive for their upcoming Murder & Mayhem evening – Katy mentioned a couple of her favourite stories, and (whoopee!) my old Hecho a Mano was one of them.
Hecho harks back to my cigar smoking days – sigh – and the phrase was stencilled on many a box of Nicagaruans that I puffed my way through. I could never afford Cubans, besides, spitting out the bits of American shrapnel added a little something to the smoke. The phrases, by the way, means, ‘made by hand’, or, as I have it in the story, ‘a hand-job’. Hecho a Mano is the dirtiest story I have ever written. It was intended to be so, and, if I dare say so, I think I pulled it off. It was a celebration of the cigar, and of another cylindrical object. It was a bit of fun. The writing of it brought tears to my eyes. It was a story I hoped would go down well. (Enough of that!) Liars League have used it a couple of times, and I’m glad of that. Both readings are on their website – there’s a link to the left.
What Katy didn’t mention was who had written it, and the old ego twinged a little at that, yet, there was a sort of parental glow – that’s one of mine, I told myself, and it’s making its way in the world! In fact, on reflection, I rather prefer it that way. If you know about the story, you can track it down, and if you like it (or loathe it), you can make a note of who wrote it. Working from the other end is not, I feel, such a worthwhile journey. Knowing the author won’t necessarily lead you to a story on anybody’s list, long or short.
Yet, there is no doubt, we are asked more often who our favourite author is, than what is our favourite story. Here’s something to change, perhaps. Among my favourite poet’s work I can number, out of several hundred published poems, only a handful of favourite poems, and a list of my favourite stories would include the works of several writers, any of whom would be lucky to get more than one into the first dozen.
You might have been wondering which flash fiction of mine actually made that Bridport shortlist. Well. I’m not going to tell you! But I may well send it elsewhere. The picture, by the way, was sent to me by my friends Nick & Pam and is of a village in France… I don’t know where, but there it is (to mangle a phrase). Presumably they know. I offer it as a taster of what this blog post would have been about, and will be, next week, shortlistings permitting. The other picture is whatever you think it is!