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OK. So. Me’s in the Threshold’s Features Competition Longlist. Clap, clap, clap.
I tole him. Get a life. It’s a long list for cryin’ out loud. Whaddya wan? A fanfare? Sheesh!
Long List! I ask ya? He’s so pleased wit’ himself. Pathetic! Whatcha gonna do?
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van Effen ran a magazine modelled on The Spectator and what interested me about his story was the way that a seemingly outdated, politically incorrect even, piece of social observation could turn out to be, in fact, quite contemporary on closer inspection.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 spend a lot of time reading and responding to short stories (It’s easier than writing them!). Sometimes we write about it – well Me does, rather than him -Thresholds publishes some of these musings… Today they’ve added an article about Elizabeth Bowen, which you can find here.
Some of the essays we’ve written – well, Me has, BHD just looks on – are included in the Readings For Writers series:
Thanks to the kind offices of Waterstones in Carlisle, local writers, led by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.
A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.
There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.
Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!
Local anthologies can often be variable in their quality, and are certainly wide in their range of styles and contents. An anthology published for Christmas 2005 by CN Group Magazines, in association with various other bodies, including Theatre By The Lake and The Great North Air Ambulance is one such. Offered for sale during a very short period of time over that Christmas fortnight, and at a very limited number of venues, the collection of short stories and poetry from 15 writers living locally did not do well. Unsaleable the following Christmas, as it bore the year of issue prominently on its front cover, I suspect many copies went for pulp. I have a fistful on my shelves, perhaps other lurk somewhere.
Eleven years on though, one story still comes to mind, and I read it from time to time. It’s a subtle story, suggesting more than it explicitly tells, but what it does tell is affirmative of more than a simply Christmas spirit. Josie Baxter’s story Time Bides For No Man is a first person account, told by an embittered divorcee who has turned down an invitation to spend Christmas with her daughter, and ex-husband, and his ‘new stick insect girlfriend.’ [- why is it that men in fiction are always attracted to stick-thin women? Surely they can’t be in real life?-ed.]
The story is tied to the locality with names that would mean nothing to people from even the south of the county! Easton and Roadhead, Stanwix and Penton, among others, are mentioned. Readers from afar might not recognise the places, but they will understand story. The narrator flees to an abandoned farmhouse, owned by her now institutionalised uncle. It is a ‘flat faced farmhouse’ which ‘may look foursquare and honest but they tell you nothing.’ And perhaps this story does something similar.
The house is in a bad state, and our narrator occupies the downstairs for a grim, lonely Christmas. The Cumbrian borderland, that sparsely populated area north of the Brampton-Longtown road, broods over her stay, ‘the ghosts of its violent past never quite gone away.’ But the neighbours see the smoke of her fires and come to check her out. They know that her Uncle Donald is no longer in residence. She turns them away, nursing her grievances alone. On Christmas Eve, though, a visitor she cannot dismiss, arrives: the farmer Andy Armstrong.
This is at the halfway point of the story, late perhaps for a major character to appear… but the story is not about him, or Donald, though what we shall now learn about them is crucial to it. We get a hint of that secret as Andy’s shortcomings are described: ‘He smelled of old vest and unwashed ears, and…..the ancient oilskin jacket had recently been too close to the back end of a cow.’ It is the almost cliched remark that follows we might overlook at a first reading: ‘No wonder he’d never married.’
Over whisky from cracked glasses the narrator and Andy talk about Donald, and she begins to realise, as we do, that these two old men, ostensibly rivals to the point of enmity since school days, have a very special bond. Her belief that Donald ‘never cared what anyone thought of him’ is challenged by Andy’s ‘some things is different.’ This, he confesses, will be the first Christmas day they have spent apart.
Andy persuades the narrator to take him, on Christmas day, to visit Donald in his nursing home, but he also gives her the advice that will change her life, and her outlook, and, in effect rehabilitate her: ‘one day you wake up and it’s gone and it’s all too late.’
This is one of those stories that makes me pleased to be in an anthology beside it (and one that makes me displeased to be in an anthology beside it!). It does, for me, what a story should do. It reaches out beyond its explicit self and gives us a glimpse of a larger theme, and it reaches out over the years as we read and revisit it. I don’t think I’ve met Josie Baxter, but if I ever do, I’ll remind her that she published this story, and thank her for it!
For those interested in reading about the short story form, a third volume in Mike’s Readings For Writers series The Silent Life Within is now available on Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle format. This volume looks at stories from the late 17th century to 2014, by authors including H.G.Wells, Katherine Mansfield, Alphonse Daudet, and George Moore.
There’s lots going on….
Did you know BHDandMe are putting on a Workshop as part of the Colonsay Book Festival (April 23/24th)?
Before that, BHD hopes to be at the Big Lit Weekend at Gatehouse of Fleet, on Friday 15th April to Sunday 17th.
Also we’ve been busy putting up books on Amazon. There’s a second volume of the Readings For Writers sequence: Love and Nothing Else begins with a look at a story by Stacy Aumonier, and there are eleven others – some have appeared on the Thresholds website and some on this blog, including the final essay, comparing Huston’s film with Arthur Miller’s original short story of The Misfits.
I’ve also finally got around to publishing ‘An Early Frost‘. These 10 poems (with the additional ‘Ullswater Requiem’ sequence) were written during my time working at Bank House, above Howtown pier on Ullswater in the English Lake District. All the poems except one, have appeared in magazines, on websites or in anthologies, and the Ullswater Requiem was one of a group of poems that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award – the first, I think, made to a piece of Creative work.
Writing about writing C.S.Lewis complained that poor readers ‘flood wretched material’ with their own imaginations, and go away thinking that what they have read is great literature [C.S.Lewis, ‘On Stories’ in Of Other Worlds, Bles,1966).
It’s one of those remarks that I come back to again and again, not only because it carries more than an element of truth, but also because as I write more I become more aware of the fact that it is not only the limitations of the writer that impinge on the experience of the reader.
There surely can be no doubt that we all have our limitations as readers. We bring our own agendas to what we read, which predispose us to look for structures and contents that re-inforce what we already believe, and want to believe about the fictional worlds we are presented with, and the real worlds to which we imagine they refer. We probably also believe absolutely, that though that may be true of other readers, thankfully, we are not afflicted with such delusions. A case of motes and beams I suspect.
As writers, one of the biggest problems we have to overcome is the failure to read our own work objectively. We read what we expect to read, and that expectation has more to do with what we intended to put on the page than with what we actually have put there. Reading other people’s work, it is suggested, doesn’t present us with this problem: we have no expectations, because we had no intentions for the writing. We come clean to it, because we know nothing about it, other that what we actually sit down and read.
What is surprising about Lewis’s rant is that he is not criticising our lack of sensitivty to the writings of others. He is not carping about what we miss that might be there, but about what we generate in our own heads and superimpose on what we are reading. His criticism comes as part of a wider observation about what he calls the ‘unliterary man’. He is interested, but unable to ascertain, ‘whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader’s deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions.’ Even reading the stories will not help you here, for ‘the more imagination the reader has, being an untrained reader, the more he will do for himself.’
This inferior lifeform is discussed at some length, and some interesting remarks are made about it. He deals with an ‘uneducated and immature’ young person’s enjoyment of reading ‘sensational stories’, pointing out that we cannot know the nature of that enjoynent.
‘If he were capable of analysing his own experiences (……) he would be neither uneducated nor immature.’
‘….something of which the educated can receive from poetry can reach the masses through stories of adventure,’
These cogitations carry Lewis for a paragrpah or two, and throw up interesting side lights. One, worthy of further exploration but not here, is that cinema, presumably by requiring observation rather than imagination, ought not to ‘replace popular written fiction’. Another is that the ‘re-reading’ of stories is crucial to our undestanding of how ‘literary’ we are. (And perhaps the same might be said of whether or not we re-watch our movies.) ‘An unliterary man’ Lewis says, ‘may be defined as one who reads books once only.’ ‘There is hope for a man who has never read’ Lewis says, quoting several titles, but ‘what can you do’, he asks, ‘with a man who says he “has read” them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter?’
The second reading, he avers, loses ‘excitement’, but it does not lose something else, and that is the quality that pierces the ‘deeper imagination’, the quality, which Lewis has told us, that educated readers get from poetry. There is something else here, which he does not point up, but which strikes me as being particularly relevant to this great children’s writer, and that is how children react to stories. The reader of popular romances, Lewis tells us ‘goes back to his old favourites again and again’, and however uneducated he or she may be, that return is ‘pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry.’ Children, I recall, go back and back to their old favourites too, and woe betide the parent that tries to skip a page or two so they can finish in time for the Archers, or whatever…. The child is no longer seeking surprise either, nor the excitement of finding out what happens next, but that deeper piercing, which Lewis goes on to describe as the ‘quality‘ of unexpectedness. You cannot have an old favourite if you have forgotten it.
Back to the beginning though. We are still left with the conundrum of what, as readers,we bring to stories, and what we find in them, and to what extent our own limitations deepen, or mitigate, the limitations of the writer. Whatever the answer, it might serve to remind us that reading and writing are not comnnected in a mechanical way. There are degrees of success in the writing, and in the reading, and they may take us a long way from the original intentions behind the writing, and a long way from the original expectations behind the reading.