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I watched the Judi Dench/Maggie Smith film, Ladies in Lavender, a few months ago and noticed in the credits that it had been based on a story by William J. Locke.

I’d never heard of William J., but he’s there, in print-on-demand, on the internet, so I bought myself a copy. The story is one among a collection entitled Far-Away Stories, which was published in 1919. They were stories written ‘over a long stretch of years’ and among them is a suit of tales under the heading ‘Studies in Blindness’. There are four such studies, one, seeming to be a piece of WW1 anti-German propaganda passed off as truth, another a comic tale of a man who, blind. Comes to love the voice of his nurse, but, sight recovered, falls for her cousin who has the face he imagined. It’s a cleverly complicated story, and worth the time it takes to read.

It’s the other two that interest me here though, for they resonate with other stories I have read, from both earlier, and later writers. The first tale in the set is ‘An Olde-World Episode, and in it a blind woman falls in love with a badly disfigured man. He has lived since a child as an isolate, respected for his character, but shunned for his visage by society. They marry and live happily ever after…or at least until a London surgeon turns up pioneering the treatment of glaucoma! The man is faced with the possibility that his wife too will shun him if her treatment succeeds. I won’t spoil the tale, but it too is a cleverly complicated story.

It reminded me of two other stories. The first is O Henry’s classic Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi, where a poor couple sacrifice their most precious possessions in order to buy a Christmas gift, each for the other, to complement the other’s, well, most precious possession. The symmetry is perfect, and gives a startling poignancy to a first reading (after which we moderns might find it a little cheesy). The symmetry in Locke’s tale is no less satisfying, and the theme was replayed, more famously I think, in V.S.Prichett’s Blind Love, title story of a 1969 collection, where it is the woman who is disfigured and the man blind.

Whilst I wouldn’t criticise Pritchett for re-playing an earlier idea – bringing a story into your own place and times is an exercise I’ve tried on several occasions, and with success – but I’d love to know whether he did or not!

The fourth story is The Conqueror, in which a blind man returns from America after having made his fortune, and takes up again with the woman whom he left behind, and who has feared that he will see how old she has grown. The ending of this story, as endings should, and which I will not reveal, adds that ‘inevitable but unexpected’ ingredient that all short stories aim for. This story reminded me of one of the Untilled Fields stories by George Moore, by the way, and of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune by the late nineteenth century French writer, Paule Arene. The return from America, with or without that fortune has been a theme in European literature for a century and more! Blindness too has recurred as a story theme, with Ernest Bramah, in the nineteen twenties creating the blind detective, Max Carrados.

Threads of thought, imagination, and story weave themselves through the years, binding the storytellers, readers and listeners of many times and cultures into our common humanity.

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Sad news last week of the demise of ‘Thresholds’ the longly named International Post Graduate Short Story Forum, where all aspects of the short story genre(s) could be promoted, discussed, dissected and debated. (One could have even written about the difference between discussing and debating if the need had arisen I suspect.)

Lorree Westron, Vicki Heath, David Ashton and others must have put in hours of work to bring this vast ship of knowledge and opinion to our screen, from amateurs like myself and from professionals like others! What a ride over the last eight years: a prompt to thought, revision, reaction, and interaction. (I’ll mix my metaphors, you make your own cocktails)

And, for us all, a place to read and write about the ‘baby sister’ of the novel (irony intended)

What I especially valued was the chance to look back over the genre to forgotten writers and to rub their shoulders with those of today’s practitioners.

But what to do with the essays now? There are lots of outlets for essays, but I can’t think of one that would be so inclusive, catholic (small c), and welcoming: one that would let you come in as yourself, and be yourself, without having to become part of someone’s club, class, team, or political identity. Thresholds seemed to me to be the perfect meeting ground, the open space into which all might venture and be ‘heard’, without being dragooned into anybody’s army, without being tarred by any brush but their own.

I can’t see another niche like that anywhere in our identity-ridden world.

So, for the time being I’ll have to use the blog, but suddenly my world seems a much lonelier, emptier, and more distant place.

Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

I’ve running a course at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit, on how we might read as writers, in order to get some insights into how we might write! It’s not so much a matter of stealing techniques, as of noticing them as we read; of paying more attention than we might if we were reading for fun, and not really paying attention.

Most of what you might say on such a course is a matter of common sense: read carefully, but notice your own reactions to what is being read…and as k the question, why did that particular group of words have that particular effect?

An exercise I’ve used several times is to give students a paragraph or two of writing, and get them to score the individual words: for what they think is the emotional impact of them. Some words have none = 0. Some have a small emotional charge = 1 Some have a big one =2.

It’s a rough and ready exercise, too ragged perhaps to be called a system, but it throws up, nevertheless all sort of interesting facets of the way a piece of writing has been written, and read.

For example, you tend to get clusters of scoring words. They aren’t evenly distributed throughout the piece. Often they cluster at particular places, like drunks on street corners, with highly charged words, and a bunch of lowly charged hangers on at paragraph beginnings and endings. Sometimes it works the other way, with groups gathering in the centre of paragraphs, and leaving the change points bereft.

If you carry out the exercise far enough into a piece of writing, you might start to notice that you’re scoring the same words differently, and perhaps an explanation for that might be that the words surrounding them are enhancing, or diminishing their powers. There’s also the reminder that words, quite simply, don’t carry the same weight for all of us: the strength of their meaning is not set by the dictionary definition, but by the circumstances in which we have encountered, and used them. This is one element of language that the nascent AI might struggle with, and, presumably, might erode or even destroy.

The exercise is one that a writer can carry out on their own writing, of course, and who knows, it might give some useful insights into how they think it will work…..

 

Here’s a thing…I didn’t realise this was going to pop up…but Reflex Fiction have kindly published BHD’s short story (call it a flash fiction if you will), Caught In Timehere

A recent review touched on the subject of Cyril Connolly. I’d not read anything by, or even about this writer, but I had encountered the name. He features in War Like A Wasp, an account of London’s Fitzrovia and its arty types during World War Two. The review mentioned how the well known and influential writer and critic had failed to achieve his ambition of writing something that would hold for ‘ten years’.

Two things about that ambition, and the failure to achieve it, struck me. The first was that ten years seems quite modest, if you mean that the piece of writing remains potent for that long. The other was that here was an apparently successful member of the London literary ‘elite’ suffering the same sense of failure as many of the rest of us probably are.

Of course, it’s not only the potency of the writing that he would have been meaning, I suspect, but its fame. Something can ‘work’ in the sense of being understood, and being relevant, for decades perhaps, without being known about, or seen to work, and maybe, at the bottom of it, what we would really like is someone to know we’ve written something that’s lasting for a decade, and maybe a lot of someones!

So I felt a kinship with Cyril, and that rather surprised me. It cheered me too. I read a poem recently, at an event locally, and somebody in the audience mentioned afterwards, how he’d been hoping I would, as he had remembered it from a reading a little over ten years before! I think Cyril would understand my reaction to that. In writing, as in many things, we’re all more alike than we sometimes recognise.

Or should that be, Reading as Writers? While not the opposite ends of a telescope there’s little doubt that writing can help you to become a better reader and reading, to be a better writer.

Mike Smith is running a six week course, starting on September 11th (7.00pm-9.00pm) at Darren Harper’s Carlisle Philosophical and Literary Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, UK), called Reading As A Writer. Using extracts from published texts, we’ll look at ‘close reading’ and what we mean by it, and examine how single words, sentences, paragraph breaks and chapters in longer works do their jobs, and what those jobs might be. We’ll also consider how the passage of time in fiction tries to re-create in words the experience of time passing in real life – and how different storytelling forms differ in their handling of time.

Course Fees:

£54 full

£43 over 60

£27 students/benefits

Booking via info@philandlit.org

 

Recently I’ve been reading John Steinbeck, and in particular his short story (included in a collection of ‘shorter novels), Of Mice and Men. A level students in the UK might well be familiar with it, but in the stage-play format, and there are two movie versions, from 1939 and sometime in the early 90s. It’s one of those stories from which we get the chance to look at storytelling over several genres -where the story stays the same (or the changes give us opportunity for speculation), but the telling differs.

In the written story everything happens in our heads, triggered by what the words mean, and, make no mistake, by what they mean to us as individual readers, which will not necessarily, in fact will certainly not be exactly the same as they do to the writer. With the adaptation for the stage, much of that triggered meaning will be presented to us by the appearance of the stage, the props, lighting, sound rigs and, not least, the actors. The willing suspension of disbelief that I was taught about when I was a student – our suppression of the knowledge that what we are looking at is not real sky, and real landscape, and real buildings – leaves us to imagine and fill in what the theatre has to leave out. With the further adaptation into film, much of that unreality is made real, and real in a way that might quite different from what those original words conjured in our minds. Disbelief, when we’re talking about movies, might suffer more of an irresistible overwhelming, than a willing suppression.

Which brings me to documentaries on the TV.

Have you noticed, how even when apparent facts are being given, by erudite and enthusiastic presenters, we are being nudged into responding to them in a particular way, not only by the back-scenes – Neil Oliver’s lovely hair blowing in the wind, for example – but by an entirely unnecessary musical soundtrack, a subtle, insidious, almost subliminal indicator about how we ought to feel about what is being said….? After all, these people aren’t telling us something so that we can make our minds up about it. They are recruiting us into the mindsets that they have already adopted.

Back to the original written word.

How do the writers, without the enhancement of emotion-tugging violins, or rousing drums, achieve the same sort of influence?

Here’s a poem I wrote about fifteen years ago. I haven’t tinkered with it since.

It must have been around that time, I also wrote the story Alcedo the Dipper. Set in a futuristic mall (that seems quite dated now!), the story world had people wearing hi-tech, electrically generated ‘veils’, to avoid being seen by CCTV, though the veils themselves had become their distinguishing features. That was the background to the story, but its intention was more about the creation of a street argot or patois, based on terms re-cycled from the trading floor of Stock Markets. I was interested in how words could be taken completely out of context and re-purposed. It ended up in The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer, a collection of short stories that are longer than my usual. 

There had been around then, I think, an article in a women’s magazine showing photos of pairs of eyes and asking readers to guess the emotions in them. Men, apparently, scored worse than women at the test. It might have prompted the poem, or perhaps it was Jack Straw’s reported discomfort at interviewing masked constituents?

And perhaps Boris has missed a point or two, for the Burqa and the Niqab are not fashion statements, and what they look like is beside the point. It’s why they are worn, and where the practice began, and when, that matters. If you need a comparison, then compare them with the suits worn by the operatives clearing up after the Novachuk incident, for they were, and presumably are, for protection, in cultures where the gaze of men might lead to an assault, the cause of which would be regarded as the ‘irresistibility’ of uncovered women. Worth noting, that in current western culture we do not believe that women can be so irresistible, even when dressed provocatively.

Different cultures reveal and conceal different parts of the body for different reasons, and with differing messages. An open hand can signify no weapon, or largesse, or be the weapon (kara-te – no kidding). We can have face, or no face, or side, or no side to us. The public hangman, when we had one, was hooded, and thus masked, and so have been other executioners, authorised and otherwise.

Two masks I can think of in western culture that were ‘positive’ rather than negative, were the Lone Ranger’s one, and Zorro’s – both, perversely, covered the eyes, and nothing else. I am reminded too of that statement in The Virginian –When you say that, stranger, smile. To which the masked man might reply, I am smiling, underneath his Burka! Some things have to be taken on trust.

Perhaps I should have added, to the poem, a verse about hoodies….and there are so many ways to wear a bandana…. maybe I should try out a few at the local branch of my bank (while there still is one).

 

Shrouded Woman With Bum Bag & Coke Can

(a poem about cultural baggage, by Mike Smith)

 

Covered robed and hidden

Like a man from KKK

Hood black as balaclavas

That they wore in IRA

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

Out upon the turnpike

With pistol or with knife

Masked Highwaymen demanded

Your money or your life

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

Even knights in armour

With colours on a shield

Had to raise their visors

For intent to be revealed

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

A little Hiroshima

A Dresden on a plate

Only one girl in a thousand

Would choose to take her place

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

She twists a metal ring pull

There’s a package at her waist

Her eyes are saying something

But I cannot see her face….

One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.