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And there it was: Vita dei campi, which even the slightest whiff of Italian or even Latin – (15% at O level, don’t get me started!) might allow you to guess means Life in the fields, the Italian version of Giovanni Verga’s break through collection of short stories, reprinted from the 1880 edition. The wonders of the internet, and shopping on it! (I’m now getting pop-ups for all sorts of products in Italian, btw).

The She-Wolf becomes La Lupa, and I can follow up  my curiosity about those three versions of translation I blogged about a little while ago.

Why on earth would I do that? you might ask. I’m no Italian scholar, but short stories interest me, and one thing I’m sure about, where they are concerned, is that James Joyce’s ‘right words in the right order’ applies even more to short stories than it does to anything else – even legal documents! (OK, maybe jokes too.) And I wanted to see for myself which order, and which words Verga had used, and finds out whether those translators had messed about that, and if they had, what difference it might make to how I reacted to the story.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Words have a feel about them, and quite a personal feel too. I get into heavy metaphors to elaborate this point, but I’ll leave you to your own. The fact is though, and I think it is a fact, that the emotional power of individual words will vary from reader to reader, writer to writer, and speaker to speaker, and it will do that because most, if not all of the words we encounter in life, will will encounter, and will have encountered for the first time, in situations that are to greater or lesser extents emotionally charged. When we get the meaning of a word for the first time, even if we’ve looked it up in a dictionary, we will be getting it in a context, and that context will carry, or won’t carry, an emotional charge for us. My guess is that whatever the charge or lack of it, in that first meeting, will influence, not necessarily forever, our emotional understanding of, and reaction to the word.

When dealing with words in our own language(s) that will vary for each of us, but we will to some extent, perhaps, have an idea of what those variants might be; of what the words will mean to our fellow users of the language. When dealing with foreign words, I suspect, the variations will be there, but will largely be beyond our focus.

So my little test might be of use, but it might also mislead.

Well, you might ask, are the words the same? Is the word order the same? Watch this space (or rather, watch out for another one in a few days, and I’ll let you know!).

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There is one name missing from Death of a Superhero. That’s Sara-Mae Tucson, Inktears’ ‘person Friday’ in the UK.

It was she who organised and hosted the excellent launch party in London’s Theatreland pub, The Sun, on Drury Lane, on Saturday 16th December. Being launched were two Inktears’ anthologies of short stories: Death of a Superhero & How to Begin a Wonderful Life. Each beautifully produced hardback volume – they are so smart they have ribbons so you can mark your place! – showcases the work of four writers.

BHD has nine stories included in Death of a Superhero, drawn from writing that stretches back over almost a decade, and their final published form, in several cases, is thanks to the sensitive editorial input of Sara-Mae. Two of them have even been given new (and considerably more fitting) titles! So thanks, Sara-Mae, from BHDandMe, for your editing skills, your general support, and your enthusiastic encouragement at all stages of the process. Thanks too, of course, to Anthony Howcroft, founder and CEO of Inktears, without whom none of it would have been possible! Click on the image, or here, to go to where you can buy copies.

 

A.M.Howcroft on BHD: ‘…a writer with a very distinctive voice and a rich vein of humour….. a certain wry, engaging tone…. a high concept for a theme….I always imagine his stories filmed in grainy black and white, peopled with fascinating, flawed characters.’

What are you doing here, today of all days? And a very happy Christmas, by the way, from BHDandMe. Wanna read a story? Here’s  Liars League’s Top Ten Stories of their First Ten Years, and BHD’s Hecho A Mano, the filthiest story he ever wrote (up to now), in among ’em! 

The delights of a well told story mean that we can come back to it again and again with equal, and perhaps growing pleasure. Even, and perhaps especially, the short story works in this way, and remarkably, even the very short story can.

A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton (most recently published as the title story of a Turnpike Books selection) is a case in point.  Only four pages long, it’s a story I’ve come back to again and again, finding something new in it each time – perhaps I’m an inattentive reader – or refining my thoughts from a previous reading.  Weep Not My Wanton featured in Coppard’s very first collection, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, alongside Dusky Ruth – often quoted as being representative of his work, and Arabesque – The Mouse, one of his most sinister and searching sidelights on the human psyche, and another favourite of mine. Unaccountably, Coppard left Weep Not My Wanton out of his self-selected American collection, and I wish I’d discovered him in time to have asked why!

I’ve written about the story before on more than one occasion, but I haven’t stopped exploring it. The mystery, if that’s the right word, for me, has always been to explain why Coppard tagged on the last paragraph. It could, of course, be an error of judgement, but I doubt that. The paragraph provides a closing frame, returning the reader to the landscape that opened the story, in a lush description of Sack Down, where ‘air and light […] at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk’. The closing sentence is as gentle: ‘From the quiet hill, as the last skein of cocks was carted to the stack, you could hear dimly men’s voice’s and the rattle of their gear.’

What has passed between what I think of as the two water-coloured frames of English landscape, is a simple, but brutal story. Into that landscape walks an itinerant labouring family. The father is ‘slightly drunk’ and as they walk he unmercifully berates, and beats, the ‘tiny figure’ of his son. The cause of this prolonged assault is a lost sixpence, but, just before that closing paragraph of landscape, a startling truth is revealed. The sixpence is not lost, but withheld by the boy, to be given to the mother while the father is distracted.

That father is a complex figure, far more complex than four pages of story might be thought to require. Drunk, but wearing ‘two bright medals’, which, the author tells us, in a phrase that seems to push through the detached narrative of the third person and speak intimately to us, were ‘presumably for valour’. This is an important phrase. That ‘presumably’ raises the question of what the medals were for, and prepares us for another phrase, later, in which we are told that he has fallen ‘from the heroic standard’. Readers in 1921, and perhaps since, would know that ‘for valour’ is what it says on the Victoria Cross, the highest award, for valour, that can be made to a serving soldier of the British Army. This bullying father is not quite what he seems.

That ‘tiny figure’ of the son is not what he seems either. He is described at length early in the story and the description is shot through with elements that show he is in disguise: ‘a man’s cap’, a ‘sailor’s jacket’, ‘a pair of women’s button boots.’ Appearances are deceptive throughout this story. The mother, who watches the abuse of her son without seeming to do anything about it, is equally misleading: ‘she seemed to have no desire to shield the boy’. ‘She did not seem to notice them.’ But, at what might seem  to be the climax of the father’s assault, she seems to need to go behind a bush and hands over to him the babe, whom she has been carrying.

Now we see another side of him, as he cooes to and carries the child. The boy falls back, and slips the sixpence to his mother when she reappears. The jolt of this action, on first reading, is immense, and the scales fall from our eyes. The heroism and endurance of the boy, and the cleverness of the mother, and the tragedy of the whole situation are all, instantly revealed. And perhaps, all that seeming, and being dressed in somebody else’s clothes is eclipsed.

There is something else going on in this story. ‘At the crown of the hill’ at a ‘roadside barn’ young boars are being gelded. Their ‘sounds of anguish’ are not illusory. Neither is the singing of the lark, ‘rioting above’. A gypsy man among the workers comments on the father’s beating of the boy – ‘ ‘Selp me, father, that’s a good ‘un, wallop his trousers!’ But it isn’t the trousers, and besides, the father ignores all this. But the pigs, at the end of the story are really ‘bloody and subdued’.

I think a point is being made here, about what is seen and not seen, and what is paid attention to and what is ignored, and how what is real can be misrepresented. And at the very beginning of the story, Coppard has alerted us to the possibility of something very like that, for that luscious opening description, of the peaceful English countryside, with its ‘ointment’ and ‘milk’ is, he quite explicitly tells us, ‘a notion the down might give..[  to  ]…some happy victim of romance’. This brings the story down to being, not about the father and his situation, nor even about the England across which he tramps, but about us, the readers, and what we are capable of seeing, through, and in the stories we are told.

If you’d like to read more about Coppard, about the tales, and the themes that run through them, my collection of essays is available online for Kindle, or as a softback, by clicking on the image, or here.

She was only the ornithologist’s daughter, but she did it for a lark. Or, to bring it up to date, only the ornithologist’s offspring.

So much for the non-PC stuff. Somebody passed on to me three publications by the late Philip Larkin (High Windows, The North Ship and Required Reading). I can’t remember reading any Larkin, though I know what he said about our parents. That raises the conundrum, for people like me, of whether we should go for blaming the adoptive, or biological ones, and erring on the safe side seems to suggest both.

That’s not what this is about though. It’s about the realisation (which has crept in over years, rather than suddenly), that I don’t buy many poetry books. Partly that’s because I’m spoilt for choice, and most of them will be disappointing (and money has always been tight – at least in a local context). Over and again, magazine editors in the small press world have made the point that if everyone who submitted bought a (bloody*) copy they would be laughing. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, ha!

We don’t of course, and all sorts of inhibitions, critical judgements and parsimonies prevent us. It occurred to me though, perhaps because of the time of year – when humbug is in season – that if we were to buy such publications (and not only poetry, but short stories too, or even books of essays, hmn?) and give one to our friends – two to enemies – we all might be laughing: Hahahahahahahahahahah, haha!

I shall look forward to reading the PL, especially the RW.

*in deference to the article on Radio 4 ‘this’ morning that told us swearing is good for us WTF? Ed.)

Coming this Saturday, 16th December, 4.30pm, to the Sun Pub on Drury Lane(the one in London), is the Inktears Launch Party for two Showcase Editions. BHD will be among the writers present to read from, and sign (should that be deface?) copies! Click on the link for more details. There’s also a link on the link that’ll take you to where you can buy the books in advance!

 

Darren Harper, founder of the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society has asked me to deliver a creative writing course in addition to the Short Story Writing course that I shall running though January into March. Over the same ten weeks, but on Monday evenings at 7.00pm. This second course will take a more general approach, and because the other is centred on short stories, I’ll focus this one on the novel (at least as far the reading material and texts to work on are concerned). Here’s a brief overview of what’s planned…..

L&PC2 Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

 

Dates: 8 January until 12 March 2018 Mondays 7pm until 9pm

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £70 full fee £49 over 60 £14 in receipt of benefit Level Beginners to Intermediate

 

Description:

Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing outlined below. Because I am running concurrently a short story course, all the texts used in this one will be taken from novels.

 

Introduction : An exercise in what we know about story – but not the one you expect!

Developing Character: Breadth and depth, limits and inner conflicts

Setting the Scene: Enabling the events, inviting the participants, manipulating the reader

Structure and Plot: Paragraphs and Chapters

Point of View 1: Who tells the story?

Point of View 2: Where are the readers?

The Little Box of Language Tricks: Emotional Weighting. Open & Closed sentences. Poetics.

Reading as a Writer: A stop and search mission

Drafting: Putters in and Takers out. Chronologies. Cruises and crossings.

Revision: CRIT Clarifications, Repetitions, Irrelevancies and Tightening

 

Suggested Reading:

The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate

First Blood – David Morrell (trust me, ignore the films. This is a great study in plot/structure)

BHD’s short, short story Echoes is among the sixty stories by sixty authors in the newly published Flash Volume 10 (April’17), the Flash Fiction magazine of the IFFA. Stories included are all of 360 words or fewer (less, if you prefer).


It doesn’t matter how many times you kiss the frog. It won’t turn into a Prince.

Facets of Fiction: Writing the Short Story

– a short course by Mike Smith, devised for Darren Harper’s Carlisle Phil and Lit Society.

Thursdays, 1.00pm-3.00pm, 11th January to 15th March 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street, Carlisle.

£70 (£49 over 60/ £14 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course examines the short story elements: Beginnings, Endings, Middles, Locations in time and place, Ambience, Character, and Narrative voice. Short stories are short, sharp, subtle, and to be taken ‘at a sitting’. Includes sessions that take published short stories and examine how they have used those facets.

  1. Cut Up Exercise – Reconstructing stories reveals our grasp of the genre.
  2. Beginnings – What are they for? What must they do?
  3. Endings – The point of a story: the view it takes us to.
  4. Dialogue – how much, and where, and why? And how to do it…
  5. Character & Situation – Characters create situations, and are caught in them.
  6. Location – Stories take place, and time, and are made by them
  7. Ambience – every story has a mood, which might deepen, dissipate, or change.
  8. Narrators – Who is telling the story, and why, and to whom?
  9. Editing & Redrafting – exercises with prepared stories (c1000 words).
  10. Publication: How and Why? Options to consider.

Suggested Reading:

The Poetic Impulse by Mike Smith. Explores the ideas from which the course was constructed. Available on Amazon (or from the author).  Mike Smith, M.Litt (Glasgow) -aka Brindley Hallam Dennis- has won many prizes and awards for his writing.

Story by Robert McKee. Intended for Screenwriters, but useful for any story constructor!

Aristotle’s Poetics – An ancient overview of how tragedy works (even today!). Various translations (over the past centuries) are available. (McKee’s book draws heavily on it!)

The flight from Auckland to Dubai is said to be the longest single ‘hop’ in the commercial, passenger airline route list. It takes about 17 hours, an hour or so longer than the west to east outward journey.

On that outward journey I’d watched the whole of series Five of Episodes, a comedy series my daughter used to work on. On the homeward leg though, I couldn’t find anything on the ‘blockbuster/boxed set’ listings on the back of the seat in front of me.

I’m not a natural traveller, and least of all in ‘planes and boats (trains are fine by me). My logical brain tells me that aircraft are the safest form of transport, and I remember from  childhood a Biggles story (Biggles in India perhaps? Or the Cruise of the Condor(?) which were two favourites) in which after a hair raising take off from a river, Biggles and his chums – my adoptive family actually used the word ‘chums, being of that generation – Biggles and his chums narrowly avoided going over a waterfall. Uncompressing his lips for a moment, the fair-haired, clean shaven hero pointed out, that it wouldn’t have been as safe in a canoe! Common sense though ( of the type that leads us to our political choices) tells me that so many tons and so much bulk, as are A380s made of cannot stay so serenely up in the air.

With this in mind, before I fly, I try to put myself into a frame of that ilk, where the possibility of death might be faced with equanimity – at least until the moments of sheer terror and panic! I make a point of saying goodbye to those who matter – yes, that did mean you – and leave messages for those I cannot directly communicate with. Letters, left ‘where they may be found’ (to mangle a line), can be used for kindling if the chance arises.

Perhaps that not quite transcendental caste of mind is what prevented me from throwing myself into the viewing of any particular movie, or TV show. As it was I did something rather unexpected instead, and unexpectedly, found it to be rather interesting. I watched, without access to the sound, the programmes being watched by the two who sat either side of me, and by two others, two rows ahead, whose screens were visible, obliquely through the gaps between the seat backs.

There’s something curious about watching movies, or any programmes, with the sound missing.  As black and white images seem to focus our attention on the forms within the frame, so silence demands that we focus on what we see. And there’s a surprising amount to be seen, that not having to focus in the normal course of events (as is the case for most of us), we simply overlook.

Facial expressions and body language suddenly take centre stage, and in fact are, in terms of mis-en-scene, exactly that. More subtly perhaps, we notice those phases of a story when the characters are doing very little, except exchanging words, and words, by the looks of it, not laden with emotional upheaval. We get a gist of the story, that may be misleading, but makes, nevertheless, a story that we think we are following. I’ve quoted often – usually disparagingly – C.S.Lewis’s carp about ‘unliterary’ people ‘flooding’ written stories (‘wretched material’ he calls it) with their own imaginings, and for a large part of that long haul flight, I guess that’s what I must have been doing.

Not so subtly, my attention during all this was drawn to the action, and specifically to the violence. How much of it there was, and how relentless, graphic, pitiless, and vicious. I worked for several years in the criminal justice system, where I saw a large amount of low level, intermittent, ineffective, clumsy and pathetic violence. I have not found it so entertaining since, though it runs, like a thread of corruption through the flesh of many of my stories. How could it be, I asked myself, at 40,000 feet, and still serenely sailing, that people were so content – for want of a dozen other words – to sit through this onslaught?

And there was another thing (no quote intended). How much of this unrealistic violence involved a ‘hero’ – for want of a better word – seemingly impervious to fear, or damage, slaughtering countless numbers of anonymous ‘enemies’. Is this the rage that festers away inside us? The desire to kill the stranger?

The cover story for this mayhem is that the stories are about the victory of righteousness over wickedness, but the Greeks, or so I believe, told such stories without any action being seen on stage. The violence, for them, even when it was not gratuitous, was not the entertainment.

Click on the image for a dozen stories by BHD (in which the violence is off-stage) available on Amazon for Kindle, or as a softback.