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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’m reading at the Maryport Settlemnent on Saturday 29th September, as part of the celebration of the moment, fifty nine years ago (in 1959), when Cumberland poet Norman Nicholson met painter Percy Kelly, in this very place.

There are events throughout the Saturday, and on the Friday. My part is two-fold. A bit part in the morning’s event with Brian Chaney of the Norman Nicholson Society, who will concentrate on Norman’s poems, and a bitter part as one of the lunchtime poets (from 12.30 till 2.00pm) at which I’ll do a set of around 20 minutes.

It’s always difficult at events like this to know what to read. There’s a fashion at regular poetry readings for writers, for poets to present their most ‘famous’ works, and their most recent.  The thing about recent work, whether it’s poetry or prose, is that we think it’s our best (weeks, months – possibly days – later, of course, we think something else is, and not necessarily something written since!).

There was a plan for me to read alongside the late (great) Nick Pemberton, but as you probably know, he passed away earlier this month. There’s a gap nobody will be filling! So among the poems I’ll be reading will be ones that I think Nick liked, or would have liked. There’s a sort of signature poem too – which is as near as I get to that ‘famous’, and yes, one or two ‘recent’ poems, that may, or may not be ‘the best’.

I mentioned in a blog a few posts back, the story of literary critic Cyril Connolly and his ambition manque – to write something that would last ten years. If he had, one must imagine, it might well have been his ‘best’, but would he have recognised it at the time, or even thought so ever after? 

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

Yesterday reminded me I must watch Bad Day at Black Rock again, but in the meantime here’s some news about a poetry anthology under preparation in Cumbria and to which I was offered the chance to submit.

I was lucky enough to have one poem accepted. It’s one of several poems I have written over the years touching on the subject of dry-stone walls. The first two were written back in the mid seventies and picked up by The Countryman magazine (which actually paid for publication!). It was a theme I returned to for a number of reasons. One was that the stone wall has a high profile in the culture of the north of England, and does so even as far south as where I grew up. The Derbyshire stone-walls are as ubiquitous as those of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Pennine country and of the Lake District Fells. They differ in building styles and techniques, some being of the dark – Satanic – millstone, some of the sharp, irregular limestone. But here in Cumbria too there is a similar variety – Limestone on Orton Scar, Slate and granite on the central Lakeland fells, sandstones on the fringes to the north and west.

It’s not just their appearance in the landscape that draws the poet’s attention though. Walls themselves, Hadrian’s or the Emperor of China’s, and later Stalin’s, Israel’s, and perhaps one day Trump’s, make political and racial statements about who they are walling in and walling out. Since schooldays Robert Frost’s poem has reminded me to ask ‘to whom’ they were ‘like to give offense.’ That poem, Mending Wall, appeared in the 1914 collection North of Boston. Decades later, in a collaborative publication with retired miner and embroiderer Kenneth Dow Barker, the Cumberland poet, Norman Nicholson’s Wall, inspired me with its lyricism. That poem focussed on walls in the landscape and how they were built, but it contained a simple idea, ‘built it to stand’, that became the core of my later poem.

I heard Nicholson read his poem along with others from Stitch & Stone (Ceolfrith Press, 1975) at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, soon after, or probably at its launch and I recall him introducing the two long poems – Wall and Beck – with the explanation that he hadn’t had the time to write shorter ones.

Writer and stone-waller, Joe Smith, writing in Southlight  #13, cited one of my wall poems – quite a compliment, for I believe he can’t have seen it in print, but must have remembered a reading somewhere. That might have been at the Burns Centre in Dumfries, where I read as a warm-up poet for a mildly famous ‘named’ poet, whose name I have forgot. He reassured me during the after show hospitality, that I had been lucky that he had ‘not caught fire’ in his own reading. I have wondered since if he was the lucky one, as I would have had to hand only beer or urine to douse him in – and would have considered it a waste of beer (nobody can beat a poet at nursing a grudge).

To be published in early October by Handstand Press, This Place I know will feature poets living in the county. There will be launches as part of the Borderlines Festival, and at the Wordsworth Trust.


Something this week put into my mind once again, that remark which Norman Nicholson – unarguably the best Cumberland poet since Wordsworth, at least that we know about – which Nicholson made when I interviewed him back in the 1970s (You can read a transcript in Norman Nicholson at 100, edited by Stephen Matthews & Neil Curry and published by – and available from – Bookcase in Carlisle). What he told me was that he was ‘an entertainer.’

This is somewhat of a loaded word for someone of my education and upbringing. I went to a grammar school that had given up on erudition and learning in favour of pretension and appearances – at least from the corner I was standing in. So, ‘entertainer’ has for me the ring of ‘time waster,’ however entertainingly accomplished.

Good old BGS for Boys, however, by virtue of a trio of dedicated English teachers, did give me an interest (I wrote ‘love’ first, but decided against it) in words, and the itch to burrow my way into them from time to time. What does, I ask myself, ‘entertain’ mean? Travelling once in Scotland, within sniff of a distillery, I did ‘enter Tain,’ but that’s not what we’re looking for. There are other words, though, that might be worth recalling: Detain, Attain, Retain, all spring to mind. What is this thing called ‘tain’ – queue for a song (OK, cue for a song if we must) – that can be at-ed, de-ed, and re-ed?

Detain – to be held against your will? Retain – to be held where you are? Attain – to get to the place where you hold something? You’ll see where I’m going. Is ‘taining’ something to do with holding? Up here, oop here, if you like, in the north ‘ta’en’ with the throttled ‘k’ means taken. Am I on to something? Or off my trolley?

Some more ‘tain’ words: Obtain, Contain, Pertain. And again, there is that concept of holding common to all three (OK, at a stretch with the third!).

Time to look at the dictionary.

The best I have is the Shorter Oxford – though I have some interesting older ones – Blounts Glossographica of 1659 has gone missing, but it was interesting rather than useful. I rather liked the fact too, that in my poor copy, some eighteenth or nineteenth century re-binder had tried to get the long title word across the spine, and failed, despite having a go with a couple of smaller letters before dropping down on to a lower line! The good old OED tells me that all these words can be traced to a Latin root, each with a prefix. What the rootin’tootin’roots are, is interesting.

Attain   AT+tangere (to touch)

Detain   DE+tenere (to hold)

Retain   RE+tenere (that’s the one)

Obtain  OB+tenere (holding again!)

Contain CON+tenere (hold on there)

Pertain  PER+tenere (Well held, sir)


Which makes me wonder, if they’re right about the first one!

There is of course, the word I began with still to look up, and yes, you’ve guessed it. That’s the ‘holding’ root too. The prefix, ‘enter,’ entre nous, is interesting too. It means, ‘among,’ which is like being ‘between.’ If this has entertained you so far, you might want to go on and see for yourselves what the other prefixes mean, and imply. Then there’s the word ‘interesting’…….

I think Norman was telling me that he was a poet who held people, in the middle of other things, like, say, their lives. And, of course, it goes perhaps without saying, that he held them by their interests!

You wanna loyn sumpin. about ya etymology why not a looksee at Kowalski’s page on ya link: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

TalkingtoOwlsA recent correspondent expressed surprise that my stories had been ‘accepted’ as short stories. This was because, he implied, they lacked a necessary ‘punchline’. They might, or might not. Certainly I conform, and enthusiastically support, the contention that stories are all about their endings, but that ‘punchline’ raises a question, and so does his ‘accepted’.

Who should they be accepted by (by whom? If you prefer). Editors, one imagines, if publication is your primary concern; assuming, that is, that editors are looking for something they would describe as short stories, whether you have or not. The same might be true of readers. Never mind that you are writing a short story suggests that you might want others to recognise it as such. There was a period in the not too distant past when short stories were referred to by some (including editors, I believe) as short fiction. The ‘story’ word became rather unfashionable. In his book on the novel (Aspects of the Novel), E.M.Forster, writing about an entirely different beast, rather put the story down. It was an inferior, regrettably essential aspect. Other commentators have taken a similar tack. Academics have no need of stories. Analysis can be quite happily lavished on sentences, clauses and the like, without any regard to sequences of referred meaning. The reader though, has a good old fashioned grasp of story, and knows that what it’s about is, well, what it’s about. That’s why readers, when they hear what you are reading, will ask, what’s it about?

So, I’m pleased, generally, that the stories in Talking To Owls ( ), which is what my correspondent had been reading, have been accepted as such, however surprising he may find that. What’s more pleasing, and perhaps it shouldn’t be, is that the stories struck me as being short stories, because that is what I had been setting out to write. The late Norman Nicholson, said of his poetry, that it must be like a pot; well made enough to stand on the shelf on its own. I feel something similar about my short stories. I favour the metaphor of a chair. If you set out to make a chair, it might be that, though what you have ended up with can be sat upon, you might not recognise it yourself, as being a chair. In which case, I would aver, you have a good reason to be dissatisfied; even, I might add, if editors and readers like to sprawl upon it whilst reading my short stories.

Being accepted; having one’s short stories accepted as such, is only part of the story. You want, well, I certainly do, to recognise them as such our own terms first of all. A game that some of you know I like, is the metaphor game, where we search for the metaphors we like to use to describe the things we do and make. The metaphor for the short story which I like to use, is that of the ‘crossing’. A short story, for me, is something like a crossing: a journey from here to there; and one, at the end of which, we look forward to the hinterland of where we have arrived, or look back to our point of origin from this new perspective, or indeed realise that we (or our characters, have in fact gone nowhere. A novel, by the way, I metaphorise, as a cruise, during which we island hop from place to place, stopping at many ports, resuming our voyage with many new dawns.

What about that ‘punchline’ though? His metaphor? The American writer O Henry, no slouch in the short story department (and, coincidentally, bearing the same name as my paternal, adoptive grandparent beneath that nom-de-plume), was famous, infamous some would say, for the punchline story. Twist-in-the-tail was a common description of his stories, and often offered as a criticism. He was very good at it, as as people do, when they are very good at it, he rather overdid it, and encouraged a generation of short story writers to follow in his footsteps.

Play the metaphor game again though, and you’ll find lots of alternatives for the ending of a short story: a candle blown out, a light switched on, embers dying, a fire taking hold, a door opening, another closing, a knife being thrust in, a blade being pulled out.

What my correspondent missed, or at least, didn’t refer to, is common to all those: that it is the ending of a short story that we go to see. And you can find editors, writers and commentators all over the place who will take note of that, and pass it on, in introductions, prefaces, articles, interviews and academic essays. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all the stories in Talking To Owls have that quality, but I rather intended that they should. You’ll have to read them to find out!

Those interested in the short story can hear fellow Pewter Rose Press author Vivien Jones read at Aspatria Library on Tuesday 17th Feb (doors open at 7.00pm.£5 admission), in an event organised by Solway Arts Group. BHDandMe & Marilyn Messenger will be there to add our thruppence worth of short tales (careful with my spelling there).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen 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’.TalkingtoOwls

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACarlisle Bookseller and Publisher Steve Matthews has added another volume to his long list of publications about Cumbria and the Borders, it’s history, culture and people…

‘Norman Nicholson at 100, Essays and Memoirs’ brings together more than twenty pieces of writing about Cumbria’s most famous poet, and Cumberland’s second most! With contributions from those who knew him, and those who know and love his his work; analysis sits alongside speculation; memories rub shoulders with academic essays. Norman’s own voice is included too, not only in the quotations from his work, but also in the transcript of an interview undertaken by me back in the nineteen seventies, in the cosy gloom of Nicholson’s sitting room at 14 St. George’s Terrace, Millom.

The editors, Steve Matthews and poet Neil Curry also allowed me the opportunity to make a brief comparison between Nicholson and his near contemporary, Geoffrey Holloway, two poets whose similarities and differences intrigued me during the years I knew them, and have haunted me ever since.

Other contributors include poets Chris Pilling, Mary Robinson and Phil Houghton, academics like David Cooper, and Nicholson’s most recent biographer, Kathleen Jones. It’s an amazing collection of disparate opinions, avenues of approach, and areas of interest. Norman is viewed through the lenses of topography, religion, friendship, the green movement, and of course, of poetry.

I’m, of course, immensely pleased to be included among such distinguished writers, but most pleased to be able to pass on some of my own recollections of this widely admired local poet. It’s the scope and variety of what is recalled, discussed, and suggested, that makes this anthology so interesting.

It’s available from Bookcase, in Carlisle, at £10, and would, as they say, may an excellent present!

Another Cumbrian Cultural Landmark worth noting is the Caldbeck Festival of Culture, which runs from Thursday 2nd to Sunday 5th of October. Bringing together a wide range of activities and interests from choirs to cloggies, by way of poets and flash fictionistas, at various venues around the village, notably The Oddfellows public house! It’s in the bar here that Open Mike sessions for writers and musicians will be held each of the four nights (including a prize giving session for young writers who took part in the creative writing competition on the Thursday). There are poetry an d flash fiction sessions too, throughout the four days, including short fiction readings by (me as) Brindley Hallam Dennis and Marilyn Messenger, and ‘mini- workshops’ for writers led by (me as) Mike Smith on the Saturday afternoon.   check it out on:


Followers of the blog will know that I have been reading  stories from the nineteenth century and earlier.

Why would we read stories by long dead authors? As living writers we want people to read us while we are alive. Does it matter to us that we might be read after our death? The sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures that might last only long enough for them to be photographed. Are the works of dead writers merely dead stories?

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet whose centenary is being celebrated this year, told me once that he wanted his poems to be like a pot – you could put it on a shelf and it would stand up on its own. Performance by the writer, he said, emphasised the personal, with winks and nudges and nods, and tone of voice. Without the writer, there is only the writing and the reading.

The pot analogy is worth pursuing, and not just for poetry. Short stories too can be that pot. Those of us who have heard our work read aloud by others know how different it can sound when it is truly outside our own heads, how different it can actually be. There are obvious elements to this: tone of voice can nuance meaning, tempo and volume will change what is actually heard. Listening to our own words in someone else’s mouth can show us qualities within it that we were previously unaware of.

It would be absurd, I think, to suggest that when the creator of a pot died we should destroy or stop using the pot. The pot outlives the author, and so does the story, whether he intends it to or not, but like the pottery, the words are likely to deteriorate over time. A pot may chip or crack. The glaze may craze, mould may get in behind it; patinas will come and go, precious metal plating might break down and wear away. In words it is meaning which loses its precision, or its potency, a nice distinction. Words themselves may become tainted by subsequent users, by current usages, random! Wicked even. Meaning leaks away. Birds might have tweeted in Dickens’ time, but not in the way they could do today. Metaphors decay the fastest of all, I suspect, needing us to know the qualities and nuances of both sides of the comparison to be effective.

Some pots and some short stories age better than others. They wear well or ill. And, as is the case with our pots, we probably don’t know, or even think about, whether the writers of the stories we read are dead or alive, unless we restrict ourselves to following the fashions laid down for us by the publishers and reviewers of new books, in whatever format.

If Norman’s pot is the right metaphor for the poem, and for the short story, then it is a vessel for the reader’s imagination, and for so long as the pot survives we may choose to drink from it, and as long as the story holds meaning, we may chose to read it, which is to fill it with our imaginations and understandings and to drink of that. Here’s why it is irrelevant how long ago the stories were made, irrelevant when the writers lived, or if they still live, or how long ago they died. Here’s why we would read the ‘old, old’ stories.



I’ve been working with creative writing students for the past ten years, sometimes at Cumbria University, sometimes with the Facets of Fiction groups that meet at my house. We’ve talked about, and experimented with the ways and means of creating characters, the methods and purposes of creating the locations in time and space in which stories sit, the development of appropriate narrative voices, and the stringing together of those sequences of events that often seem to be what stories are about.

We’ve looked at Beginnings, Middles and Ends, even though some people insist that they don’t exist. We’ve tried out ambiences and atmospheres, dialogues and monologues, and story threads that rolled forward, flashed back, and twisted themselves like anxiety ridden guts! But one element has received rare attention, though it’s hovered in the background of all our discussions. That is the issue of what stories are for – why they are written, and why they are read.

As a tutor I’ve always taken the view that no-one should be telling anybody what they ought to write about, but that doesn’t prevent discussion of what they have been about, and what they could be about. The whys of writing, and of reading, follow in that train. This might seem to be an issue primarily of fiction, but non-fiction too, and even more obviously, suggests reasons for writing, and reasons for reading.

Talking of poetry, the late Norman Nicholson vehemently asserted that ‘enjoyment’ was the primary function, and that ‘trying to understand a poem without enjoyment’ was absolute ‘rubbish’. My instinct is to concur in the case of fiction too, yet, there are fictions – Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Outer Dark’ springs to mind – to which the word ‘enjoyment’ seems a strange attachment. I read that grim novel with a sort of compulsive horror, and felt at the end that I had learned nothing useful or even revealing about the people around me, though I’ve no doubt there are people such as the novel envisioned, and probably nearby too! What sort of enjoyment could it give though? Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, one of my five best books to come out of World War Two – and probably top of that list – is a grim read too, but its final chapters are uplifting far beyond the horror of the jourmey to get to them.

The clue to why good fiction is worth reading might be found in that non-fiction memoir. Here’s a true story of redemption; of the victory of the human spirit over the dark side of human behaviour. Fiction can seek to replicate that, or to challenge it. For many years I worked as a bookseller specialising in military history books and during that time read almost no fiction. How could a fiction, I questioned, stand against accounts like Lomax’s?

It is clever writing that evokes emotions through words, yet, even off the page, emotions are regularly evoked by words, and by the voices that utter them. The words carry meanings for us, whether they are fictional, or factual – and by factual I include the lies that are passed off as truths; by fictional the truths that are passed off as lies. The English short story writer, A.E.Coppard, was wont to describe his art as that of the liar.

Just as a bricklayer might construct a wonderful arch, a writer might construct a wonderful story. We might value the skill in the arch, the technique in the writing. Yet, we will value the arch more, I suspect, for its place in the structure it is part of, and its uses, than for the skills alone. Whether or not we do something similar for the story is not quite so clear cut. In fact, the apparent uselessness of stories, and poems, their obscurity, seems often to have become the element in them that is valued most. Most, that is, by those who mediate that obscurity for the rest of us. A.L.Kennedy, in a video showing as part of the Jack Vetriano retrospective exhibition at Glasgow recently, made the point that Vetriano had been despised by the ‘Art Critics’ precisely because he did not need such mediation. The critic is empowered as the ‘lay’ viewer is disempowered. If this is a process that has taken the (visual) Arts, it is one that has assaulted the written ones too. ‘Short Stories’, an introduction to a collection of them says, became popular when poetry became ‘too abstruse’. Short stories, I often think, are going the same way. The bricklayer’s arch is becoming baroque. We stare at it in wonder, not understanding how it stands up, or what purpose it might serve. The bricklayer thinks building houses beneath him, and besides, he would not know how to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFriends gave me for Christmas a copy of Arthur Miller’s collected short stories.

I started at the beginning, and read through to the end, skipping the longest story, which sits in the middle. The opening story, ‘I Don’t Need You Any More’ tells of a five year old boy’s alienation from his family. Its a self-consciously Jewish story, and as a non-practising aetheist I found some of the issues hard to assess. Seeing through the child’s eyes I wasn’t sure where I was dealing with comic irony, and where with stone cold logic. The outsider has to second guess what the insider is serious about.

This must be a problem to some extent with all stories. They divide or unite readers into those who share, and those who do not, the basic underlying beliefs of the characters, and of the writers. We’re back to that favourite of mine, that what you see reveals where you stand. Yesterday (as I write) was the centennary of poet Norman Nicholson’s birth, and during the celebrations of that landmark I had cause to play a recording of him touching on this issue.

Wordworth, he said, was the first poet to make consideration of his own life central to his poetry. The argument went on that before Wordsworth writers could assume a high level of common belief, and experience with their readers. This was a consequence of the narrow class that was educated, and the narrowness of that education, and ergo of the narrow class to which writers spoke, and the narrow class that listened. Progressively, Nicholson said, that correlation broke down, leaving the modern writer – he told me this in the late nineteen seventies – to rely on their ‘common humanity’ as being the only predictable link between writer and reader.

We are divided, or united in our responses because of who we are, and what has made us that way. I’m reminded too, of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ with its elegant reversal, at the end, of a maxim delivered near to the beginning:



‘But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been-alone,


“As all must be,” I said within my heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”



Which becomes at the closing of the poem;


Men work together,” I told him from the heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”


Here the poet achieves a positive note, bridging the gap, and seeing unity in division. Cohen, in one of his songs takes a grimmer view, turning ‘I will kill you if I must/help you if I can’ into its more negative opposite.


Back to the Miller, whose work did strike me, and cumulatively so as I read on, as being rather gloomy! Stories had a sort of wistful sadness about them; not the cynical world-weary type of sadness, but more a knowing wisdom, centred on the presentation of human dignity in the face of distress. An old man imprisoned in his senility in ‘A Search for a Future’. Tony Calabrese rising above his own selfishness in ‘Fitters Night’. In another story a famous playwright is mistaken for himself, and in the more famous ‘The Misfits’, Miller ends with a metaphor for the no-hope cowboys who are catching wild horses to sell for meat:


‘From time to time the stallion caught the smell of the pasture..[ ]..but the tire

bent his neck around, and after a few steps he would turn to face it…[ ].. and then

he would come down and be still again.’


Characters in fiction are not like real people, though we gain that illusion, perhaps, briefly. They have no potentials, no hidden secrets. Not merely what we know, but what they wholly are, is the sum total of the words used to describe them. Miller often restricts the negative, and hints at the positive – Fitters Night is probably my faouvrite example of this – so that our sympathies for them are not lost. There’s a silver lining to these gloom-coud characters.


I preferred, marginally, the stories in the earlier segment, published during the nineteen sixties, but reflecting the America of the forties and fifties. Throughout them all though, Miller shows a nuanced grasp of what we like to call the human condition. The situations of his characters, and the mindsets they bring to dealing with them call forth our sympathy, and also perhaps a necessary sense of frustration that they have not behaved differently – the same frustration, perhaps, that we feel for our own inadequacies.

The last story, which names the collection as a whole, ‘Presence’ was apparently the last that Miller wrote before his death, and it seemed to me appropriate, for ending both a collection, and a writing life. I can’t think of a single story of the thousand or so I have read over the past few years with which to compare it in terms of its story content. An old man visits a beach he has known in childhood. He stumbles upon a couple making love – fucking is the word Miller uses. He withdraws (no pun intended), returns later to find them still at it, and skirts around them to the sea’s edge. Later, when they have both gone, he encounters the woman, who has been aware of his presence. They talk, and swim, and she leaves, and I was left – as I think I was supposed to be -with the question of whether it had been his own past that he had recalled. The story is powerful, and unresolved, one of those stories whose job is to raise questions, not to settle them.


‘How strange, he thought, that it mattered so little whether or not they were

actually here if what he had seen made him so happy?’


There are only sixteen stories in the collection. Some sixteen! Dense, moving, and thought provoking, lifted subtly from the ordinary, but never into realms of the fantastic, this really is a good read.