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I made a mistake a couple of days ago. I opened an old copy of Dune to find a paragraph or two I could use with a Creative Writing class.

I wouldn’t have dreamed of reading it again. In my day it was three volumes long, but I know it’s more like double that now, and I wasn’t keen to take on even the three for a second time. It wasn’t because I didn’t like it. As a piece of fiction, I rank it with Lord of the Rings, and for similar reasons.

As with Tolkien’s novel, Dune creates an entire, and entirely convincing world. That eponymous planet stands on a par with Middle Earth. Arguably it stands higher, for Middle Earth, to my mind, is a surrogate England, whereas Dune sits in a complete surrogate universe. Both stories too, carry an examination: Tolkien’s of Hereditary Monarchy as the panacea to all ills, Frank Herbert’s to something more subtle, more powerful, and more frightening, for Herbert’s Muad’ Dib, I think, has more in common with Sauron, than he does with Aragorn.

The mistake, of course, led me to seduction by the power of this powerful story, and before I sat down to record this posting, I found myself reading the first 18 pages of my 1979 paperback edition – to the end of the section where Paul survives the gom jabbar. The question now is, do I read on beyond, not merely those pages, but the three volumes of my old edition?

Dune has a lot to say to us in 2018, perhaps more than Tolkien had to say when Lord of the Rings was first published, and, for that matter, more than when it was broadcast as a Radio drama, and then again released as Peter Jackson’s film. For in all its versions Lord of the Rings is a reflective, nostalgic and largely backward looking book. Even the internationalised film version, with its modern, self-doubting Aragorn – such a contrast to Tolkien’s original, who knows exactly who is he, and where he is going and has been plotting his route for centuries, waiting for his moment – is about the restoration of something that has existed, rather than the creation of something new.

Maud’ Dib, by contrast, even though he is bringing to fruition a prophecy – planted across this fictional universe in the ancient ‘missionaria protectiva’ by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood – he is creating a genuinely new world. That world is the result and embodiment of an idea that is expressed in a single word, early on in the novel. That word is ‘Jihad’.

The word comes near to the end of the first book in that first volume, as Paul Atreides comes to the knowledge that he is the Kwisatz Hederach foretold by his mother’s Bene Gesserit sisterhood. More than that, he sees that he will be known by the wild, tribal Fremen of Dune as their Maud’Dib, ‘The One Who Points The Way’. That way will lead to a renewal of the human race, which Paul describes to himself, and to us: ‘to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes’. This will happen in  ‘the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path.’

Frank Herbert’s vision, in the nineteen seventies trilogy at least – and I have no idea of what followed in later volumes – was not of a restored and benign British-style monarchy, but of a messianic theocracy. Interestingly, there is no group of characters within his story that is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Hobbits. Herbert is not interested in the people on whom Jihad is imposed, only in those who will impose it and those whose dictatorships they overthrow to do so. It is a terrifying rather than a reassuring vision, and one that seems more  rather than less potent forty years after I first read it. Two quotations apparently from Herbert, cited on Wikipedia, suggest my reaction to the novel is not wholly fanciful.

 “Author Frank Herbert said in 1979, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgement, and your own mistakes.” He wrote in 1985, “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”


I’ve been re-reading The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate. It’s one of my favourite novels and I’ve read it several times, but this time I was reading with a particular purpose in mind. For the next ten weeks I shall be using this novel as one of the texts to draw on for examples of writing techniques for the Creative Writing course I’m leading at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit, and looking for those examples requires a close focus on the text.

What surprised me was that despite having read the book before, there was so much detail that I had not consciously registered, or at least retained in the memory.

Something else, though, of more general interest came out, and that related to the background ideas that Colegate presents us with about what life is and how we might think it should be conducted. Now this novel was written, or at least published, in the early nineteen eighties, but it was set a lifetime earlier, in 1913. My adoptive parents were born in 1907 and 1908. I grew up in the 1950s.

There’s a quotation from about two hundred years ago – some attribute it to Sydney Smith – about what hasn’t been ‘reasoned in’, being difficult to ‘reason out’. Brought up to date, it means what we’re taught before we are old enough to rationalise its wisdom, is so taken for granted as to be virtually hard wired into us. And how old do we have to be before we even recognise, or learn about that process, and see that we have been exposed to it? My guess is that the learning, the recognition, comes later than the age at which we visit it on our own children.

As a counter-current to that, there was – but not necessarily only – a nice little change between the novel’s text, and the ‘same’ scene as recreated in the film version (which followed soon after publication). That involved a Derbyshire ‘peasant’ expressing his distrust of Welshmen. In the film, this had been expanded to include Jews. What agenda, I wonder, was being addressed by the addition, for it made no significant difference to the story, only to our perceptions of that working class individual. Stories, whenever they are set, whenever they are told, carry the stamp of the time of the telling, however historically accurate they might try to be.

But still it occurs to me that the ideas I’ll will have had not reasoned into me, are likely to have been those that were not reasoned into my parents by the generation  before. My maternal grandmother was born in 1876 (and her husband, I think, a few years earlier). She told me once of watching the soldiers go off by train to war. I presumed she meant the Staffordshire Regiment, and the First World War. She said she had been a young girl at the time though, and would have been in her thirties by then. She recalled the sight in the early nineteen sixties. The surprise was, that she remembered them wearing red uniforms. This must have been the early Boer War, or even one of the colonial slaughterfests of the late nineteenth century, when we had ‘the maxim gun, and they had not!’ Thus the slow pace of change, generation to generation. Thus the surprising similarities of thought, and assumption, in the minds of my parents, and the characters of a novel set in 1913.

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



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)

Sadly, Pewter Rose Press has now ceased trading…and I’ve taken the last remaining copies of BHD’s short story collection, Talking To Owls and his novella (or is it a novel…we can never decide), A Penny Spitfire. If you’d like a copy of either, I can supply at £5 each including postage (simply drop me the money  to the Paypal account of M.Smith at and send me an e-mail to let me know your address).

Here’s what people have been saying about them:


Comment on A Penny Spitfire (080716, by J.F.D.)

I just finished re-reading your novel. I so enjoyed it. I read it slowly this time and really took in the descriptions at the openings of the chapters. The cumulative effect is to evoke a really strong mood that varies but is pervasive throughout the tale putting a clear picture of post-war destruction and gloom in my mind. The altered people, relationships, sense of difficulty in finding meaning and re-directing relationships and lives was palpable. I recognise what you portrayed as authentic because my adopted parents were old and they lived through rationing and and respectability. I so recall being shocked if my father swore and I knew my mother was unwell when she swore once. There was also the whole business of not saying things. You really captured that culture of not having a language for emotion (emotion not being useful for Empire building or war). I was so pleased Paul was alright and Burma Sammy by the end.
Thanks for a good read.


TALKING TO OWLS  (by Anon.?)

The characters in these stories embrace novel solutions to life’s many difficulties. A group of lonely men, retired to the countryside, find an unusual means of communication; on an otherwise idyllic Scottish island, a new resident tries out various ways to deal with the old problem of noisy neighbours; three members of the Grough family experience an urgent need to get home from the pub as quickly as possible. And a snail decides it must be rid of its shell. The author presents a range of colourful individuals, from His Lordship to the devious Willie Nobutt, speaking in a range of voices and dialects.

But while many of the stories are comic or fantastical, some are touching or haunting, and present mysteries which only the reader can solve. Many are experimental in form, and they vary in length from half a page to thirty-five. Many have already won prizes.

The writer can command a versatile range of styles. No Time Like The Present depicts the revelation of family secrets through photographs in a novel way, with some beautiful descriptive passages:

…the water was clear, transparent as a veil, and the sandy foreshore, mottled with rocks, showed through. Sunlight sparkled off the waves, riding their oval shadows, sky like a backdrop.

But maybe the author’s strongest suit is humour. In The Sweetest Sound two characters discuss the bagpipes:

‘Yer no a fan of the pipes then?’
‘I can tek em or leave ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d tek ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d leave ’em’…

While Cover Story, an absurd but sinister tale, set in a pub, featuring a writer and two men in ill-fitting suits, ends in this way:

…my foot….must have caught the tray, leaning up against the table-leg, because suddenly it rolled out into the centre of the floor and fell, spinning like a tossed coin, noisy as a dustbin lid, flattening out with the sound of metal fantails on a snare drum.

It seems to sum up the quality of the story, and in a way, the humour and originality of the collection as a whole.

4.0 out of 5 stars Only four stars as it is too short


By M. A. C. on 29 Dec. 2012 on Talking To Owls

Often when you read a short story, or come to that a full length novel, you will sigh and say to yourself ‘that was a good tale well told’. Talking to Owls isn’t a book like that. No, if you read this book, at the end of each of the short stories you’ll wonder if it is you who has changed. Brindley Hallam Dennis has a knack of making you think about how you react to events. The Mackwater Seam is a perfect example of how a short story should be written. It will stop you in your tracks and confront your prejudices. Naturally some stories in this collection are better than others, but although sometimes they appear to be lightweight they are not. Each story makes you think, but they don’t preach. Excellent value for money and the magic will go on working long after you have read each of the 140 pages. Buy and enjoy!

5.0 out of 5 starsA Penny Spitfire – Brindley Hallam Dennis


By Daniel on 2 Nov. 2011

Format: Paperback

A Penny Spitfire
Brindley Hallam Dennis

Thank God it’s all over, that’s what Charles Bury thought. That’s what they all thought. It just took them by surprise, afterwards, the way it was…

This is a very original novel, in subject matter and form. It is set in a small industrial town (which remains unnamed, though it may be Burton-on-Trent) immediately after the 2nd World War. Rather than dwelling on heroic exploits and victories achieved, as so many novels do, it describes the spoiled and broken lives of those who came back. It recounts their efforts to come to terms with the overwhelming experiences they have had, while adjusting to a world in which the structures they knew before they went to war have been swept away.

The various characters, across the social classes, find their previous lives and relationships irrelevant or impossible, or turn to drink to forget the terrors they witnessed. There are still guns to be had, and criminal characters and feral children gather on bomb-sites. Even in peace-time, violence and cruelty have not disappeared.

Rejecting straightforward narrative, the author tells his story in a sequence of scenes, as in a play, or more exactly, a black-and-white film, the setting for each scene often beautifully described: mostly dark, nocturnal, always poetic. He also employs a novel way of mingling speech and thought, the difference between them blurred, almost as if the characters are buried in their own memories and experiences, inarticulate, communicating incompletely with each other, before relapsing into recollection and introspection.

While much of what happens is difficult and gritty, and there is a violent denouement, the characters are richly-drawn and sympathetic, and the descriptions throughout are unusual, atmospheric and haunting. And towards the end of the novel the author gives us a glimpse, at least, of hope for the future:

And all around, the fields stood silvered in the moonlight… and the train, gathering speed as it moved away, drawn by the black lines of its track, carried, beneath its ermine cloak of steam, a single point of fierce orange light, lustrous as a new-made penny.

5.0 out of 5 starsA compelling glimpse into the aftermath of war


By Anne McDonnell on 8 Jun. 2011

Format: Paperback

In a Midlands industrial town, partly bombed, the locals are coming to terms with the legacy of World War Two. Their world has changed and yet their patterns of behaviour were set years ago.
In A Penny Spitfire, we follow Derek Fitton, as he struggles to connect his pre-war life of work and picnics with the experiences of war in India and post-war expectations. Jack and Paul, too young to have fought, fall in with Clive Dandridge, their Corp, who trains youngsters in his version of commandoes. And Charles, the younger son of the local industrialist who feels there has to be another way. Class and social distinctions are no longer so certain and no-one knows how to discuss any of it.

With evocative descriptions of an industrial world that no longer exists, and a style of writing that blurs the edges between thought and speech, Dennis opens a door on a time and people often forgotten. The characters and their lives remain with you long after the book is finished.


By Nicky Harlow on 8 Dec. 2011

Format: Paperback

Penny Spitfire is a poignant and prescient study of the impact of World War II on a small midlands town. We see the world largely through Derek Fitton’s eyes. A car mechanic foresighted enough to open a garage before the war began, he has returned from India to find that he can no longer connect to his own town, community, even his marriage. Dennis’s prose pulses with sensory detail. It seems coated in axle grease, powdered with dust. Read it and you smell metal and oil, turpentine and cigarette smoke; you can hear the clank of trains shunting into the nearby station, the revving of automobiles unused since 1939. It tastes of blood.
In this town the war is almost a character in its own right. It is the glue that holds together a group of dispossessed men and women – and the wedge that has been driven between them. The novel exists in a silent, held breath, a time between two worlds. The war is over; the process of change – social, ideological and technological – is already in motion. But for all the distant clanking, the dust has yet to clear.
This is a technically adept work. Dennis’s omniscient narration is no Dickensian voice, haranguing and moralising. More it is the voice of a presenter or an MC; a slow strip-tease revealing a society in flux. His characters – the dreamy socialist, Charles Bury, the traumatised Burma Sammy, the lying ne’er-do-well, Clive Dandridge, and Fitton himself – have been curtailed, interrupted. Their relationships are still dominated by the war; just as the town is still dominated by a huge bomb crater. It seems that death is all they have to look forward to.
Only the ever buxom and garrulous landlady of the Odd Dog demonstrates any joi de vivre. But even this seems forced. The past is not `another country’ in this novel. It is more vivid than the present into which it bleeds. It infects the town with a hazy nostalgia, filtering everything through its sticky nicotine-stained lens.
Penny Spitfire’s poetry clings to you long after you have read the final chapter. There is a strong metaphorical element here, exploited to great effect by Dennis. The railway carrying trains that are either going away or being shunted into sidings, the penny that pops up under many disguises: as payment for thoughts, for the spitfire, a lapel-pin fashioned from left-over metal, or to close the eyes of the dead. And there is something inevitably Denis Potterish in the sexual repression that seeps into all the characters’ actions.
The ending comes as a cruel irony. In what is considered by the characters to be a symbol of hope, we are offered a glimpse of our own twenty-first century crisis.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Dennis finds the seeds of our destruction in his story of post war Britain. Writing of this quality is as hard to find as a penny spitfire on a bombsite.


Radio 4 pissed me off this week. (No! Never! Well, hardly ever…). They announced a short story slot with the phrase ‘by the novelist’.



Pewter Rose will cease trading at the end of the month, but there is still time to buy copies of their publications, including A Penny Spitfire and Talking To Owls by Brindley Hallam Dennis.

img_8098 img_8099There are several – some might say many – pairings of books and their film adaptations on my shelves. One pair that gets taken down and watched and read more often than most is Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party and Geoff Reeve’s film of the same name. I’ve written about this pair before as an example of the ‘faithful’ adaptation, but that fidelity doesn’t mean it is a slavish copy, a filmic re-enactment of the scenes readers might be expected to imagine (as has been said of the film version of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, for example).

Recently I watched and read, the Colegate/Reeve pairing with a closer eye than usual, looking, to begin with, for what I thought of as filmic equivalents to the told story’s content. Perhaps because Reeve has captured the tone and characters of the film so well and in many cases has replicated word for word the dialogue of the told story, I was surprised to recognise just how many changes I had not been conscious of when the watching and reading were weeks and perhaps months apart – or when the attention to detail was overwhelmed by the enjoyment of absorption in the story, told and shown!

In fact, even where those dialogues had been lifted ‘faithfully,’ they had often been placed differently in the film to where they lay in the original, both  in time, and place, and on several occasions had been put into the mouths of different characters. Many had been turned from internal monologues, to comments made in public.

Speaking on the DVD ‘specials’, Rupert Fraser, who played Lionel, remarks that there is only one scene in the film that is not in the book – the fancy dress scene that takes place on the stairwell at Knebworth (which took the role of Nettleby). I have said as much – and written it! But it is not, in fact, the case. There is at least one other – where Lionel and Olivia, in the film alone, go riding and have a faithfully reported conversation from the book – but not at the same point in the story nor in the same location. Other scenes have their conversational and incidental content switched around, the dinner party, in the film, for example, allowing words that are only thought to be exchanged aloud and thus made available to the watcher as they were to the reader.

The point I want to make is not so much about the particular novel  and film, but about the fluidity of of stories – how conversations can be manipulated, moved from place to place, and time to time, and mouth to mouth, without obviously changing their significance in the story, and, at first glance, or indeed any ‘glance’, without changing our perception of the characters that speak them.

Yet on a close examination it might be that a story is changed, subtly, and that its characters will be different, and not so subtly? One case I would give is where, in both versions, Sir Randolph, the key reader-proxy and opinion touchstone of the story, talks to Aline, the mistress of Charles Farquhar (in the book), and of Sir Reuben Hergesheimer (in the film), and accuses her of ‘wickedness’ in her speculations about the ‘affair’ between Olivia and Lionel. In the former version this is quite a long conversation, but in the latter is equally brief. More sharply potent perhaps, is where, in the film, Sir Randolph confesses to Hergesheimer that copying the Sandringham shoots almost bankrupted the estate. In the book, though the rest of the conversation does take place, Sir Randolph only recalls this to memory. He does not share it with his house guest. The shift in our perception of Sir Randolph may be slight, but is in a definite direction: In the first case what he is shown taking an interest in seems to me to be narrower and more focused in the film, broader in the novel. In the second, the told Sir Randolph’s reticence seems more in keeping with his character than the film’s more expansive version – yet, without that remark the audience of the shown version could not know that particular detail.

This isn’t offered as a criticism, only as an observation, and one that might support the contention that the business of shown, rather than told stories is one of sharper focus – streamlined is a word I have heard used by film-makers in relation to the adaptation process. With a novel our imaginations, sparked by what we are told, might run more freely, than with a film, where we must observe what is put before us.

Of course, whether or not considering this helps, when it comes to writing a story, might be a moot point. Another story set in the past but not made into a film (yet) is BHD’s A Penny Spitfire,  available here (but only for a couple of months more).


You’ll have noticed that the world didn’t end last Sunday. You might have noticed that my blog didn’t appear either.

A big truck did it, and drove away: Took the phone cable right off the side of the house. That was the Thursday before. A week later and there was still no cable. But the world didn’t end for you, and it didn’t for me. It was just the phone line that was down. Eight days later, and we’re re-cabled and ready to go, but have learnt something about being cut off, and not cut off.

You’ll know, if you’re a regular reader of the blog, that I make a point of offering my own publications for purchase from time to time, but this week I’m going to push a little harder.

It’s not for anything I’ve written though, nor published. Despite being an aficionado of the short story form I do read novels too! And two novels I’ve recently read, and for the second time, are from the writer Jane Fathers Davidson.

Jane, who currently lives in north Cumbria, describes herself at the back of A Place Beyond Hearing, as ‘an adoptee and retired addictions therapist’.

Jane’s novel draws on her experience to tell the story of Robbie. It’s a hard-edged read, and for one who has worked with people living difficult and self-defeating lives, it’s perhaps extra-hard, because it is so true to life.

Set in Canada and England it sets out the struggles of Robbie, a sixty year old runaway and alcoholic, as she learns to understand the forces that have driven her, and to come to terms with them. There are times in the early part of the story when you almost want to turn your back on Robbie, it’s such a tough tale, and some of the other characters do! But as the novel progresses, and the size of the metaphorical mountain she has to climb becomes more apparent, and more threatening, you find yourself drawn to rooting for her, and drawn to caring. I’ve written about three tissue weepies before, but this is an altogether more dry-eyed story: painful, unflinching, but ultimately cathartic in its assertion of the value, and values of human life, and love.

When you get to the end, you’ll feel you’ve earned it; and it’s the sort of ending you need to feel you’ve earned.


By the same author, and drawing on the same understanding of human motives, for good and ill, is Blood Pudding. Jane, in a back cover blurb calls this a ‘funny, traditional sleuth driven romp with a surfeit of dogs.’ There are just about the right number of dogs for me, plus chickens, sheep, and a herd of cows (bulls, according to the character who gets chased by them). It’s a murder mystery set in the northern reaches of Cumbria alongside Hadrian’s Wall, in which a retired police detective tracks down the serial killer of several neighbours and friends. Told with panache and quiet comedy, it never quite loses touch with the  insights of a retired therapist,  which enable the author to furnish the story with a fistful of intriguing and bizarre characters, all of whom, at one point or another become the objects of our suspicions!


Available in paperback, or for Kindle, these two novels are available on Amazon, and would make great Christmas presents, or suitable indulgences for a fireside read – perhaps with a whisky and water – as the year turns autumnal. They are both, in their different ways, really good reads. You can find them here.

Blood Pudding 41nYqw+ldqL._AC_UL115_

There is a technique – trick if you prefer – used in TV and film, whereby a character is introduced by drawing them from the anonymity of a crowd. Before we know who they are, and without them having spoken or done anything noticeable, we have somehow had our attention focussed onto them.

Perhaps it to do wtih keeping them centre screen while the camera pans. Perhaps it is that they are in sharp focus while the others are in soft. Perhaps it is a nuance of dress or posture, but something pulls our eyes onto that character in particular before there is any obvious reason why it should!

I have often wondered, and once or twice have tried, if the same technique or one analogous to it, could be used in the writing of a story. The idea came back to me recentlky when I was re-reading Rumer’s Godden’s novel, Black Narcissus. Like many famous adaptations this is a story probably better known in its film rather than its original text version. Powell and Pressburger were faithful to the plot, with a few changes made necessary by the film form and its implied audience, but that’s another essay.

The opening of the novel can provide an interesting speculation on how a told story can, and perhaps even ought, to begin. The first few lines, a short paragraph, carries out several of the functions of a beginning:


‘The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October. They had come to

settle in the General’s Palace at Mopu, which was now to be known as the

Convent of St.Faith.’


That capital S tells us they are nuns, rather than siblings,  and even from these two sentences we know a lot about what the story will be about. We have a location, in time and place, an embryonic plot – encapsulated in ‘settle’ and ‘now to be known as,’ and characters: the Sisters, and ‘the General.’

We might even detect the beginning of the ambience of the piece, and the importance of the building in, or from which most of the events will take place (which phrase itself, ‘take place’ tells us something about what story is).

‘St.Faith’, strongly implies Catholicism, certainly Christianity, when coupled with capital S sisters, and Darjeeling puts it in the Indian highlands, which we might feel is, for the nuns, ‘out of place’.

It’s the introduction of the characters that caught my interest though, and particularly of the Sister who is going to be the centre of our attention. By page 5 we should be fairly sure which one she is, but it’s curious the way that Godden gets us to that recognition. A surprise to me was how few times the particular nun is mentioned in those early pages, yet, as in my TV and Film ‘trick,’ our attention is drawn to her differently from the way it is drawn to the other named Sisters.

The first to be named is Sister Blanche – who will quickly become known as Sister Honey. She draws our attention, not to herself, but to the scenery, and does so in response to ‘Father Roberts’, who, we are told, thinks that the nuns will be lonely at Mopu.

‘“What is he afraid of?” asked Sister Blanche.”I think these hills are lovely.”

We will wait another page before another Sister is named.

‘Sister Clodagh rode in front with the clerk.’

We get more about Clodagh here: the way she rides; the way she talks to the clerk, and the snippet, that the other Sisters are ‘envious’ as they watch her. Next we get Sister Blanche again, and Sister Ruth. Their horses are unruly, and Sister Ruth panics, ‘She was terribly nervous…’

Over the next couple of pages both Sister Ruth and Sister Blanche are mentioned again by name, but it is until page 5 that we must wait for Sister Clodagh. Then, in two references, she reveals, or rather deepens our sense of her separateness from, and authority over the others.

‘…but Sister Clodagh said briskly: Come along Sister.’ And ‘”How she loves to exaggerate, “ thought Sister Clodagh’. In fact Sister Clodagh receives three named mentions on page 5, and after that, over the next few pages, we flashback to the chosing of which Sisters will ‘settle’ at Mopu, and here, on page 10, in case we haven’t cottoned on, Godden has her explicitly refer to being the Superior of the new Convent.

We have, by this time, been drawn not only into watching what she does, and hearing what she says, but we have been eavesdropping on her thoughts, and perhaps more importantly, we have been told what others think of her. The clerk, with whom she rides, for example, tells her that ‘the men are saying that the Lady-Sahib sits her horse like a man.’ That he does this ‘ingratiatingly’ adds to our sense of her.

What struck me about this introduction to the main character of the novel, was the tentative, almost surreptitious way, she was added into the story, like stirring in the few drops of chilli that will make a sauce truly hot!

If there is a second character in the novel, and I think there is, it is Mr Dean, who is insinuated into the story with similar sleight of hand. First mention comes on page 11, after our sense of Sister Clodagh has been well established. In a flashback, Sister Clodagh recalls her exploratory visit to Mopu: ‘..the General’s agent, Mr Dean, showed them over it.’

There’s is a richness to this novel. The General, though he appears only once or twice in person, is a dominating presence, almost like a God. He organises, manipulates, and sympathises with his characters. And Mopu itself is more than just a stage on which the action takes place. Its physical qualities mirror the emotional turmoil of the nuns as they strive to establish their school and hospital, aided by the destabilising presence of the morally ambiguous Mr Dean.

Assembling all these forces over the first dozen pages of the story Rumer Godden slips them almost un-noticed into our consciousness, and in an appropriate order of importance. In a strange mirroring of the ‘mystery play,’ these naturalistic characters seem to represent archetypal forces, with Mopu itself, and Angu Aya the caretaker from its days as ‘the House of Women,’ as a sort of pagan earth.   Both film and book are well worth getting to grips with, but remember, a film takes place in front of your very eyes (and ears), the book, behind (and between) them.

Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Brindley Hallam Dennis & Marilyn Messenger

41FLvCi2O0L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Two entirely unconnected conversations on consecutive days led me to re-reading Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and reading, I hope, with an analytical eye.

It’s one of those books that I found hard going to begin with on the first reading, but which seemed far more accessible on this second try. It is also one of the books that has been adapted to film in such a way that raises the issue of changed agendas. Wolfe’s book examines ghetto mentalities, and politics. De Palma’s film dances lightly over the surface of such concerns.

It was Wolfe’s writing that interested me though, in this re-reading, because in one of those two conversations we had been discussing stories, and where they spring from. This story, I pontificated, had sprung from a mistake, ‘when a $48,000 Mercedes hits a street it shouldn’t have’, as the cover blurb of my paperback edition says. Neither of us, in the discussion, had read the book recently, and so memory was struggling to provide ‘the beginning.’ That accidental wrong turning, and what it leads to, is undoubtedly the ‘inciting incident’ (McKee, in ‘Story’), but there is a deal of groundwork done before we get to it. In fact, there is a Prologue, and three chapters to read before we get to that incident. What then, you might ask, would the ‘obligatory scene’ be? (to which I say….watch this space).

Whether in short stories, or novels, beginnings (and endings) always catch my interest – My guess is that people remember the beginnings of novels, and the endings of short stories: How About You? (to quote Lynerd Skynerd). In a short story, I suspect, we’d kick off with that incident, and reduce the Prologue and chapters three to a sentence and two paragraphs! What is Wolfe doing with them? What does he need them for?

The Prologue starts in the middle of a nascent riot. He jumps in with both feet, right in the middle of an altercation between a speaker and a heckler:


‘And then say what? Say “Forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by

some racist cop – Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem-“’


That riot, which will erupt over the TV screens of the other protagonists as the story unfolds, signals the breakdown not so much of a consensus, but of the assumption that there is one. As the Mayor is driven from the stage by the ‘black’ mob, the first of Wolfe’s ‘vanities,’ the illusion that the Jewish/white power group is seen as representing all the other groups that make up his New York is being torched. This prologue sets the wider scene into which protagonist Sherman McCoy will drive his Mercedes, and it is not a benign one. The shock experienced by the Mayor, though, is as powerful as the anger being expressed by the crowd. This novel, at heart, is how that shock is experienced, and responded to by our ‘hero,’ Sherman McCoy.

Three more chapters of preparation to come, though, and the first introduces Sherman. Wolfe ends it by telling us just who we’re dealing with. Like a tour guide pointing out a landmark, the omniscient narrator gives us the authorial word on Sherman:


‘The Master of the Universe was cheap, and he was rotten, and he was a liar.’


The chapter headings in Bonfire of the Vanities are worth paying attention to. That Prologue was called ‘Mutt on Fire,’ for example. Chapter two is called ‘Gibralter.’ The word,  presumably, carries a different weight of meaning for an American reader, and writer, but what’s clear I think is that it represents a fortress held in ‘enemy territory,’ and against the will of the locals; a fortress manned by people brought in from elsewhere; a fortress in which the locals are judged, ruled, and imprisoned by those incomers. And this Gibraltar is, in fact, the building from which justice is applied to the people of the Bronx. Among the incomers is the story’s main antagonist, Lawrence Kramer. He is an Assistant District Attorney, who catches the ‘D train’ from his crummy apartment, wearing sneakers instead of leather shoes – to reduce the chances of being mugged or harassed during the journey.

He bumps into Kovitsky, one of the judges (a Pole?), and the two are subjected to a barrage of insults from the inmates of a prison van. Whilst Kramer keeps his head down, Kovitsky confronts them head on. For film buffs, this is the character so neatly excised from the book in the process of adaptation. In the film, the magisterial Morgan Freeman plays a humane and wise, and, obviously, black judge, to replace the belligerent, and no less wise, but, obviously, white Kovitsky, thus neatly stripping the story of most of its power, and perhaps, point..

For the third chapter we go back to McCoy. It is his story that will remain centre stage, and so before we get into motion, Wolfe gives us another side of McCoy’s life, and of his character.

By the end of this extended beginning – chapter 4,  King of the Jungle, opens some 75 pages into the text in my edition – we have seen the wider environment of the city, McCoy’s personal environment, and both Kramer’s home, and workplace, that Gibraltar where McCoy will be challenged, in the prison cell as much as in the courtroom itself, to stand up and fight for his privileges as the ‘vanities’ burn down around him.

Curiously, this seems to me to be very much the in the pattern, of Location (in time and place), Situation, and Characters, the three pillars of story, that we have been looking at in the Facets of Fiction workshops over the last couple of months.

Being a novel, and a chunky one at that, you won’t find The Bonfire of the Vanities in Readings For Writers, which looks at the short story form!Readings For Writers cover