You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘prose’ tag.

There is a quality in short stories and poems (and other forms!) of being memorable. Without warning, day or night, weeks, months, years after you have read them they will pop into your  mind, often triggered by some seemingly totally unconnected prompt, and one of which you might even be completely unaware.

One such recollection sprang to my mind recently, in the form of three Latin words: Corvus moribundus est. I’m no Latin scholar (where there has been no learning, there has been no teaching, we used be told at Charlotte Mason College – but not at Burton Upon Trent Grammar School), but my understanding was – and is – that the young priest in L.A.G. Strong’s clever short story The Rook, is telling his colleague that the eponymous bird is fatally wounded.

Strong is a writer long forgotten, and I came across a collection of his (Travellers, Readers Union/Methuen, 1947) in the Mill on the Fleet’s bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet in South West Scotland. The Rook is one of several outstanding stories among the thirty-one included. In it an unsympathetically described gardener take a shot at a gathering of rooks. We follow the flight of the fatally wounded rook as it seeks safety in the trees, but falls through the branches to the ground. Incomprehension, panic and fear follow us, and the metaphorical implications are powerful.

The two priests are teaching a class of boys, and while the younger goes out with a stick to finish off the wounded creature, the other reflects upon life and death. It’s a simple story, and remembering those three Latin words brings all the meaning back to mind, all the images that the story had evoked in the reading; yet not necessarily the words themselves.

It is the content of the story, rather than its form, I suspect, that is likely to haunt the average reader (if there is such a thing).

And those stories and poems that we do recall, in part, in words and phrases, and images, are surely the ones that we must regard as successful. This won’t necessarily correlate with how many copies were sold in the author’s lifetime, or even the lifetime of the story to date, nor with the degree of fame, then and now. Success and the recognition of it are not quite the same thing. And what sticks in the memory is about the person whose memory it is!

Strong’s tragic love story, The Seal, is one of the stories examined in Love and Nothing Else, a collection of 12 essays about short stories and their writers.

In the days before mobile phones, when coin operated phone boxes were never where you were when you had the right coins in your pocket, I hitched out of London unexpectedly one night, and got picked up by a somnolent driver who kept himself awake, and me on the edge of his passenger seat, by driving on the cats’ eyes at the edge of the motorway lanes. Eventually he dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, where I stood for several hours, with owls circling my head, until a fresh dawn broke.

Thirty years later, that became the basis for the story Dawn Chorus, included in the collection Other Stories & Rosie Wreay, but now also available as a download from CUTalongstory.

Pewter Rose Press is closing down. This is one of the best independent small publishers that I have encountered.

I first came across Pewter Rose at the launch of Vivien Jones’ Perfect 10; short stories ‘about big girls and big women’ (and so much more!). It wasn’t only the quality of the stories, but the professionalism of the publisher, Anne McDonnell, that impressed me. That was the reason I sent my novella A Penny Spitfire for her to consider. That was published in 2011, and a year later the short story collection Talking To Owls followed.

Both of these titles, along with those by other Pewter Rose authors, will be available from the publishers – click on the images to link – until 31st of March 2017, so why not take this chance to get yourself some copies.  APennySpitfire-frontcoverTalkingtoOwls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BHD on A Penny Spitfire – It all started with a photo album, and a conversation. Why, I asked my cousin – who was a decade older than me – were my parents in the nineteen fifties, so dour, compared to the laughing figures in our black white photographs from before the war? The war changed everything, she told me. When your dad came home, he wasn’t the same. So far as I knew he hadn’t been in any horrendous battles. Yet something had shaken the foundations of his life. Oh yes, and while I was clearing out my mother’s house I found a penny spitfire that he had made. [that penny spitfire dropped from my lapel after the book was published…I heard it tinkle as it landed, and looked around to see what might have fallen…but didn’t! Almost like a scene from the book – its job done, it was moving on]

BHD on Talking To Owls –  I can’t remember, from my school days, ever being told about ‘the short story’. It was novels all the way. But once I’d discovered the form, whilst taking my M Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, I realised that I had been reading them for a long time – in Kipling, and W.E.Johns in my childhood, and in the Sci-Fi stories of various annuals, collections and anthologies. I’ve been BHD since the day I was born, but have only known it for the past twenty years. What better form in which to explore the people I might have been, and the voices I might have had?

Here’s a Christmassy sort of story from BHD, along with BHDandMe’s very best wishes for the festive season: have a cool Yule!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A Winter Tale

 

Rav had watched through the window of his shop all morning, putting down his book every few paragraphs, and staring across the road. It was a beautiful day. The sun was blazing down, making the snow and ice sparkle like Christmas decorations. Curves of frost stuck to the corners of the glass, like the ones he’d sprayed on from a can in previous years.

He was watching pedestrians come round the corner from Market Street into Bank Street. It was as they made the turn they slipped, and as each one did so, Rav felt his muscles tighten, as if he were the one who might be about to fall. Of course, they didn’t all fall. Most of them just wobbled, threw out an arm to one side, two arms, one to either side, and righted themselves, and his muscles would relax again; but every now then one would go down, and Rav’s muscles would contract, and he’d grit his teeth, almost feeling the impact as they hit the pavement.

He had watched four already this morning fail to make the turn, crashing down onto their sides, feet briefly showing above the snow, shopping bags spilling their contents. People came to help them of course, seemingly able to run across the very ice that they had slipped on. They had helped them to their feet, picked up their fallen shopping, repacked their bags, and sent them on their way. At least no-one had been seriously injured yet, although the day before, when it had not been sunny and the snow had still been falling, an ambulance had been called to take one victim away.

They really ought to get these pavements sorted out, Rav said.

I know, Bev said, examining her nails.

Rav was picturing the shovel they kept at the back of the shop. Not really a shovel, more of a scoop. They used it for the ornamental gravels. But it was made of metal, and was the size of one of those old fashioned shovels you’d use for coal. If you got down to it, and put a bit of shoulder behind it, you could quite well clear a few yards of pavement without too much trouble.

In fact the pavements had been cleared already, technically. The council workers had been around and had shovelled a person wide gully through the snow down the centre line, with offshoots to one side where there were shop doorways, and the other where there were pedestrian crossings. But since then there had been a slight thaw, and melt-water had run out from the piles of snow and had frozen again, leaving a thin and very slippery coating of ice.

I should go across and clear it, he said. Obviously, it was that patch on the corner that was causing all the problems. People were managing perfectly well on the straight. It was when they came to change direction that they experienced difficulties.

It’s not your pavement, Bev said, looking up.

That was true. It was the pavement outside the sports shop. Quite clearly so. Anybody could see that. Rav could see it; but he could also see the people falling over on it.

But I can see it, Bev, he said. In fact he doubted whether his motives were entirely altruistic. The tension of watching, his heart thumping in his chest as people made the perilous crossing around the sports shop corner out of Market Street was doing him no good. He wondered if perhaps it was for his own benefit that he felt the need to take responsibility.

An old lady jerked and jolted around the corner, making him wince. She steadied again and walked on safely. Rav blew out a long breath and sucked in another.

I cannot take much more of this, he said.

Don’t look, Bev suggested, peering at her nails again.

Don’t look? How can I not look, when I know it is going on outside my own front door?

I bet they’re not looking at the sports shop, Bev said, prodding carefully at a cuticle.

That was true too. She was undoubtedly right. In the sports shop they would not be looking. They would be watching their large television screens, upon which they showed endless films of people climbing mountains, and surfing, and hang gliding, and sliding down steep slopes on toboggans and skis, in the snow and ice. Why would they want to look out of their window? Besides, the sun did not favour them the way it favoured Rav, when it came to looking out.

Perhaps, he reasoned, if they did look out, and saw what was going on they too would want to do something about it. He weighed up the situation. To go over there and to tell them what was happening would be presumptuous. It would imply that he believed there was a fault on their part. They would be either insulted or embarrassed, and he had no wish to cause either embarrassment or offence. Yet, to carry over the small shovel and to begin clearing the pavement under their very noses would be an equal insult, an equal embarrassment.

What if, seeing him work, they came to a sudden realisation of the situation, and of their failure to react to it? Mortification. He would be giving them no chance to rehabilitate the situation. Every time thereafter that he saw one of them unlocking the shutters in the early morning or locking them up again at night or passing on the street on some errand they would feel an unspoken reproach that he did not bear towards them, yet which he could not mention, as that would in itself imply that he had cause to.

Yet, he thought, as another spasm of splaying arms attracted his attention, there was an accident waiting to happen, an accident that would happen outside their shop, and within sight of his own. A further thought occurred. People would say of him, Rav, that he had stood and watched and done nothing. They would be thinking that he had watched in the hope of seeing someone fall, much as people are said to watch car racing in the hope of seeing a crash. What sort of person would that make him?

Resolve hardened in him, and he turned away from the window.

Bev, who like Rav, thought more than she spoke, had the little shovel in her hand already and offered it to him.

I have a better idea, he said, waving a finger at her, one that will save all embarrassments.

He had been reading The Wooden Horse, a wartime escape story, in which a secret tunnel was dug, out under the wire of a prison camp.

I am going out for a moment, he said, and he helped himself to a five-pound note from the till.

 

Rav emptied his trouser pockets into his jacket, and made sure he had the little penknife with him. Then he set off at a careful pace, across the road, past the sports shop and taking great care at the corner, into Market Street.

Good deeds, he believed, should be done unostentatiously. The merits within them were lessened, he thought, by the discomforts they brought to others, who might have perfectly understandable reasons for their own inactions. He would clear away the ice and the people in the sports shop would not even know it had been done.

He bought two small bags of salt from the mini-market on Market Street, pierced them with the penknife, stuffed one, slit down, into each of his trouser pockets and set off back towards Bank Street. In the book the escapees had been faced with the problem of what to do with the soil that they had dug out of their tunnels. Clearly they could not leave piles of it lying around for the guards to see. So, they had distributed it all over the sports ground at the camp, by dribbling it from the pockets of their trousers.

Rav was thinking with pleasure of this when he arrived at the corner and realised that he had not cut holes in his pockets through which to dribble his ice-busting salt. Perhaps that was why, when he reached the corner, he was struggling with both hands in his trouser pockets. The people in the sports shop saw him wobble briefly and then disappear from view below the level of the window-sill.

 

Ay up, mate. You all right?

Yes, thank you. I am fine, Rav said, looking up at the sports shop manager.

You’ve dropped something, the man said, bending down beside him.  The two bags, from which the salt dribbled slowly, had slipped out onto the ice.  They’ve split, the man said, trying to stop the flow.

Salt, Rav said, fearing the man might think it something worse.

We could do with some of that out here, the man said.

 

Well, I learned something new this week; something new to me that is. Something I could have learned any week of my life, it being an old fact that had merely passed me by.

I was dipping, as I’m wont to do from time to time, into that fund of short stories, Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories, and came upon The House of Fahy, by Somerville and Ross. These two have always made me think of cowboys for some reason. Perhaps it’s down to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which would explain the Ross, if not the Somerville. (I’ve never managed to track down any of the stories by Ross & Cromarty – I think Cromarty withheld the copyright after Ross’s death, something to do with a writing-buddies’ fall-out over royalties perhaps…)

The House of Fahy concerns a dog called Maria, a boat trip leading to a shipwreck, and a landfall leading to the eponymous house, which in turn leads to the loss of a parrot! It’s a funny story, with that slow-burn style of comedy that builds incrementally to the comic climax, itself overtopped by the delightful last line that both wraps up, and unexpectedly moves the story on another notch!

It’s told in the voice of a grumpy husband who is a poor sailor, but whose wife has no trouble with rough weather and choppy seas. I can vouch for the realism. This little dynamic alone gives cause for some great one liners. ‘I was not feeling ill, merely thoroughly disinclined for conversation.’ Comedy using the first person voice can reveal the narrator failing to conceal their true nature, or failing to see it. Here’s the narrator commenting on the dog, which has followed them to the coast, and paddled out to the yacht alongside the wherry: ‘This was Maria, feigning exhaustion, and noisily treading water at the boat’s side.’ I take that to suggest drowning, by the way!

Of course, we might not notice that latter, had we not been alerted to the technique by the more obvious earlier examples. The story opens with a long paragraph focusing on the dog, including an incident with a piece of beef, intended to be used for luncheon. ‘all we can do with it now’ the cook says, ‘is run it through the mincing machine for the major’s sandwiches.’ Later, we’re told that the ‘sandwiches […] tasted suspiciously of roast beef.’

These little asides make the story a lesson in detail, and its uses. The voyage, with the narrator’s oblique references to the sea-sickness growing more and more explicit, concentrates more on the activities of the human characters, with only brief reminders that Maria is present. After all, it is not really a story about the dog, but about the narrator, and his relationship with his family and boating friends. It is his, and their, behaviour, rather than Maria’s that sustains the comedy, during the voyage, the shipwreck, the landing, and the night spent in the Fahy House. But Maria edges her way back into the limelight, with the appearance of the Fahy parrot. It is in fact a cockatoo, and it makes itself a nuisance. Maria, helpfully, kills it, which puts the castaways, who have already done several pieces of damage to the property, in a difficult situation. Help is it hand though, for as morning breaks, they see the ship, having floated off the reef it ran aground on, sailing past on ‘a light northerly breeze’. They decide to quit the house, having secretly buried the deceased bird in the garden. The focus finally shifts back to Maria, who (which?) closes the story in an unexpected way, but one that reminded me of a much later shaggy dog story, told by Mike Harding, and involving a rabbit!

Somerville and Ross, when they were not riding the range, were best known for their The Experiences of an Irish R.M. What I hadn’t known, but do now, is that they were two Irish ladies.

Me’s article on Captain Knot, a story by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, is now showing on the Thresholds website. It’s also one of the dozen and more stories considered in The Silent Life Within, available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon.The Silent Life Within

I don’t usually get excited about Longlists….some of them carry the names of all the submissions…

But when I saw that the HISSAC Short Story Competition Longlist had only fourteen stories in it, and that mine was one of them, I took a sincere interest – and dammit Janet, I did get excited!

Then I set off for a ten day drive across Europe and back…a friend of mine likes to drive, and I like to look out of car windows. It was a partnership made in [supply location of choice]. In fact we were heading for Trieste, where I could pretend to not have noticed the statue of James Joyce…but that’s another story. The fact is, I don’t have that fancy mobile technology that even the children seem to have these days, and that Longlist was going to turn into a shortlist on the day after my departure. So, several fingernail centimetres shorter, on my return, I was more than excited to find that my story is now in the Shortlist ….which is, in fact, only a few stories shorter than the longlist was….. So we are creeping towards the money (I’m a writer! What care I for fame? We are creeping towards the money!!!).

Here’s a link to the HISSAC shortlist page: read it and weep, or cheer me on, if you like…..

BHD in Vetters bar in Heidelberg a few years ago...he was there last week too!

BHD in Vetters bar in Heidelberg a few years ago…he was there last week too, but in a different jacket!

Not just books….There will be readings too throughout the two days of the pop-up Bookshop at Waterstones (on Friday,7th and Saturday 8th of October, 2016). Writers from Carlisle Writers Group, the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and elsewhere will be on hand to read and talk about their writing.

Why not come along, to listen and buy. This is a rare chance to hear and read the work that the literary establishment frequently overlooks…. Short-listed, Highly Commended, and Prize Winning writers, published by small Independent Publishers, and self-published. It’s worth remembering that writers as famous as Ted Hughes chose to self publish before and after their fame, and as many artists in the music industry do now in preference to working with the multi-national corporate companies! The internet is now giving writers a chance to sidestep the white-sliced bread and baked beans commercialism of the mainstream publishers, and giving them a global reach, which, ironically, means that your local writers might be better known in Hamburg or Beijing than they are in their home town.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

BHDandME shorn

For those in the know, the pop-up bookshop provides an exciting alternative to the usual literary offerings. It gives a chance to see, and buy, what the national papers rarely bother to review – the books published by small independent publishers, and authors. Celebrity breeds commerce, and vice versa, but Indie publishers and sole authors don’t have big advertising budgets and extensive distribution networks. Their books often remain unseen, and unsold.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the writing! It doesn’t matter how good your book is, even the local papers are unlikely to review it (though Steve Matthews does a fine job in Carlisle!), and the nationals almost certainly won’t, unless it has been published by a well known company.

Things are changing. The internet is providing a means of publishing, and of getting a global reach. A curious side effect of this is that a writer is more likely to sell copies abroad than in his or her home town. The pop-up bookshop comes in here, offering local authors the chance to show their work to local readers.

Remember, these aren’t the white-sliced bread and baked beans high sellers that is the usual bookshop fodder, the household brands that we all know and reach for without thinking. The pop-up offers the artisan bakers and craft brewers of the literary world a chance to sell their goods, if you’ve a mind to try them.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

***********

 

BHDandMe got a freshly written poem into Acumen. It will appear in September, in Acumen 86. I don’t send off many poems these days: I don’t write many, but the last month or two has seen a small crop of half a dozen, which is cheering! Acumen, having encouraged me with publication several times over the years – including in their excellent 60th Anniversary anthology – always get first refusal, and you’ve probably got an inkling of how pleased I am that they chose not to use it on this occasion!

If you want to read some of Mike’s poetry, he has recently released the short collection, An Early Frost, available here.

If you want to read some of BHD’s stories, you could try, The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer. Available here.

BFB coverDIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL

sunset near GlenuigA little while ago I ran a writers workshop for a group in Connell, in the Scottish Highlands just north of Oban.

I took the well-tested ‘cut-up’ exercise, this time using Mary Mann’s shocking short story Little Brother. The basis of the exercise is that I take a short story and cut it into a dozen or more sections, mix them up, and ask the group to put it back together again. It’s a simple idea, but like many simple ideas, is worthwhile. It brings writers face to face, not only with the story in hand, and how it works, but with their own unconscious assumptions about what a story is, and what they think it ought to look like.

Experience has shown that two people working on a cut-up will do the job fairly briskly, three will take a little longer, four longer still, and a larger group, forever! From what the near observer hears and sees though, whatever size the group there are striking similarities of approach. There’s a search, to begin with usually, for the beginning, and another, usually next on the agenda, to find the ending. Sequences of events are then constructed using what is known, and what is not known at different points in the story, to readers, and to characters.

We have an idea, however vague, of what a beginning ought to do and be, and so for the ending! In Mary Mann’s little tale the ending is unusual, surprising one might say – but then aren’t all short story endings surprising in some way? The surprise here is not so much what is revealed as who is speaking, for in a story about desperate rural poverty, witnessed by a middle class narrator, Mann gives the final word to the poverty stricken mother. What she has to say in defence of her children using the eponymous sibling – dead by the way – as a doll, rebukes both the narrator and, I suspect, the general reader.

This ending, despite being a definitive statement about the rest of the story, often eludes the writers doing the exercise: they are looking for a summation from the narrator, and from the narrator’s perspective. The beginning, though, is nearly always found quite quickly. The scene is set, characters and themes introduced, narrative voice revealed, and the ambience of the story, to some extent, implied. The ‘middle’ sequences, and this is usually the case, seem more fluid and hard to place, except by specific clues where something is referred to for a second time.

The exercise underlines the way in which story works: it draws the reader in by location in time and place, theme, character, narrative voice and ambience, and through sequences of action, thought and description, contextualises progressively an ending that need not be sharp and explicitly pointed, but which metaphorically will counterbalance the weight of everything that has gone before.

In Mary Mann’s tale there are some beautifully executed technical operations: the concealing of the true nature of the doll – by distraction to another feature as it is first mentioned, so that its eventual exposure, perhaps suspected by then, still shocks. Then there is the immediately following shock of the description of the children playing with ‘the doll’. The first shock comes because of what we don’t know, the second because of what we do: a clever and well executed double whammy.

There’s also, in this tale, a striking absence of description. Sparse hardly covers it. The village, the turnip house, the bereaved mother’s bedroom are thumb-nailed in a few ‘telling’ words – our reader imagination does the rest of the work. How different to the ‘showing’ of story in a film, where every detail of landscape, buildings and rooms has to be ‘in shot.’ The fault, for me, of so many contemporary stories is that their writers try to be the all seeing camera, burying the story under detail that the story teller does not need – because his reader can imagine, or because his reader does not need to imagine. Said of poetry, but also true of the short story, what does not work for you, works against you.

Only with the character of Hodd, the father, and his son, does Mann make sure we ‘see’ the details – of red hair, which the doll will have, and of the ‘sack’ clothes, that will later distract us when that doll is first slipped into view.

The beauty of the cut-up exercise is that it can be done so easily, and with any story you care to use. There will always be a beginning, a middle, and an end – and don’t you believe anyone who tries to tell you differently! – and they will always, but not quite the way you expect, conform to your ideas of what they should be; and each story will have its own little gems of construction and execution to appreciate. It’s the sort of exercise that each member of a writers group can set up for the others, and when they do, the very act of cutting, itself becomes an exercise, in where, and why to snip.IMG_7421

If you would like to read more about short stories you could try Love and Nothing Else, the second volume in my series Reading For Writers.12 more essays on short stories and their writers Readings For Writers cover