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A recent editorial bemoaned the fact that poets ‘can’t’ read their own work these days – can’t read it well that is. If that’s true, might the reason be that we’ve been persuaded – or at least some of us have – that the poem is a thing of print and writing, rather than sound, and speaking.

Writing, that oh so useful recording system for saving the memory (dumbing down you might call it), has been confused with the practice of putting words together, and perceiving them that way. The solitary, silent imagined-voiced reader has (or perhaps had for a while) supplanted the hearer of the real voiced speaker. And as we consume our poetry that way, so we begin to think of producing it that way too. Gone is the voice music that made poetry memorable, and that brought emphasis and meaning in the right place, and in the right tone of voice and at the right volume, tempo and pitch. If you haven’t written with that in mind then you will have difficulty foisting it on whatever you have written. And if the rhythm, and the stresses are broken or absent, or inconsistent (or inappropriately consistent) then read out loud – never mind the whistles and bangs of a performance that will distract us from, rather than focus us on the words – the language will be broken too.

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet, told me once, that the length of his lines was mostly controlled by the stretch of his breath. A reminder, perhaps, that poetry is of the body’s making as well as, and maybe more so than, of the intellect’s.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the experience of hearing someone attempt to read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as if it were a ‘rap’. It wasn’t a rap, though, and hadn’t been written as one, and it fought back, imposing its own rhythms and music on the reader. Though not the intended ‘liberation’ he might have been expecting, it was a useful lesson, at least for this listener, in the power of a good poem to fight its corner, and win.

It goes almost without saying that when I’m writing prose fiction, let alone poetry, I do so with the intention that it should be read aloud. Even when I’m writing essays I take account of how they ‘read’ – and by that I mean how they read out loud. Do they roll off the tongue smoothly, powerfully, and coherently? Or are they fragmented, disjointed, jerky. Do they stick in the throat and choke the reader? Do they run out of breath and mangle their meanings? If you can’t read out a piece of your own writing well, you’re taking a hell of a gamble on whether a stranger – who has no idea what you are trying to say, but only what you have said – is going to be able to, whether in a voice that is being imagined or one that is real. It’s not just about your competence as a reader, but about the piece’s readability.

When I get my copies of poetry magazines, short story collections and journals though, I have to confess, I don’t read ’em all out loud! Words in the mouth and in the ear might still be the home of language, but the ink mark on paper (or its digital equivalent) makes a good holiday residence.

I seem to have spent most of the day re-writing pieces of work. An essay for Vicki Heath at Thresholds, short stories for a long overdue Inktears Showcase. At least both re-writes seem to have worked. The essay just needed some additions, which I already had in mind. But the short story is a different matter. Though I’m a putter in, a short story remains like a metaphorical Jenga tower, a pile of bricks, a house of cards…add too much in the wrong place and it loses its balance, its coherence, its focus, point, structure. The whole thing falls to pieces in an instant, and the better story it is, the more fragile it is, the more vulnerable to overloading and collapse.

Cheer Up. Nobody’s Forcing You.

A friend of mine recently had an exceedingly good poem rejected (with positive comments) by a magazine. Rejection slips can tell you a lot more about your writing, and not all of it negative, than acceptances are ever likely to. You’ll never know, probably, why something has been accepted, but you might get an inkling of why it was rejected – and that might turn out to be an element you wouldn’t want to change!

I decided to do some statistics – I keep a submissions log, on an Excel spreadsheet, adding a new sheet each year. This year’s, 2017, had, on 15th June, 54 entries, which cover 47 pieces of work (some are duplicated, having been sent out more than once). Of these, 20 are ‘out’. 2 were longlisted, 1 shortlisted, and two taken for publication/performance. 1 special case had been brought forward from an earlier sheet because it had been included in somebody’s Top Ten Stories of the last ten years (Liars League), and I wanted to see it on the current sheet, for a bit of encouragement. 12 have not been sent anywhere. 16 were rejections.

I don’t how that compares with your submission log – a writer friend once told me she had never, ever had a rejection slip (I told her it was time she did…I mean, let’s do the thing properly, hey?). Neither do I know if what I’ve shared here helps, hinders, or just puzzles, but rejection is one of the things that most of us who write have to live with. I might also add that acceptance, when it does occur doesn’t bring with it any changes, or at least it hasn’t for me. I don’t expect it ever will. Nothing happens as a result of it. Except, perhaps, – and this is best pay-off of all, though you have to take it in faith – that somewhere, somebody reads something they wouldn’t have had the chance to read, and says to themselves, and perhaps to someone else too, YES! That’s how it is in the world.

I’ll repeat my writing buddy Kurt’s exhortation, quoted from I can’t remember who: You ain’t beaten till you quit!

I’ve been playing that back of a fag packet game (though not on the back of a fag packet – fags are cigarettes in English argot, btw) of writing down my ten favourite short stories. The list is, well, fluid, but several stories are always there:

The Little Farm – H.E.Bates

Weep Not My Wanton – A.E.Coppard

The Fall – V.S.Pritchett

Arabesque – the Mouse – A.E.Coppard

The Blush – Elizabeth Taylor

Monsieur Seguin’s Goat – Alphonse Daudet

The Dead – James Joyce

The Magic Shop – H.G.Wells

Fitter’s Night – Arthur Miller

Sorting Office – Vivien Jones

 

It would be easy to go on for another ten…..And I could justify all of them for one reason, or several.

A variation on the game struck me though while I was writing. What about the top ten collections? Curiously enough, when I started to think about that, I found it harder to compile, and was surprised to find that they weren’t necessarily the collections in which the stories above might be found, even when they were by the same author.  It was also the case that only a half dozen of the forty or so collections on my shelves really stood out from the others. In fact, only two of them include a story from the above ten, and another is by the author of one from above.

 

Perfect Ten – Vivien Jones

Travellers – L.A.G.Strong

Provencal Tales – Michael de Larabeiti

Presence – Arthur Miller

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison

Lettres de Mon Moulin – Alphonse Daudet*

*the collection is in a French edition, but I have most of the stories in translation too.

There’s something about the way we assess a collection that’s different from the way we assess a single story. Not necessarily that all the stories in a collection must push against the same door, it’s more to do with some collections being very satisfying as a whole, but not throwing up a single story that stands out. Other collections might have an outstanding story, but the collection as a whole disappoints.

My late father in law, a catalogue bookseller of international repute, used to tell me that to make a catalogue ‘sing’ you simply had to remove the dross…what was left would look much better, and something similar must be true for collections of short stories, and of poems for that matter. There’s another issue of context: stories that won competitions – a one off flash-in-the-pan event – might not stand up to the re-reading that makes a collection one you go back to time and time again.

Coming back from a writers gathering in Dumfries recently, a group of Facets of Fiction Workshoppers fell into discussion on this, recognising that children – and the child in us perhaps – like to read, and to have read, the stories they have remembered, not those they have forgotten. We re-read, not to find out what happens next, but to re-experience the telling of the story. That we might get more than just that is a bonus that some stories, and some readings, give us.

It’s all subjective, of course, which is the way it should be, must be, if we are to assess on what the stories mean to us rather than in relation to some arbitrarily set standard (that will almost certainly be based on what they mean to some other individual).

 

I’m going to share with you something that cost me five thousand pounds.

It’s about what I want my stories (and other types of writing) to do. I want them to haunt you, or even stalk you. I want them to ambush you with laughter, or surprise, long after you’ve finished reading them. I want them to come back at you like bad pennies, dishonoured cheques, and badly digested meals, or the shock of unexpected sexual encounters.

Because that’s some of the ways that stories stick in my mind, and is why I like them a lot!

One of the ideas that I picked up whilst taking my M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton campus in Dumfries, was that you have to read to be able to write. I picked it up like it needed putting in a plastic bag and dumping in a bin. It wasn’t an idea I was looking for. It disturbed my equilibrium, threatened my equanimity.

Of course, reading won’t make you a good writer. The relationship is more complicated than that. Writing, in fact, is more likely to make you a good reader. It is likely to make you into a reader who reads like a writer, and reading like a writer might just help you to become a better writer than you have been.

A lot of the value in that five grand was in a simple idea, one that I should have had without needing to have it shoved into my head like a nine foot pike staff. It was the simple idea that when you’re reading, and something makes you reel – or any other of a number of imaginable metaphors – it’s worth stopping your reading, and going back and looking at exactly how that happened.

Because, sure as eggs are erfs, the only thing that can have made it happen is the words printed or written on the page (or heard from the lips of the person reading or telling you the story).  Because that’s all there is. And when you isolate those words, you can begin to get an idea of what it was about them that created the effect.

Partly that will be just exactly what those specific words signify in the lexicon of your brain: something that has been created for you alone, by the events of your life, and the way that the words you have encountered have interacted with them. But partly too, it will have been the way that those words have interacted with the words that have preceded them in whatever you are reading, and with the way that they have interacted with each other in the cluster that has sparked your reaction.

Language is the thorns that prick the skin of your subconscious. Reading like a writer is a matter of pulling them out, and taking a close look at where they came from, and why they hurt. And that just might help you when it comes to sticking them into someone else.

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!

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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