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15th March sees the publication of #37 of The Blue Nib, which will include a consideration by Me of Kipling’s short story, The Gardener. This tale, written in the aftermath of World War One, ends with a poignant visit to Hagenzeele Third, a British War Grave, a place ‘still in the making’. For those of us whose connection to such places is at a two or three generation remove and a hundred years of history, a visit to the beautifully manicured cemetery’s of the War Graves Commission can still be profoundly moving. For those who visited when fathers, husbands, brothers, children, and lovers were freshly interred and were faced with ‘a merciless sea of black crosses’ it must have been unimaginably painful.

Yet Kipling’s story does more than make that point. It is about truth and deception, and prophecy and the prices paid. The Gardener was included in the 1926 collection, Debits and Credits.

The Blue Nib is a magazine of new poetry, fiction and essays, and #37 will launch in Lincoln on 23rd March.


Here’s a thing…I didn’t realise this was going to pop up…but Reflex Fiction have kindly published BHD’s short story (call it a flash fiction if you will), Caught In Timehere

This is about that poem that the publishers were apologizing for last week.
A writer-friend sent me this link. You should follow it, and find out what you are.
You don’t need to read the poem that the article is about. It doesn’t matter whether the poem was good, bad or atrocious. The article isn’t about the poem, directly. It’s about the right of someone to write it, and of someone to publish it, whoever it offends. And it’s call of ‘shame’ on a publisher who fails to stand up for that freedom, because, make no mistake, a publisher who is not standing up for that freedom, is a publisher who eventually will seek to limit not only what you can say, but what you can think.
And here’s a credo of mine:
It’s also about the right for you and me, and everyone else, to own whatever words we find on the sidewalk, or pluck from the air, because once words are on the air, or on the page, or screen, or in our ears, they become our words, and nobody has the right (though they might have the wish, and power) to stop you or me or anybody else using them. It’s about an assault on freedom of expression at its most basic: the right to use the words we encounter in the world!
There is no language, anywhere that belongs exclusively to anyone, unless they keep it silently within their heads. Language let out into the world is as free as the air, as free as the molecules of the sea, as free as space dust. It’s there for you and me and anyone to take and use, and to interfere with anyone’s ability to do that is to infringe their rights and their humanity. My voice is not the consequence of my skin colour, or genetics, but of the voices that I have heard, and copied. Some of those voices were urged on me by others (Speak proper, our Michael), others were encountered by random chance, some sought out. At college I was told to lose my ‘up, come, foot’ – by which was meant the accent I’d picked up in the English Midlands. Twenty years later, Midlanders thought I talked like a Northerner…northerners still hear the Midland, me duck!
Those who wish to keep their words for themselves, should keep them to themselves – for if we catch a glimpse, or hear a whisper, then those words will be ours to keep, and share, and pass on, and re-use, and re-interpret, because language belongs to all of us, and not just to you, or me, or anybody else.
I’ll finish with a quotation from the article, which might suffice, if you choose not to follow the link.
We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” – Grace Schulman on the NY Times website, 6th August, 2018, in The Nation Magazine Betrays A Poet – And Itself.

Re-reading Dune by Frank Herbert reminded me that I also have his 1972 novel, Soul Catcher.

Memory tells me that when this was published it was greeted as if it were the first serious novel that this writer had produced; a reflection not so much on Herbert himself as on the sci-fi genre in general.

At first glance Soul Catcher might seem a world, a universe even, away from the Dune epic. It is set in Herbert’s own time, and on his own continent. It is neither futuristic nor historical, and reading it again, only the mobile technology of the last couple of decades has dated it. What could the story of an American Indian and the son of a State Department official have in common with that of a Messianic leader of the imaginary Fremen?

More than you might expect, would be the answer, for that Indian has been touched by the Gods; has become Soul Catcher. His mission is to kidnap an ‘innocent’ and to ritually slaughter it ‘An innocent for all our innocents.’ Like Paul Muad’Dib, Katsuk will find himself driven by, and caught in an unfolding prophecy from the deep past.

The magic begins early in the story as the thirteen year old white boy, David, wakes and sees the hunting knife that his father has given him to take to the camp from which he will be kidnapped: ‘His father’s words had put magic in the knife’.

Not only magic and prophecy connect the two books, but also the wilderness. Soul Catcher’s is not the arid desert of Arrakis though, but the forests and mountains of the American far north-west. Through these woods Katsuk will lead his victim, so confident in his own myth that at one point he allows them to remain out in the open while a spotter plane flies above.

There’s a curious twist though, in the comparison, for whereas Paul Maud’Dib was not a true Fremen, yet took to their skills and mindset instinctively, Katsuk really is an Indian, but discovers that he has not the physique, nor the true outlook to survive in the wilderness of his tribe’s heritage. As their journey progresses, it is he, and not the boy, who succumbs to the rigours of the outdoors. Katsuk remains Charles Hobuhet, his name as a ‘Good Indian’ and part of the Hoquat (white) world. As the story reaches its climax, David is acting to save his executioner. Also unlike Paul, Katsuk finds that he does not have the support of that tribe, in what they see as a crime that will reflect badly on them all, though their fear of the mythology prevents them from acting to stop him.

These parallels of content, if that’s what they are, can be matched by similarities of form, for Herbert uses the technique of inserting snippets of official documents, eyewitness accounts, reports, and Katsuk’s own ‘kidnap messages’ to authenticate the story. These recall those chapter head-pieces and appendices of Dune, ostensibly from histories and sayings of its Messianic leader. The practice, as in the epic, is continued throughout the story.

There is also an echo of the Bene Gesserit training, in the way that both David, and his captor, begin to develop a sense of the hidden meanings in each other’s words, the hidden truths, the hidden untruths.

Herbert’s interests appear to have remained the same: ecological, political, and religious. In both books it is the tension between the individual and forces greater than himself that is played out – man and environment, man versus organisation, man as the tool of prophecy and belief. The difference is that Soul Catcher is played out in our times, and in our environment. Soul Catcher could be the oddball we meet next time we go for a picnic in the woods:

            I haven’t read these two novels in such close proximity before, which has perhaps thrown the comparison into sharper relief. I found Soul Catcher to be, not Dune ‘lite’, but rather Dune compressed. Perhaps this is because in the sci-fi world Herbert had to provide the words for the backdrop as well as the foreground, whereas in the contemporary tale the backdrop to the story is part of the backdrop to our real lives.

I spend a lot of time teaching people about stories.  There is a long running debate – with strong opinions on both sides – about whether or not it’s possible to teach what we now refer to as ‘creative writing’. Sometimes, it seems to me, the people on opposite sides of it can be talking about two quite different concepts. Sidestepping the issue might help clarify: You can quite clearly teach someone to use a camera, without teaching them to be a good photographer. You can also show them what you think are good photographs, and perhaps also you can explain why. But when each photographer goes out, armed with his or her technologies and their techniques, it’ll still come down to what they point the camera at, and when they press the shutter release; it’ll come down to what they chose to show us, and from where they show it.

We’ll be talking about stories and how they work at my next Phil & Lit Society Workshop, on the evening of February 15th (7.00pm-9.00pm, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, England. Tickets from Darren Harper £10/£8 concession) In particular we’ll be looking at how particular stories work on us as individuals, and we’ll be finding out through a series of little experiments performed on actual texts – none of which will be injured in the process!

And stories do work on us as individuals. There’s not a one-story-fits-all, though we can all struggle into the same story, where some of us will find it too tight, and others way too loose.

You can read about how short stories have worked on BHDandMe, and how we think they’ve done it in the Readings For Writers series of books, available by clicking on the images, or here.

Among the Christmas goodies that turned up in my kilt hose were several collections of short stories: by the Italian Giovanni Verga, by the Swede, Isaak Denisen, and, perhaps most noticeably, by the American film star, Tom Hanks. Hanks is one of those rare ‘A-listers’ who gets, and has got for decades now, not only good reviews of his film roles, but also and consistently good reports of his ‘real’ persona.

Of course, real personas, even for those of us who are not listed at all, not even under ‘Z’ are not all there is to our stories, and nor should they be. All of which is easing round to a confession that it’s difficult to make a judgment about the first collection of short stories to be published under the name of a famous and well liked actor. If we damn them, we’re at risk of being thought of as pressing sour grapes; if we praise them we court the label of sycophant.

I wondered too, as to whether or not this was, as well as being a first collection, a collection also of first stories. Has Tom Hanks, I wondered, been learning this new trade in secret, in nom de plume and alias, in the pages of and on the websites of the unpaying magazines and e-zines that most of us inhabit? Or was it a matter of jumping in with both metaphoricals, and enjoying the revenue from sales that would undoubtedly follow the publication of stories by the hero of Saving Private Ryan, and Sleepless in Seattle, and Sully (et al)? Has the man done his apprenticeship?


Uncommon Type, subtitled, rather originally, I thought, some stories, is a collection of tales that all involve, include or at least refer to a (usually) named make and model of typewriter. Typewriters, it appears, are a passion of Mr Hanks, and why wouldn’t they be? I have fond memories of typing stories and poems on my Olivetti Dora, a neat, manual portable typewriter that carried me through the first phase of my writing life – when I was a poor poet. That machine has long gone, but I’m still a poet of that ilk.

I’m coming round to the belief that there is no ‘good’ writing, but only degrees of liking, or disliking any specific example of the form, sometimes with what might be called objective, but often with what must be recognised as subjective reasons.

I liked Tom Hanks’s short stories. Especially, I liked the one called Christmas Eve 1953. Reviewers in the press have drawn attention to the battle scenes in this, referring back to those in Saving Private Ryan, and it should be recalled that Hanks was also involved, though not as an actor, in the more ambitious Band of Brothers. He also, in interviews, has referred to reading William Manchester, who wrote Goodbye Darkness, a very original personal history of the Pacific War. The battle scenes, though, are not what the story is about.

This is a Christmas story, and very much a character study, which shows us two ex-World War Two soldiers, dealing with their post-war issues. One has physical injuries, the other mental ones. It throws a powerful sidelight on how we cope, rise above, or fail, to deal with the cards we have been dealt, while the main protagonist struggles to get his wartime buddy to agree to visit over the festive season.

In Christmas Eve 1953, I like the way he leaves it till half way through before dropping into the story the nature of the particular injury that his main protagonist suffers from. I can remember telling students, repeatingly, that if ever you need to give a character a wooden leg, or a glass eye, you’d better get it in early on, so that readers aren’t fooled into imagining the wrong sort of person as they progress into the story. Of course, the advice doesn’t work if, like Hanks, you need to be making the point that the injury has not crippled, though it may have challenged, the character in question.

At just short of 25 pages in the Heinemann hardback edition (no doubt there will be paperbacks to follow), it seems about average for the collection (which has some that are longer, and some that are shorter). The longer ones make me think Mr Hanks might try his hand successfully at a novel one day (tho’ that would be a shame, if it drew him away from the senior genre). The writing style is clean, by which I mean that I can understand it, sentence after sentence, all the way through, even though it’s written in that foreign language named after my mother tongue. One or two words, I admit, in the collection generally, were totally meaningless to me, though I got the sense of them from their contexts. Stephen Fry, on the dust jacket, says that author is ‘smart, engaging and humane’, which seems true. Steve Martin calls him ‘wise and hilarious’. I’d go for ‘insightful’ too, and a ‘neat technician’, who can pull some clever tricks with language, and with stories told in it.

The press reviews are more universally negative about the collection. Several mention the length of the book – even the Irish Times, which took a generally positive view (‘But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print.’ -John Boyne in the Irish Times). Mostly though, they don’t like the writing, the tone of voice, or the admittedly cosiness of most of the stories – ‘Hanks’s stories – Alan Bean Plus Four aside – are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.’ The Guardian (no byline). ‘It’s rare that a book is actually painful to read, but getting through Tom Hanks’s short-story collection, Uncommon Type, was like pulling teeth.’ – The Independent. I can sympathise with that last comment, having experienced it with an A.S.Byatt collection, but doesn’t the reviewer mean having teeth pulled? Pulling them, surely, would be more enjoyable? Amazon, in its sales pitch, says that Hanks is ‘as good a writer as he is an actor’, which strongly suggests that they know very little about either art form, other than with regard to how well individual examples of them might sell.

The Guardian review hits a nail though with its ‘mere competence’. The stories are competently written, but competence alone is not enough. A similar criticism was made about contemporary poetry by the editor of Acumen recently. She put it down to the widespread teaching of ‘Creative Writing’, which can teach the competence, but not the reason for telling any particular story. I found Hanks’s stories likeable, but they didn’t shake my beliefs to the core, nor open my eyes to that which I hadn’t seen before, neither did they remind me, either forcefully or subtly, of deep truths that I had forgotten. They are the sort of stories I would be happy to listen to at forty thousand feet, in a metal cylinder that I feel has no business staying in the air, and which delusion I’d prefer to be distracted from.

Tom Hanks’ stories are the stories of an amiable and garrulous companion, but are they entirely what stories have to be, if we are to think of them as good, or even as short stories? In my part of the world we have something called the Cumberland Sausage. Unlike other sausages it is constructed as a single, long tube, not split, like ordinary sausages, into links, each of which can be described as ‘a sausage’. When the Cumberland Sausage is cut into sections, each section remains simply that, a section of, rather than a Cumberland Sausage in its own right. There’s something similar about writing, a similarity that makes us think that some poems are merely ‘chopped prose’, and, perhaps, that some ‘short stories’ are merely descriptions or accounts of people, places, and events.

Do Tom Hanks’ stories pass the test that all stories to some extent are at risk of failing, which is that of whether or not they need to be told? The answer to that lies almost always with the ending of the short story, rather than (as in the case of novels) with its crisis. Tom Hanks, I found, reminded me a little of Chekhov in this regard, for I had to turn the tales over in my mind for a time, considerably so in some cases, trying to get an idea of why he had brought me to those specific words that were his endings, and of what he expected me to, or hoped, I would see when I got there.




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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Carnivale was written after my first encounter with Venice in October of 2016. I found the city amazing, I might even say awesome, if I knew the word. Right down to the window catches and the door latches, it caught and held my attention. What helped, perhaps, was that I was staying – for two nights only – in the north west, not far from the old Jewish quarter. It is an area of workshops and old houses, of decaying brickwork and all the narrative killing description that had to go into the story of Carnivale. The places in the story you could find, with a little luck (and that canal-side bar comes highly recommended), including the costumier’s shop. It was not open on the day I walked past, but the window, both literally and metaphorically, was a window onto another, imagined world: a world for which the word ‘imagined’ seems a pale representation. It was a fantastical world, and the perception that were you to dress in those clothes you would be changed utterly, and the world changed with you, was immediate and overwhelming.

It was that epiphany that I wanted the story to evoke, but also the realisation, that for each of us, as individuals we have to have the wit to see the gulf, and the courage to o’er leap it. (That’s the first time, I think, in sixty and more years that I’ve used the word ‘o’er’).

The Carnivale that you see in the Black Market Re-view, and, potentially in a ‘2017’ collection, intended to be published in 2018, is the 6th draft. It was a problem story right from the beginning – having to decide whether it was about Venice, or about its protagonist for example. And all that detail. It had to be overpowering within the story, but not get between the story and the reader. It had to be readable, yet the images had to be crowded in on each other. I wanted those narrow twisting streets with their four and five storey buildings, and their insistent detail, to crowd in on you – but not to the extent that you gave up on the reading.

Then there was the ending. A much earlier edition was sent out and got a useful rejection slip, with the sort of commentary that tells you it’s worth working on. That editor didn’t like the ending, wanting a more definitive one. I’m all for sharp endings, that stick it to you so you know where and how deep! But here I found myself wanting to leave it unsaid – to let the reader’s disposition tip the balance. Short stories, after all, are about the reader to some extent. How would they feel, think, and act in the situation? What would they expect their partner to do?

Later versions got into Longlists. Longlists can mean everything that was submitted – but in these two cases I think did not, and, like that helpful rejection, they can be an encouragement. Particularly pleasing about the BMR acceptance, was that it was made with so little tinkering required. A missing word here, a changed word there, a couple of re-ordered, rather than re-written sentences. In a 2000 word story (long for me) that was pretty minor – though it shows I could have paid more attention! In fact, reading through the story again did make me pay more attention, which is a curious thing. Knowing that someone is about to publish a story, sharpens the senses more than hoping they might, it seems.

Writing Carnivale came at an important time for me. I’ve been writing short stories for nearly twenty years, and two decades seems to me to be long enough to convince yourself you can’t do it. The last eighteen months or so have been a conscious last push before giving up. In fact, I’ve wrestled with the problem of just how to do that.

There has been a series of stories over that period that have been consciously different, at least in my mind, from those that went before. A series of so called ‘flash fictions’ also began to come to fruition during this time. Getting a higher than average proportion of them into print, with magazines, e-zines and journals, and perhaps into competition shortlist and prizes, might be a last gasp validation, perhaps, of that twenty year undertaking. Yet, the true, and proportionate success must always be that you’ve said what you felt needed saying, whatever anybody else might feel. You can find Carnivale in The Black Market re-View #4, here.