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When I opened the e-mail that informed me of Nick Pemberton’s death it was late at night. I’d been out all day, and I don’t have spy-in-the-pocket technology to check every few minutes.

The house was quiet and I was alone. My first instinct was to get out my notebook and scribble some pages of thoughts, but that didn’t do the job. In the end I turned to other people’s poetry. I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems, and read half a dozen of my favourites, aloud, to myself, in the kitchen. Only after that could I take myself off to sleep.

It was later I looked at the scribbling in the notebook, and from them one or two poems emerged. And poems written, in embryo at least, in the previous notebook got looked at again and finished off.

At Nick’s funeral over and again we heard testimony of how Nick gave to others the confidence that they couldn’t find in themselves – the best gift a teacher can give. He was so with me too, when I was wound in to his little bunch of part-time Creative Writing tutors at Cumbria University.

Nick and I argued continually (but not continuously – there’s one for you worders). So much so, in fact, during sessions we took together when he was still trying to work out if I had anything to offer, that one of the students suggested that ‘they’ should put us in a car with a camera on us, and send us off, arguing about literature across the USA! Hey! What an idea! And what a pity ‘they’ didn’t.

The great thing about arguing writing with Nick, with vehemence and passion and absolute commitment on both sides, was that the arguments never veered into rancour or acrimony – though they sometimes disintegrated into laughter.

One regret, and one thankfulness from the time of his passing. The regret is that I never got round to sending him the e-mail, congratulating him on the success of that final performance in Carlisle. I’ll do it tomorrow, I told myself (but as we know, tomorrow never comes). The thankfulness is that he read a collection of poems I recently published, and told me that he liked it.

Here’s a little poem I wrote, since then, that he might have liked – or at least we might have argued about!

 

The Living and the Dead

 

We the living.

They the dead.

There’s nothing more

that need be said

 

(except that they

don’t need to know

how much it was

we loved them so,

 

and that it is

the living who

are those that most

assuredly do).

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The hardest thing to write, I sometimes think, is a story with a happy ending, which is a good reason to have a go. Here’s one I wrote earlier, brilliantly performed by Mushtaq, at Liars League Hong Kong’s September 2018 bash….

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

Adaptation often, and perhaps usually, involves cutting out elements of the told in text story for conversion to the shown in sound and visuals one. Streamlining is a word that has been used for the process. Yet every now and then a novel or short story is adapted that doesn’t quite fit the minimum time period felt necessary for a movie, or whole pages of such a story are filled with thoughts, speculations and reflections that can, and must be reduced to a few seconds of what Joey, in Friends, famously called ‘sniff the fart’ acting.

That old favourite novel (or novella? One day I’ll get those two successfully differentiated in my mind) The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate is an example of a story where a little bit needed to be, tastefully, added. And I can recall, on the ‘specials’ CD of a collector’s set of Blade Runner, I think, a movie-maker saying how difficult it would be to convey the thoughts of Deckard when they can’t be translated into actions that will show how he feels!

William J. Locke’s story Ladies in Lavender, which I mentioned but didn’t explore in an earlier blog-post, is another that had to be filled out to make the full-cut of a film. The film sticks remarkable closely to the characters, actions, and situation of the short story. Andrea, the Polish virtuoso violinist is washed up on the beach of Ursula and Janet, and is taken to their house where he is looked after. Even small details of the story crop up in the film – their attempts to learn his language, his theirs; the dressing of him, the buying of the suit, the discovery of his musical talent.

Even the storyline follows the same path. The foreign young lady hears his music, and has a brother who is big in the business, and who will offer Andrea a new, and successful career. The comedy, the pathos of the two maiden ladies and their delicate, suppressed lust, the desire for love, the jealousies between them and the jealousy they both have for the young women, which they fight against for his sake: all are in the film as they are in the short story. Yet there is significant difference too, and it’s a difference that highlights the differences of the two media, and brings us back to that issue, mentioned before, of how the internal life of characters can be ‘shown’, when telling is no longer desirable. The voice over is said to kill the ‘movie’ story, and it remains a source of glee to me, I confess, whenever I see it having to be resorted to (in an episode of Bridehead Revisited, and at the end of Strick’s Ulysses, for example, and at the end of John Huston’s earnest adaptation of The Dead).

There’s more though, for there are many scenes in the film of Ladies in Lavender, and especially towards and including the ending, where what the characters, or narrator only refer to (leaving it to our perfectly well developed imaginations to create) is played out before our astonished, and unimaginative gazes.

In particular, there is the ending of the film, and the ending of the short story, which fall quite differently, not only in time and place, but in intent. The film takes us on beyond the written story’s ending, to that successful career, which is only hinted at, and not even promised in the told version, and to a reconciliation between the sisters and the wonderful boy that is entirely absent.

The short story ends with Ursula looking out to sea – where the sea air, no doubt, rather than the fart, would have to be sniffed – and realising that a subtle change has taken place in the relationship between her and her sister; thinking that she, the previously weaker of the two, must now be the one strong enough to help the other come to terms with their mutual loss. The film’s pat reconciliations are cruder, perhaps to the point of triteness, and they are accompanied by another difference, for the sisters in the story nurse not only the boy, but the photograph of the father who has bequeathed them their seaside nunnery and its lonely life. In the film, the photograph is of a younger man, lost the more to one of them, in a war that hadn’t taken place when the original story was written (Wickipedia dates it to 1908), and which is certainly not referred to in it. In fact the film explicitly dates the story to 1936, adding a whole agenda of suspicion and undercurrent to the story, turning it from a study of two specific personalities under stress in an Edwardian ambience, to one with a historical consciousness of a later period, as held in 2004.

The agenda of the film is not that of the short story, and perhaps could not have been.

I suffer from what I think of as a Groucho Marx syndrome. He famously asserted that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would accept him as a member! I have only a small touch of the malady, tempered with a dollop of common sense. (laughter off). But publications that regularly accept my writing lead to me wondering if it they who are ‘bad’ rather me who is ‘good’!

Two things mitigate the symptom. The first is, that it isn’t (I’m sure) simply a matter of being good or bad, but rather one of editors either valuing or otherwise, the writing I have sent them.

The other, of course, is that when I get into that way of feeling, it’s usually not long before a rejection slip arrives, to restore my faith in them, and shake it in me!

Curiously, and not wholly irrelevantly, whenever I get really down about my writing, an acceptance, like the Seventh Cavalry, rides over my literarily aspirational horizon to bring rescue.

I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

I’m halfway through teaching a ghost story course; not something I expected to be doing, but a friend asked me to stand in for him.

It’s going well, I hope! I thought I’d better write one. I have already, several in fact, but all of a comic variety. This one was to be ‘serious’ (echoes of John McEnroe). I was aiming for a wrong footing or two…the first that there were two live people in the scene; the second that the chain saw might be possessed. A bit of a puzzle then, that might unsettle, perhaps even alarm, the reader.

Which was a curious thing, because a couple of nights ago I took the last of six classes in the ‘Reading As A Writer’ course I’ve been running, and the subject of stories and puzzles came up.

For me, stories aren’t, and shouldn’t be puzzles, though it’s fine if they’re puzzling. I feel the same about poems. I know many people feel differently.

I like stories that take me by surprise with their unexpected revelations, and hidden meanings, but the ones that don’t, because they’re a puzzle I haven’t worked out just leave me cold. Of course, I’m not a very bright bunny. It doesn’t mean that others won’t have tumbled to the solution, to the revelation. It’s all about where the line is drawn, and who for. Some stories are simply beyond (some of) us! I feel the same about poetry.

What I don’t do, and I don’t expect my readers (if there are any) to do, is to go back again and again to stories that they find incomprehensible because they are too puzzling. Of course, if they work on some other level as well – call it lower if you like – it’s all fine. Nobody has to know there’s a puzzle if they haven’t spotted it, and if they’ve found something else to enjoy, what’s not to like?

I have the story, but is it puzzling enough, yet not a puzzle? Guess I’ll have to puzzle that one out!

I watched the Judi Dench/Maggie Smith film, Ladies in Lavender, a few months ago and noticed in the credits that it had been based on a story by William J. Locke.

I’d never heard of William J., but he’s there, in print-on-demand, on the internet, so I bought myself a copy. The story is one among a collection entitled Far-Away Stories, which was published in 1919. They were stories written ‘over a long stretch of years’ and among them is a suit of tales under the heading ‘Studies in Blindness’. There are four such studies, one, seeming to be a piece of WW1 anti-German propaganda passed off as truth, another a comic tale of a man who, blind. Comes to love the voice of his nurse, but, sight recovered, falls for her cousin who has the face he imagined. It’s a cleverly complicated story, and worth the time it takes to read.

It’s the other two that interest me here though, for they resonate with other stories I have read, from both earlier, and later writers. The first tale in the set is ‘An Olde-World Episode, and in it a blind woman falls in love with a badly disfigured man. He has lived since a child as an isolate, respected for his character, but shunned for his visage by society. They marry and live happily ever after…or at least until a London surgeon turns up pioneering the treatment of glaucoma! The man is faced with the possibility that his wife too will shun him if her treatment succeeds. I won’t spoil the tale, but it too is a cleverly complicated story.

It reminded me of two other stories. The first is O Henry’s classic Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi, where a poor couple sacrifice their most precious possessions in order to buy a Christmas gift, each for the other, to complement the other’s, well, most precious possession. The symmetry is perfect, and gives a startling poignancy to a first reading (after which we moderns might find it a little cheesy). The symmetry in Locke’s tale is no less satisfying, and the theme was replayed, more famously I think, in V.S.Prichett’s Blind Love, title story of a 1969 collection, where it is the woman who is disfigured and the man blind.

Whilst I wouldn’t criticise Pritchett for re-playing an earlier idea – bringing a story into your own place and times is an exercise I’ve tried on several occasions, and with success – but I’d love to know whether he did or not!

The fourth story is The Conqueror, in which a blind man returns from America after having made his fortune, and takes up again with the woman whom he left behind, and who has feared that he will see how old she has grown. The ending of this story, as endings should, and which I will not reveal, adds that ‘inevitable but unexpected’ ingredient that all short stories aim for. This story reminded me of one of the Untilled Fields stories by George Moore, by the way, and of Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune by the late nineteenth century French writer, Paule Arene. The return from America, with or without that fortune has been a theme in European literature for a century and more! Blindness too has recurred as a story theme, with Ernest Bramah, in the nineteen twenties creating the blind detective, Max Carrados.

Threads of thought, imagination, and story weave themselves through the years, binding the storytellers, readers and listeners of many times and cultures into our common humanity.

Sad news last week of the demise of ‘Thresholds’ the longly named International Post Graduate Short Story Forum, where all aspects of the short story genre(s) could be promoted, discussed, dissected and debated. (One could have even written about the difference between discussing and debating if the need had arisen I suspect.)

Lorree Westron, Vicki Heath, David Ashton and others must have put in hours of work to bring this vast ship of knowledge and opinion to our screen, from amateurs like myself and from professionals like others! What a ride over the last eight years: a prompt to thought, revision, reaction, and interaction. (I’ll mix my metaphors, you make your own cocktails)

And, for us all, a place to read and write about the ‘baby sister’ of the novel (irony intended)

What I especially valued was the chance to look back over the genre to forgotten writers and to rub their shoulders with those of today’s practitioners.

But what to do with the essays now? There are lots of outlets for essays, but I can’t think of one that would be so inclusive, catholic (small c), and welcoming: one that would let you come in as yourself, and be yourself, without having to become part of someone’s club, class, team, or political identity. Thresholds seemed to me to be the perfect meeting ground, the open space into which all might venture and be ‘heard’, without being dragooned into anybody’s army, without being tarred by any brush but their own.

I can’t see another niche like that anywhere in our identity-ridden world.

So, for the time being I’ll have to use the blog, but suddenly my world seems a much lonelier, emptier, and more distant place.

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

The Reading As A Writer course moved up a notch, from individual words to sentences, at the last session.

A seventies’ English Grammar split the language into two basic forms: Messages and Labels. It’s an interesting, and useful approach.

‘Shit-hot businessman’ is a label. ‘He was a shit-hot businessman’ is a message. It’s the verb that makes the difference. You can find examples of both everywhere – even in Dickens. In fact, the ‘montage’ that Dickens bequeathed to D.W.Griffiths and the modern film can be found all over the place. A sequence of Labels inserted among the Messages of all sorts of prose. In fact, that faux sentence you just read, was one of them – a label, I mean, whereas this one – you’re reading now – is a message, or as we might more conventionally say, a sentence.

There are two types of sentence too. There are those that add to what we know, and those that add to what we don’t know, having to wait for a key piece of information to unlock the meaning, and significance of all the previous components. Some sentences are both at once, changing from the first to the second type or vice versa, and even back again.

In narrative fiction the first type, which I think of as ‘open’, adds speed and clarity, but risks becoming a rather tedious list. The other type, which I call ‘closed’, adds the tension of our not quite understanding, and the drama of the eventual reveal. It risks the problem of losing the reader, who must cling on to phrase and clause after clause and phrase of what doesn’t quite make sense, until that key element is reached. That element, as you might have guessed, will be the verb that turns the labels of those other components into a message, perhaps a multiple one.

A banal example might make it clear:

‘Leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled, John vanished from her life.’

‘John vanished from her life, leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled.’

Each segment of that second, open version of the sentence could form its ending and the thought would be complete, but in the first, closed version, none of it means anything, even though we can clearly visualise each segment, until that final piece completes the jigsaw.

Mix ‘em up as you like, you’ll find that everything you write is made up of these two types of message, along, of course, with those incomplete fragments, the labels. Curiously, that movie connection I cited can be applied more widely. The messages, with their ‘main’ verbs, drive strings of words like a moving picture, whereas the labels, with incomplete verbs at best, are like a series of still shots inserted into the movie.

Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!