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BHDandMe have been asked to talk about the short story to an informal Readers Group in Shropshire, so once again I find myself covering the familiar ground of trying to find out exactly what it is I want to say about this fascinating literary form.

It’s ground I’m happy to cover again and again, as any ground that means so much to us is worth covering. After all, such ground will cover us one day.

I went to the notebook (pencil and paper, manual, not digital, or at least, not electronically so) to begin with, and came up with the following outline. It might interest you too, and if you’re bot, you might really think it’s ‘awesome’. Then again, if you are a bot, I guess you wouldn’t know any better.

Firstly, I’d want to tell you that I could probably list a hundred short stories, and each with a good reason to praise it (and enjoy it), and if you were to say ‘that’s not many’, I’d have to agree. But I’d want to go on and tell you that in among that hundred the same dozen or so would usually come high in the list, and among them, these few would often feature:

Weep Not My Wanton, by A.E.Coppard. The Seal, by L.A.G.Strong, Little Brother, by Mary Mann, and Sorting Office, by my contemporary, Vivien Jones. They’d feature on the list for this talk, partly because they are all short, short stories…such as one might read out aloud to a small audience, but each has something else compelling, and satisfying about it.

I’d want to make several statements about the form in general though, before I read anything. I’d want to assert that the short story has nothing to do with the novel, even though both are fictions told in words. I’d want to say that I think of novels as being like ‘cruises’, and short stories as being like ‘crossings’. I’d say that the short story takes you somewhere – to its ending, in fact – where you focus anew on either the passage you have just made, or the place you have just arrived, or the place you must inevitably go next (or a combination of any two, or of all three!).

And then I’d tell you the stories. Now how about that?

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I was talking to my friends, BHDandMe recently, and they were in two minds about something. The writer, Frank O’Connor came into view, metaphorically speaking, and something he wrote while having a several page carp about Kipling took our attention.

Now O’Connor’s carp was about the short story The Gardener, one of more than two rather exceptional stories in the collection Debits and Credits of 1926 – latish in Kipling’s canon. In that piece O’Connor makes what seems to me to be an astonishing statement, which is this: ‘I have found myself rewriting the story as it might have been written by Chekhov or Maupassant…’

While BHDandMe admired the hutzpah of such an assertion (t)he(y) was also shocked by the temerity of making it. Perhaps if t(he)y had written a story as powerful as, say Guests of the Nation, it might have been different. But BHD, I know for a fact, has re-written several stories by authors from the past (though none, to my knowledge, by authors from the future!).

His motives in doing this were perhaps similar to those of O’Connor’s – to find out a little bit more about the original story (‘to see what would happen’ O’Connor says). But BHD was also interested in finding out if the ‘feel’ of the story, its emotional impact on him as a reader, could be recreated or at least echoed by a story written from his own perspective in time and place. Me, it should be pointed out, would never dream of pulling such a stunt with a poem (or an essay, come to that). O’Connor’s analysis of his version of the story, by the way, seems to have, as Me was told once when writing about a poem of his, ‘missed the fucking point.’ –(Glad you pointed that out, BHDandMe).

BHD’s attempts, with stories by, among others, Alphonse Daudet, (Les Etoiles & La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin), L’Abbe Bourdelot (Monsieur Oufle) and Paul Arene (Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune), have been transpositions rather than replicas, and have met with mixed success, as stories and as explorations. Henri & Monsieur Oufle, a riff on the good Abbe’s farce involving a ‘bear suit’, translated to a modern-day Pizza restaurant, worked well enough to be picked out for performance at Liars League’s Hong Kong Branch, and can be found online. Les Etoiles became Shooting Stars, moving from a Luberon shepherd’s bothy in the nineteenth century, to a 1970s film-set in the English Lake District.

In none of these though, did BHD ever imagine he was writing ‘as it might have been’ by a Chekhov, Maupassant, or even a Daudet, Arene, or Bordelot. He was just doing his best as a BHD!

The practice is instructive though, as well as being fun. When there’s something you ‘get’ out of a story that you can, or can’t get out of a rewrite it clarifies something – not necessarily the same thing – about the original writer and your response to him or her, and about yourself, and your own writing.

Hello. This is Culbin Forrest. BHDandMe borrowed my name, and someone else’s address, for a competition entry many years ago. BHD was known to at least one of the judges, and the entries weren’t ‘blind’. He didn’t want benefit, or otherwise, from being know during the judging. He won the competition by a country mile, a judge told him a few years later.

BHDandMe have asked me to post to the blog for a season, while they, or he as I prefer to think of it, takes a break.

I never thought of myself as a blogger. I never thought of myself at all, come to think of it, but hey….

Write about what fires you up, they (or he) told me. You make me sound like a boiler, I said, and they gave me that look he has.

The fact is, what fires me up just at this moment, is where to put the ‘h’. ‘H’ is a curious letter. The Scots Gaels use it to soften the sound of hard consonants, a totally alien idea, it seemed to me, when it was first pointed out to me. Mor, pronounced, more, becomes, phonetically, vor, when you write it mhor. ‘D’, pronounced ‘J’, don’t ask, becomes ‘y’, almost.

The Italians do it too, only the other way around. Ci is pronounced chee, but chi, would be sounded as key. Ciao, Chianti? Got it?

English is my first language, not because of anything genetic; simply because I grew up surrounded by people talking it…how else was I going to speak? But English does this stuff with ‘h’ too. Oh, I hear you think! Cat becomes chat. Peasant becomes pheasant – equally tasty but not so tough, plucked or not. Cog becomes cough. There are lots of others. Find ‘em for yourself.

But for some reason the English have a bunch (rather than a bunc) of words in which the h does nothing at all. And that’s because we’ve been conned (probably by the Norman French Establishment) into putting it in the wrong place.

The words I’m thinking of, among others, are what, where, why and when: not uncommon words, and so the more surprising, perhaps, that we English speakers should write ‘em down incorrectly. Who, pronounced hoo, rather than woo, of course, conforms to the h usage I’ve mentioned, which, by the way, is called lenition. My dad was called Len, but it wasn’t short for Lenition (though it might have been nice if it had been).

Living near the Scottish Border gives me a clue to the answer. Dumfries (‘home of the Friesians’) reminds me that modern English is said to be most closely related to Old Friesian (Anglo-Saxon? Hwo?), and so perhaps that’s hwere we should look, or rather, listen!

Hwere, hwat, hwy and hwen, is still the way the words are sounded up here. Haitches aren’t dropped, but are put hwere they belong, in front of the words in hwhich they are sounded. Who remains hoo. And looky see, in Beowulf, the opening word is hwat. In King Alfred’s Orosius the repeating, paragraph opening sentence is ‘hwen that the Romeburgh getimbered was’.

            In this year above all, we should take the chance to take back control of the language, and put our ‘aitches hwere they belong. Your spell checker can be easily adjusted: hwat!

Well, here’s another BHD story, popping up on the web:

And others here…

Not a Christmas story, but a this time of year story, at least for those of us in this northern hemisphere! Salt was written several years ago, and tinkered with…mostly with regards to the title, which it took me ages to get right (it being so simple and obvious). It appeared in Southlight #24. Autumn 2018, which is available via their website, here.

Salt

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

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 a wartime escape story, in which a secret tunnel had been 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 his 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, mate, the man said.

 

[Author note: This story has the rare quality of being entirely imaginary. None of it has been transposed from memory or report: neither characters, location, or events bear any relation to anything that has happened to me, or to anyone I know of. I like Rav and Bev though, him especially with his over-thinking, good-natured angst. There are more stories by BHD in

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD ]

 

Perhaps somebody who strives to be a writer should expect to come back from a trip to the far side of the planet with some pieces of writing in their bag. Damn right they should.

Of course, I could say I got a leg up in that department, getting wound into Inside-Out’s little competition. Here’s the piece of verse I turned out for the event. I got to read it out too, not because of its qualities, but because all the submission were put in a bag and five were pulled out blind for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Gleam

 

The sweet flicker of wisdom    runs like water

through this galaxy     but there is a void

divides us            dry beyond droughts

sure beyond doubts     holds steady

to our certainties.

 

Let’s not make any claims for it, but that doesn’t mean there are points worth noting, at least from my perspective as the writer.

To begin with, I was pleased to see that it had form, and I spent some time after the event, writing it out in different ways…moving the line breaks (which I keep coming back to, as being one of the hallmarks of poetry – coming back reluctantly I might add, and have).

The writing above was this morning’s attempt, and seems the best so far. I like the split line layout. It’s in my use of language – the way I speak – and it’s in a fair sprinkling of earlier poems of mine, several of which have been published (and one of which won a prize of sorts!). The not quite balanced phrasing pleases me, but there’s also that fracture that it gives, on the printed page, which often does, and often has to run through the otherwise solid unity of any attempt at meaning.

There are other elements of form I like. There are a couple of rhyming lines, which echo also in their metre and ‘tunes’.

There’s a meaning to it as well which I’m not unhappy with. What I’m not happy with, at all, is the title, but it’ll do for now!

The five words that we were all given, and which had to be got in, were galaxy water sweet flicker and wisdom, listed in that order. Getting three of them out of the way in the first five words was a break through, and using up the other two before the middle of the second line took the pressure off.

I’m really not a fan of this sort of exercise, but to have refused would have been churlish, and I know from my own experience, that when you don’t know what to say, and somebody puts you on the spot to say something….you’ll dredge up something you’ve been meaning to say (in social situations this usually turns out to be something crass, vulgar and embarrassing – well, it does in my case). I suppose it’s only a version of Hemingway’s write drunk/edit sober concept.

While we’re on tossed off poems (no pun intended), here’s one that crossed my mind while on the 26+ hour flight to New Zealand. We were on the longer leg between Dubai and Auckland at the time:

 

Flying at thirty thousand feet

Above the Indian Ocean

When seated in the cubicle

You really feel the motion.

 

Other long haul victims will perhaps know that feeling! You might be relieved to know that I got some other stuff in the notebook too, which I’m still working on.

On the long flight home from New Zealand I pondered the writing of poetry.

I was thinking about the memorability of poems. Someone wrote that ‘the first duty of poetry is to be memorable’. I think it might have been James Fenton, but perhaps not. If you recognise the quote and can source, please let me know. Though, of course, it doesn’t matter who said it. The validity of ideas doesn’t depend on who came up with them. Rather the opposite in fact. The value of the speaker is recognised in the wisdom of the spoken.

And poems often are memorable, far more so than prose, I suspect. As memorable, perhaps, as songs, to which poems are related. Learning songs, and by extension poems, is recognised as being much easier than learning equivalent amounts of prose. Songs I learned decades ago, and fragments of poetry, still lodge in the mind.

And I’m inclined to the belief that it’s not the meaning of the songs, or the poems which makes them memorable. The memorability lies in the physical attributes of the words. Their rhythms, alliterations, harmonies and dissonances, their echoes, which we call rime, their hard edges and soft centres, the tunes their phrases play. These are the qualities that make words stick: the way they lodge in the ear when we hear them; the feel of them in our mouths as we speak them. Meaning isn’t in it at all, as far as I can see. That’s why something as meaningless as Jabberwocky remains so memorable. It’s nothing more than a series of meaningless sounds into which we pour our own meanings, generation after generation, because we can remember it. The printed word has weakened that memory, perhaps, rather than strengthened it.

I would argue that poetry, like song, uses that quality of words as a vehicle to carry meanings, or the spaces into which meanings can be fitted, into the future. The meanings, even in poems like Jabberwocky, are what the writers want to pass on, but it’s the sound and the feel of the words that carries those meanings over the years.

So when we’re writing, it’s not simply that we have to struggle with what it is we have to say, but that we have to say it in words that will be memorable. It’s almost as if the meaning is not inherent in the words themselves, at least not to the extent that we have no choice, when it comes to choosing memorable ones.

Prose writing can supply evidence of the truth of this. A favourite exercise of mine with short story writers, is to give them the ending of a sentence (or even to suggest they ‘find’ one at random) and make it the ending of a story they will write. A roomful of people will take the same seemingly least meaningful fragment, and use their story to imbue it with power, with depth of meaning  Each one will bequeath a different meaning to the fragment, a meaning that grows out of the context provided by the rest of the story.

The memorable poem, presumably, can do something similar. And I realise I’m back to the ongoing exploration of the roles of form and content, of the relationship between them, and of the functions of each.

While on my trip to New Zealand I took the chance to read at one of Auckland’s Open Mic sessions. Inside-Out at Cafe One2One on Ponsonby Road is a well established monthly reading slot for local writers, and musicians. On the 14th of November 2018, as usual, I suspect, the room was packed and buzzing.

It’s quite alarming, I found, to contemplate reading to an audience as far round the world as you can get without starting on the journey home. What do they care about? What will they understand? What will amuse them? Rile them? Wind them up? Move them? And will it do it for the right reasons? How the hell does one choose just what to fill that five minute slot with? It was unnerving too, to find how similar the event was to  the Carlisle (Cumbria, UK) Speakeasy and Litcaff events I’ve been familiar with over the last dozen or so years. And amid those similarities, of course, the startling differences, of expectation, attitude, and perception, like the explosions of palm leaves that force their way through the canopies of ‘ordinary’ looking trees in what might be an English countryside. Walking on a turf headland forty minutes drive from the city, was like being on the coast near Whithorn. Crossing the fence line on the usual sort of stile, we stepped into what seemed a sub-tropical forest. Difference, and similarity in life, as in Art.

So, I’d taken a fistful of books to read from, made a dozen plans that I tore up, ended up reading one story, and one poem. The story, A Last Visit, taken from Talking To Owls (published by the excellent, but now retired Pewter Rose Press in 2012 – I have a couple of dozen copies left: Paypal me £6 GBpounds, and your address and I’ll send you one), but previously unpublished, and rarely read in public. The poem, All Things Are Connected, from Acumen‘s 60th anniversary anthology, and before that in #56 from 2006. In both cases, they seemed to understand what I was getting at. I should put that poem in a collection, if I do another.

Reading old work gets more enjoyable as I age with it, and reading new work less so! I had a new ‘work’ to read on the 14th, though, for a game they play here is to give you a fistful of words on a printed form, and ask for a piece of micro-fiction or poetry to go into the draw. Hell, I thought, why not? All Things itself came  out of a not wholly different exercise. Five of these raw pieces would be picked out of a hat, and guess what, mine was one of them! We each got a prize too…in my case Ivy Alvarez’s poetry collection Disturbance (Seren Books,2013),about which more perhaps after I’ve re-read it.

There isn’t, in my possession, an image from the reading, but if one turns up, I’ll post it! As an alternative, here’s a Kiwi forest, familiar, and unfamiliar.

This will probably be the last blog post I write before going to New Zealand to visit my daughter… so it may be some time before the next one pops up.

It’s easier, I suspect, to write about what you find in what you’ve read, than to write about what you think you’ve put into what you write. And rare, in my experience, to get a written response from a reader that clarifies what you think you might have found in what you wrote, if you had been a reader of it!

A few months before he died, the much missed Nick Pemberton, got hold of a copy of my sequence of poems, Martin? Extinct?, and read it in what I realise now might be the ‘proper’ way (at a sitting). He took the trouble to tell me what he found. I have been thinking of sending the collection for review, but after reading Nick’s comments, I wondered if I needed to!

‘This is deep and mysterious work. Full of pithy wisdom, raw ache, love, loss, the mystery of – as so often in a poem – who is talking to who(m). Thanks old pal, a true tonic.’

 

            I’ll take that!

Working my way through Ladies in Lavender man, William J. Locke’s short story collection, Far Away Stories, I came to the two last tales: The Heart at Twenty is a simple story, and opens with a girl waiting on a French pier for, as it turns out, her long lost English lover. You might wonder. I certainly did!

The other story is The “Scourge”, a sentimental and melodramatic story of atonement and redemption. Sir Hildebrand Oates, the protagonist, is an upright, uptight martinet, who rules his roost – mostly his wife and children – with the least display of emotion or care that he can manage. A stickler for just about everything, not a glimmer of human feeling ever passes from him. He is proper, and I suppose, these days, we’d think him ‘right wing’. He doesn’t do charity, affection, or forgiveness, and imposes the sort of control that would now verge into the illegal.

When his wife dies, her will stuns him into reassessing how he has behaved, with its single, unexpected bequest: I will and bequeath to my husband, Sir Hildebrand Oates, Knight, the sum of fifteen shillings to buy himself a scourge to do penance for the arrogance, uncharitableness and cruelty with which he has treated myself and my beloved children for the last thirty years.

He is, of course, reduced to penury, for his wife’s fortune is what has kept the family afloat. Shocked, at first by her action, but then by the accusation itself, he withdraws to an unfashionable quarter of Venice, where he examines, in minute almost forensic detail, the minutiae of their past lives together, and writes a report, a judgement on himself.

Bit by bit, he meets lower-class people whom previously he would have dismissed without thinking , their children, the poor and the destitute, and living among them learns to be human. It is dreadfully sentimental, yet, has an undoubted power. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the most powerful story in the collection. Unrealistic, but unarguably a close look at the little ways in which we can, and perhaps ought, to behave towards each other.

As one might imagine in this sort of story – late nineteenth/early twentieth century – with all the sugary sweetness of a Hollywood movie, his estranged children track him down, find him dying, and read his manuscript, in which he finds, I am of the opinion that my wife had ample justification for the terms she employed…

            In true Hollywood (and Edwardian) style, he is, of course, rescued and allowed to live out his life redeemed and rehabilitated.

The story is not of the gritty Cinema Verite type, yet it carries the truth, and holds the mirror for us, that if we looked into our own lives we might be sorry for what we found there. Like Scrooge half a century before him, Sir Hildebrand offers us a chance to rehabilitate ourselves. You can’t knock that.