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Sunday has caught up with me again. I don’t mean in that religious way, but only that I have no blog post written.

The blank page is always a challenge, and often a defeating one. Oh, go on then: and always a defeating one. Write about what you’re reading, I tell myself. And that’s an odd choice on this occasion, because I’m reading the biography of one of those hyphenated characters that I wouldn’t normally read about. It’s not his name that’s hyphenated, but his subtitle: Soldier, Scientist & Spy.

Richard Meinertzhagen (and yes, I’ve often thought of the pun on that surname), lived just long enough for me to remember him (1878-1967). He was a contemporary of many of my favourite writers. When I worked as a second-hand book dealer his Kenya Diary came into the stock, and I read it. He seemed a bit of a shit, I thought. In fact, I used one of his shittier ideas as the starting point for the story The Rage, which was one of the earliest stories I got into Katy Darby’s Liars league (a now worldwide ‘franchise’ of short story readings). That was the idea that if men don’t kill animals often enough a rage will build up inside them to the extent that they will be prone to kill other men (and women and children, no doubt).

It’s clear, from Kenya Diary, that Hishurtsagain believed this. It’s also clear that he was a very intelligent man, a very observant one, and a very articulate one. Or in other words, he must have had reason to make that suggestion, and will have made it clearly. In the circles of which he was the centre, he must have believed it true, and believed also that he had reason to do so.

I made a visit to Shropshire last week, and met a friend there who greeted me with a copy of Mark Cocker’s 1989 biography of the man. I thought you might like to read this, he said.  So that’s what I’m doing. It is an interesting read. Shocking, and disappointing in its portrayal of human folly, and yes, ‘the rage’.

There’s a context for me, too, in that I have spent the last few months reading though five volumes of Kipling’s short stories. Despite his often criticised attachment to imperialism, Kipling comes over as a much more humane character, more tolerant, more loving one might say (and of all breeds, casts and races), and more understanding than the rather harsh and dogmatic Meinertzhagen. Both men had appalling childhoods – Kipling suffering abandonment to cruel surrogate parents for several years – but Meinertzhagen suffered systematic sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a Victorian schoolmaster, an abuse that was both ignored, and denied by his parents. Perhaps the lives that they both led, and the characters they assumed were to some extent set (as, it seems likely was Dickens’ following his ‘Blacking Factory’ experience) by those abuses. In fact, I would guess it’s overwhelmingly certain.

As I write this I’m at page 96, and wondering if I need to read on. A few weeks ago I heard a programme on Radio 4 in which a convicted and time served terrorist confessed (or asserted) his sense of shame at his past acts. I rather respected him for that, not least because of his particularity in finding the word. Shame for what we have been is a step forward, and admission of it a leap. Perhaps I need to read on to find out if Meinertzhagen made such a leap. I write, by the way, as one who hasn’t.

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Andy Hopkins, with the help of a team of students organised by Ruby Evans, gave Carlisle its first Poetry Symposium at the weekend. It was staged at Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, the home of Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society.

Eight invited poets were supported by a dozen ‘open mic’ readers, which merry (and not so merry) band held their audience of fellow writers, readers and friends from 11.00am to around 4.30pm, give or take a break for networking and buying from the pop-up bookshop which sold over £300 pound worth of local publications.

Most dazzling of all, for me, was the finale, during which Josephine Dickinson read her poem ‘Alphabetula’ designed, and performed to give the hearing reader an experience of the profound deafness that overtook her from the age of six. Astonishing is a difficult word. Is the astonishment a quality of the astonished, or of the astonisher? Whichever, I found the performance astonishing. Working at break next speed from a breeze-block sized stack of single sheets upon each of which was written in capitals a single ‘word’, or rather a single group of seemingly random letters, and which she flung from the pile to face the audience, Josephine grunted, squeaked, wheezed and harrumphed her way through what to call a ‘nonsense poem’ would be to do to (or even oo-bee-do-be-do) an injustice.

Forget Jabberwocky. With this poem we were not invited or encouraged to mould the gibberish to our usual grammar or to a simulacrum of our normal speech, but were rather demanded to look, and listen on, in bemused incomprehension – as those who are profoundly must often have had to do.

It was a break neck performance, not least because of the sheer physical weight of the poem being read…and make no mistake it was being read, it was a poetry reading, a mad, compelling soundfest of a poem, the meaning of which was not meaning, but incomprehension itself.

Writing this I’m reminded of Bob Cobbing reading in the seventies – he toured the Lake District one summer in the company of other pop poets on a poetry bus or van that colonised, and re-vitalised a series of car parks if memory serves -but by comparison his poems, broke down some barriers of language and languages, were models of linguistic simplicity. It seemed to me, glancing at the audience when I could tear my eyes away from Josephine and her crazed turning of the pages, that she was taking us on a wild ride, no less, I think, than we might expect from this mistress of words.

For those of an arboreal persuasion, let me say that the title of Josephine’s poem contains no co-incidental pun, as she will explain, when and if you ever get the chance to take the ride. You can take a peek at Josephine reading, and what the poem looks like on the page, here.

There will be another poetry symposium, I hope, and, I hope I shall be there!

Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

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

I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.

BHD has a couple of Flash Fictions in #5 of the Black Market re-View. You can access it here

Last week there was a comment on my post about short stories. Why was there no Chekhov? He was, after all, ‘the master of the genre’.

I made a reply, but not a full one. He was master of the genre, but not ‘the’ master, only ‘a’ master, one among many.

That’s not the reason he was not in my list. It was, when all is said and done, a list of favourite stories, not of favourite authors. There is a difference. A favourite author might be one who provides several ‘favourite’ stories, none of which might be in my top ten. Because what makes a story your favourite, or mine at least, is not who it was written by, nor even, necessarily, how ‘masterfully’ it was written. Picking a favourite is not like marking an exercise. In fact, I’m not even sure that ‘picking’ is an appropriate verb. A favourite story, for me, is one that has acted upon my emotions and understanding in a striking way. It picks me, not me it. It’s not a logical, detached, judgemental process, but one more like a lightning strike, and has less to do with the mastery of the genre possessed by the writer and more with that much despised quality of story: what it’s about.

What a story is about has to be, for the ‘ordinary’ reader the main point of relation.  I can admire the skill and technical ability of a story without giving a damn about what it’s telling me, and I can also be moved profoundly by one in which the flaws are only too obvious. That’s possibly a disturbing fact for some commentators, but for me it seems a vital one. Stories are not merely exercises in mastery, they are testimonies about what life is, has been, and might well be in the future, and when that successfully challenges, or reveals, or reinforces our own perceptions we experience a moment of meetings of mind..a moment of communication with the not present author, or, if we are that author, with the distant reader. That’s one of things stories are for, and something to be valued.

So, the sad fact is, that however much I might recognise Chekhov’s skill and approach, I have to say that of the (only) fifty or so stories of his that I have read (and enjoyed), not one of them has struck me with the force that any of the ones in my list have done. That fact might imply all sorts of things about me, but it doesn’t imply anything about Chekhov, other than that, as with the rest of us, he can please, perhaps, some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.

There was a Southlight magazine launch recently at gatehouse of Fleet, and if the car had been running right (no quote intended) I would have attended.

Perhaps because I’ve got an essay on one of Kipling’s short stories in this edition, Viven Jones asked me to talk briefly about the short story form. So, here are 25 short statements about the short story that I would have made:

  1. The short story is nobody’s little brother or sister
  2. It is the child of an oral tradition going back to before the invention of writing
  3. The novel belongs to the age of printing
  4. The short story to the storyteller
  5. The short story in the age of printing became longer, but even the printed short story is still more like a musical score than is the printed long story.
  6. The short story can be read ‘at a sitting’ – Poe suggested we could ‘peruse in an hour or two’.
  7. The short story is a strand
  8. The novel is a rope
  9. The novel is a cruise
  10. The short story is a crossing
  11. Short stories are poetic rather than prosaic ( via Pritchett)
  12. Short stories are similar to films, and different
  13. Short Stories are told in words, one word at a time, in order.
  14. Films shown in images with (or without) sound
  15. We all see the same images, hear the same sound, which we observe and hear
  16. Words have to be imagined, whether read or heard
  17. The told story takes place in your head
  18. The shown story takes place in front of your astonished (or otherwise) gaze.
  19. The short story is about situations and how characters experience them
  20. And about how you imagine them, and imagine dealing with them.
  21. Thus the short story is about you, more than about its characters
  22. The novel creates a world for you to visit
  23. The short story intrudes into your world
  24. From time to time I make a list of my top ten favourite short stories: it varies, but several are usually included: The Little Farm (H.E.Bates), Weep Not My Wanton (A.E.Coppard(, The Fall (V.S.Pritchett), Fitter’s Night (Arthur Miller), Monsieur Seguin’s Goat (Alphonse Daudet), and more recently, La Lupa by Giovannin Verga, and Kipling’s The Eye of Allah. Vivien Jones’ Sorting Office. The Venus of Ile by Prosper Merrimee, Little Brother by Mary Mann.

When I list my favourite collections, the top ten stories aren’t always there! Perfect Ten (Vivien JOnes), Letttres de Mon Moulin (Alphonse Daudet), Tales of Mean Streets (Arthur Morrison), Provencal Tales by Michael de Larrabeiti, Travellers, by L.A.G.Strong. If I do either list twice, it’s unlikely to be exactly the same.

One of the things that irritates me is when I read, or hear, a short story and have no idea why the writer thought it was worth telling. It can happen with the best of writers, which gives a clue to one possible explanation; but it also happens to the worst, which points to another.

In the case of The Mont Bazillac, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, or ‘Q’ to his students (I’m told), the explanation may be neither of the above. The two I mean are that the reader/listener hasn’t got a clue because, well, he or she hasn’t a clue, or that the writer hasn’t got a clue because…you’ve got it!

Q can tell a good short story though. I’m sure of that.  Captain Knott is a thought provoking tale of old ship-mates who meet at a West Country pub in the time of John Wesley, and fall to discussing the ‘souls’ of ships. The eponymous captain though has been a slaver, and it is his soul he, and we might be thinking about. In The Lairds Luck he tells a tale of foretold death on the field of Waterloo. In another he tells of the news of Nelson’s death being carried to his mistress. Other tales in Selected Short Stories (Penguin, 26, 1957) are of more domestic matters.

Yet The Mont Bazillac seems a tale without the need to be told. Briefly, a vicar’s wife puts the family on the wagon. The son, a student at Oxford, tells a neighbour – who narrates it all to us – of a wine he drank in France, the eponymous Bazillac, and of the hallucinatory consequences. The boy has secreted two bottles of it, which he offers to share with the narrator, who has drunk the same wine, and, implicitly, with similar effects. But, as a villager tells the narrator, the vicar, and two churchwardens have been given the two bottles by the self-same vicar’s wife,  at a meal for which a Bishop, for mundane reasons, has not arrived. The wife has found the bottles and thinks to get rid of the wine, and save her son! But the vicar and his churchwardens suffer the same effects as the son and the narrator: the churchwardens end up fighting in the street, and blowing kisses to the Bishop as he finally arrives. The vicar’s antics are only hinted at – but he ‘wanted to be a statoo’.

The story ends with the narrator reminding us that the wine no longer exists, the vine destroyed by phylloxera.  All bottles are now gone, and he speculates if the last two bottles, kept by the French innkeeper who supplied it for his daughter’s wedding, created a ‘comparable apotheosis’.

It’s a well written story. It’s readable, and amusing, but so diminished by the hundred years of social change that have passed since its first publication in 1913, that it seems, well, hardly worth telling. Those final words were, I suspect, expected to release the power of the story, but in 2018 they go off like the proverbial damp squib.

Here’s a case, I suspect, where it is not my failure to find what is hidden in the tale, nor Q’s to have had something to hide, but the simple fact that would have shocked and amused a readership before the First World War, now seems tame, ordinary even, and not worthy of comment. The fact that the story was included in the Penguin paperback, fifty years after its first publication hints that the changes had not by then taken place. I recall the actor Dudley Moore making a feature film about a drunken Lord. It was a hit movie, and considered wildly funny. Only a few years later a sequel flopped at the box office: the drunkard had become in the intervening years a spectacle that was regarded as tragic and embarrassing, rather than comic and funny. It’s not quite the same  for Q’s vicar, but what would have, presumably, shocked and outraged but amused when the story was written, now calls forth a sort of bemused ‘so what?’

Stories, like many other things, have their flowerings, quite apart from the way they are written. Perhaps what should surprise us more though, is the stories that go on flowering, sometimes for centuries!

Rime’s an odd concept. I don’t mean that crust of ice that clings to cold metal, but the poetic technique that sings the last syllable of some preceding word, often at a line end; absurd, round the bend.

It brings us up sharp against the subsequent word, or down heavyily on it, logically without warning, but if the rhythm’s right, the poem’s like a song and to not get the rime, at that point precisely in the tune would be somehow wrong. Rimes can be weak or strong. Sometimes, when we hit them, unintentionally as we speak, they sound out of time. Some poets put them in the middle of a line, which is fine. Others, I’m thinking Wilfred Owen I suppose, does something not quite the norm – echoing consonant but not vowel – but no-one cries foul! (or thinks him a fool or it bad form). Riming two syllables at a time often sounds silly, weakens the line, willy nilly.

It comes down to the tune, more often than not, and whether it will scan, but there’s one poem springs to mind, where it does not.

I’m thinking of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice where the rhyme scheme is rigid, but instead of singing like music, it turns each line to come down like a mechanism, a verbal steam hammer rather than the lyric of a song. Instead of marking a musical beat, it makes the line-end an anvil on which the sense rings true, and is beaten out on the two rimes in it: the words of the title, echoed, pile driven home: ire, ice. The fact of the actual rime of ‘Fire’ being ‘ire’ adds a little something that must surely have been fortuitous!

Find it here.

I wrote a few days ago about failures, of one sort and another, quoting William Faulkner. If you’d like to experience Me attempting to be a (failed) poet…here are a couple of collections where you can:

A successful poet, you might think, is not one that gets published, but one that nails the poem.

That William Faulkner quote popped up recently in a promotional e-mail…the one about novelists being failed short story writers; short story writers being failed poets….made me wonder what sort of failure poets are?