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BHD recently had a story accepted for an online magazine. They’ve taken a few of his over the last couple of years (.Cent was the magazine by the way, and when you go looking for it, remember that prefatory .!) This one, just before submission, was given a last-minute trim, or rather, a last minute change. It was only one word, but it was close to the last word, and it was changed from ‘said’ to ‘thought’.

The line, in its final version, went: ‘Me too, I thought’. The actual ending continues ‘and I knew the game was on again.’

The difference is profound.

The story is a first person reminiscence of a conversation, about literature, and sex. That conclusive line, a spoken line in the original version, a thought one in the published, is supposed to reveal something about the narrator that has not been revealed in the rest of the story. In fact, the story is the context for that revelation. But if spoken it is revealed not only to the reader, but to the other character in the conversation. By making it a thought the reader is invited to speculate about whether or not that other character has an inkling of the thought, and if they do, what is their reaction to it.

Other options have subsequently occurred to me. What, for example, might be the difference if the story ended: ‘Me too, I might have said.’

The key is in that ‘might’. Does it imply that ‘Me too’ wasn’t said, but could have been – which implies also that it was still thought. And what if it had ended, ‘Me too, I may have said.’? Doesn’t that add the further possibility that it had been said, but that the narrator has become vague in his admission, perhaps reluctant even?

Four options, and I’m still not sure which would be the best one, but the fact that there are four – and probably more – reminds me how important every single word is, and perhaps more so the closer it is to the end! It reminds me too, that the nuances of writing are dependant for their success not only on the finesse of the writer, but also on the discrimination of the reader.

You can read more BHD stories in Other Stories and Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

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I first read John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down about a decade ago, in one of the guest rooms of a posh hotel near Salisbury. It was a slim volume, dated to 1942, the year of first publication, and I suspect it had sat on the shelf unread for many of those years.

I’d never heard of the book, having got no further into Steinbeck than seeing the movie versions of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Those opening lines, though, did the job that all opening lines are supposed to do, and hooked me from the beginning. It’s the directness, and the simplicity I think, that compels:

 

‘By ten forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.’

 

The story stayed in my mind for years, though I forgot the title, until, that is, I was recently given a copy of the Penguin The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. A second read proved to be as enthralling as the first had been, but a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking about the short story form had passed under my bridge by then.

The story is as simple as the telling, and, considering the date of publication, so, perhaps, is the intention behind the book. The un-named town, in the un-named country, experiences occupation by a foreign invader, and far from being ‘over’, the story is only just beginning. Betrayed by a prominent businessman, the local Mayor and his entourage, along with a few named locals are put through the trials that Americans already knew were being suffered on Continental Europe. Similar, in some ways to Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well – based on a Graham Greene short story – or the later SS GB and The Eagle Has Landed, it’s a story that can be seen as part of a genre stretching back into the nineteenth century and The Battle of Dorking and beyond. These are stories that warn not only of the new ways that wars might be fought, but of the consequences that will follow from defeat. Steinbeck’s tale though is not merely a warning to those at risk of invasion, but more specifically than in similar stories, to those who are doing the invading.

While the Mayor’s party suffers suppression, execution, forced labour and starvation, his invaders too suffer. The fight they think is ‘all over’ has only just begun. Resistance builds slowly, and they learn that chopping off the head of a ‘free’ people, increases, rather than ends it. They learn too, that what they have been told about being ‘victors’ is lies, and the truth of their ultimate defeat sinks in slowly and surely as the story unfolds. Its ending has the Doctor, who has acted as a sort of commentator throughout, and who is about to be executed, saying ‘the debt will be paid’. He is answering the Mayor’s quoting of Socrates’ reported last words, which were that a debt was owed to the God Asclepius. It is a promise that we know will be kept. (Mind you, it didn’t work after 1066). Steinbeck was sending a message to the Germans as well as warning his fellow Americans.

What struck me on this second reading was how like a short story, rather than a novel, it is. The collection’s introduction refers to it as a ‘novelette’, another of those vague terms like ‘novella’, that reveals a doubt rather than expresses a certainty. At ninety pages it seems too long to be a short story, but I ‘perused it in an hour or two’, which Poe said was the hallmark of the short story. There have been much shorter stories, and I’m thinking of D.H.Lawrence ones, that I have felt were more like novels even though they are in his Collected Short Stories. But wordage is not the key. Steinbeck’s tale has that directness, and drive, the focus, and unity that we associate with short stories. There are sub-plots and minor characters, but they are bound closely to the main story, and linked to the main characters so tightly that we never experience the diffusion or the breadth of vision that the novel demands. The town and its hinterland are never a world in which the characters can move in different directions, but always remain the pool of light thrown by a spotlight and around which the rest of the world stays in deepest shadow. The story runs like a tank, along its own tracks, laid down before it. Its ending too has the quality of a short story ending. There is no tying up of loose ends, nor the telling of what happened to other characters, but only the Doctor’s grim quotation as he and the Mayor prepare for their fate.

Definitions are often impossible – try ‘mug’ and ‘cup’ and I guarantee that whatever you come up with you’ll still eventually find a clear example of ‘the other’ that exactly fits it! But they are useful attempts to know what it is we think we are doing when we make whatever it is we are trying to define. My definition of the short story evolves as I read, and write, more of them. Currently it has more to do with how they work, than what they say: ‘a story that gives context to its own ending, enabling us to recognise in that ending a future, present or past state of being’ might be close to it! But Poe’s hour or two of perusal hasn’t gone away.

There are more essays on short stories and their writers in Love and Nothing Else.

It might surprise you to learn that I think of Arthur Miller (the playwright) as one of the best short story writers of his time.

It’s an opinion based on two stories in his 2009 Presence, Collected Stories. The volume was put together after Miller’s death incorporating earlier publications with as then unpublished extras. Of the sixteen stories the two that stand out for me are The Misfits and Fitters Night. Both are from the earliest collection (I don’t need you any more, of 1967).

The Misfits is better known for the film version, for which Miller wrote the screenplay. It was the last film made by Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife in what was a disintegrating marriage. It was the last for Clark Gable too, who died only a couple weeks after filming finished. He did, though, see the rushes, and thought it the best thing he had ever done.

Compared to the originating story though, the film is lightweight. The difference is encapsulated in who gets to ride off into the sunset, and with whom, and why. I wrote about it in Love and Nothing Else, the second in my series of readings for writers.

Fitters Night, so far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film, though I suspect it could be. It’s the story of a man who finds his sense of self-worth. It’s a coming of age story really, because even though its hero, Tony, is a grown man, he is not a fully matured one. Set in a wartime shipyard, Tony, schemer, idler, adulterer, dreamer and malcontent, finds himself risking his life to repair the submarine defences of a naval escort vessel, due out on the next tide. The work is arduous and risky, and despite having and knowing all the wrinkles and scams that would let him off the hook of having to do it, Tony finds that he has an integrity that enables, perhaps demands, that he should fulfil his role in the war effort.

What lifts this story above a simple personal victory for me though, is that it seems also to be a story about what, presumably, Miller thought about America. Tony’s self respect grows out of the recognition that the young captain whose ship it is, is prepared to go to sea unprotected to do his duty, and that he takes Tony’s initial prevarications as the simple truth. The captain extends to Tony the respect that he assumes he is due, and by doing so calls that self-respect into existence.

It seemed to me that this was a story that could not have been written about English, or even British men in a similar position. There is no equivalence, that I am aware of, in the equalities between Tony and his Captain. I can imagine a situation in which a British Captain could confer something similar on a British fitter, but not one in which he would assume it to be inherently within him.

As so often happens, for me, Fitters Night is one of those stories that makes me want to re-write it, for my own culture, just to find out if I could make it work. So. There’s a project!

There’s a new essay by Me on Rudyard Kipling’s philosophical story The Eye Of Allah now showing on the Thresholds website.

 Other essays on short stories and their writers can be found here (or by clicking on the image).

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!

And in Hong Kong, here is Angus Gallagher tackling with brio It’s Only Time That Parts Us, by Brindley Hallam Dennis

There’s a chorus to an unpublished autobiographical poem I wrote a few years back:

Burton on Trent, Burton on Trent

A job at the brewery might just pay the rent

The town wore the smell of the maltings like scent

And the shunters were calling in Burton on Trent

 

 

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

And it’s true that two of my strongest memories of the town are of hearing the cries of shunters in the darkness, along with the clank of coupling chains, and then the whistles of steam engines, and the steady chuff of them pulling away, and of smelling the awful stench of the breweries in the days of the nineteen fifties when it still pervaded the town.

Perhaps that’s why I fled to the mountain air of the Lake District. Perhaps it’s why I was in my twenties before I could face even the idea of drinking beer. But whatever you drank, the pub was a noticeable feature of the town. There was, seemingly, one at every corner. The Barley Mow, The Staffordshire Knot, The Punch Bowl, The Queen’s Head. For a time, in my early teens, I even collected pub names, much the way that others collected the numbers of steam trains, or the registrations of motor cars. A difference of course, was that you have to travel yourself, to find pub names. They won’t come past you.

The Pink and Lily, The Drunken Duck, Tan Hill, The Kitling Romper, Alice’s Pie Shop, The Cornish Chough. Pub names from all over the UK stick in the mind.

Lost among them is a distinction that for several generations now, we’ve not been likely to make – but it’s still there, in the architecture, in the location – the distinction between a pub (technically short for Public House) and an Inn. Inns, as even the Christmas story makes plain, are places where people expected to stay, and where food was served. Public Houses were where people went to drink. Travellers frequent the former, locals the latter. But of course, there will be people who live in the vicinity of inns, for whom they will be, the local, and people no doubt fetch up at pubs, especially country ones, and expect to be put up for the night. Cornelius Cardew does just that in Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party.

The quality of locals, of either category, is that they were places where people spent time in the company of others. At the inn end of the spectrum, the stranger is to be expected. At the other, conversation is likely to stop, if only temporarily, when the stranger walks in – even if not through batwing doors.

Not surprising then that these are places where stories are set, where stories are made, and where stories are told. Chaucer’s England had them. Fielding had them – the Inn at Upton being the most famous, I venture – Dickens had them, and not only the London pub, but those of his travellers, not least the Pickwickians. Hardy had them. Joyce’s Dubliners frequented them, and so did his Ulysses. You’ll find them in A.E.Coppard, scattered among his two hundred or so published stories.

In The Wife of Ted Wickham, the couple run a pub. In The Black Dog, the story takes place mostly in the eponymous pub. Monty Barlass, of The Truant Hart, is introduced as ‘a farmer and publican.’ The famous Dusky Ruth in the story named after her is working in a pub, and there are many others. Nearly always rural, they isolate characters from the world, yet bring them into contact with each other, acting as a sort Prospero’s Island.

Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knot roams the high seas over many years, but its events are recalled, and re-told in the Welcome Home Tavern at the head of Quay Street.’ More famously, Tolkien’s The Green Dragon has been re-created in real life, though in Peter Jackson’s faux Hobbiton, rather than at a movie-set Bywater (the beer, though, as you might know, is excellent).

In The Green Dragon

George Moore’s mould breaking novel, Esther Waters has a pub as its setting and for similar reasons: the bringing together of characters. There is also the possibility that writers like Moore would have been unlikely to encounter people of his heroine’s class elsewhere. The working class of domestic service and their lives would have been invisible to him by comparison to the landlord and his wife (or husband). TV soaps from Eastenders to Coronation Street would be, possibly literally, unimaginable without their pubs.

        The ground before the bar in an English pub is open ground for truth and lies to meet and mingle. So long as the tales flow as freely as the beer, all is running properly. Sedition and plotting has to take place in corners and alcoves and around little tables over which the conspirators can hunch, like those in a story from Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets.

 

 

‘He was a long-bankrupt tradesman, with invisible resources and no occupation but this, and no known lodging but the Red Cow snuggery. There he remained all day, “holding the fort” as he put it; with his nose, a fiery signal of possession, never two feet from the rim of his pot;’    -from The Red Cow Group

 

But even the absence of a pub, can give it an insistent presence, as in V.S.Pritchett’s short story, Many Are Disappointed, in which a group of cyclists, long overdue for a beer and having passed the only pub on the road, mistake a private house, and have to settle for tea!

 

‘There isn’t a bar’, she said. ‘This isn’t a public-house. They call it the Tavern, but it isn’t a tavern by rights.’

 

It’s difficult to imagine a place where such a wide variety of people could meet with such a wide variety of freedoms to speak, as in the English pub, and for all the drinking culture that the English have been infamous for over four centuries, I can’t help thinking that it is the freedom of speech allowed, at least until things become threatening, that has been the more important characteristic.

Yet pubs and inns have changed. They have had to. A story emanating from a pub called The Barnaby Rudge (from the days when it was called something else) told of a local farmer who used to turn out at closing time so drunk that they would put him in his cart and un-tether the horse to take him home, which it would! One night, an impractical joker, unharnessed the horse, put the shafts the cart through a gate nearby, and re-harnessed the horse on the other side. That night the farmer took the gate, gate-posts and a few yards of fence on each side, away with down the road, until it became too heavy for the horse to pull!

The first time I visited Carlisle, in the late nineteen seventies, the pubs had only a few years before come out of public ownership. The State Management Scheme, brought in to discourage drunkenness, rather than to promote public houses, had left them run down, under invested, old fashioned and pretty miserable places (especially if you were sober). If you asked for food, they would look at you with suspicion verging on hostility.

Nowadays, drunken driving being somewhat more of a menace than horse-riven fencing, pubs need to sell something other than alcoholic drinks. Perhaps when we get the self driving car we’ll revert. The pub has become more like the inn, and the inn more like the restaurant. Even a local pub must draw in customers – diners – from far afield. No country pub can sustain a living selling a couple of pints two or three nights a week to those who live within walking, or horse cart distance. Somebody told me a few years ago that to make a ‘community pub’ viable it would need to sell a thousand pints of beer a night. I imagined the state the villagers would have to drink themselves into to achieve that, without the help of a busy restaurant. We just wanted somewhere for the locals to have a quiet drink, he told me.

At our tables set for four, we’re less likely to talk to strangers, or even neighbours, than we were at the crowded bar, or squeezed around those small round tables. Yet, there remains something of Fielding’s rough and tumble inn, of Chaucer’s and Dickens’. There remains the people, strangers and locals, with their stories to make, and tell, and pass on. At a pub beneath the flight path into Manchester airport I sat by a window table and listened to a man boasting that he had lived next door to a famous criminal exile (who would, years later come home to die). The locals clustered around him, and plied him with drink. Even if it was bullshit, and who would know, it was entertainment, and worth his pay.

I’ve used them in several short stories, and in each story, I’ve had a particular pub in mind as I wrote. They offer both familiarity, and anonymity; a sort of equality in which not only friends, but strangers can speak. They can of course, still say too much. In the prize-winning story (published ‘through gritted teeth’ by the prize-givers, I like to recall), The Ballad of Matty Lonin, the opening incident – a McGuffin perhaps – takes place in a pub, and was based on something that actually happened in a Cumbrian pub, though it didn’t end in quite the same way!