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

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

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

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


Downloadable from CUTalongstory, a collection of 25 Flash Fictions from BHD: Twenty Five Tenpenny Tales.


What are you doing here, today of all days? And a very happy Christmas, by the way, from BHDandMe. Wanna read a story? Here’s  Liars League’s Top Ten Stories of their First Ten Years, and BHD’s Hecho A Mano, the filthiest story he ever wrote (up to now), in among ’em! 


The flight from Auckland to Dubai is said to be the longest single ‘hop’ in the commercial, passenger airline route list. It takes about 17 hours, an hour or so longer than the west to east outward journey.

On that outward journey I’d watched the whole of series Five of Episodes, a comedy series my daughter used to work on. On the homeward leg though, I couldn’t find anything on the ‘blockbuster/boxed set’ listings on the back of the seat in front of me.

I’m not a natural traveller, and least of all in ‘planes and boats (trains are fine by me). My logical brain tells me that aircraft are the safest form of transport, and I remember from  childhood a Biggles story (Biggles in India perhaps? Or the Cruise of the Condor(?) which were two favourites) in which after a hair raising take off from a river, Biggles and his chums – my adoptive family actually used the word ‘chums, being of that generation – Biggles and his chums narrowly avoided going over a waterfall. Uncompressing his lips for a moment, the fair-haired, clean shaven hero pointed out, that it wouldn’t have been as safe in a canoe! Common sense though ( of the type that leads us to our political choices) tells me that so many tons and so much bulk, as are A380s made of cannot stay so serenely up in the air.

With this in mind, before I fly, I try to put myself into a frame of that ilk, where the possibility of death might be faced with equanimity – at least until the moments of sheer terror and panic! I make a point of saying goodbye to those who matter – yes, that did mean you – and leave messages for those I cannot directly communicate with. Letters, left ‘where they may be found’ (to mangle a line), can be used for kindling if the chance arises.

Perhaps that not quite transcendental caste of mind is what prevented me from throwing myself into the viewing of any particular movie, or TV show. As it was I did something rather unexpected instead, and unexpectedly, found it to be rather interesting. I watched, without access to the sound, the programmes being watched by the two who sat either side of me, and by two others, two rows ahead, whose screens were visible, obliquely through the gaps between the seat backs.

There’s something curious about watching movies, or any programmes, with the sound missing.  As black and white images seem to focus our attention on the forms within the frame, so silence demands that we focus on what we see. And there’s a surprising amount to be seen, that not having to focus in the normal course of events (as is the case for most of us), we simply overlook.

Facial expressions and body language suddenly take centre stage, and in fact are, in terms of mis-en-scene, exactly that. More subtly perhaps, we notice those phases of a story when the characters are doing very little, except exchanging words, and words, by the looks of it, not laden with emotional upheaval. We get a gist of the story, that may be misleading, but makes, nevertheless, a story that we think we are following. I’ve quoted often – usually disparagingly – C.S.Lewis’s carp about ‘unliterary’ people ‘flooding’ written stories (‘wretched material’ he calls it) with their own imaginings, and for a large part of that long haul flight, I guess that’s what I must have been doing.

Not so subtly, my attention during all this was drawn to the action, and specifically to the violence. How much of it there was, and how relentless, graphic, pitiless, and vicious. I worked for several years in the criminal justice system, where I saw a large amount of low level, intermittent, ineffective, clumsy and pathetic violence. I have not found it so entertaining since, though it runs, like a thread of corruption through the flesh of many of my stories. How could it be, I asked myself, at 40,000 feet, and still serenely sailing, that people were so content – for want of a dozen other words – to sit through this onslaught?

And there was another thing (no quote intended). How much of this unrealistic violence involved a ‘hero’ – for want of a better word – seemingly impervious to fear, or damage, slaughtering countless numbers of anonymous ‘enemies’. Is this the rage that festers away inside us? The desire to kill the stranger?

The cover story for this mayhem is that the stories are about the victory of righteousness over wickedness, but the Greeks, or so I believe, told such stories without any action being seen on stage. The violence, for them, even when it was not gratuitous, was not the entertainment.

Click on the image for a dozen stories by BHD (in which the violence is off-stage) available on Amazon for Kindle, or as a softback.


Did you know that BHD’s story, The Turkey Cock, is this month’s ‘featured story’ on the CUTalongstory site? You can download it, for Kindle and other formats, for 99p – here – or watch BHD reading it (for free) on Vimeo at BHDandMe. I made the error of reading this story at a Christmas party a few years ago, on the shaky basis that it had ‘Turkey’ in the title….and it has caused contention and disagreement throughout it lifetime to date (as good stories perhaps should)! It was included in the 2014 HISSAC Winners anthology, celebrating 10 years of the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association.

You can also find it in Ten Murderous Tales, available on Amazon for Kindle, or in print. Click on the cover image to go there.


Writing buddy, Marilyn Messenger and I [Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Marilyn Messenger and Brindley Hallam Dennis] will be reading as part of the Borderlines Showcase event at Carlisle Cathedral Fratry on Saturday evening, 7th October. Tickets are free. We have two more pairs of back-to-back stories, written individually but posing, and answering questions of each other. That’s Carlisle, England, by the way, for blog readers beyond these borders!


In Nicolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, sometimes cited as the short story from which all (but especially Russian) short stories flowed, the opening paragraph (in Ronald Wilk’s translation, in Russian Short Stories, Folio Soc.1997) describes with comic irony ‘a certain Department’ of Government, or rather, the way that people might feel about such a department.

Capturing, obliquely, both the time and the place in which the story is located – the time a matter of manners, the place a milieu of particular behaviours – that opening indicates the fundamentally comic intent of the story. The second paragraph goes on to describe Bashmachkin, the hapless protagonist.

The Overcoat was published in 1842.

Some dozen years earlier Prosper Mériméé published the story Mateo Falcone. This too is cited as being one of the beginnings of the short story. Of course, writers like A.E.Coppard trace the form much further back, into the oral tradition, whence it escapes the slur of being a younger brother, or sister, of the novel.

Mateo Falcone begins with a description of the ‘maquis’, the word rendered into italics in the French original, signalling the its exceptionality. The maquis is a type of wilderness, farmed, if that is the word, by Corsican shepherds, who burn off the old top growth each year and plant a crop into the ashes. It is a hard country, in which brigands hide out and a code of honour demands compliance.

As with Gogol’s story, the description of the setting in which the story is located – time and place – sets also the ambience of the telling, and these two stories are quite different in their ambiences. The former is tragic-comic, the futile struggles of an un-empowered man against the system; the latter is tragic-serious, the working out of a lethal formula in the case of a wilful child.

Gogol had worked in institutions and so perhaps had a template upon which to build his imaginary department, but Mériméé had never visited Corsica. In fact, when he did so, many years later, he was surprised and delighted to find that his description of the maquis, taken from books and imagination, was uncannily accurate.

It has been said of W.E.Johns, who wrote the ‘Biggles’ and ‘Gimlet’ books among others, that he had visited few of the many countries in which his stories were set. Yet it was the locations of his stories rather than the plots, particularly in the later Biggles books, that were so interesting, at least to this reader in the early 1960s.

The use of real places, described from imagination and second or third hand report, can be found in Shakespeare, and earlier. In these days of global travel – at least for the top few percent of the world’s rich (and that includes most Europeans) – it’s all too easy to find fault with those imaginary locations, and to find ones that can’t be held up to such scrutiny becomes increasingly difficult. There are still patches on ‘the map’ that might be tagged ‘here be dragons’, but they are fewer, and likely to appear on TV at any moment, seen through the head-cam of some explorer-presenter. Writers have long since been driven to space, outer and inner, to find locations that cannot be questioned.

All such places, along with the real places, and the lucky descriptions, like Mériméé’s, fulfil a function in the storytelling. It is to give the ‘there and then’ of the characters’ ‘here and now’ – to be credible, even when they are not authentic. And it is to provide a base upon which the ambience of the story can be built, the comic, tragic, absurd or grimly realistic feel of the story, to the teller, and to the told.


A good journalist never reveals his sources, they say, and the bad ones certainly don’t! But fiction writers, poets and playwrights are always getting asked, where do you find ’em?

And there isn’t always a simple answer, in my experience. With my latest  offering to CUT, though, (Contributory Culpability) I can throw a little light… A walk on an abandoned railway track in the north east of England threw up an old guy in an oil stained cap, who told me a story about the railway we were standing on, and how, with the last passenger train of the day, the engineer (or driver) and the fireman, would leave the train simmering at the nearby halt while they popped into the pub for a last pint. (I’m reminded that in my home town, where there were miles of Brewery Railways, a man used to wander the site, officially, offering pints from a small barrel -firkin perhaps? – to all and sundry, even those operating machinery!) I transposed my oil-stained cap man’s story to West Cumbria, changed trains and added some consequences…. but did I do it right? Only the reader can tell.

Here’s a link to the story on CUTalongstory: MY ebook entitled Contributory Culpability


BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below!  Hecho a Mano, by the way, means  – roughly translated – a hand job!


You’ll often hear it said that ‘people-watching’ is an endless fascination. Sit in a cafe, or on a platform, or even just out in the street – there’s a sort of plinth outside a city centre clothing store towards the top end of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street that I’ve spent some time watching from, and, I think, being watched. I even wrote about it in a Kowalski story.

And that’s unusual, because however fascinating it is to people watch, what you see rarely translates into what we might call a short story. That isn’t to say stories don’t spring out of the details of such observations – we might even note them down in notebooks and use them later…the practice that H.E.Bates called ‘compiling’, and castigated A.E.Coppard for using!

But it’s rare, in my experience to get a whole story played out before your (astonished) gaze. It’s turning points we’re on the look out for, and starting points, and endpoints.  Somebody ending a conversation and walking away…somebody stepping up and beginning one…somebody examining a scrap of paper – we can’t quite make out what it is – and deciding to discard it in the waste bin.

V.S.Pritchett wrote that short stories make ‘explicit’ what real life only implies. Yet many stories seem to describe, in detail, tedious sequences of events, intricate foibles of character, forensic examinations of place, that not only don’t make explicit, but seem not to imply anything either.

Perhaps the readers who enjoy stories like this are really people-watching in the comfort of their own armchairs, instead of on the bum-freezing seats of the inner cities. Reading, perhaps, to find stories that the authors of the texts they are reading haven’t even considered, rather than to find out, what the those authors might be trying to tell them..

Of course it might be that such stories are merely too subtle, or too finely wrought for someone like me to perceive. But if they aren’t, then it might be a similar conundrum to that in the art world, of the splash of paint, or the pile of bricks? Who creates the Art? The splashers and pilers, or the people who look at them and imagine. (We know who has to pay, and who gets the money).

To what extent does our writing have to communicate something to someone? Anything to anyone? To what extent does a failure to do so reflect on the writer, and on the reader? To what extent must we be prepared to accept that some people are too stupid, lazy or ignorant to be successful readers of our stories, or, and it pains me, we to be their writers?