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One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.

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49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 BHD had a story accepted recently. He’d given it up, as far as that particular competition was concerned, but then the e-mail popped in. Long-listed, and to be included in the forthcoming anthology! Well, whadya know, as Kowalski might have said, as BHD might have made him say.

So I re-read it…

Yeah! That’s OK. I remember the story. I remember the little moment that impelled it…one of those ‘poetic impulses’ I might try to convince you, which V.S.Pritchett cited as being the starting point for short stories. For some – including the intending publishers, it might be a ‘Flash Fiction’, but I find it impossible, and unnecessary to make the distinction. A short story is a short story, however short – or even long – it is. It’s a sequence of events that bring us to a statement, or question, or suggestion, what-have-you, that gains its significance from what has gone before.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. It was re-reading it, looking for improvements that might be made (which, though, the would-be publishers might not accept – competition rules often disallow a tinker or two, an edit!).

I found one word, repeated in the same sentence. Clumsy, I thought, particularly when there was a perfectly good alternative. I switched it in my copy. They can do what the hell they like, I thought. It was a minor change.

Then I thought some more. Actually, the repetition, using the same word but in a slightly different context, might actually be drawing attention to that context. It certainly draws attention to itself. My change might make it look neater, smoother, but when that slightly rough repetition snags your reader’s mind maybe it adds something to the texture of the story, rather than merely interrupting it. Sometimes it’s better to leave the thorn to snag the palm of the hand that strokes! (or the reader, to you and me).

When it comes down to single words it might not be so easy, or even possible to see which way the balance tips between two choices.

Here’s another BHD story in that rather cool digital mag .Cent

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

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 info@philandlit.org £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.