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The recent furore over the use of facial recognition cameras at King’s Cross reminded me that I wrote a story a decade or so ago in which going masked and hooded was a significant feature.

This was long before the hijab and the burka became a fashionable source of angst. It was written in a period when the generic CCTV camera was beginning to proliferate, and when the ‘hoodie’ was becoming an object of fear and trepidation. What if, I wondered (in fact, I probably wondered, along with Philip K Dick, Wow! What if!) we had a world where to avoid those CCTV cameras we all went hooded, or had to have a damned good reason not to.

The story, Alcedo the Dipper, at c7000 words, was long for one of my short stories, and told the tale of a street kid who makes a living pick-pocketing the browsers in a shopping mall. The hoods in this already dated, yet still futuristic fantasy world were electronic devices rather than cloth ones, and were called veils. The pockets being picked were the holsters in which shoppers carried pistol-like credit storage devices.

There was another strand to the fantasy, and that was my attempt to create a street patois fashioned out of recycled words from, in this case, the world of finance and the stock exchange.

Other than that it was a boy meets girl; girl gets lost; boys rescues her, sort of story, which is definitely dated! Futuristic stories, it seems, will always, at some future date, give a picture of the time in which they were written. As with many of the short stories I write, though, it wasn’t primarily the events, or indeed the characters that I was interested in. It was an experiment to see if I could make that ‘veiled’ world stand up, and make that patois walk!

The story ended up in my collection of ‘longer-than-average-for-BHD’ stories, The Man Who Found a Barrel Full of Beer, which you can buy here (and which, co-incidentally, is another story!).

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Have you noticed how Facebook invites you to ‘add to your story’?

It’s as if our lives were fictions. Are we being cast as imaginary characters in the lives of our readers? Is that how we think of the people whose posts we read? Is that why we feel we can be so rude, offensive, threatening and dismissive of them?

Robert McKee, who famously wrote about Story (if you haven’t read the book, watch the film Adaptation, which manages to both satirise and conform to his theories). He suggested that characters in stories ‘add to their stories’ by doing the least they believe will achieve their goals, which are always to ‘get their lives back’.

And of course, the least is never enough. The story is always made up of the more that they have to do, when the least has not been enough. And with each increase of action the level of jeopardy in which they place themselves increases too.

And Life, we are told, imitates Art. Does it, as we ‘add to our stories’? And to what extent do we know what life it is we are trying to ‘get back’? To what extent do we know what it ever was, or even what we thought it might become? And did we ever have it to begin with? And I wonder, whether we are real or (would ‘merely’ be an appropriate word here?) fictive characters in a story somebody else is reading, I wonder if, like those characters of McKee’s, we are increasing our jeopardy with each addition? And I wonder whether or not, if we are to take possession of ourselves, we must make the most extreme additions and risk the greatest jeopardy?

Apparently BBC Radio 4 is planning to offer some edgy futuristic short stories next week.

Here at CUTalongstory they just did that a few days ago, with Brindley Hallam Dennis’s Days to Come. (Keep up Radio 4!) And there’s no music or special sound effects nudging, prodding and pushing you towards what to think and how to feel about the story you’re being told, but just BHD’s words and your imaginations!

 

I seem to specialise in missing things on the web…. like this BHD story, put up on May 12th (which I thought they hadn’t used…) Sheesh! (It’s your age, pet-ed.) You have to scroll down, you see…..

I’ve not read much by William Trevor. I have Beyond the Pale and other stories, a selection of 18 short stories, picked and introduced by their author. (Folio Society,2010). The Grass Widows is one among them that has stuck in my mind. There was also a particular ‘feel’ about the stories, not quite a gloom, but a reticence, almost as if the stories were trying their hardest not to be told.

With Last Stories, that gloom, that reticence, and the sense that the stories have not ended, are perhaps not even taking place, is stronger.

Cover blurb approbations, a score of them, trot out all the trite clichés that one might expect, and which Trevor merits, and I suppose that’s all they need to do. But for me there were specifics that the collection as a whole, rather than the individual stories, demanded that I address.

One was how does Trevor signal so effectively whether he is writing in an English register, or an Irish one? It’s as subtle as a mist, and creeps up on you, but you know which voice you’re hearing, and not, I’m sure, simply because of which country the tale is set in.

In the story The Crippled Man we get it in the opening lines:

 

‘Well, there’s that if you’d want it,’ the crippled man said. ‘it’s

a long time waiting for attention. You’ll need tend the mortar.’

 

It’s not there at all in the opening of the following tale, At the Caffe Daria:

 

Along a single wall of the Caffe Daria the scarlet upholstered

banquettes haven’t changed, the ornate brass foot-rail at the counter

remains.

 

The place, as described, could be anywhere. It could be in Leopold Bloom’s Dublin, but there’s no hint of anything but RP in the words, and it turns out to be a London eatery. You can listen for that tone of voice throughout the stories in the collection, and sure it will come to you, appropriately, unfailingly, if you have only half an ear.

More pervasive though, at least for me, was the question of was this collection written as a ‘last collection’, or did it just happen to be found, a bunch of stories left over that would happen to be the last ones to be published? If it was written as a last collection another question is raised, which is was it written ‘last’? Or were the stories collected over the years with the thought to put them aside for when the time came? Is it a writer’s last stories, or a publisher’s? Is it writer’s actual last stories, or his developing idea of what last stories ought to be?

For many of the stories death is present, or in the wings, but more haunting than that is the idea that life is something that is never quite accomplished, which might be considered rather disappointing, or then again, rather reassuring.

I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories in which several characters pop up in more than one story. It doesn’t happen in all the stories, nor with all the characters, but it happens often enough to be noticed and provides a back-up back-story for both the characters, and the stories they appear in.

Yet because the focus of the individual stories is always distinct it doesn’t turn the collection into a novel (heaven forbid!), nor a series, nor even a sequence of sequels.

So what does the technique achieve, if anything, apart from that rather vague binding effect? The answer perhaps lies in a deepening of our sense of who the characters are that we find ourselves meeting again. It can only work on those second or subsequent meetings, like a rhyme in poetry only acting on the subsequent uses of the rhyming sound (tho’ poetry, with its strong rhythms can sometimes seem to demand, and foreshadow a rhyme!).

In the stories I’ve been reading it’s more like an echo, or a triggering of memory, which of course is exactly what it is, and how it works. We think, I’ve met this one before! What makes the meetings more interesting is that, in this collection, they tend to be in quite different situations, and with the characters playing a quite different role, or being seen from an entirely new perspective.

This not only deepens our sense of them as rounded individuals, but also demands that we re-evaluate them. As hero or villain, victim or perpetrator, innocent or knowing. A consequence of this is that the technique sets up a sort of trajectory in our discovery of the character, and that in turn means that the direction in which we follow that trajectory will seem to lead us to viewing the later character as the more deeply perceived. What we find out last about someone, in real life, perhaps, and in fiction, is likely to be seen as the truer revelation, the clay foot, or the solid gold heart!

This speculation was sparked by an exchange between myself and the author about a character that I had found unsympathetic in one of the stories. He had been, I was told, rehabilitated in an earlier story. I had read that story, earlier! Yet my direction of travel along the trajectory of discovery had led me to perceive my later encounter as giving me the deeper insight into him.

The question raised here, if you’re using the technique, must be, is it a necessary problem, or an avoidable one, or one that can be fixed, or is it no problem at all?

There’s a BHD flash fiction in the latest anthology from Reflex Fiction…..

Here’s a nice little bedtime story for you from BHD.

Moko The Monkey (and the iron collar)

 

When Moko heard the chicken squawking and saw it hanging upside down, its wings flapping wildly, he was terrified. But when his Master reached down and gently took its head in his hand and twisted and pulled, the squawking stopped immediately. Then there was only the intermittent beating of its wings as they remembered briefly what it had been like to be alive.

Poor Moko. He was so frightened, even when Master smiled at him. How could he be sure, he wondered, that the same would not happen to him? Master said softly, do not be afraid, little Moko, I shall not hurt you. But Moko whimpered and chattered his teeth together – which were big enough and sharp enough to bite off Master’s hand in one snap – because he was so afraid.

Then Master lifted up a dark circlet that hinged open and shut and said, little Moko, if you wear this silk scarf around your neck like all the other monkeys do, I will know never to hurt you, even by mistake. And he clamped the heavy circlet around Moko’s neck, and Moko lived happily, more or less, ever after.

My daughter and I recently settled down to watch the film Arrival. I’ll try not to spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen it, nor the short story on which it’s based, which we tracked down in Ted Chiang’s 2012 collection, Stories of Your Life and others (Picador, 2015 ed.).

The film was intriguing and interesting, and held our attention all the way to the end. It tells the story of an alien encounter and the struggle of two ‘scientists’ to devise a way of speaking to, and with the aliens – who are of benign intent – before the military men initiate an aggressive exchange. Running through this narrative thread is a sort of counter story, of the scientists’ relationship, a story that is told backwards.

The cover of the book carries a sticker that says ‘Now the Major Film ARRIVAL, starring Amy Adams’, which has one truth in it.

I enjoyed the film, but made the mistake of reading through the other stories in the collection on my way to Story of Your Life, which is what the particular story that became Arrival, is called. There is a hallmark to these stories, and it made them all a struggle for me. In fact, I have to confess, that though I read through the entire collection, and finished all the other stories, I’m not sure I actually finished that eponymous one.

At the end of its fourteenth page I made a pencil note no pleasure to read on – a contention which, I confess, I might not have actually verified. I have mixed feelings about that, but having just counted through to the end, and discovered there are 48 more pages, I probably come down on the side of being glad that I have a life.

The written story, or told, as I like to call it, re-orders some of the events, giving away something that the film, successfully I thought, withholds, but in its first paragraph gives a hint of something else that, because it is a shown story, the film is also slow to reveal. This is that Ted Chiang’s story has a sort of emotional deficit.

This is encapsulated for me in the question posed by the ‘dad’ to the first person narrating character and recollected by her: ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ He is, it must be said, a physicist, and she a Doctor of linguistics. Perhaps that’s how they talk. Perhaps that’s how they think. Perhaps that’s how they feel. Perhaps that’s why they do that sort of thing! (as opposed to? -ed)

The blunt question comes at the end of the first paragraph, in which the ‘mum’, who is our narrator is recalling to her daughter, using the second person voice, the night of her conception. This detached, almost forensic approach follows though in the thoughts and actions of all the characters – even the aliens – in the fourteen pages I read, and perhaps was why I gave up reading on. I had a sense, you see, of what to expect, for the stories I had already read had that same almost inhuman detachment.

The film doesn’t quite replicate it, because the characters are fleshed out, literally, and play their parts like human beings rather than robots. ‘Chiang’ a cover blurb says, ‘deftly blends human emotion and scientific rationalism…..in his trademark precise and evocative prose.’

I’m growing old, and may, indeed, one day, ‘wear the bottom of my trousers rolled’. Already my taste buds must be going, for I failed, friends, to detect that emotion in any of the deft blends that I read.

I spent most of today weeding a small, gravel car-parking area. It’s the sort of job, as a writer, I rather like. It’s the length of time it takes, I suppose, that I find most useful. It kept my head down for several hours, and while I was working I was listening to some voices in my head.

They were telling, or rather acting out, a story. They often do, when I’m engaged in long drawn-out tedious jobs in the garden. Sometimes they narrate the stories. Sometimes they perform them. Sometimes it’s the same story over and over again, until I’ve heard it from several points of view, and in several different voices. Sometimes the point of the story changes from telling to telling, from enactment to enactment. Sometimes the actual events come out in a different order, or different characters pop-up. Eventually the story settles down into one that I can think about taking home with me, and writing down.

We all have our processes. That’s one of the useful ones of mine….and at least it gets the gardening done, even when the story’s no good!