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I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

There is a quality in short stories and poems (and other forms!) of being memorable. Without warning, day or night, weeks, months, years after you have read them they will pop into your  mind, often triggered by some seemingly totally unconnected prompt, and one of which you might even be completely unaware.

One such recollection sprang to my mind recently, in the form of three Latin words: Corvus moribundus est. I’m no Latin scholar (where there has been no learning, there has been no teaching, we used be told at Charlotte Mason College – but not at Burton Upon Trent Grammar School), but my understanding was – and is – that the young priest in L.A.G. Strong’s clever short story The Rook, is telling his colleague that the eponymous bird is fatally wounded.

Strong is a writer long forgotten, and I came across a collection of his (Travellers, Readers Union/Methuen, 1947) in the Mill on the Fleet’s bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet in South West Scotland. The Rook is one of several outstanding stories among the thirty-one included. In it an unsympathetically described gardener take a shot at a gathering of rooks. We follow the flight of the fatally wounded rook as it seeks safety in the trees, but falls through the branches to the ground. Incomprehension, panic and fear follow us, and the metaphorical implications are powerful.

The two priests are teaching a class of boys, and while the younger goes out with a stick to finish off the wounded creature, the other reflects upon life and death. It’s a simple story, and remembering those three Latin words brings all the meaning back to mind, all the images that the story had evoked in the reading; yet not necessarily the words themselves.

It is the content of the story, rather than its form, I suspect, that is likely to haunt the average reader (if there is such a thing).

And those stories and poems that we do recall, in part, in words and phrases, and images, are surely the ones that we must regard as successful. This won’t necessarily correlate with how many copies were sold in the author’s lifetime, or even the lifetime of the story to date, nor with the degree of fame, then and now. Success and the recognition of it are not quite the same thing. And what sticks in the memory is about the person whose memory it is!

Strong’s tragic love story, The Seal, is one of the stories examined in Love and Nothing Else, a collection of 12 essays about short stories and their writers.

There’s a review by me of Vivien Jones’ story ‘Sorting Office’ up on the Thresholds site. 

Sadly, Pewter Rose Press has now ceased trading…and I’ve taken the last remaining copies of BHD’s short story collection, Talking To Owls and his novella (or is it a novel…we can never decide), A Penny Spitfire. If you’d like a copy of either, I can supply at £5 each including postage (simply drop me the money  to the Paypal account of M.Smith at brindleyhd@aol.com and send me an e-mail to let me know your address).

Here’s what people have been saying about them:

 

Comment on A Penny Spitfire (080716, by J.F.D.)

I just finished re-reading your novel. I so enjoyed it. I read it slowly this time and really took in the descriptions at the openings of the chapters. The cumulative effect is to evoke a really strong mood that varies but is pervasive throughout the tale putting a clear picture of post-war destruction and gloom in my mind. The altered people, relationships, sense of difficulty in finding meaning and re-directing relationships and lives was palpable. I recognise what you portrayed as authentic because my adopted parents were old and they lived through rationing and and respectability. I so recall being shocked if my father swore and I knew my mother was unwell when she swore once. There was also the whole business of not saying things. You really captured that culture of not having a language for emotion (emotion not being useful for Empire building or war). I was so pleased Paul was alright and Burma Sammy by the end.
Thanks for a good read.

 

TALKING TO OWLS  (by Anon.?)

The characters in these stories embrace novel solutions to life’s many difficulties. A group of lonely men, retired to the countryside, find an unusual means of communication; on an otherwise idyllic Scottish island, a new resident tries out various ways to deal with the old problem of noisy neighbours; three members of the Grough family experience an urgent need to get home from the pub as quickly as possible. And a snail decides it must be rid of its shell. The author presents a range of colourful individuals, from His Lordship to the devious Willie Nobutt, speaking in a range of voices and dialects.

But while many of the stories are comic or fantastical, some are touching or haunting, and present mysteries which only the reader can solve. Many are experimental in form, and they vary in length from half a page to thirty-five. Many have already won prizes.

The writer can command a versatile range of styles. No Time Like The Present depicts the revelation of family secrets through photographs in a novel way, with some beautiful descriptive passages:

…the water was clear, transparent as a veil, and the sandy foreshore, mottled with rocks, showed through. Sunlight sparkled off the waves, riding their oval shadows, sky like a backdrop.

But maybe the author’s strongest suit is humour. In The Sweetest Sound two characters discuss the bagpipes:

‘Yer no a fan of the pipes then?’
‘I can tek em or leave ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d tek ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d leave ’em’…

While Cover Story, an absurd but sinister tale, set in a pub, featuring a writer and two men in ill-fitting suits, ends in this way:

…my foot….must have caught the tray, leaning up against the table-leg, because suddenly it rolled out into the centre of the floor and fell, spinning like a tossed coin, noisy as a dustbin lid, flattening out with the sound of metal fantails on a snare drum.

It seems to sum up the quality of the story, and in a way, the humour and originality of the collection as a whole.

4.0 out of 5 stars Only four stars as it is too short

 

By M. A. C. on 29 Dec. 2012 on Talking To Owls

Often when you read a short story, or come to that a full length novel, you will sigh and say to yourself ‘that was a good tale well told’. Talking to Owls isn’t a book like that. No, if you read this book, at the end of each of the short stories you’ll wonder if it is you who has changed. Brindley Hallam Dennis has a knack of making you think about how you react to events. The Mackwater Seam is a perfect example of how a short story should be written. It will stop you in your tracks and confront your prejudices. Naturally some stories in this collection are better than others, but although sometimes they appear to be lightweight they are not. Each story makes you think, but they don’t preach. Excellent value for money and the magic will go on working long after you have read each of the 140 pages. Buy and enjoy!


5.0 out of 5 starsA Penny Spitfire – Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

By Daniel on 2 Nov. 2011

Format: Paperback

A Penny Spitfire
Brindley Hallam Dennis

Thank God it’s all over, that’s what Charles Bury thought. That’s what they all thought. It just took them by surprise, afterwards, the way it was…

This is a very original novel, in subject matter and form. It is set in a small industrial town (which remains unnamed, though it may be Burton-on-Trent) immediately after the 2nd World War. Rather than dwelling on heroic exploits and victories achieved, as so many novels do, it describes the spoiled and broken lives of those who came back. It recounts their efforts to come to terms with the overwhelming experiences they have had, while adjusting to a world in which the structures they knew before they went to war have been swept away.

The various characters, across the social classes, find their previous lives and relationships irrelevant or impossible, or turn to drink to forget the terrors they witnessed. There are still guns to be had, and criminal characters and feral children gather on bomb-sites. Even in peace-time, violence and cruelty have not disappeared.

Rejecting straightforward narrative, the author tells his story in a sequence of scenes, as in a play, or more exactly, a black-and-white film, the setting for each scene often beautifully described: mostly dark, nocturnal, always poetic. He also employs a novel way of mingling speech and thought, the difference between them blurred, almost as if the characters are buried in their own memories and experiences, inarticulate, communicating incompletely with each other, before relapsing into recollection and introspection.

While much of what happens is difficult and gritty, and there is a violent denouement, the characters are richly-drawn and sympathetic, and the descriptions throughout are unusual, atmospheric and haunting. And towards the end of the novel the author gives us a glimpse, at least, of hope for the future:

And all around, the fields stood silvered in the moonlight… and the train, gathering speed as it moved away, drawn by the black lines of its track, carried, beneath its ermine cloak of steam, a single point of fierce orange light, lustrous as a new-made penny.

5.0 out of 5 starsA compelling glimpse into the aftermath of war

 

By Anne McDonnell on 8 Jun. 2011

Format: Paperback

In a Midlands industrial town, partly bombed, the locals are coming to terms with the legacy of World War Two. Their world has changed and yet their patterns of behaviour were set years ago.
In A Penny Spitfire, we follow Derek Fitton, as he struggles to connect his pre-war life of work and picnics with the experiences of war in India and post-war expectations. Jack and Paul, too young to have fought, fall in with Clive Dandridge, their Corp, who trains youngsters in his version of commandoes. And Charles, the younger son of the local industrialist who feels there has to be another way. Class and social distinctions are no longer so certain and no-one knows how to discuss any of it.

With evocative descriptions of an industrial world that no longer exists, and a style of writing that blurs the edges between thought and speech, Dennis opens a door on a time and people often forgotten. The characters and their lives remain with you long after the book is finished.

 

By Nicky Harlow on 8 Dec. 2011

Format: Paperback

Penny Spitfire is a poignant and prescient study of the impact of World War II on a small midlands town. We see the world largely through Derek Fitton’s eyes. A car mechanic foresighted enough to open a garage before the war began, he has returned from India to find that he can no longer connect to his own town, community, even his marriage. Dennis’s prose pulses with sensory detail. It seems coated in axle grease, powdered with dust. Read it and you smell metal and oil, turpentine and cigarette smoke; you can hear the clank of trains shunting into the nearby station, the revving of automobiles unused since 1939. It tastes of blood.
In this town the war is almost a character in its own right. It is the glue that holds together a group of dispossessed men and women – and the wedge that has been driven between them. The novel exists in a silent, held breath, a time between two worlds. The war is over; the process of change – social, ideological and technological – is already in motion. But for all the distant clanking, the dust has yet to clear.
This is a technically adept work. Dennis’s omniscient narration is no Dickensian voice, haranguing and moralising. More it is the voice of a presenter or an MC; a slow strip-tease revealing a society in flux. His characters – the dreamy socialist, Charles Bury, the traumatised Burma Sammy, the lying ne’er-do-well, Clive Dandridge, and Fitton himself – have been curtailed, interrupted. Their relationships are still dominated by the war; just as the town is still dominated by a huge bomb crater. It seems that death is all they have to look forward to.
Only the ever buxom and garrulous landlady of the Odd Dog demonstrates any joi de vivre. But even this seems forced. The past is not `another country’ in this novel. It is more vivid than the present into which it bleeds. It infects the town with a hazy nostalgia, filtering everything through its sticky nicotine-stained lens.
Penny Spitfire’s poetry clings to you long after you have read the final chapter. There is a strong metaphorical element here, exploited to great effect by Dennis. The railway carrying trains that are either going away or being shunted into sidings, the penny that pops up under many disguises: as payment for thoughts, for the spitfire, a lapel-pin fashioned from left-over metal, or to close the eyes of the dead. And there is something inevitably Denis Potterish in the sexual repression that seeps into all the characters’ actions.
The ending comes as a cruel irony. In what is considered by the characters to be a symbol of hope, we are offered a glimpse of our own twenty-first century crisis.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Dennis finds the seeds of our destruction in his story of post war Britain. Writing of this quality is as hard to find as a penny spitfire on a bombsite.

 

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

An anniversary that you might have missed – I certainly did – was back in January, when the anniversary of the death of short story writer A.E.Coppard’s  passed without much of a ripple.

Coppard’s published short stories ran to thirteen collections – with several duplications in short run special editions, often illustrated by artists including Robert Gibbings  – usually of about twelve to fifteen stories. There was a ‘Collected’ edition, published in the USA with around fifty, chosen by Coppard himself, and a British ‘Selected’ with less than half that number. A recent collection of seven tales – Coppard’s preferred descriptor – was produced in 2013 by Turnpike Books, and on Goodreads you will find a ‘Coppard page’, listing other available selections and collections. His current popularity in Britain might be judged by the fact that this morning it had 2 followers!

Out of the two hundred or so stories he published, a handful crop up again and again: The Higgler, Dusky Ruth, and The Field of Mustard are three of the most commonly referred to. All three concern the love lives of women, and the men who fall for them. They also hint at another regular Coppard theme: that of poverty, usually but not exclusively rural. My own favourite tale is Weep Not My Wanton, a four page masterpiece in which a family of itinerant farm labourers pass across a beautifully painted English landscape while playing out the brutal game of their family dynamic – and raising a question of why that should be. In a line I’ve quoted often enough, an American commentator wrote of Coppard’s England as one in which ‘accidents of heredity’ outweighed all other factors in determining the course of the lives that Coppard described.

Coppard himself came from grinding poverty –as a child he worked picking oakum (one of the tasks given to felons in the English penal system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in a Whitechapel sweatshop, having left school at the age of nine. Frank O’Connor accused him of having an ‘issue’ with ‘unearned income’ – surely not an unreasonable one!

I became interested in him a few years ago, while reading about H.E.Bates and V.S.Pritchett, with whom he was often compared, and seemed in some way to hover behind. Writing over the same inter-war decades as them, he was, however, of an earlier generation which was publishing in the 1890s, with writers like Mary Mann, who wrote of poverty in rural Norfolk, and Arthur Morrison, who wrote of poverty in London’s East End. What I discovered was that there is relatively little published about Coppard or his writing, save for the bare bones of biography, and a couple of dozen short-ish press reviews.

English of the English, a collection of 20 essays on Coppard’s tales and their themes, was an attempt to redress the balance. It is available as a paperback, and for Kindle, here.

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!

http://www.liarsleague.com/liars_league/2017/04/vote-for-your-top-liars-story.html

Have you checked out these guys yet? CUTalongstory

We’re having a lazy Sunday…..

So here’s a story (BHD made earlier)…

All In A Row

Martyn winced.

And you know what he said to her, when I introduced them? He said of man’s desiring? Joy Of Man’s Desiring. It’s from a hymn. And he did that thing with his voice at the end, to make it a question.

Mary smiled, and bit her lip gently.

And what did she say?

Well, she was all over him, metaphorically. She was like a school girl. Well, perhaps not like one of today’s school girls, but you know what I mean.

You do have to give him full marks, for effort, she said, tilting her head and looking at Martyn over her glasses.

Do you? I thought it was all rather cheesy.

Lighten up, Martyn. Harry always flirts, with everyone, you said.

Martyn shot her a glance. She hadn’t met him, had she? He’d always tried to keep Mary and Harry apart, keep her in reserve, so to speak, keep her clean.

You’re better off without her. If she can be won over that easily.

Won over by Harry, Martyn thought. Not won over by him, by Martyn. She hadn’t been a pushover for Martyn. He rubbed the flat of his palm around the rim of his wine glass, and it squealed delightedly.

I suppose so.

No suppose about it! Drink your wine. Relax. There are plenty of other fish in the sea.

Well, Martyn thought, I don’t know about that. In fact, from what he’d seen on the news and read in the papers that was the last thing there was. The trouble was, the sort of fish Mary was talking about weren’t on quotas. They were fair game for anybody, even for each other these days. They were fair game for the Harries of this world. But it was just a metaphor, a dead metaphor, a worn out, used up metaphor.

There are plenty of other pebbles on the beach, he said out loud, not meaning to.

I’m sorry?

You’re right. I shan’t worry about it anymore.

But he couldn’t help worrying. Wasn’t anybody safe from Harry? Wasn’t there anyone who Harry wouldn’t have a pop at? And always some clever little witticism, popping off the top of his head. Martyn wondered if they really were that spontaneous. Did he rehearse them beforehand, work them out in advance? He’d known Joy’s name in advance. Martyn knew that, because he’d made the mistake of telling him. I’m going out with that girl, he’d said, from the Health Club.

Oh? Which one’s that? Harry had asked, all innocence. Joy, Martyn had said, and then, and this was the really stupid thing, he’d said, why don’t you come and join us for a drink; because that’s what he always did, with Harry. He always asked him along, because Harry was Martyn’s sidekick. Or was it the other way around?

Well, he’d not made that mistake tonight. He’d said, we’re going for a quiet little drink together at the Curwen Arms.

What? That little place out in the sticks?

That’s the one. A little, quiet, tete-a-tete- for two.

And Harry had said, I thought you and this Mary weren’t like that?

Like what?

You know, an item.

We’re not an item, Martyn had insisted, and they weren’t either. They were just good friends, and, so long as Harry kept his nose out, good friends they would stay. Unless of course they became an item, which Martyn hadn’t got around to testing out just yet.

Maybe he had a little book of them, Harry: those clever little things he said; ready to fling into the conversation when the chance arose. Women liked that sort of thing. How many times had he heard them say, because he makes me laugh. Bastard!

At least Mary wouldn’t fall for something like that, even if she did give him full marks for trying.

He took a long drink of the wine, tilting his head back as he did so, which brought the foyer of the hotel into his line of vision. Harry was standing just inside the revolving door, looking around. Martyn choked on the wine and two red dribbles like tinted tears ran down his chin.

Steady on Martyn. No need to drink it quite that fast.

Harry, he said.

Let’s not think about Harry any more, she said, reaching forward and laying her hand on his arm.

No! Harry, he said, nodding towards the door. At which point Harry spotted him, put a broad smile on his face, and crossed the room towards them. Bloody hell, Martyn said.

Mary twisted around in her seat. A rather good looking man, in a very well cut suit, that somehow seemed as casual as jeans and a T-shirt, was striding towards them with a cheeky grin on his face.

Martyn, you sly old thing, Harry said, thrusting a hand out.

What are you doing here? Martyn demanded, ignoring it.

And you must be? Harry said, and the hand twisted, into an open palmed gesture of supplication into which Mary, without thinking, laid her own palm. Harry’s palm ascended, carrying  the back of her hand to his lips.

Mary, she said, half-amused.

He brushed the back of her hand with his moustache, his brown eyes gazing into hers. Quite contrary, I’ll bet….

>END

You can find other BHD stories in The Writer’s Secret. Just click on the image. 

Pewter Rose will cease trading at the end of the month, but there is still time to buy copies of their publications, including A Penny Spitfire and Talking To Owls by Brindley Hallam Dennis.