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I’ve been looking back over old stories, written over the past twenty years. Twenty years should be long enough to decide whether or not you can write short stories, but that’s another issue.
One of the stories I came across, from about fifteen years ago, wasn’t so short. In fact it was, is (probably) a novel, and stands at just under 48,000 words. Set in the eighteenth century youth, and early nineteenth century old age of its main protagonist, and told with the later period first, and with a Cadenza set in the middle years, it might be called a historical novel.
I certainly did quite a bit of reading around the two periods. It’s also set in Scotland – a place I know quite well, but don’t come from – and America, which I’ve never visited except on Radio and TV and in the movies.
Of course, it doesn’t matter where we come from. None of us have visited 1758 or 1803, or indeed 1774, except in the words and left over artefacts of people long dead and whom we never met, and of others who have passed on or interpreted those sources, second, third and umpteenth hand.
The past, as that oft quoted novel opening tells us, ‘is a foreign country’, and it is one that we are all, at any given moment, the same distance away from.
It’s our ideas about the past that change, and are changed by those accounts though, whereas what we want our stories to be about, even when they are historical, is, I suspect, largely influenced by the responses we have had, and are having at the time of needing to write, to events in our own lives.
Re-reading the story reminded me that though it was rejected a couple of times, I still like it. It reminded me too, that I haven’t given it the repeated opportunities for rejection that a story is entitled to! This last week I spent several hours taking out the speech marks. The fact that they are in there makes it a ‘very old’ story in my popgun (canon – ed.).
The time it has spent sitting unread in my metaphorical drawer has given me some distance. That has produced a mixed result. For one thing I know I couldn’t write it now. I couldn’t re-write it, though I could ‘correct’ it where it seems to veer off from the way it was written back then. Taking out the speech marks led to one or two other tweaks, but it’s not just a matter of style or technique. There’s an underlying narrative voice, and voice is the expression of a state of mind. I could slip back into it, for the purposes of repairs, but it’s a state of mind I don’t live in anymore. Perhaps that is because, when I did, I wrote this story.
So the next question is, do I put it back in the drawer, or do I let it gather a few more rejections? Now there’s something for you to consider.


One of the things about futuristic stories is that so many of them are written in the hope that the real future won’t pan out that way! Here’s another BHD micro-peek into the gloom….

Trading Nations

Clearing out the redundant barn he came across a pile of hardboard placards nailed to old fence-posts, netted with cobwebs, padded with mats of dead leaves blown in from the yard. They dated from a time when his father had been young and radical, and had campaigned against air-miles. ‘Support Your Local Farms’ they said in carefully stencilled black letters which had not faded in the cool dry gloom of the old building.

He gathered them up and carried them awkwardly out to where the old man was using the front-loader to push mounds of rubbish and junk into the heart of a huge bonfire.

I guess we won’t be needing these again, he said.

His father, up there in the cab, couldn’t have heard, what with the roaring of the fire and the crackling of the burning timber, but he grimaced momentarily, recognising what his son was throwing to the flames. Old tyres that really should have been taken to the tip were sending up tornados of thick black smoke and orange sparks were flying out and dying against the pale concrete of the yard.

They had just signed over the farm to a company that would take their whole milk production for sale solely overseas, and which had already contracted both the neighbouring farms.  It was a once in a life-time chance, and would make the family secure for a generation.

I’m playing hooky this weekend, so here’s a Sunday short story from about five years ago, that I’m not sure what I ever did with, if anything, or what I might do….




Rose put down the tea cup and reassured herself that they were alone.

The fact is dear, she said, Sylvia needs to be put in her place from time to time.

Marjorie flushed.

Does she?

Well, you must notice, being….Rose stopped herself in time. She had been about to say uneducated, but that wasn’t quite what she meant, besides, it wasn’t entirely true. Unimportant  might seem  rude, and that wasn’t true either, entirely . I mean, she added, she does bang on a bit, doesn’t she?

About what?

Her academic career, that’s what. She’s always reminiscing about her students.

I think she liked them.

Well, perhaps she did. Rose picked up the tea cup, raised it to her lips and realised it was empty. She put it down again.

I shouldn’t have thought that would worry you, Rose, considering.

That me… that Charles and I met at Cambridge?


Well. But one doesn’t want to pull rank, does one? Rose delicately pushed her cup and saucer forward a little, and Marjorie poured more tea.

There had been an exchange, in the community shop, between Sylvia and Rose, in which the word ‘redbrick’ had been used. Marjorie hadn’t entirely understood, but she could recognise a put down as well as the next person, even when it didn’t involve home baking. She had poured oil on troubled waters, almost literally, dropping a bottle of extra virgin, which luckily had not smashed.

She had resolved to make sure that Rose and Sylvia did not share stints unless absolutely unavoidable, and she would put Bob in with them as she knew he liked the attendant flirting. Generally, of course, it was not necessary to have two in the shop at the same time, and three was always a pinch, but Bob organised the stock control. He had been an executive and knew about that sort of thing. He was awkward with the actual customers, but with him in the stock room at the back Rose would be reduced to simpering rather than sniping.

I don’t think Sylvia would be upset if you talked more about your old students, Marjorie offered. Rose was remarkably reticent to talk about her university days.

I don’t expect she would, she said.

Milk? Rose nodded a thank you, and Marjorie topped her up. Rose drank daintily, her little finger crooked.

It was surprising, Marjorie thought, how easily Rose had picked up the operations of the till, which all the other volunteers, including Sylvia, had struggled with. She put that down to Cambridge, which, coincidentally, was correct. Yet the image of a younger Rose, seated at the checkout of a supermarket, her bony knees protruding from beneath the hem of a blue overall, her name badge tilted at an acute angle on her prominent bosom, had, unaccountably, popped into Marjorie’s mind from time to time.

We met when Charles and I were both at Cambridge, Rose had announced soon after arriving in the village.

What were you doing there? Marjorie had asked.

Of course, Charles had left school before me and was in his second year when I arrived, she had replied, and then she passed on to complimenting Marjorie on the Dundee cake. Did you make it yourself? Delightful.

Sylvia had taken a different approach.

I used to work with young people, wonderful young people, from all over the world.

What sort of work?

Oh, teaching, you know, that sort of thing.

It had been months before the word university had popped out, and shortly after that Marjorie’s husband had walked in with a battered old textbook he’d found in a local second-hand bookshop, saying, our Sylvia’s a doctor, would you believe?

A doctor?

Not a medical one. She’s a doctor of philosophy. He had handed over the book, splayed open at the front page, with a black and white photograph of a much younger Sylvia peering out.

What a sly old thing you are, Marjorie had said next time they met.

Not as sly as some, Sylvia had replied.



When I had Leukaemia the haematologist made an interesting comment about how we label diseases. We could, he said, refer to the one I had as a cancer of the bone marrow. It all depended on whether you were labelling it for the similarities with other diseases, or the differences from them.

That’s a useful idea for a writer, and perhaps for a reader. Short stories, for example, must have that something in common with each other that makes us want to attach that label to them. It’s a something we might spend a long time trying to identify and put its own label on, but we know it’s there. Perhaps it’s a single quality, perhaps a particular combination. We instinctively recognise a long story as being either a long short story, or as being a short novel. We might even confuse ourselves a little with that ill-defined shape-shifter, the novella. Only yesterday, at a poetry symposium in Carlisle, the issue of defining flash fictions came up, in relation to prose poems (whatever they are). It wasn’t illuminating.

Digging down, or zooming in (or metaphor of your choice) we can also identify sub-types of short story, in fact of stories in general, and two of them might be, those written as first person narratives, and those not so. There is also a genre of first person accounts that we would think of a stories, but which are not fictions. But how different are they from fictional first person accounts?

It’s not as if one has an author and the other does not. It might not be so different even, from the perspective of the author’s connection to the events in the story. Many a fictional tale – to my knowledge – includes the description and evocation of events and feelings that were actually experienced, or perhaps witnessed by the author and which have been re-ordered, moulded and mixed in with other events from elsewhere and other times.

It’s not about factual accounts or fictional ones having different trajectories, in fact, we might argue that fictional accounts often follow the trajectories of real life as part of their striving for credibility.

And authors of fact, writing in the first person, can often be just as committed to giving a particular slant to the account of a sequence of events, and to the motivations of the characters involved in them as any fiction writer might want to be. Fiction writers, on the other hand, might be taken by surprise at the way their stories develop, just as we in our real lives might be surprised at what pops up next in our own, real stories (see first sentence -Bhdandme).

Reading a first person memoir of a fifties childhood recently, I was struck by a sense of the author not realising quite what had been said. Written as a fond memory of time past, it came over, to me at least, as a devastating critique of the blind-spots and prejudices of those times.

A few years back at popular TV sit-com inserted a real-life charity appeal into one of its shows, causing a flutter of varying responses in the audience. This ranged from enthusiastic approbation to outrage. I can remember feeling uneasy that some sort of line had been crossed, a taboo broken. It wasn’t that the charity in question was in some way undesirable, quite the opposite in fact, yet I had the sense that something had been transgressed by the inclusion in an otherwise light-hearted, but insightful fiction.

Perhaps, though, both that incident, and the response to it, give us a clue about the real difference between the factual and the fictional first person narrative, and it might have nothing to do with the writer, or indeed the writing. Rather, the distinction could be in the mind of the reader, who feels that the invitation being made is different in the case of a memoir to that of a fictional story. However realistic the fiction, however fanciful the memoir, we are being asked to do some different in the two cases when we are asked to read them.

In the case of fiction, in addition to that ‘suspension of disbelief’ we are being asked to speculate and imagine; in the factual account we will understand, and perhaps, inevitably, judge. In fictions we look for and find truths. In facts, we know deceptions and authorial self-deceptions, are hidden.

Here’s Me on the TSS site, writing about Steinbeck’s short story/play Of Mice and Men

A friend of mine used to tell a story of his late father who worked for a time as a photographer for a company that produced postcards of English beauty spots. This was in the days of roll film, when after a dozen or three shots the film would have to be removed from the camera (in absolute darkness) and replaced with a new one. Sometimes this led to a tricky operation under awkward circumstances, such as happened, allegedly, in a public park somewhere in the south of England. To protect the two films my friend’s father took to a park-bench and threw his overcoat over his lap, upon which he planned to carry out the changeover.

As you might guess, he was observed in this by a public, or rather pubic, spirited policeman who crept up on him, and at what must have seemed the right moment – perhaps as he was tightening his spool – leapt forward and threw back the overcoat. We could pause here for the old joke about three afficianados passing by, one who screamed, one who fainted and one who had a stroke – but perhaps we shouldn’t!

I carry a notebook and pencil almost everywhere I go, and when I get a moment, and a thought, I whip them out, and scribble away happily. It’s a practice H.E.Bates took exception to, at least in the case of his contemporary and literary rival, A.E.Coppard, who was also a prolific notebook carrier. Sometimes I do it in the car, on town centre car-parks, perhaps while waiting for my wife to come back (don’t read too much into that). Of course, when I’m there, scribbling, the notebook on my lap, I’m looking down and neither of my hands can be seen above the level of the door or dashboard. So far I’ve only had a few odd looks, and no one has stepped forward to offer me a hand …. and the policemen…well, they are driving past just too fast, I guess.

Here’s me writing on the TSS site, about Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate.

Stanley Baldwin’s son, apparently, described this as the wickedest story ever written, but was he reading it carefully enough?

My daughter has suggested we should go see the new biopic on Tolkien. We both have our doubts, but what the heck? It will be interesting to see what they want to tell us about him, whether it’s true, false, likely or unlikely.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings several times, but not for a year or three, and when the Brian Sibley BBC Radio version came out I was an avid listener. I’ve listened to that, all the way through, a couple of times, but not for a decade. That was the adaptation that made me realise how firmly based in the English class system Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings really is, for the radio voices brought out the nuances of those class accents. Even reading the novel, it’s apparent that all the ‘baddies’ have an approximation of working class accents, predominantly, of those Churchill, according to some, called the ‘cor blimeys’. And later in the story Merry and Pippin talk about ‘living on the heights’, and how unfitted for it, long term, are people of their ‘type’.

Behind all that stands the monarchy, and of course the main theme of Tolkien’s great work, is that if you want to fix the body politic, you have to have The Return of the King. And unlike Peter Jackson’s king, he’s not someone who dithers about whether or not he wants to be king, and he’s not someone who wins the kingship by being brave and true and all that sort of heroic stuff. Tolkien’s King has waited, and plotted in hiding for generations of ordinary men, waiting until the time is right for his ‘rightful’ return. He is followed because of who he is, not how he behaves, and we can tell he’s the rightful king, as Ioreth points out, because ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer’ – Tolkien’s neat inclusion of that old English mythology, from the days before Oliver Cromwell and ‘stone dead hath no friends’. Worth noting also, perhaps, that it is a myth from a time before any notion of ‘constitutional monarchy’. Tolkien’s King comes by appointment of an unspecified higher authority; the same authority that sends Gandalf ‘back’ from death to complete his task.

What hadn’t struck me in earlier cogitation, but which suddenly seems quite apparent, as I wonder what the new bio-pic will be like, is how similar the story of Aragorn is to that of Bonnie Prince Charlie, save for the outcome of course. So I think I ought to find some time to read the book again in light of that speculation, and perhaps go back also over some of those accounts of the Jacobite return of the king. Ah, a reader’s job is never done…..

The need to write is a curious thing. Phenomena might be a better word, or then again, it might not.

It isn’t success that drives the need, nor even to be seen to be writing. It’s the process, the activity, which demands compliance. The fear of loss of identity is what haunts the failing writer, fearing to give up, finding him, or herself unable to do so.

It’s about the use of language, and the usefulness of language, and the fact that language, as I was once told many decades ago by a visiting professor whose name has long faded from memory, ‘language is the nearest that you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’. I understood it to be true – and memorable – even before I had the vaguest understanding of what it meant. Now I think that language is as much a sense with which we experience the world we live in as are any of the other five senses. Perhaps language is the sixth sense that we all speculate about.

Pick apart what I’ve written here, and you might find yourself thinking, for you, perhaps, but not for me, and that’s what I mean, and what he meant, I think, about words being what we use to create the world we think in.

And that’s why being good or otherwise at using them is really not the point, any more than whether or not we are good at breathing might be, though, like breathing, if we have difficulty with using words, it will be reflected in how easily, or otherwise, we live in the real language.

Just a thought, as I like to add sometimes.

Now we have Brindley Hallam Dennis’s story published in Lit Sphere: