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I wrote some months ago about Alphonse Daudet’s short story Les Etoiles (see Starlight and Stories). Having had a stab at translating the story, I tried my hand at re-writing it for my own time, and set in my own place. Like Daudet, I pushed that time back forty years into the memory of the first person narrator, and let the story take place in somewhere I know, but don’t belong to.

His pack-mule becomes a three-wheeled quad-bike (technically a motorised trike) and his shepherd’s bothy becomes a film set, and the story hinges on a remembered actual place, though one not as elaborate as the one in the story. The date is a little off the reality too, but in the mid-seventies I spent some time ‘working’ as an unpaid extra on a movie made in the English Lake District. Among several locations  around the Langdale valley we constructed a rudimentary Dark Ages village (the film was of Beowulf) and a group of us slept in it overnight to protect it – presumably from marauding Grendels! Providing the hint of a story this was the starting point for my transposition from Daudet’s original into Shooting Stars.

Shooting Stars, by Brindley Hallam Dennis, is now available as a download from CUTalongstory, and can be purchased here.



I made a mistake a couple of days ago. I opened an old copy of Dune to find a paragraph or two I could use with a Creative Writing class.

I wouldn’t have dreamed of reading it again. In my day it was three volumes long, but I know it’s more like double that now, and I wasn’t keen to take on even the three for a second time. It wasn’t because I didn’t like it. As a piece of fiction, I rank it with Lord of the Rings, and for similar reasons.

As with Tolkien’s novel, Dune creates an entire, and entirely convincing world. That eponymous planet stands on a par with Middle Earth. Arguably it stands higher, for Middle Earth, to my mind, is a surrogate England, whereas Dune sits in a complete surrogate universe. Both stories too, carry an examination: Tolkien’s of Hereditary Monarchy as the panacea to all ills, Frank Herbert’s to something more subtle, more powerful, and more frightening, for Herbert’s Muad’ Dib, I think, has more in common with Sauron, than he does with Aragorn.

The mistake, of course, led me to seduction by the power of this powerful story, and before I sat down to record this posting, I found myself reading the first 18 pages of my 1979 paperback edition – to the end of the section where Paul survives the gom jabbar. The question now is, do I read on beyond, not merely those pages, but the three volumes of my old edition?

Dune has a lot to say to us in 2018, perhaps more than Tolkien had to say when Lord of the Rings was first published, and, for that matter, more than when it was broadcast as a Radio drama, and then again released as Peter Jackson’s film. For in all its versions Lord of the Rings is a reflective, nostalgic and largely backward looking book. Even the internationalised film version, with its modern, self-doubting Aragorn – such a contrast to Tolkien’s original, who knows exactly who is he, and where he is going and has been plotting his route for centuries, waiting for his moment – is about the restoration of something that has existed, rather than the creation of something new.

Maud’ Dib, by contrast, even though he is bringing to fruition a prophecy – planted across this fictional universe in the ancient ‘missionaria protectiva’ by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood – he is creating a genuinely new world. That world is the result and embodiment of an idea that is expressed in a single word, early on in the novel. That word is ‘Jihad’.

The word comes near to the end of the first book in that first volume, as Paul Atreides comes to the knowledge that he is the Kwisatz Hederach foretold by his mother’s Bene Gesserit sisterhood. More than that, he sees that he will be known by the wild, tribal Fremen of Dune as their Maud’Dib, ‘The One Who Points The Way’. That way will lead to a renewal of the human race, which Paul describes to himself, and to us: ‘to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes’. This will happen in  ‘the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path.’

Frank Herbert’s vision, in the nineteen seventies trilogy at least – and I have no idea of what followed in later volumes – was not of a restored and benign British-style monarchy, but of a messianic theocracy. Interestingly, there is no group of characters within his story that is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Hobbits. Herbert is not interested in the people on whom Jihad is imposed, only in those who will impose it and those whose dictatorships they overthrow to do so. It is a terrifying rather than a reassuring vision, and one that seems more  rather than less potent forty years after I first read it. Two quotations apparently from Herbert, cited on Wikipedia, suggest my reaction to the novel is not wholly fanciful.

 “Author Frank Herbert said in 1979, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgement, and your own mistakes.” He wrote in 1985, “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”

I finally got around to reading Isak Dinesen’s short story, Babette’s Feast, the filmed adaptation of which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago.

It is one of those adaptations that saves you the trouble of imagining the story, rather than being one that brings a new agenda to it. There are changes. The short story is set in a Norwegian fjord, which evokes an enclosed place for me, whereas the film is set in Jutland, where the village houses are plonked down on a flat coastal plain like children’s toy houses on a grey-green cloth. Curiously this echoes Dinesen’s words: ‘the small town of Berlevaag looks like a child’s toy town of little wooden pieces’.

Dinesen’s toys are ‘painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colours’, but the film, it seemed to me, veered away from such brightness, sticking to its greys and dull greens and heavy browns, with the houses a dirty, light absorbing, rather than light reflecting, white. The film is heavy with shadow too, from which the sparkling highlights of candle flame on cutlery and reflections in cut glass shine brightly.

The echoes of the film’s dialogue were strong, making me wonder just how precisely the actual direct speech of the story had been lifted, and seamlessly added to! What struck me most forcibly though, was the distance of the narrative voice, seemingly greater than that of the camera lens in this instance.

Rather than eavesdropping and witnessing a series of events, as to a large extent we must do with a ‘shown’ film, Dinesen’s narrator simply tells us a story, and even when its characters speak out loud, we are unlikely to forget that it is the narrator who is passing those words on.

An exercise I’ve done with a Hemingway story sprang to mind – where I separated out the direct speech from the rest, producing two not quite parallel stories, each of which told not quite the whole story! In that story the word count of direct speech was about a third of the whole. Here, in Babette’s Feast, I would guess it at significantly less than a tenth. What direct speech there is falls isolated among the narrative, often qualified, before or after, by the narrator’s commentary upon it. Full dialogue, where characters speak to each other – rather than having individual statements from them relayed to us – are few and rarely protracted. Two or three exchanges, between two or three characters is the most we might expect.

Yet at the end of the story, which is split into 12 ‘chapter headed’ sections, the pattern is broken.

Babette’s Feast is a rich tale, of time, and reflection, regret, and transcendence, in which three main characters, the two maiden sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and General Loewenhielm see, reassess, and see beyond the failures and disappointments in their lives.

A fourth character, appearing for one of those sections, and later writing a letter that triggers the arrival of the eponymous heroine, is really no more than an elaborate plot device, and Babette herself is not so much a character study in her own right, as a catalyst for our understanding of the significance of what has happened to those other characters.

It’s an age thing I think, to some extent, but the film brought forth tears, and the book brought forth more of them! In both cases, it was the words spoken by the characters, rather than the authorial nudges, that caused the reactions.

In that final section Babette and the two sisters have the longest exchange of spoken words in the whole story, a dialogue that spreads over nearly five pages of a forty plus page story in my paperback edition. Here the proportions of speech to narrative are virtually reversed, and it is what these three characters say, finally, and to each other, that carries the burden of what Isak Dinesen is saying to us.


for all courses book through Darren Harper  via 


CREATIVE WRITING led by Mike Smith

Mondays, 7.00pm-9.00pm, 9th April to 18th June 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle.

£75 (£60 over 60/ £23 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course aims to give practising writers of prose fiction a regular input of informed feedback on work in progress.



Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

Dates: 12th April to 21st June 2018 Thursdays 10.00am until 12.00 noon

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £75 full  (£60 over 60s/ £23 in receipt of benefit)


Intended for Beginners to Intermediate. Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing: Beginnings, Endings, Locations, Characters, Storylines, and Narrative Voices among others.



A 10 week CREATIVE WRITING course starting on 10th APRIL Tuesdays 1-00pm – 3.00pm

£75 (£60 over 60s/£23 students/benefits)

What can we look for in other people’s work?

What moves us; to tears or laughter, anger or compassion. And when we experience those feelings we can go back and see exactly which combinations of words have evoked them.

But that’s not all. We can also find out what can be done, and how it might be done, with plot, narrative voice, locations in time and place, characters and ambience.


More than ten years ago I started writing what became a sequence of poems about the fictional character ‘Martin’. Between 2005 and 2011 about a dozen poems turned up. They were never exactly planned, but I knew them when they arrived, and not always because of his name. Often it was a tone of voice, or the ambience of the first few words to arrive that alerted me!

Several have been published, in Acumen, Tears in the Fence, Beautiful Scruffiness, and most recently, with the latest addition, Martin Removed, in the second Speakeasy Anthology here in Carlisle. Eight of the poems were gathered into a short run chapbook by the Carlisle based Freerange Press.

Over the years since 2011 a handful of new poems have been added to the sequence, and they have now been collected into a new edition in paperback and for Kindle. You can find it online here.

I’ll be reading from Martin? Extinct?, followed by a Q & A session, at the poetry symposium on May 19th, at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries), and will have a limited number of numbered & signed copies of the new collection for sale.

Someone’s been reading A Portrait of the Artist on Radio4, in one of those sad, reflective, serious voices that out-Bennets Alan of that ilk.

To be sure, we Did the novel at school. Burton Upon Trent Boys Grammar School, which to my shame I didn’t even think of burning down at the time, let alone attempt!

I got the sense that our English teacher – who was one of the good guys – didn’t know what to make of the novel, and I recall that he said as much. But I came back from a summer holiday before the A levels reeking of William York Tyndall’s A Reader’s Guide To James Joyce (Thames & Hudson, 1959/1968 –still on my shelves, heavily taped, and annotated), which turned me from a blank bemused to a full-on enthusiast for this writer’s fiction.

Hence my 2000 mile bucket-list round trip in 2016 to see, but not be seen to see, the statue of that old artificer on the bridge over the Grand Canal in Trieste.

Hearing the mournful rendition of the story though, brought back my pre-Tyndall despair. What a tedious and sanctimonious book it can appear to be, taking itself too seriously, and being taken that way by readers, and perhaps by listeners too. Its charred predecessor, Stephen Hero, which Joyce put to the fire and somebody else had to rescue had an even more self-obsessed eponymous protagonist – and an author that had yet matured enough to recognise him for what he was.

A Portrait, though, is made of more ironic, and subtly comic stuff. It is James Joyce, not celebrating, but satirising the narcissistic youth he grew out of being.

And largely because it’s been such a busy week…Not least because I’ve been putting together two collections for publication (one poetry, one essays), and beginning the process of drafting out three more course for Carlisle’s Phil & Lit Society – which you will have heard of by now, I expect.


Two of the courses won’t be entirely new. Starting on Monday, April 9th (7.00pm-9.00pm) will be a ‘Continuation’ Creative Writing course, for those already writing who are looking for in depth feedback on work in progress, along with a sideway glance each week at one of those ‘Facets of Fiction’ that we find in almost every example of story writing that we encounter.


On Tuesday 10th (1.00pm-3.00pm) I’ll be running another Beginners course in Short Story writing, focussing on those ‘Facets’ – Locations, Beginnings, Middle and Endings, Narrators and Characters, the grist to the mill of every short story writer. By the end of ten weeks my aim is to have all course members regularly writing, and thinking about what it is they have to tell us!


Thursday mornings, from April 12th (10.00am-12.00 noon) will see a new course, Reading As A Writer – that should knock the fun out of it! This will focus on what we can learn from reading published and other writing and will draw on writers from a variety of literary cultures, and times. It should also help practising writers to read their own work more attentively.


All three course run for 10 weeks, and are based at the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8 Fisher Street Galleries, in Carlisle, England! Details and booking from Darren Harper at or by e-mail to:


Those two collections, by the way, are the poetry sequence Martin? Extinct? And the collection of essays, Take Two, on the way that adaptations often seem to change the agendas of their originating stories.  Watch this space, as they say, for further details.

It’s always difficult to know what to put up as a blog post. I’m not inclined to publish the small doings of my daily life. I did go out for a coffee today, and it wasn’t a bad coffee, but the slice of ‘chocolate crunch’ though chocolatey and crunchy was otherwise tasteless, and a bit on the sweet side, but I suppose it had conformed to what it said on the label.

You see, it’s not that interesting, is it?

A friend of mine, and a very good writer, introduced himself at our first meeting, by describing himself as ‘having the honour to be a failed writer’. It’s a wonderful description, and one that could be applied to me as well, and perhaps better than to him. I’ve been writing since I was at school, and that’s a certain half century with perhaps a few more years tagged on.

My first piece published was, I think, a poem, heavy on structure and weak on content, though it did trite in spades. That would have been in the late nineteen sixties. After that I moved north, and wrote some more. Poems got published. Out of the three hundred or so I have archived on yellowing paper – typed on a manual typewriter (Olivetta Dora – A small portable. I loved it. I wonder if Mr Hanks has one. Mine has long gone) only six are worth a fart, and three of those need work.

I was pleased with myself when I got two poems about Cumbrian stone walls into The Countryman (January 1977), but not as pleased as I ought to have been to get into the hard-back PEN anthology of ‘New Poetry’ the year before (I face Fleur Adcock across the page). Since then I’ve had two comparable success – that’s in fifty years, remember. Out of the hundred or so poems that have been published here there, and more often than anywhere else in Acumen, I got one into that magazine’s 6oth anniversary edition (First Sixty, 2010). I also won, in 2009, with a collection of poems that included the Ullswater Requiem, the first Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award for student work that celebrated the causes of that trust, to be awarded to a piece of ‘artwork.’

The success, always, lies in the writing, not in the recognition. But the recognition reassures – even though we know that it goes oft astray.

If anyone asks me to read poetry to them, I’m pleased to do so, but if they don’t, I’m neither surprised nor insulted.

A friend and fellow writer recently set up The Carlisle Phil and Lit Society….a valiant enterprise, in my opinion, evocative of windmills, and grist. Another fellow writer, and friend, plans to run a poetry symposium there, for the encouragement of interest and participation in the literary arts. I put up a link to this a few days ago and was horrified to find abusive and negative responses to both ideas. I can’t begin to tell you how angry and sad that makes me. Thankfully, I have a wall against which to bang my head.

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.


The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts even the possessor of only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly but secretly in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’


‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’


There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-told for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

A fistful of BHD stories can be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD