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Looking for something else, I stumbled online upon several books which, according to their sale pitches, bash the integrity of the BBC.

The BBC is, we like to believe, a National Treasure, but like any treasure, it can tarnish over time. It is, when all is said and done, either more or less than the sum of its parts, and those parts are all human beings (as far as we know!).

I’ve never been employed by the BBC. I’ve had poems broadcast –very few and long ago – and a winning story in a competition on Radio Cumbria a decade or so ago. That station has proved itself time and again to be invaluable in times of local crisis – repeated flooding, and the foot and mouth epidemic being the examples.

In the early nineteen seventies I worked as an unpaid extra on a film version of Beowolf, filmed largely in the English Lake District  and made by BBC employees (but not for the BBC). We shot some scenes over a weekend in the basement of Broadcasting House.

I remember from that weekend a sense of the weight of the building, and of the corporation it housed, pressing down on us. It was in the physical presence of the building, as it is in any large, modern, urban pile, but it was also in the demeanour of the people. It was in the security guards at the door. It was in our fellow actors, and more importantly, it was in the speech of the Director and technical professionals who were making the film in their holidays and time off. It was in the way they spoke of those on the upper floors and tilted their heads as if to some deity. It was the way they told stories about the goings on in what they believed to be – perhaps rightly – the greatest institution in the world. They were proud, and perhaps a little afraid of what they thought themselves to be part of. There was an unspoken ‘of course’ about their opinions on everything, and anything; an unspoken compassion for those of us who, even if we didn’t know it, were their inferiors. It was, and I suspect still is, even after the Savile revelations, an Institution which takes its capital I for granted, and as a right that was earned, or perhaps bestowed, a lifetime ago.

If my memories of those strong impressions from so long ago are accurate, and if the impressions themselves were insightful, then the BBC itself must have to struggle with overcoming the problem which that poses.

It’s time, and perhaps too late a time, to pay attention to this.

One of the books, in its blurb, cited the bias against Brexit on the BBC. As a Remainer I’ve been conscious of how narrowly defined that particular discussion has been almost everywhere. I’m an English European – just as one might be a British Asian – but I haven’t seen that box to be ticked on any form, nor heard it spoken, argued for or explained.

I’m sure Brexiteers could point to similar omissions on their side.

What I have begun to notice, and to consider making a note of, is the choice of words that correspondents on, particularly Radio 4 which is my main access point to the BBC, have been using when they report the words, spoken or written, of others.

Three terms are worth mentioning as indicators of what we might look more closely at. Two of them are common, the third struck me as being rare when I heard it recently and seemingly for the first time. The two are ‘claimed’ (which throws doubt on the veracity of what is being said) and ‘insisted’ (which implies that it has been denied or even refuted elsewhere). The third, in the case that drew my attention, applied to an international document on climate change, was ‘pointed out’, where the inescapable implication is that what has been ‘pointed out’ is irrefutably true.

I’ve long been irritated by the way that interviewers routinely treat politicians as perpetual liars. That’s not because I don’t believe that any of them are. The irritation is that the same interviewers do not apply the same logic to people in the Arts. I’ve yet to hear one respond to a writer, sculptor, musician or director, who has told them how great his or her next production is, with the dismissal of a Christine Keeler reply (he would say that….), nor take the tone of implied disbelief and contempt reserved for the people we have elected.

Decades ago Marshal McLuhan told us that ‘the medium is the message’. I wish I had understood sooner what he was getting at. Perhaps if more of us had, we wouldn’t be where we are now. It’s not only for the reporter to be accurate, but also for the recipient of the report to scrutinise it effectively. It’s not only what we assume about other people, but what we assume about ourselves that tricks us into folly.

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Another of Mike’s essays on the short stories of Rudyard Kipling joins those already published (in Southlight 23 on his story Preface, in Thresholds’ archive on The Eye of Allah) with the publication of The Burden – The Gardener, by Rudyard Kipling, in Issue 37, to be published in March 2019 by The Blue Nib literary journal. You’ll find a few references to the writer here on the blog too!

At the end of a short story the reader is likely to be left thinking about one – or more-  of three things. These are the situation at the end of the story, the circumstances that created the story, and what might be expected to follow the story. If story is a journey, we might say that at our arrival we discover where we are, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going next.

Alternatively, those endings could be categorised as the present, the past and the future. In some stories it is quite clear which, and which only, is the outcome. An obvious example is Ambrose Bierce’s The Coup de Grace, in which at the very end of the story the name is revealed of a superior officer who is approaching, and has witnessed a subordinate against whom he has a grudge ‘mercy killing’ the terribly wounded brother of the former, and best friend of the latter. We cannot help but speculate on how it will play out.

In a story like Hemingway’s A Canary For One, a revelation in the last, short sentence  casts all that has gone before into a shocking new light which sends us back through the story, to re-evaluate and re-interpret all that we have read. Is this a case of a story that invokes the past? Or is it one that drives us to a deeper understanding of the present?

In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘They’ much is left unrevealed. This pseudo-ghost story, is one in which the narrator encounters the spirits of dead children, and of one in particular whose coded message, communicated by a ‘little brushing kiss’, brings him to a long, drawn –out moment of reflection and decision, and invites us to consider a back story that we have not at all been told. Only the fact that the ‘mute code’ by which this ghostly visitor communicates is understood by both of them and was ‘devised long ago’ gives us a clue to that story, but it is sufficient for us to wonder at it, and to question what events before those of the story might have led to the story.

Yet this powerful moment is not at the end of the story. More than a page of writing follows, in which the narrator understands what has happened, discusses it with his hostess, the blind woman whose home is visited by these dead children, and comes to the decision about how he must respond to what has happened to him.

The story ends on ‘’She left me to sit a little longer by the screen, and I heard the sound of her feet die out along the gallery.’

This, surely, is another of those powerful ‘minor key’ endings that George Moore said ‘all great stories’ end on. We are held to the narrator’s side, abiding with him as he resolves to put into practice what he knows he must: ‘never (to) come here again.’ This is the profound heart of the story, the image that we leave it on; the image that the story has brought us to. Yet it is not the great emotional climax of the story. That must be the moment of the ‘little brushing kiss’, and the tumble to understanding of whose lips must be delivering it.

Many short stories have this structure, in which the climax of actions is followed, diminuendo, by the anticlimax of reflection, or, as in another case, description.

I’m thinking of A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton, a four page gem in which almost nothing happens, save that the family of an itinerant farm-labourer walks across an English landscape. There is a moment of high drama though, where the boy-child of the family, who has been remorselessly bullied throughout the story by his drunken father, for losing a sixpence, takes advantage of that father’s distraction, to pass the sixpence in question to his mother.

The moment arrives without foreshadow, a startling and heartbreaking revelation of the boy’s desperate bravery. Rebuked, beaten and bloodied, he nevertheless holds on to his secret until the chance comes to pass the coin to one who will not squander it on drink. It’s a rural tale, with all the bitter harshness of Arthur Morrison’s East End ‘Mean Streets’.

Yet the tale does not end there, but passes on, through the crisis, returning us to our almost Art Gallery view of the beautiful landscape that Coppard began the story with. Perhaps we remember his caveat to that opening description, in which he warns us that it is a surface illusion of calm and beauty. Again, as in the Kipling, we are asked to contemplate in tranquillity, but in the aftermath of a dramatic crisis.

The ending here might be described as a Post Crisis re-Contextualisation, but in the case of Coppard’s story the climax of events has served as an example of his first undermining of the idyllic picture he presented of Sack Down, not a refutation of it. The story is not really about the family, but about the England in which the stories of such families will be played out against such illusory landscapes. His is an ending that has us thinking about the here and now, in which, as the light fades, we ‘hear dimly men’s voices and the rattle of their gear.’

I’ve long thought of short stories as being, metaphorically, crossings, and of novels as being cruises. In the latter we have many beginnings and endings, and at those intermediate endings we think about the last port of call, the present one and the next. The short story has only one beginning and one ending, but it will enable us to consider one, two, or perhaps all three of those realities.

V.S.Pritchett describes the short story as springing from a ‘poetic impulse’, which might, of course, be no more than the vaguest of hints that prompts a writer to make a start. Elsewhere he suggested that fiction ‘reveals’ what life only hints at.

C.S.Lewis in his writing on story says something similar. He compares the story to a net in which the writer tries to catch a bird, but in which he can only hope that the reader will see only a ‘flash of wings.’

Hemingway writes of a story needing only a single statement of truth to validate itself – and implying perhaps that without one, it can’t!

The three snippets, as far as I know, were written in isolation, yet for me they resonate. However interesting the events we recall or imagine when writing a story, what will be needed, to give that story traction and value for the reader, will be something within that resonates with their sense of what reality is like. They will be alerted to, or reminded of something that is hinted at, true, or flying in the perceptual skies of their own lives.

The writer might not know exactly which is Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’, or Pritchett’s revelation, or Lewis’s flash of wings, and neither might the reader, but the contention must be that if it is not there the story will be fatally lacking – though it might fool a generation of readers (and writers); and if it is there, it will be sensed, even if not identified.

Hemingway also wrote about ‘holes’ in stories. He was referring what the writer knew, or didn’t know about the story he was telling. What the writer knows, but does not share with the reader, Hemingway seems to be saying, adds to the story, but what the writer doesn’t know, he is most definitely saying, will be leave a hole in the story that the reader will feel, even if unconsciously.

What is revealed is not necessarily perceived, nor is that flash of wings necessarily glimpsed, and Hemingway’s one truth might not be appreciated – but those three writers, and, I suspect many others that I have not encountered, are telling us that the revelation, and the flash, and the truth, are fundamentally what make our stories worth reading, and worth writing.

Despite having written some masterpiece short stories, even the mature Rudyard Kipling could turn out some impenetrable ones. The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat I found particularly non-negotiable – though it made it through to the almost recent Hensher’s ‘Penguin’ collection of the allegedly best that ‘Britain’ has produced. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a few fat porkers in amongst the eighty or so ‘uncollected prose fictions’ – why not call them short stories? Even the included fragments, surely, are fragments of short stories? – very recently published by Cambridge.

I also found one that made me laugh out loud, and which seemed to have the hallmarks of what I have found so likeable in many of the later works that were collected.

On Signatures (By——-*) – and that asterisk draws us to the ‘note’ that kicks-off the story – is cited as having been published first in November 1887, with an Attribution in ‘Scrapbook 4’. All that editor Prof.Thomas Pinney can say about it is that it is ‘unrecorded and unreprinted.’ Written in the first person (even that asterisked note is in an ‘our’ voice, introducing the narrator: ‘Our correspondent…), the tale is in the form of a rant, sent, presumably, to the Civil and Military Gazette, in which it was published. The rant, is about the illegibility of the signatures that ‘greets me at the end of most of the letters which I daily receive..’

Kipling has his proxy single out several for our examination, and tells us a little about each of the people he speculates they might belong to. Not merely ‘hieroglyphs’, they resemble ‘three snakes’ tails and a set of triangles’, or ‘a felled fir-tree with a shower of chips about the stump.’ Others include ‘a big black fuzzy caterpillar on a boundless prairie’, and one is signed ‘Bd.Conar Cold Pork’, which the narrator interprets as a Lieutenant Colonel, of an unidentifiable regiment, referred to thereafter as the ‘Cold Porks’.

Kipling is playing on, and with words, and I got the joke, chuckling aloud at several places. Thumbnail sketches of the senders fill out, and perhaps inform, the perceived illustrations. Our narrator’s point though, that the signatures can’t be read, rings true, and especially so to someone of my generation, whose working life was spent mostly in the world of hand-signed, if not hand-written letters. My own signature has attracted attention, of the sarcastic variety, but rarely, to my knowledge, such inventive descriptions. The extent to which any of these particulars might resonate with individuals among his readership, we can only speculate on, but the general resonance is there for those of us who can remember signatures that we recognised, but couldn’t actually read.

Kipling rounds the story off, with the arrival of a letter to which a cut-out example of his narrator’s own signature has been affixed. It has passed through several offices’ from ‘Cherrapunji’ to ‘Aden’ – nine locations are listed – before arriving, and the letter within describes it as ‘the section of a fly’s thorax under the microscope’.

Technically a ‘flash fiction’ – if like me you take the definition of such to be a story that has the flash of only one turned page – the story is built not only around a commonplace frustration of communications before the e-mail,  but also on that very human foible of motes and beams in the way we see ourselves and others. It also has, in that ending, what becomes, to my way of thinking, the very Kiplingesque technique of undermining his own narrators, and by doing so, telling us something it’s worth us finding out about ourselves.

V.S.Pritchett describes the short story as springing from a ‘poetic impulse’, which might, of course, be no more than the vaguest of hints that prompts a writer to make a start. Elsewhere he suggested that fiction ‘reveals’ what life only hints at.

C.S.Lewis in his writing on story says something similar. He compares the story to a net in which the writer tries to catch a bird, but in which he can only hope that the reader will see only a ‘flash of wings.’

Hemingway writes of a story needing only a single statement of truth to validate itself – and implying perhaps that without one, it can’t!

The three snippets, as far as I know, were written in isolation, yet for me they resonate. However interesting the events we recall or imagine when writing a story, what will needed, to give that story traction and value for the reader, will be something within that resonates with their sense of what reality is like. They will be alerted to, or reminded of, something that is hinted at, true, or flying in the perceptual skies of their own lives.

The writer might not know exactly which is Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’, or Pritchett’s revelation, or Lewis’s flash of wings, and neither might the reader, but the contention must be that if it is not there the story will be fatally lacking – though it might fool a generation of readers (and writers), and if it is there, it will be sensed, even if not identified.

Hemingway also wrote about ‘holes’ in stories. He was referring what the writer knew, or didn’t know about the story he was telling. What the writer knows, but does not share with the reader, Hemingway seems to be saying, adds to the story, but what the writer doesn’t know, he is most definitely saying, will leave a hole in the story that the reader will feel, even if unconsciously.

What is revealed is not necessarily perceived, nor is that flash of wings necessarily glimpsed, and Hemingway’s one truth might not be appreciated – but those three writers, and, I suspect many others that I have not encountered, are telling us that the revelation, and the flash, and the truth, are fundamentally what make our stories worth reading, and worth writing.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

BHDandMe have been asked to talk about the short story to an informal Readers Group in Shropshire, so once again I find myself covering the familiar ground of trying to find out exactly what it is I want to say about this fascinating literary form.

It’s ground I’m happy to cover again and again, as any ground that means so much to us is worth covering. After all, such ground will cover us one day.

I went to the notebook (pencil and paper, manual, not digital, or at least, not electronically so) to begin with, and came up with the following outline. It might interest you too, and if you’re bot, you might really think it’s ‘awesome’. Then again, if you are a bot, I guess you wouldn’t know any better.

Firstly, I’d want to tell you that I could probably list a hundred short stories, and each with a good reason to praise it (and enjoy it), and if you were to say ‘that’s not many’, I’d have to agree. But I’d want to go on and tell you that in among that hundred the same dozen or so would usually come high in the list, and among them, these few would often feature:

Weep Not My Wanton, by A.E.Coppard. The Seal, by L.A.G.Strong, Little Brother, by Mary Mann, and Sorting Office, by my contemporary, Vivien Jones. They’d feature on the list for this talk, partly because they are all short, short stories…such as one might read out aloud to a small audience, but each has something else compelling, and satisfying about it.

I’d want to make several statements about the form in general though, before I read anything. I’d want to assert that the short story has nothing to do with the novel, even though both are fictions told in words. I’d want to say that I think of novels as being like ‘cruises’, and short stories as being like ‘crossings’. I’d say that the short story takes you somewhere – to its ending, in fact – where you focus anew on either the passage you have just made, or the place you have just arrived, or the place you must inevitably go next (or a combination of any two, or of all three!).

And then I’d tell you the stories. Now how about that?

I was talking to my friends, BHDandMe recently, and they were in two minds about something. The writer, Frank O’Connor came into view, metaphorically speaking, and something he wrote while having a several page carp about Kipling took our attention.

Now O’Connor’s carp was about the short story The Gardener, one of more than two rather exceptional stories in the collection Debits and Credits of 1926 – latish in Kipling’s canon. In that piece O’Connor makes what seems to me to be an astonishing statement, which is this: ‘I have found myself rewriting the story as it might have been written by Chekhov or Maupassant…’

While BHDandMe admired the hutzpah of such an assertion (t)he(y) was also shocked by the temerity of making it. Perhaps if t(he)y had written a story as powerful as, say Guests of the Nation, it might have been different. But BHD, I know for a fact, has re-written several stories by authors from the past (though none, to my knowledge, by authors from the future!).

His motives in doing this were perhaps similar to those of O’Connor’s – to find out a little bit more about the original story (‘to see what would happen’ O’Connor says). But BHD was also interested in finding out if the ‘feel’ of the story, its emotional impact on him as a reader, could be recreated or at least echoed by a story written from his own perspective in time and place. Me, it should be pointed out, would never dream of pulling such a stunt with a poem (or an essay, come to that). O’Connor’s analysis of his version of the story, by the way, seems to have, as Me was told once when writing about a poem of his, ‘missed the fucking point.’ –(Glad you pointed that out, BHDandMe).

BHD’s attempts, with stories by, among others, Alphonse Daudet, (Les Etoiles & La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin), L’Abbe Bourdelot (Monsieur Oufle) and Paul Arene (Uncle Sambuq’s Fortune), have been transpositions rather than replicas, and have met with mixed success, as stories and as explorations. Henri & Monsieur Oufle, a riff on the good Abbe’s farce involving a ‘bear suit’, translated to a modern-day Pizza restaurant, worked well enough to be picked out for performance at Liars League’s Hong Kong Branch, and can be found online. Les Etoiles became Shooting Stars, moving from a Luberon shepherd’s bothy in the nineteenth century, to a 1970s film-set in the English Lake District.

In none of these though, did BHD ever imagine he was writing ‘as it might have been’ by a Chekhov, Maupassant, or even a Daudet, Arene, or Bordelot. He was just doing his best as a BHD!

The practice is instructive though, as well as being fun. When there’s something you ‘get’ out of a story that you can, or can’t get out of a rewrite it clarifies something – not necessarily the same thing – about the original writer and your response to him or her, and about yourself, and your own writing.

Hello. This is Culbin Forrest. BHDandMe borrowed my name, and someone else’s address, for a competition entry many years ago. BHD was known to at least one of the judges, and the entries weren’t ‘blind’. He didn’t want benefit, or otherwise, from being know during the judging. He won the competition by a country mile, a judge told him a few years later.

BHDandMe have asked me to post to the blog for a season, while they, or he as I prefer to think of it, takes a break.

I never thought of myself as a blogger. I never thought of myself at all, come to think of it, but hey….

Write about what fires you up, they (or he) told me. You make me sound like a boiler, I said, and they gave me that look he has.

The fact is, what fires me up just at this moment, is where to put the ‘h’. ‘H’ is a curious letter. The Scots Gaels use it to soften the sound of hard consonants, a totally alien idea, it seemed to me, when it was first pointed out to me. Mor, pronounced, more, becomes, phonetically, vor, when you write it mhor. ‘D’, pronounced ‘J’, don’t ask, becomes ‘y’, almost.

The Italians do it too, only the other way around. Ci is pronounced chee, but chi, would be sounded as key. Ciao, Chianti? Got it?

English is my first language, not because of anything genetic; simply because I grew up surrounded by people talking it…how else was I going to speak? But English does this stuff with ‘h’ too. Oh, I hear you think! Cat becomes chat. Peasant becomes pheasant – equally tasty but not so tough, plucked or not. Cog becomes cough. There are lots of others. Find ‘em for yourself.

But for some reason the English have a bunch (rather than a bunc) of words in which the h does nothing at all. And that’s because we’ve been conned (probably by the Norman French Establishment) into putting it in the wrong place.

The words I’m thinking of, among others, are what, where, why and when: not uncommon words, and so the more surprising, perhaps, that we English speakers should write ‘em down incorrectly. Who, pronounced hoo, rather than woo, of course, conforms to the h usage I’ve mentioned, which, by the way, is called lenition. My dad was called Len, but it wasn’t short for Lenition (though it might have been nice if it had been).

Living near the Scottish Border gives me a clue to the answer. Dumfries (‘home of the Friesians’) reminds me that modern English is said to be most closely related to Old Friesian (Anglo-Saxon? Hwo?), and so perhaps that’s hwere we should look, or rather, listen!

Hwere, hwat, hwy and hwen, is still the way the words are sounded up here. Haitches aren’t dropped, but are put hwere they belong, in front of the words in hwhich they are sounded. Who remains hoo. And looky see, in Beowulf, the opening word is hwat. In King Alfred’s Orosius the repeating, paragraph opening sentence is ‘hwen that the Romeburgh getimbered was’.

            In this year above all, we should take the chance to take back control of the language, and put our ‘aitches hwere they belong. Your spell checker can be easily adjusted: hwat!

Well, here’s another BHD story, popping up on the web:

And others here…