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Here’s a poem I wrote about fifteen years ago. I haven’t tinkered with it since.

It must have been around that time, I also wrote the story Alcedo the Dipper. Set in a futuristic mall (that seems quite dated now!), the story world had people wearing hi-tech, electrically generated ‘veils’, to avoid being seen by CCTV, though the veils themselves had become their distinguishing features. That was the background to the story, but its intention was more about the creation of a street argot or patois, based on terms re-cycled from the trading floor of Stock Markets. I was interested in how words could be taken completely out of context and re-purposed. It ended up in The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer, a collection of short stories that are longer than my usual. 

There had been around then, I think, an article in a women’s magazine showing photos of pairs of eyes and asking readers to guess the emotions in them. Men, apparently, scored worse than women at the test. It might have prompted the poem, or perhaps it was Jack Straw’s reported discomfort at interviewing masked constituents?

And perhaps Boris has missed a point or two, for the Burqa and the Niqab are not fashion statements, and what they look like is beside the point. It’s why they are worn, and where the practice began, and when, that matters. If you need a comparison, then compare them with the suits worn by the operatives clearing up after the Novachuk incident, for they were, and presumably are, for protection, in cultures where the gaze of men might lead to an assault, the cause of which would be regarded as the ‘irresistibility’ of uncovered women. Worth noting, that in current western culture we do not believe that women can be so irresistible, even when dressed provocatively.

Different cultures reveal and conceal different parts of the body for different reasons, and with differing messages. An open hand can signify no weapon, or largesse, or be the weapon (kara-te – no kidding). We can have face, or no face, or side, or no side to us. The public hangman, when we had one, was hooded, and thus masked, and so have been other executioners, authorised and otherwise.

Two masks I can think of in western culture that were ‘positive’ rather than negative, were the Lone Ranger’s one, and Zorro’s – both, perversely, covered the eyes, and nothing else. I am reminded too of that statement in The Virginian –When you say that, stranger, smile. To which the masked man might reply, I am smiling, underneath his Burka! Some things have to be taken on trust.

Perhaps I should have added, to the poem, a verse about hoodies….and there are so many ways to wear a bandana…. maybe I should try out a few at the local branch of my bank (while there still is one).

 

Shrouded Woman With Bum Bag & Coke Can

(a poem about cultural baggage, by Mike Smith)

 

Covered robed and hidden

Like a man from KKK

Hood black as balaclavas

That they wore in IRA

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

Out upon the turnpike

With pistol or with knife

Masked Highwaymen demanded

Your money or your life

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

Even knights in armour

With colours on a shield

Had to raise their visors

For intent to be revealed

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

A little Hiroshima

A Dresden on a plate

Only one girl in a thousand

Would choose to take her place

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

She twists a metal ring pull

There’s a package at her waist

Her eyes are saying something

But I cannot see her face….

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This is about that poem that the publishers were apologizing for last week.
A writer-friend sent me this link. You should follow it, and find out what you are.
You don’t need to read the poem that the article is about. It doesn’t matter whether the poem was good, bad or atrocious. The article isn’t about the poem, directly. It’s about the right of someone to write it, and of someone to publish it, whoever it offends. And it’s call of ‘shame’ on a publisher who fails to stand up for that freedom, because, make no mistake, a publisher who is not standing up for that freedom, is a publisher who eventually will seek to limit not only what you can say, but what you can think.
And here’s a credo of mine:
It’s also about the right for you and me, and everyone else, to own whatever words we find on the sidewalk, or pluck from the air, because once words are on the air, or on the page, or screen, or in our ears, they become our words, and nobody has the right (though they might have the wish, and power) to stop you or me or anybody else using them. It’s about an assault on freedom of expression at its most basic: the right to use the words we encounter in the world!
There is no language, anywhere that belongs exclusively to anyone, unless they keep it silently within their heads. Language let out into the world is as free as the air, as free as the molecules of the sea, as free as space dust. It’s there for you and me and anyone to take and use, and to interfere with anyone’s ability to do that is to infringe their rights and their humanity. My voice is not the consequence of my skin colour, or genetics, but of the voices that I have heard, and copied. Some of those voices were urged on me by others (Speak proper, our Michael), others were encountered by random chance, some sought out. At college I was told to lose my ‘up, come, foot’ – by which was meant the accent I’d picked up in the English Midlands. Twenty years later, Midlanders thought I talked like a Northerner…northerners still hear the Midland, me duck!
Those who wish to keep their words for themselves, should keep them to themselves – for if we catch a glimpse, or hear a whisper, then those words will be ours to keep, and share, and pass on, and re-use, and re-interpret, because language belongs to all of us, and not just to you, or me, or anybody else.
I’ll finish with a quotation from the article, which might suffice, if you choose not to follow the link.
We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” – Grace Schulman on the NY Times website, 6th August, 2018, in The Nation Magazine Betrays A Poet – And Itself.

One of the pleasures of finding a writer of whom you’ve never heard is that you get to read them without prejudice, or at least without the prejudice of other’s opinions on them.

I had such good fortune at the weekend, picking up a copy of a short story collection, Among The Quiet Folks, by John Moore. Moore (1907-1967) was an English writer who achieved widespread publication and, well, fame, in his lifetime, but who has faded into obscurity in the forty years since his death. There are articles about him on the web though, by the Independent, Bloomsbury, and of course Wikipedia among others.

He was known as a writer of rural England, which for me, demands comparison with writers like Bates, Pritchard, and Mann. Among The Quiet Folks was first published in America in the year of his death, and seems to be a ‘catch-all’ collection, drawing on short stories published, and written over several decades of his writing life. It’s not given in the Wicki bibliography, but one of the stories within, is the title story of a 1953 collection. Other stories draw their ideas from WWI, and at least one story is set at a time when ‘even’ factory workers get ‘twelve pounds a week’ and have television… which must put it in the early sixties for a guess!

My uninfluenced first impressions were that the stories were good, but that his attitudes were quite reactionary, especially in respect of war, psychology, and, curiously enough, organics. Consistently though, reading about him, I was told not to think he was ‘nostalgic’, which hadn’t crossed my mind. He does have that survival of the reddest in tooth and claw, which isn’t the sort of ‘fittest’, I think, that Darwin actually meant, but which tars writers of rural England from time to time (and rural Britain, come to that).

Reddest and clawiest is the story Elehog, about an orphaned baby hedgehog that ‘reminded one somewhat of a miniature elephant’.  Brought up by the narrator, this innocent is spoiled, but not taught to look out for itself, with fatal consequences, which the same narrator (ignoring, or overlooking the lack of a hedgehoggy education) then uses as a metaphor for ‘the gentle creatures who practise the philosophy of live and let live’. Set towards the end of the collection, I wonder if this reflects the author’s view of the post-war Britain I grew up in? The very last story, Vive la Difference’ is a faux risqué tale about a prudish woman chopping off the relevant protuberances on two pieces of topiary, representing nudes, male and female, in her neighbour’s garden. Of all the stories, it seemed to me the most dated, a pale reflection of the swinging sixties, in which I presume it was written.

There is one story that I found strikingly good. This was that title story from the 1953 collection: Tiger, Tiger. Echoing Blake’s title, but not his spelling, it’s an epic, archetypal story, set in Andalusia, where a young boy, stolen by a gypsy almost at birth, is sent on a mission by a dying man. As an eight year old child, Emilio must cross the city to Baldomero’s wine-shop and buy the ageing and sick Jose a bottle of ‘his second best rioja’. He has never before left the security of the gypsy woman’s back yard, but feels bound to the old man, who has told him many stories of the Malayan jungle.

Emilio’s adventures – being robbed, beaten, put to work as a pimp by the girls in a brothel – lead to him eventually stealing a bottle, and surviving a political riot. The bottle turns out to be brandy, not Rioja, and revives the old storyteller. What makes this story more than just its events, is the way the boy’s adventures parallel, and are seen by him to parallel, the dangers of the jungle in the old man’s stories. The men, and women, in the story, he sees, are animals in a jungle of their own.

The sentiments expressed is similar to that of other stories, but the handling of them lifts the tale above the mere assertion of the author’s beliefs. Another story makes assertion of the narrator’s beliefs so strongly that I wonder if the author is gently satirizing him – and even on a second reading I’m not convinced he is! This is Non compost mentis, where the narrator rants about his late aunt’s obsession with compost, and ridicules her organic principles. Written at a time when the organic movement was seen as cranky, it’s hard to judge how we are meant to take it, but the story is funny enough either way. As is Mr Catesby Brings it Off, in which a country vet flirts with a client’s much younger partner, who has been passed off as his daughter, but finds himself being manoeuvred by the old man into marrying her (so that he can leave his estate to his actual daughter!). It’s a clever, convoluted little tale.

Stark, sparse and chillingly believable, though, is The Proof, where a woman under interrogation in a witch trial, is watched for the arrival of her ‘familiar’. She is innocent, but her cat has not been fed for hours, and hears her voice….

Many writers fall into obscurity after their deaths. Some are discovered decades later, and win fame (usually again), but I would be surprised if this happened to Moore, and, to be honest, disappointed. His stories are well written and quite readable, but so are many others not worth a third reading. It’s what he has to say, it seemed to me, that leaves this writer in obscurity. The Alan Sutton collection was reprinted in 1984, and 1986. Perhaps that was the attempt at his revival. That was a low point for short stories, I suspect, when even the concept of ‘story’ was being fashionably dismissed and stories were becoming, for the ‘ordinary’ – whatever that means – reader, as boring as poetry had become a little earlier. Now that the short story is booming again, Moore might catch our interest for a while, but the limits of his vision make me wonder if he will, or should, hold it.

The issue of form and content comes up over and over again in writing, and thinking about writing. What is the relative importance of one versus the other? Does one serve the other? Should one dominate, or both be equal?

It’s an obvious subject for discussion in such genres as poetry, where the form can often be on display, but it’s there also in prose fiction where style and story arcs come under scrutiny. The essay, too, though more obviously concerned with content is a structured piece of writing. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis is a rule of thumb I remember from schooldays.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the possibility that the issue might be raised at the micro-level of the sentence itself. Looking to work on a first draft recently, I was trying to frame a question that would help me bring some dispassion and analysis to the re-drafting process. What, I asked myself, could I ask myself about what I’d written, with a view to making it more readable, and more worth reading? And there it was: form versus content again.

Look at each sentence I answered myself, and ask if it makes sense, and ask if the sense it makes is worth having made. The basics, I guess, never change, they just look different from different perspectives.

You might have seen my prize-winning essay on the word ‘Vaach’ in Anton Chekhov’e short story, Rothschild’s Fiddle. It’s in Readings for Writers volume 1 along with essays on several other short stories and their writers.

In that piece I wrote about the way the word -not even a word really, though definitely an utterance – dominated and seemed to sum up the entire story. Unusual, unexpected, and unknown words often crop up in short stories. A.E.Coppard’s The Higgler gave me the word ‘mogue’, which one dictionary described as a word used by ‘low people’, citing tailors as an example. Coppard’s father, curiously, was a tailor. My spellchecker doesn’t like ‘mogue’, but then, I guess it’s not a low spell-checker. The word means, by the way, to trick or deceive someone and can be used as a verb.

Recently reading John Steinbeck I cam across another word I’d not heard before (or rather had heard, but forgotten). That was ‘Bindle’. It’s not in my OED (shorter Version, of course), nor in any of the half a dozen other dictionaries I have going back to 1659. I don’t have a Funck and Wagnall, but I bet it’s in there! It’s in Eric Partidge’s sanitised dictionary of slang, but as a 1907 English word meaning ‘a howler’. He guesses it to be a blend of Swindle and Bungle, and maybe it is. But it isn’t Steinbeck’s American word, which means a blanket roll.

He uses it in the story Of Mice and Men, leading to the wonderful expression, ‘Bindlestiffs’, used by Curley’s Wife in the 1992 version to describe George and Lennie. Bindle and Mogue, and Vaach, come to that, have something in common, with each other, and perhaps with many other words, known and unknown, that we encounter unexpectedly for the first time: the contexts gave us the meanings, even if not directly, and that’s something important about language.

Wickipedia suggests it might come from the German, or Yiddish ‘Bundel’, which might have given us Bundle.

Words belong to us as individuals. They take their resonances not from the dictionary definitions alone, but from the contexts in which we first, and subsequently, and sometime traumatically, meet them on the road. Yet they remain in joint ownership, and their use is influenced by the contexts in which they were encountered, and subsequently used by others. That fact alone puts us on our guard to see beyond the narrow confines of our own understanding of them.

BHD recently had a story accepted for an online magazine. They’ve taken a few of his over the last couple of years (.Cent was the magazine by the way, and when you go looking for it, remember that prefatory .!) This one, just before submission, was given a last-minute trim, or rather, a last minute change. It was only one word, but it was close to the last word, and it was changed from ‘said’ to ‘thought’.

The line, in its final version, went: ‘Me too, I thought’. The actual ending continues ‘and I knew the game was on again.’

The difference is profound.

The story is a first person reminiscence of a conversation, about literature, and sex. That conclusive line, a spoken line in the original version, a thought one in the published, is supposed to reveal something about the narrator that has not been revealed in the rest of the story. In fact, the story is the context for that revelation. But if spoken it is revealed not only to the reader, but to the other character in the conversation. By making it a thought the reader is invited to speculate about whether or not that other character has an inkling of the thought, and if they do, what is their reaction to it.

Other options have subsequently occurred to me. What, for example, might be the difference if the story ended: ‘Me too, I might have said.’

The key is in that ‘might’. Does it imply that ‘Me too’ wasn’t said, but could have been – which implies also that it was still thought. And what if it had ended, ‘Me too, I may have said.’? Doesn’t that add the further possibility that it had been said, but that the narrator has become vague in his admission, perhaps reluctant even?

Four options, and I’m still not sure which would be the best one, but the fact that there are four – and probably more – reminds me how important every single word is, and perhaps more so the closer it is to the end! It reminds me too, that the nuances of writing are dependant for their success not only on the finesse of the writer, but also on the discrimination of the reader.

You can read more BHD stories in Other Stories and Rosie Wreay.

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I first read John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down about a decade ago, in one of the guest rooms of a posh hotel near Salisbury. It was a slim volume, dated to 1942, the year of first publication, and I suspect it had sat on the shelf unread for many of those years.

I’d never heard of the book, having got no further into Steinbeck than seeing the movie versions of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Those opening lines, though, did the job that all opening lines are supposed to do, and hooked me from the beginning. It’s the directness, and the simplicity I think, that compels:

 

‘By ten forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.’

 

The story stayed in my mind for years, though I forgot the title, until, that is, I was recently given a copy of the Penguin The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. A second read proved to be as enthralling as the first had been, but a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking about the short story form had passed under my bridge by then.

The story is as simple as the telling, and, considering the date of publication, so, perhaps, is the intention behind the book. The un-named town, in the un-named country, experiences occupation by a foreign invader, and far from being ‘over’, the story is only just beginning. Betrayed by a prominent businessman, the local Mayor and his entourage, along with a few named locals are put through the trials that Americans already knew were being suffered on Continental Europe. Similar, in some ways to Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well – based on a Graham Greene short story – or the later SS GB and The Eagle Has Landed, it’s a story that can be seen as part of a genre stretching back into the nineteenth century and The Battle of Dorking and beyond. These are stories that warn not only of the new ways that wars might be fought, but of the consequences that will follow from defeat. Steinbeck’s tale though is not merely a warning to those at risk of invasion, but more specifically than in similar stories, to those who are doing the invading.

While the Mayor’s party suffers suppression, execution, forced labour and starvation, his invaders too suffer. The fight they think is ‘all over’ has only just begun. Resistance builds slowly, and they learn that chopping off the head of a ‘free’ people, increases, rather than ends it. They learn too, that what they have been told about being ‘victors’ is lies, and the truth of their ultimate defeat sinks in slowly and surely as the story unfolds. Its ending has the Doctor, who has acted as a sort of commentator throughout, and who is about to be executed, saying ‘the debt will be paid’. He is answering the Mayor’s quoting of Socrates’ reported last words, which were that a debt was owed to the God Asclepius. It is a promise that we know will be kept. (Mind you, it didn’t work after 1066). Steinbeck was sending a message to the Germans as well as warning his fellow Americans.

What struck me on this second reading was how like a short story, rather than a novel, it is. The collection’s introduction refers to it as a ‘novelette’, another of those vague terms like ‘novella’, that reveals a doubt rather than expresses a certainty. At ninety pages it seems too long to be a short story, but I ‘perused it in an hour or two’, which Poe said was the hallmark of the short story. There have been much shorter stories, and I’m thinking of D.H.Lawrence ones, that I have felt were more like novels even though they are in his Collected Short Stories. But wordage is not the key. Steinbeck’s tale has that directness, and drive, the focus, and unity that we associate with short stories. There are sub-plots and minor characters, but they are bound closely to the main story, and linked to the main characters so tightly that we never experience the diffusion or the breadth of vision that the novel demands. The town and its hinterland are never a world in which the characters can move in different directions, but always remain the pool of light thrown by a spotlight and around which the rest of the world stays in deepest shadow. The story runs like a tank, along its own tracks, laid down before it. Its ending too has the quality of a short story ending. There is no tying up of loose ends, nor the telling of what happened to other characters, but only the Doctor’s grim quotation as he and the Mayor prepare for their fate.

Definitions are often impossible – try ‘mug’ and ‘cup’ and I guarantee that whatever you come up with you’ll still eventually find a clear example of ‘the other’ that exactly fits it! But they are useful attempts to know what it is we think we are doing when we make whatever it is we are trying to define. My definition of the short story evolves as I read, and write, more of them. Currently it has more to do with how they work, than what they say: ‘a story that gives context to its own ending, enabling us to recognise in that ending a future, present or past state of being’ might be close to it! But Poe’s hour or two of perusal hasn’t gone away.

There are more essays on short stories and their writers in Love and Nothing Else.

It might surprise you to learn that I think of Arthur Miller (the playwright) as one of the best short story writers of his time.

It’s an opinion based on two stories in his 2009 Presence, Collected Stories. The volume was put together after Miller’s death incorporating earlier publications with as then unpublished extras. Of the sixteen stories the two that stand out for me are The Misfits and Fitters Night. Both are from the earliest collection (I don’t need you any more, of 1967).

The Misfits is better known for the film version, for which Miller wrote the screenplay. It was the last film made by Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife in what was a disintegrating marriage. It was the last for Clark Gable too, who died only a couple weeks after filming finished. He did, though, see the rushes, and thought it the best thing he had ever done.

Compared to the originating story though, the film is lightweight. The difference is encapsulated in who gets to ride off into the sunset, and with whom, and why. I wrote about it in Love and Nothing Else, the second in my series of readings for writers.

Fitters Night, so far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film, though I suspect it could be. It’s the story of a man who finds his sense of self-worth. It’s a coming of age story really, because even though its hero, Tony, is a grown man, he is not a fully matured one. Set in a wartime shipyard, Tony, schemer, idler, adulterer, dreamer and malcontent, finds himself risking his life to repair the submarine defences of a naval escort vessel, due out on the next tide. The work is arduous and risky, and despite having and knowing all the wrinkles and scams that would let him off the hook of having to do it, Tony finds that he has an integrity that enables, perhaps demands, that he should fulfil his role in the war effort.

What lifts this story above a simple personal victory for me though, is that it seems also to be a story about what, presumably, Miller thought about America. Tony’s self respect grows out of the recognition that the young captain whose ship it is, is prepared to go to sea unprotected to do his duty, and that he takes Tony’s initial prevarications as the simple truth. The captain extends to Tony the respect that he assumes he is due, and by doing so calls that self-respect into existence.

It seemed to me that this was a story that could not have been written about English, or even British men in a similar position. There is no equivalence, that I am aware of, in the equalities between Tony and his Captain. I can imagine a situation in which a British Captain could confer something similar on a British fitter, but not one in which he would assume it to be inherently within him.

As so often happens, for me, Fitters Night is one of those stories that makes me want to re-write it, for my own culture, just to find out if I could make it work. So. There’s a project!

There’s a new essay by Me on Rudyard Kipling’s philosophical story The Eye Of Allah now showing on the Thresholds website.

 Other essays on short stories and their writers can be found here (or by clicking on the image).

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 BHD had a story accepted recently. He’d given it up, as far as that particular competition was concerned, but then the e-mail popped in. Long-listed, and to be included in the forthcoming anthology! Well, whadya know, as Kowalski might have said, as BHD might have made him say.

So I re-read it…

Yeah! That’s OK. I remember the story. I remember the little moment that impelled it…one of those ‘poetic impulses’ I might try to convince you, which V.S.Pritchett cited as being the starting point for short stories. For some – including the intending publishers, it might be a ‘Flash Fiction’, but I find it impossible, and unnecessary to make the distinction. A short story is a short story, however short – or even long – it is. It’s a sequence of events that bring us to a statement, or question, or suggestion, what-have-you, that gains its significance from what has gone before.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. It was re-reading it, looking for improvements that might be made (which, though, the would-be publishers might not accept – competition rules often disallow a tinker or two, an edit!).

I found one word, repeated in the same sentence. Clumsy, I thought, particularly when there was a perfectly good alternative. I switched it in my copy. They can do what the hell they like, I thought. It was a minor change.

Then I thought some more. Actually, the repetition, using the same word but in a slightly different context, might actually be drawing attention to that context. It certainly draws attention to itself. My change might make it look neater, smoother, but when that slightly rough repetition snags your reader’s mind maybe it adds something to the texture of the story, rather than merely interrupting it. Sometimes it’s better to leave the thorn to snag the palm of the hand that strokes! (or the reader, to you and me).

When it comes down to single words it might not be so easy, or even possible to see which way the balance tips between two choices.