Nature notes.

In contrast to the general locked-down trend, we’ve spent less time, not more, on gardening lately. We decided to focus on vegetables, and have allowed the flowers, shrubs and hedges to do their own thing.

I’ve heard garden designers say that nature doesn’t have colour clashes, or create disharmony. They clearly haven’t seen our spotted laurel. Earlier in the year it was a lovely splash of green above the snowdrops and daffodils.

Bulbs, of course, are the perfect garden inhabitants, so uncomplaining, and polite. For a few weeks, they’re bursting with joy, and brightness. After that, they quietly fade into the background. They’ll put up with a lot of neglect. But in fictional terms, that makes them passive garden characters. They need a heroic gardener to step in and prune back the big bullies who would otherwise crowd them out, and take control.

Enter me, (tadah) with my trusty secateurs. Within an hour, the offending spotty villain has been calmed, and controlled. No story here, folks, nothing to see.

Except, as I step back to view my handiwork, I can’t help but notice the rest of the border. Up close, it’s clear that my actions have only presented a flash of the whole story. That verdant greenery we’ve been admiring from the kitchen window, is undergoing an invasion. There are as many weeds trespassing as there are lawful inhabitants.

The intruders are vigorous, heavy with young seed. Antagonists like these need an active, focused protagonist, willing to expend muscle, sweat and time: someone driven by the desire to win.

I’m already thinking about making dinner, and spending the evening with my feet up. ‘Mañana,’ is what I’m thinking. I repeat it throughout the evening.

The next morning I’m conscientiously standing at the window, pulling on my gardening gloves and thinking about the importance of timing, when a movement catches my eye. Are there more birds in our wildish garden this year, or is it just that we’ve taken more notice? I don’t think we’re the only people who’ve asked that, over the last two months.

Maybe we’ve recently been more diligent about topping up the feeders, and our guests can feel confident about the quality of our hospitality. Though one at least, it seems, is now opting for self-service. There, on the weeds I’d planned to remove, is a Goldfinch, pulling out a beak-full of fluffy seeds.

Now that’s what I call an active character. Nothing distracts this bird from the job in hand, not even me, opening the window to snap some photos. There is a determination, a drive, that I can’t seem to emulate. If only I’d introduced the Goldfinch to you earlier it could be the protagonist, but it’s too late. Besides, I’m confident that we’re viewing those seeding heads from different perspectives.

So this isn’t that simple kind of story, where a character is presented with a problem, that they then solve. Unless, of course, I’m still not viewing this situation from the correct perspective. Could it be that the key character in this is bigger than me, or the bird, and has only been mentioned indirectly?

Recognising the end point when telling a story can be tricky. I’m convinced enough to put my gloves back on the shelf, and settle down to admire the blackbirds, feasting on the Juneberries, the wood-pigeon swooping in to the big seed-dispenser, and the spotted woodpecker attacking the peanut feeder.

Multi-tasking, Elizabeth Taylor style

Okay, best case scenario , at this moment, is that we’re trapped, for our own good, in our homes. Am I the only one who spent the first couple of days hoovering out-of-sight places that generally remain untouched for months, and dusting?

William McGregor Paxton 

Maybe that was because the first week coincided with clear skies, and the bright sunshine was revealing. Maybe, because usually when I’m home in daylight hours I’m focused on paperwork of one kind or another. My gran had an expression that may have helped influence this lackadaisical attitude, though it doesn’t do credit to the degree of pride she took in her approach to housework: ‘I’m giving it a lick and a promise,’ she liked to say, if ever I asked what she was doing.

Now that I’m beginning to embrace on-line teaching I’ve got unused travel-time to factor into my schedule. Some days, there’s quite a lot of it, enough that I don’t begrudge using it for the chores I had been avoiding.

The upside of cleaning jobs, done in my fashion, is that they don’t require much concentration. Maybe, more diligent housekeepers focus on the task. My aim, is to fall into a rhythm of movement that allows me to daydream.

It’s a tip backed up by one of my favourite twentieth century writers, Elizabeth Taylor. She claimed to work out most of her stories while ironing.

Elizabeth Taylor is, perhaps, one of the most under-rated authors I’ve come across. Her short stories are subtle, often needing two or more readings to see how the layers of symbol and detail redirect meaning. She had a keen eye for humour (dark and light), which, in my opinion, made her delicately subversive.

So often story writers are advised to use ‘telling details’. What many of Taylor’s stories demonstrate is how much also depends upon the delivery.

I doubt whether I will ever forget these three teenage girls, of the 1950s, getting ready to go to a dance. The first paragraph is admirably economical yet telling, but look at how the second paragraph leads us neatly to that simile in the third.

Natalie, Frances and Katie had been in the bathroom for nearly an hour and could hardly see one another across the room. Bath-salts, hoarded from Christmas, scented the steam and now, still wearing their shower-caps, they were standing on damp towels and shaking their Christmas talcum powder over their stomachs and shoulders.

‘Will you do my back and under my arms?’ asked Katie, handing to Frances the tin of Rose Geranium. ‘And then I will do yours.’

‘What a lovely smell. It’s so much nicer than mine,’ said Frances, dredging Katie as thoroughly as if she were a fillet of fish being prepared for the frying pan.

This story, The Rose, The Mauve, The White takes place over one day. It is delivered in glimpsed scenes. All the characters will attend a dance, which is a big landmark for the teenagers. In the process of moving towards it, the contrasting hopes and insecurities of three generations are exposed.

Taylor has often been described as wielding a scalpel-like pen. It’s a useful idea to hold onto, when entering one of her stories. The unwary reader could easily be lulled into assuming they were entering a place of safe, middle-class comfort.

Except, Taylor’s narrators are always precise. Charles, the seventeen year-old who opens the story goes out in the morning to practice calling for three cheers, which he must do at the end of the dance, that evening.

His voice had broken years before, but was still uncertain in volume; sometimes it wavered, and lost its way and he could never predict if it would follow his intention or not.

Practicing seems a safe, and even sensible thing to do, but such moments are always rife with possible humiliation. If we’re noticing juxtapositions, then the fact that he chooses a spot next to a patch of rhubarb and lawn-clippings might seem significant.

…he put on what he hoped was an expression of exultant gaiety, snatched off his spectacles and, waving them in the air, cried out: ‘And now three cheers for Mrs Fresham-Bowater.’ …a bush nearby was filled with laughter; all the branches were disturbed with mirth.

Katie’s mother, Mrs Pollard, sharing tea with her teenage children and their friends, tells herself that, ‘tea was such fun… though one minute she felt rejuvenated; the next minute as old as the world.’

In the next breath, the narrator moves us on again:

To them, though they were polite, she was of no account, the tea pourer-out, the starch-provider, simply. It was people of her own generation who said that Charles and she were like brother and sister – not those of Charles’s generation, to whom the idea would have seemed absurd.

The dynamics of the family, the insecurities of each age range, and the moments of self-revelation, are offered for us, like fillets of fish with the flour wiped off. We see them, perhaps we see ourselves, as we are, and maybe, as we have been…

‘The one who was wearing a kilt?’ Natalie asked, with more composure. She wondered if Charles was thinking that she must be older than the other girls and indeed she was, by two and a half months.

Lessons learned from Edna O’Brien’s short story, The Connor Girls.

It begins with a hook. The kind of line that is simple, yet resonant with promise: To know them would be to enter an exalted world.

The second line begins with another ‘To’, and lets it echo, twice more. This is a lesson in how to use, rather than misuse, repetition. It might be called playful, it creates a lyrical effect, but this is also devious.

That ‘it’ draws me in. I share with the narrator an imagined idea of moving, step by step, closer to ‘them‘. ‘To open the stiff green iron gate, to go up their shaded avenue, and to knock on their white hall door…’ She yearns to make that journey, while I am additionally intrigued by her desire. Who is this ‘I’?

It’s not just the rhythm of her writing that draws me, those few precise details are enough for me to hold an image of that house. Despite the importance of this place and these people, to the narrator, and the concrete precision of the images she supplies, the details are sparing.

What she gives me is a flower garden with fountains, a water-lily pond, and monkey-puzzle trees. The quantity implied in these three features suggest wealth and land, but the narrator allows us to arrange them.

I’m certain that if Edna O’Brien and I sat at opposite ends of a table with crayons and paper, we would produce very different images of the setting, even while we included the given details. Hers might be the origin of this story, but while I read, the picture is as I see it.

I am transported to Ireland, in the first place, because I know Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer. If I hadn’t at the least suspected that, my version of this house and garden may have hovered above a number of countries, as I gathered clues. Luckily, this is only the first story in a large collection published under the title, A Fanatic Heart. The back cover promises me:

Love and loss, the villages and countryside of western Ireland…

Had The Connor Girls been presented in a cosmopolitan anthology, following stories by, for instance, Margaret Attwood, or Carmel Bird, I don’t think I’d have made a confident guess about nationality until near the end of the first paragraph. That’s after I’ve been given the gossip about the major, and how his son died.

Not even their tragedy brought them closer to the people in the town, partly because they were aloof, but being Protestants, the Catholics could not attend the service in the church or go to the Protestant graveyard, where they had a vault with steps leading down to it, just like a house.

Is that, or is that not, a beautifully balanced sentence? It’s distinctive, confiding, gossipy and laden with social and political colour.

If you liked that one, try this:

The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished, and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.

We’re in the second paragraph, near the bottom of the first page, and the narrator has mentioned friends from Dublin. I can set my house down in southern-Ireland. I have no named district, but if I hadn’t known before how to colour this setting, I do now.

I’m drawing from memories of a too-brief stay that took in glimpses of the country between the ferry port at Rosslare, and a birthday party in Meath. What struck me was the quality of the light, reflected from the verdant landscape. At last I understood why Ireland was always referred to as green.

Add to that scenes from films and tv shows; images from paintings and photographs, and imaginings raised by other Irish and Anglo Irish writers. Behind O’Brien I seemed to see William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen, particularly, The Last September.

Am I thinking all of this as I read? Of course not, I’m submerged in story, and the flashes of connection are fleeting. I compare it to moments in my real life, when despite apparently total involvement in an event, my mind draws links with parallel experiences.

I’m not sure if it is either possible or desirable to write without connecting to previous fictions. There are people who aspire to, but I wonder about what kind of writing that could be.

A Farmstead by John Luke, 1928

I’d like to recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Stories.

Please don’t be put off by the title. This is not a straight forward selection.

About four years ago, as I was rushing out of the library, dangerously close to my time limit for car parking, I saw this cover on a display stand. I paused to pick it up only because I wanted to be convinced I didn’t need to read it.

What led me to take a deeper look was the contents list. It was divided into four categories:

  1. Front
  2. Spies and intelligence
  3. At home
  4. In retrospect

I skimmed down the authors within them. Alongside the ones I might have expected, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, for instance, were some unexpected ones: Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy and Radclyffe Hall. There were also plenty that I’d never heard of: Stacy Aumonier, ‘Sapper’ (Herman Cyril McNeile), C.E. Montague…

With one eye on my watch, I paused to skim through the introduction. The traffic wardens at Tewkesbury have a fearsome reputation for diligence, let me tell you.

These were mostly historic authors, should I bother? Then my eye was caught:

While high-street booksellers offer a wide selection of material for the general reader, and academic interest in the war and its literature is also high, the short story is curiously overlooked.’

Curiously overlooked is exactly the way I feel about short stories.

Barbara Korte’s introduction is the kind of writing that I hope to find opening up an anthology. It is beautifully concise. Her description of how the First World War impacted on short fiction is backed up by quotes like this one from Edmund Blunden, in 1930: ‘The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without a conclusion.’

I’d read enough to convince me. I booked out the book and high-tailed it down the stairs and across the road. As always, when returning to the car park in the-nick-of-time, there was no sign of a traffic warden. How is it they always seem to be in the area when I’m a minute or two late?

Over the next four weeks I kept dipping into those four sections, and finding story-gems. As Korte says:

Few stories written during the war and its aftermath were radically experimental or self-consciously modern, but many depart from conventional plot-orientated narration, resist closure and use forms like the impressionistic sketch, the dramatic monologue or the dialogue scene.

I bought my own copy and returned the library one. Since then I’ve shared this anthology with one or two reading groups.

The subject of war is not to the taste of everyone, but the range and comment of this selection is diverse, and far from predictable, and instigates some fascinating discussions. At their heart, most of these stories are subtle and complex studies in character, and draw me back to re-read again and again.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19 – Part 2

You might still be wondering, what is Cath’s favourite story in The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories? Seems like she may have been watching too many Netflix series, the way she slipped that tantalising hint into the end of her Welsh short stories post three weeks ago. Darn it, does this mean there could be more cliff-hangers?

No. Relax. This is a two-parter. Paula Bardell-Hedley’s excellent hash-tag dewithon 19 only lasts to the end of March. It’s been fun reading along, but for me, it ends today with Catherine Merriman’s, Barbecue.

The story was first published in The New Welsh Review, in 1992. If that seems a little dated, I should mention that The 2nd Penguin…Welsh Short Stories was published in 1993, so it was pretty contemporary at that point.

Here’s a gang of bikers, cruising the Welsh mountains in their leathers, all counter-culture and looking-like trouble. They’d certainly raise some wary hackles if they came cruising through most villages or small towns.

Not a soul on the mountain but we can’t open up the bikes for the hordes of sheep dawdling on the tarmac, bleating and giving us the idiot eye. They’ve got half a county of moorland to roam across, up here, but as usual they’re ignoring it. Mitch reckons it’s definite proof of over-civilization, when even the sheep are scared of getting lost.

Do you see that? Mindless thugs, or maybe not quite who we expected?

At the start it’s not clear where the story will go. There’s a barbecue being planned, ‘back at the field‘, by Dai. Earlier though, before the story started, Jaz was beaten up by a couple of lads from Tredegar who are after his Guzzi, as compensation for a bike-sale that went wrong.

Sharp little face, Jaz had, when they last saw him. Looks like a plum pudding now.

Then the other half of our narrator’s gang turn up. They’ve been staying in their bus at a festival, and got into trouble coming back through Bristol. The driver, Wayne, says:

‘This publican, he won’t serve us ‘cos he says we’re a coach party. So I backed over his fence, accidental like, on the way out. The cops had us for criminal damage. Got a conditional discharge.’

Jaz wonders how many hospital visits it takes to cure a conditional discharge and I tell Wayne how Dai….wants the bus back pronto.

The story is packed with information, coming in from all angles, but it’s clearly told. There’s a nice mix of conversation, description and action. So I settle on the back of the narrator’s Z1000 in the Saturday sunshine, taking in the scenery, as…

We set off up the mountain and at the top I’m in front, revelling in the way the Z1000 powers up the gradients, when I see a dead sheep, lying at the side of the road. Fair-sized corpse, but definitely a lamb, not one of the scrawny ewes.

I flag the others down. There’s no one else on the road.

‘This fella weren’t here when we came across,’ I say. ‘Did you see him?’

‘He weren’t here,’ says Mitch. ‘We’d have noticed.’

Jaz props the Guzzi and squats down to take a dekko. Barbecue, I’m beginning to think.

‘How long you reckon he’s been dead?’ I say.

Once the three lads have established how fresh it is (and really, you have to read that bit!), it’s only a question of how to get the body home without anyone noticing.

We can’t cruise into town with a dead tup behind us, even with a jacket on it won’t fool anyone.

Our boys may operate in the shadow of the law, but there are rules.
Wayne and the narrator seem to agree that something needs to be done for Jaz.

…it’s out of order to thump a lad, and want his bike off him as well.

Jaz, it turns out, is feeling rougher than we noticed.

He’s suddenly looking very weary. He’s holding his shoulders funny, and where the side of his helmet’s been pressed against his cheek-bone it’s made a dent in one of the purple bruises.

It’s not accidental that it’s taken until now for that to sink in. Our narrator has been delivering such a lot of other distracting material, all at the same time, that we may have become as complacent as he has been.

I’m not giving the game away if I say the two lads from Tredegar are perfect villains. They are focused on their goal, forcing our protagonists to act. I’m so caught up by the stylish narration, by the swift shifts in tone and the vivid dialogue I accept them.

This is a story where style carries us along. The narrative voice is chatty, and layered with humour.

The question of how to convey class or background through speech is tricky. Make it too colloquial and it creates difficulties for the reader, taking attention away from the story as we struggle to make sense of abbreviations and implied intonations. Merriman uses the arrangement of the sentences and some strongish language, rather than dropped consonants or vowels.

To tell you more would deliver spoilers. This is a tightly woven story, a mere ten pages long. It never falters. The pace slows and speeds, but doesn’t hesitate.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19

The hash-tag-dewithon19 is a month long celebration of Welsh writing organised by Paula Bardell-Hedley on her Bookjotter blog. Being Welsh is not part of the criteria for joining in, which is just as well, because I have always lived on the English side of the border.

I’m a neighbour, the kind who gazes over the fence, or should I say, river, and admires the differences that a few miles makes to point-of-view. I’m a visitor, who drifts through towns, cities, villages, valleys and beaches wondering what it must be like to inhabit such communities full-time, and then finds some of the answers between the covers of The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories edited by Alun Richards.

These twenty-eight stories span the twentieth century, and a range of Welsh landscapes and experiences and story techniques. Together, they begin to provide answers to a question I often ask myself, what makes a nation?

In Good-For-Nothing, by Dic Tryfan, a story translated from the Welsh by Dafydd Rowlands, Harri Huw wakes up at five in the morning in the quarry.

…there was no one in the quarry except him. He shouldn’t have been there either, but when a man wakes from a drunken stupor at the roadside, before the world has roused itself, he naturally goes to the place he loves best. And Harri Huw’s idea of heaven was the level at the bottom of Coed Quarry.

Photo by Taff George, on Wikimedia

The story was first published in 1915, but I only found that out much later. The events, and the characters, are timeless. When his young workmate arrives, their exchange is economical and telling:

‘You’ve been at it again, haven’t you?’ said the lad reproachfully.

‘Yes, Dic bach,’ answered Harri, with a touch of remorse in his voice.

‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’

‘Yes, I am, boy.’

‘You’re worse than a pig.’

‘Yes I am, aren’t I?’

‘Yes, I’ll say you are. Go home and change your clothes. You’ve torn your jacket. Your mam will be angry.’

‘Yes, she will, won’t she?’

When I get stuck working out a story, I turn to stories like this and learn again how tightly woven a great short story is. No word is wasted, yet the humanity and tension contained in seven pages wrings my heart-strings.

Blodwen, on the other hand, by Rhys Davies warns us never to take anyone for granted. First published in 1955, it’s small-town setting examines the trappings of respectability. Blodwen, who is a ‘fine, handsome young woman of twenty-five, all her body handsome and well-jointed,’ is engaged to Oswald, the son of a local solicitor. ‘He came to her as though to a meal.

All is set up for a good marriage. Their parents approve, and no one seems to mind that Blodwen is generally bad-tempered, except Pugh Jibbons, the grocer who brings fresh fruit and veg to town on a cart pulled by a donkey .

He was a funny-looking fellow. A funny fellow. Perhaps there was a gypsy strain in him. He was of the Welsh who have not submitted to industrialism, Nonconformity or imitation of the English. He looked as though he had issued from a cave in the mountains.

It’s a story with a plot, but it’s predominantly an examination of character. That’s the lesson of all the stories in this collection. There are plots in abundance, dealing with a full gamut of emotions, from rebellion to love, from remorse to jealousy to isolation, but at the heart of each, are rounded, breathing, complicated characters.

Just in case we miss that point, there’s A Story, by Dylan Thomas, told with beautiful excess by a child narrator:

I was staying at the time with my uncle and his wife. Although she was my aunt, I never thought of her as anything but the wife of my uncle, partly because he was so big and trumpeting and red-hairy and used to fill every inch of the hot little house like an old buffalo squeezed into an airing cupboard, and partly because she was so small and silk and quick and made no noise at all as she whisked about on padded paws, dusting the china dogs, feeding the buffalo, setting the mousetraps that never caught her…But there he was, always, a streaming hulk of an uncle, his braces straining like hawsers, crammed behind the counter of the tiny shop at the front of the house, and breathing like a brass band…

It’s not, perhaps, a style to emulate without great care, and yet to read it, to give oneself up to the excesses, is like entering one of those warm, noisy Welsh pubs where all of life is lived at full speed and volume. Although it’s titled, A Story, the narrator begins with a disingenuous disclaimer: ‘If you can call it a story.‘ he says. ‘There’s no real beginning or end and there’s very little in the middle. It’s all about a day’s outing, by charabanc, to Porthcawl, which, of course, the charabanc never reached, and it happened when I was so high and much nicer.’

1927 charabanc

Do not be misled. Our wide-eyed narrator is playing us for fools. There’s smoke before his mirror. This sense filled picture of early twentieth century Welshness is a glimpse into another age and culture, by another age and culture. Which just goes to prove another valuable point, never underestimate the importance of a title.

There, you see? Each time I dip into this lovely selection I discover something valuable about writing short fiction. No wonder it holds it’s place in convenient reaching distance of my office chair, and I haven’t even mentioned my favourite story, yet.

Cats, apples, Isaac Newton and Carl Kahler.

I have a little book, called 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization.  I consider that a nice title, a real hook for someone who finds felines fascinating – that’s me.  I got the book at Christmas, and liked it also because it perfectly fits the narrowest shelf of my favourite bookcase, and since I was midway through reading some other books, that’s where it’s rested for the last few months.

That top shelf is tricky to fill, let me tell you.  In the past, I’ve layered comatose paperbacks on it, which is just not pleasing.  It’s perfect for audio tapes, but my cassette player is in my car – yes, it’s that old – so I keep my half-dozen boxes in the glove-box.  But I digress.

Returning to my compact gem: Sam Stall has trawled through history to create a collection that is, at times, a little stretched. A cat is named as co-author of a research paper, because it had been written with an authorial ‘we’, at a time before word-processors, which meant the whole thing would have needed to be retyped to replace the ‘we’ with ‘I’.

My Wife's Lovers by Carl KahlerI’m not worried if there is a little exaggeration involved.  This, I think, is one of those pass-along books that are heaped on the bookshop counter at Christmas time.  It’s a stocking filler: it’s a story filler, too.

There are plenty of snippets of information I like. For instance, did you know Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap?  His feline companion kept distracting him with demands to be let in and out of the house, so he developed a solution.

This, I think could be part of a new story. It could be that the fit will be thematic rather than the story centre, and I’ve no immediate suggestion on how or where that might happen.  It will though.  Trust me.

Let the idea sink in slowly.  Don’t necessarily try to picture Newton.  Writing about Regency Britain could be a little demanding.  Think about cat flaps. Maybe sleep on it.

Have you heard the story about the woman who returned home from shopping to find her Rottweiler dog choking?  She took it to the vet, who rushed the dog off for an operation.

As the woman drove home the vet called her mobile, and told her to wait in her car.  She pulled up, the police arrived, rushed into her house, and arrested a man they found hiding there.  His left hand was wrapped in a bloody towel. The vet had extracted two severed fingers from the dog’s throat, then phoned the police.

It turned out that the burglar had crawled through the dog-flap, somehow not suspecting why there was such a large access point.

This isn’t a story either, it’s an anecdote. It could be more, though.

Add in that Carl Kahler picture, at the top of the post, and I think I’m beginning to see a way with this.


Economy in the short story.

pg wodehouseWhat ho, folks.  This week I’ve been reacquainting myself with that great wag, PG Woodhouse.  As usual, it’s only on reading him that I remember how much I like the old fellow.

Yes, he may be a little dated, on first glance.  Mostly he’s skipping through the 1920s and 30s with a series of bright young things.  Is he aware of the general state of the nation? It’s not easy to argue in the positive on a broad scale, though it’s possible to look between the lines and find some social commentary.  Picking it out is one thing, deciding on whether that’s a key part of the writing is altogether another game.

If he’s not, does that matter?  Aren’t the bookshops and library shelves crammed with historical fiction intended only to entertain us?  So really, he’s just one more, with the added bonus that his stories aim to raise a smile.

I admit, it’s an old-fashioned style of smile.  Think early rom-com films with wisecracking pairings like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, or Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Realism is not the intention, this is about sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Try this excerpt from a classy piece of Wodehouse, The Reverent Wooing of Archibald.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man.  It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realised that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.  Even at the Drones Club, where the average of intellect is not high, it was often said of Archibald that, had his brain been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to it to find sufficient material to make a canary pair of cami-knickers.

pg wodehouse 2All would be well, if the purpose of Archie’s life continued to be seeking out new designs of sock for his collection.  But one day, as he’s sitting at a window of the Drone Club, sipping a cocktail and looking out on Dover street, ‘there swam into his line of vision something that looked like a Greek goddess.’

Are you hooked, yet?  What I love about this story is that it has style, and elegance.

There are two narrators.  The outer, omniscient one, is economical.  Just look at the neatness of his opening sentence:

The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest, which always tends to get deepish towards closing-time, had turned to the subject of the Modern Girl; and a Gin-and-Ginger-Ale sitting in the corner by the window remarked that it was strange how types die out.

It’s long, but there’s an awful lot packed into it, and really, no more is needed to set the scene, is there?  After this, we’re moving forwards into the story.

Soon Mr Mulliner takes over the narration, and adds his distinctive turn of phrase to that economy, as in the description of his nephew Archibald, quoted above.

As for that tricky business of introducing a clutch of secondary characters into your story without confusing the dear reader, has anyone ever bettered Wodehouse’s decision to define them by their drinks?  It allows him to add in a ‘Draught Stout’, a ‘Small Bass’, and ‘A Double-Whisky-and Splash’, and even though in a page or so they’ll disappear from the rest of the narrative we’ve not expended enough energy on them to regret their absence. That’s what I call a witty solution.

So, dated or not, I think this old boy still has a few tricks we can learn from. And if you’ve not read him before, The Reverent Wooing of Archibald is a good place to start.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?


Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep.  I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches.  Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.

The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold.  What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.

Take, The Monkey’s Paw.  Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky?  What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured.  Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described.  It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep.  Here, instead, is a character study.  The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.

Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’.  That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.

After that, tension is raised gradually.  We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

There are no coincidences in this story.  Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally.  From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established.  One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.

This is good story telling.  Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along.  My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another.  And the real horror?  It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.

The ending is the final touch of genius with this story.  I dare you to read it and not be affected.

On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween?  There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.