And they call it ‘the flash’…

Thursday afternoon I called in to see my parents.  After we’d caught up on family news, we got to comparing plans. ‘We’re off to Cheltenham tonight,’ I said.  ‘For an open-mic story evening, Flashers’ Club.’

‘Oh,’ said dad, ‘are you reading?’

‘No.  I’m going to listen,’ I said.

‘You’re taking something along though, aren’t you?’ said Ray, when I got home.

‘I’m more comfortable listening,’ I said.

‘That’s because you avoid doing it.  You need practice.’

‘I don’t think I’ve got anything suitable,’ I said, switching on the laptop and trawling through my files.  ‘Most of my stuff is intended to be looked at rather than listened to.’

I did put a story in my pocket. I even found time for a couple of read-throughs, figuring out which bits made me stumble, and making minor changes. I’d done the poetry reading, last year; I sit in front of groups discussing story theory and practice without a qualm, but this was different.

During the twenty-minute drive through lashing rain, we talked.  ‘Is it right at these lights?’

‘No, straight over, then left at the roundabout.’

‘This rain’s getting heavy.’

‘I’ve an idea about your dad’s birthday present.’

There was a five minute dash from car park to street, and the decision about what to order to eat.  It’s so much easier to open the fridge and see what needs using up, than having to chose from a list of tasty dishes someone else will prepare.

‘Where will you be sitting?’ said the woman at the counter.

‘By the window,’ said Ray.

As we settled, two more people came into Smokey Joes, and headed for the glass doors beside the serving counter.

I said, ‘I think it must be open.’  A woman at the next table did too. She picked up her plate of food and migrated through those open doors.

Ray said, ‘You’re right.  We’d better follow, if we want to nab a table too.’

Flashers ClubAlex greeted us with a smile. ‘Three pounds if you read, four if you don’t.’

That’s clever, because it isn’t about saving the money.  How many other events can you find that cost less than a fiver?  Besides, all the proceeds go to charity, so I don’t begrudge a quid.  But, having paid less, not reading would have made me a fraud.

I’d picked one of my shortest pieces of writing, less than a page, double-line spaced, font size fourteen, for ease of reading, and luck was on my side.  My name was not first out of the hat, it was second.  Phew, no time to think, I was up at the lectern, concentrating on my paper and trying not to stumble.

Heart pounding in a way I don’t remember ever experiencing in classes, I tried to breath as I spoke. Slow and clear, I told myself. I concentrated on one word at a time, and followed the punctuation, and wonder of wonders, I arrived at the last full-stop only slightly breathless.

It was done.  I could sit back and enjoy the other readings.

What a selection, aliens, memoir, fantasy, vampires, crime and comedy.  This is why, even if you think you’ll never ever stand at the open mic, you should seek out your nearest story-reading event.

‘The difference is,’ said Ray, on the way home, ‘in class you’re talking about other people’s stories.  Tonight, it was just you, revealing glimpses of your imagination, of yourself. Vulnerability! We don’t do that, do we?’

Advertisements

Public Poetry

Here’s an interesting line of thought about the state of modern poetry. Something that might make us think about what we’re buying and what we’re reading.

Like This Press

9716

Robert Montgomery, installation at Bexhill-on-Sea, lit by recycled sunlight

When Oxford University Press decided, in 1998, to sell off its poetry backlist, begun in the 1960s, and to close its doors to new collections of contemporary poetry, a vigil outside the press’s offices was called by the Poetry Society and the MSF trade union branch. A louder and more direct response came from Alan Howarth, then junior minister in the department of culture, media, and sport. Howarth labelled the financial grounds of the decision ‘barbaric’ and argued that the dropping of the poetry list equated to an ‘erosion of standards’. ‘Has OUP not noticed,’ Howarth asked, ‘that in this day and age we have moved on from the heresy that everything should be susceptible to market forces, that everything should be for sale?’ It is hard to imagine such a statement coming from a government minister today.

At the time…

View original post 3,008 more words

Our WEA heritage

wea-heritage-projectThursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival.   What a lovely event.

blackfriars-gloucesterThe priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect.  Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.

The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories.  Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced.  A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.

The stories have circulated.  Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters.   Imagine that…

During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section.  The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell.  The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’  That’s quite an achievement for a small city.

Those were different days.  To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.

A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.

At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.

The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons.  I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place.  In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:

To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.

The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.

We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects.  If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.

I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:

  • Raising educational aspirations
  • Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
  • Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
  • Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
  • Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
  • Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens

glos-history-festival

76. Why it’s worth writing short stories

Some useful words of advice…

Neil MacDonald Author

Do you suffer anxiety about whether your writing is any good? If you don’t, you’re probably not doing it right. You get lots of advice and encouragement when you start writing. Most of it is well-meaning. Much of it is wrong – at least for you. There’s one thing I wished I’d known when I started. Of course, like most well-meaning advice, it may not be valid for you. But my advice is write and publish short stories, even if your main interest is novels.

Short story Stephen King

Why? Many reasons, but these were the main ones for me:

  • Polish your craft.
  • Boost your confidence
  • Measure your ability.
  • Build a track record.

Polish your craft

Short stories are short. You can write them faster than a novel and revise them more easily. It’s a simpler apprenticeship to serve.

Boost your confidence

Publishing and selling a novel is hard. It takes lots of work…

View original post 365 more words

Snail, and The Simple Linear Plot.

DSCF5265Despite being an enthusiastic, if erratic gardener, I’ve always had a sneaking affection for snails.  It’s not just their shells, which are actually far more decorative and varied than seems necessary, I like the delicate elegance of their antenna, and I’m fascinated by the way they move about.

Out walking on damp mornings, I find them crossing the slick tarmac lane.  Sometimes I anthropomorphize them.  Why did the snail cross the road? Are they fearless, or just oblivious? I’ve often stopped to move them onto the verge.  It’s a quiet lane.  I wonder what I shall say if someone sees what I’m up to?

This is despite the fact that at this time of year, when I’m trying to raise a veg garden, the battle between me and the various gastropods turns epic.  In one night, a sneaky squadron of six slugs turned the leaves of my four young courgette plants to lace, and lacerated the stems either on the way to or from their feast. 

My tolerance doesn’t stretch that far.  I found them skulking under a potato plant nearby.  Don’t tell Dad, who tried to teach me that there’s no place for sentiment in gardening, but I launched them over the fence into the field.  There’s a lush headland of weeds there that ought to keep them happily fed, if they can overcome their homing instinct. 

Yes, snails do have one, (so I assume slugs share it) it was proved in the radio 4 great snail-expirement in 2010.  Apart from anything else, I was glad to discover that I’m not the only gardener who’s too soft-hearted to extinguish them.  Why else would someone have set out to prove that they return again and again?

My gran kept a giant slug in a pot on the garden wall, when I was little.  She called it George and said that he was the biggest she’d ever seen.  That could have been just for entertainment, or to teach us about gardens.  I like to think there was an element of affection involved, that eventually she released him into the wild, rather than ended his life in a salt bath.  It’s far too late to ask, but I thought of her when I turned the bathroom light on the other evening and discovered an uninvited visitor travelling across the window sill.

 After I’d taken a few pictures (well, it’s a talking point, isn’t it?), I un-suckered my mollusc from the tiles, took it out to the hedge and hurled it into that patch where the others had been sent. 

Next night Snail, the same one, surely, was back.  This time Snail had made it past the windowsill and was heading down the wall to the bath.  I’m too well versed in linear plotting to take this lightly.  In making a second attempt, after overcoming my first obstacle, Snail had achieved the status of PROTAGONIST.

Something big was required, something that would leapfrog the story to its third and climatic stage, and have an outcome that was good for me, the ANTAGONIST.  If Snail got the happy ending it was intent on, then one evening I might find tens of freshly hatched snails traversing my bathroom tiles.

So I took Snail on a hike to a woodland glade, about half a mile down the road.  It’s well supplied with tasty flowers and leaves, sunshine, dappled shade, and plenty of protective cover from predators.  It’s surely a snail des-res.

baby snailsI wonder if I’ll feature in the epic stories Snail will recount to all the hatchling snails as a benevolent giant, or an indomitable ogre…Either way, I didn’t give Snail chance to lay a trail of breadcrumbs or pebbles. 

I’ll be keeping close watch on that bathroom window, but I don’t think Snail will be back.  It’s occurred to me that travelling up a wall, a pane of glass and over the window-ledge could be counted as Snail’s first obstacle, and therefore all three plot points have been achieved.

 

 

More thoughts on, The Once & Future King.

This week was our first session discussing White’s novel, which for the sake of brevity, I think I’ll refer to as TOAFK, from here on.  Amongst the various thoughts we had about the reading, an interesting observation was that it was tricky to get hold of a second-hand copy from the usual local suppliers.

One shop said that the book rarely came their way, which led us to speculate about whether most people developed sentimental attachments to theirs.  I still have my first copy, held together with an elastic band, in the drawer with Wuthering Heights which also got read-to-bits.

Why do I keep them? It’s not just sentiment, they’re riddled with notes.  One of these days, when I’ve some spare time, I’ll sit down and see if there’s still any value in those old thoughts.

I don’t write in all of my books, usually only ones I’m studying.  I’m a bit precious about books, not even holding with folding over the corners of the pages – yes, you know who you are…we’ve talked about this.

annotated novelHowever, quite a few of my books have been annotated, because I often buy second hand, and I’m nosy.  I like to see what someone else thought, so given an option, I’ll choose the copy laced with resentment and exclamation marks.  Mostly this happens with old text books, but sometimes I’ll stumble over a note some reader was driven to make in the text of a novel.

Getting back to TOAFK, what I find interesting is that it’s still in publication.  You can buy a paperback or hardback copy, which suggests that it’s still selling well.

I like to think that copies of it are holding their places on a lot of family bookshelves.  Perhaps they are waiting to be re-read, perhaps to be handed on to the next generation.

 

david turnley  us military in saudi arabia

Photo by David Turnley.  U.S  military in Saudi Arabia

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.

 

 

 

 

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

Dubliners

 

A-Birds-Eye-View-Of-Dublin-.jpgI’ve been preparing for the new class starting this week, ‘Meet the Dubliners‘.  Written more than a hundred years ago, these are individual short stories, yet read together they provide a portrait of Dublin city in early 1900, and are sometimes thought of as a novel.

41Nz+xOlieL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Whoa-there though, did I just suggest you could think of Dubliners as a novel?  Hesitantly, I say yes.

Why am I hesitant?  Because I believe that to get the most from literary short stories like Dubliners, we need to approach them as we do literary poetry. For me, that’s a slower read than I tend to give to novels.

It’s a single process too.  I don’t want to move onto the next piece of writing (or chapter) until I’ve had chance to immerse myself in the words.

My favorite sorts of poems and stories aren’t just capable of being re-read, they respond to it.  When I revisit them they give up an additional layer of meaning that I couldn’t have picked up without spending more time absorbing the meanings embedded between the lines and in the multiple interpretations our language is capable of providing.

So why suggest Dubliners could be read like a novel?  Well Joyce designed a reading order for us to follow, and taken together, the stories deliver a coded pattern to be unraveled.  A surprising number of critics do liken this to reading a novel.

Yet it is a collection of short stories.  The proof of this is that any one of the sections will stand a lone reading, and two of them, Araby, and The Dead, have been included in a variety of anthologies.

So, does it matter whether we call this a novel or a story collection?

I think that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking the reading group.