Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday 27 September 2008

Major Benjy

I am a snob and I have to thank a guy with a double-barrelled name who wrote a book about snobs for pointing this fact out to me.

But first, a question for the class: What is the purpose of writing? Yes, you at the back.

To educate and entertain, Sir.

To educate and entertain, precisely. Well done that boy. And I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I needed to be reminded of that. Let me elucidate. I received an e-mail from a guy by the name of Guy Fraser-Sampson, the guy to whom I refer in my opening paragraph, in which Guy asked me, and very politely I have to say, if I would be interested in promoting his forthcoming book, Major Benjy, on my website.

My first thought, shallow as it might have been, was: Who in their right mind would write a book called Major Benjy? Titles are like first lines, they're meant to attract the reader not repel them. On reading further I discovered that 'Major Benjy' was in fact a recurring character in the Mapp and Lucia series of novels written in the nineteen-thirties by E. F. Benson. Now, I'd heard of Mapp and Lucia who I had always regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a kind of female Jeeves and Wooster. I had never read any of the six novels nor, strangely enough, had I seen any of the television adaptations of the last three books despite having purchased the first three seasons of Jeeves and Wooster for my wife some years previously. And, I am not ashamed to say, enjoyed with her immensely. But I digress. Soldiering on it transpired that Major Benjy was to be, not a sequel (apparently the novelist Tom Holt has already had a stab at a couple of those), but a midquel, covering the events between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia, the second and third books in the collection. Knowing nothing of the history of these two ladies this did seem an odd place to start.

So I did a bit of research – of the author, his publisher and E. F. Benson – and thought I'd give it a look-see. I replied to Guy and said I wouldn't be willing to plug his book based simply on the contents of an e-mail, however, if he was able to let me have a copy I'd be happy to consider reviewing it. See, I am a snob.

In timely fashion the book arrived. Now, I had two choices here, either a) find a copy of Miss Mapp and familiarise myself with the characters and Benson's style, the better to see if Fraser-Sampson's pastiche carried on in the same vein, or b) take the book on its own merits and then go back and look at other books in the series. I opted for the latter. That said I did take the opportunity of watching a couple of clips on YouTube to get the flavour of the characters. Mapp, on the TV, was played by the redoubtable Prunella Scales and, from all accounts, hairdo aside, there are some similarities between her most famous creation, the draconic Sybil Fawlty, and the jaundiced and crafty Elizabeth Mapp. The thing that worried me a little was that Geraldine McEwan's Lucia had such screen presence I did have to wonder how entertaining Mapp would be on her own.

The purpose of writing is to educate and entertain. We have established that. Education is always to be recommended and raised on high but entertainment is not generally so highly regarded. There are those who would go so far as to suggest that reading purely for entertainment is a complete waste of time. And I have always been towards the front of that queue. This is evidenced by the fact that, although I accepted the thing as gracefully as I could muster, I did turn my nose up privately when a former boss gifted me a copy of Flashman and the Tiger one Christmas; he knew that I was a bookish sort and these were the kind of books he liked to unwind with. I never threw it out or gave it away, it still sits in my bookcase to this day, but I've never even opened the thing to see what's on the inside. I told you I was a snob.

But, far be it from me to refuse a fellow writer trying to plug his first novel. I know exactly what that feels like. A snob I may be but I would hope not an uncharitable one.

The titular hero, Benjamin Flint, a moustachioed, retired military man, golfer and alcoholic, is a long-time resident of Tilling, a picturesque town near Hasting, where he settled after retirement from the army after spending many happy years in India. Much affected by the time serving the Raj, his home is full of moth-eaten tiger skins and other memorabilia; likewise his speech is peppered with Hindustani phrases and references to exotic ailments (not all of which are endemic to the Indian continent) from which he is wont to suffer whenever it suits him to. Essentially he is, like most of his fellow Tillingites, the kind of two-dimensional character often to be found frequenting episodes of Poirot and The Two Ronnies. Even in my own novel I have a character called 'The General' who is a member of this illustrious clan and which probably includes Flashman too. Flint is a flawed character who trades off a past that is nowhere near as illustrious as he might have one believe and this is evidenced by the fact he cannot always keep his stories straight:

After a minute or two the Major could be heard descending the stairs rather heavily. He opened the door to Miss Mapp clad in what had once obviously been a rather splendid Chinese silk dressing gown but which was now somewhat faded and starting to look as threadbare as the tiger skin rug which the Major claimed variously to have killed with a Mauser rifle in Bengal, with an elephant gun in Rajasthan, and with the single sword stroke that famous day in the Punjab which saved the life of a Maharajah, no less, in the process. Indeed, Miss Mapp had been heard to venture that if she had been killed as many times as Major Flint’s tiger then doubtless she would be looking a little the worse for wear herself.

Now, before we proceed too far down this track I should make it clear that, although the book is entitled Major Benjy, this is really an ensemble piece and focuses just as much, if not more, on the conniving Miss Mapp who has, as the saying goes, set her cap in the major's general direction. It was she who first assigned him the sobriquet 'Major Benjy'.

I asked Fraser-Sampson about the book and he admitted happily: "It is pure escapism! I have wanted to write this book ever since I was about 11 years old." So, is this simply fan fiction? Yes, of course it is. He has been intoxicated by these books for the best part of his life. It is also, if you'll pardon my French, damnably good fan fiction and I've read a few Dr. Who novels so I know how bad fan fiction can get.

His literary hero E. F. Benson relishes the sentence. With few exceptions there isn't a sentence I couldn't pull out of this book as an example of how to enjoy English. Okay, these off-the-cuff remarks have been sweated over in just the same way as any uttered by characters created by the Brontë sisters but that doesn't stop people reading them. In fact they delight in their use of language. And Fraser-Sampson has nailed it. After finishing Major Benjy I set about Miss Mapp and, had I not known better, I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that it was the same author.

Okay, he's got the language right but what about the story? Ah, the story. The thing is, the story really isn't that important. This is the kind of claim I would normally make about Beckett and it's true for exactly the same reason. We have a story, a plot and subplots and they're all tied together with great precision in exactly the same way as P. G. Wodehouse would; he is my only point of comparison and the similarities are striking. Evelyn Waugh said Wodehouse's world was one when nothing ever changes and nothing ever will; there is a sense of a lost paradise. Let me allow him a few moments to elucidate:

I am confident that Mr Wodehouse's characters will live. It is the half-real characters of the ordinary popular novelist who disappear. Literary characters may survive either through being so real and round that they are true of any age and race, or through being so stylized that they carry their own world with them. [...] of the second [group] are Mr Wodehouse's characters. They live in their own universe like the characters of a fairy story. [...] Mr Wodehouse's characters are purely and essentially literary characters. We do not concern ourselves with the economic implications of their position; we are not sceptical about their quite astonishing celibacy. Their desperate, transitory, romantic passions are unconnected with the hope or fear of procreation; age in their world is usually cantankerous, extreme youth, obnoxious; they all live, year after year, in their robust middle twenties; their only sickness is an occasional hangover. It is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed. –

With very little alteration I could say the same about the Cluedoesque characters created by Benson and kept alive by Holt and Fraser-Sampson.

The plot? Oh, fine. Here's what the press release has to say:

Romantic entanglements stir the still waters of Tilling society, cunning plots are laid and unforeseen complications ensue. Who is doing what to whom with a bottle of sesame oil? What is the truth behind the great Tilling chocolate cake mystery? Why does Major Flint need a loaded elephant gun? Did Miss Mapp really poison the Padre? Are Diva Plaistow's days as a single woman numbered? How will Mr Wyse measure up as a man of action? Or Susan as a marriage counsellor? Oh yes … and what really happened to Lucy?

There are a few reasons why Fraser-Sampson chose to write his first book – yes, he plans more – but it appears that Lucy, 'Quaint' Irene Cole's six foot maid, disappears in the narrative gap between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia and he decided to investigate the circumstances surrounding this event. If I was to criticise the book then I have to say that I could see how that was going to pan out very early in the book. But I didn't anticipate the fiasco of the chocolate cake. Or the reason for Mapp's train journey. Or the identity of the rough-looking man who was seeking out the major. But everything is wrapped up neatly at the end and the scene set for Lucia's arrival. And, like all good writing, although there is structure it is not noticeable.

But the main thing about this book is its revelling in language, for example, when the elephant gun is finally discharged:

The elephant gun gave forth a belch of flame and a bang which sounded like the end of the world and rattled every window in Tilling … There was a smash of breaking glass as a heavy calibre projectile entered the bedroom window of the house of the late Captain Puffin, whom some claimed had drowned in a bowl of soup, but who had in reality probably simply suffered a seizure and unfortunately fallen forwards into his soup showing a sad lack of regard for the arcane Tilling etiquette of dying tidily and thoughtfully.

Fortunately the house, and thus the bedroom, were both empty, and the bullet proceeded on its way unimpeded by human flesh through first the ceiling and then the roof. As it erupted through the tiles, a pair of nesting gulls who had been sitting immediately beside the sudden gaping hole rose screaming into the air, followed a second later by every other seabird for miles around, their raucous cries echoing across the marshes. The sound of a dozen of so roofing slates sliding down the tiles and crashing into smithereens in the street below, fortunately without hitting anyone, completed the effect.

Two 'fortunatelys' in the one paragraph? Tsk-tsk. This is precisely the kind of faux pas that any member of the folk of Tilling would pick up on. Their small lives revolve around rules of etiquette and one-upmanship. The currency is tittle-tattle. "Any news?" their war-cry. Every encounter is a dilemma. What do I do here? What the correct procedure? How can I make sure things don't backfire on me? If I may illustrate:

[Miss Mapp's] shortest path to Twistervants the greengrocers lay undeniably to the right but she hesitated and turned left instead, to knock a trifle imperiously at the Major’s front door. There was what sounded suspiciously like some swearing from the innermost depths and then the door was opened abruptly by the Major himself with a peremptory “yes?” It was unfortunate that a combination of a bad hangover and no breakfast should have made the Major forgetful. It was doubly unfortunate that what he should have forgotten were his trousers.

Miss Mapp had always felt herself equal to any social dilemma that might befall her, but even her resolute personality was momentarily nonplussed by the irrefutable fact that she, an unmarried woman of unimpeachable virtue, could be seen standing in broad daylight in the streets of Tilling talking to an unmarried man dressed impeccably in collar and tie above the waist, but below it simply in a pair of long woollen underpants of indeterminate hue. She quelled the instinctive shriek that rose unbidden in her maidenly throat, and decided that by far the kindest thing would be simply to ignore the situation.

“Good morning, Major,” she cooed, her eyes fixed determinedly on his face. “I thought I should just see if everything was alright, as I thought I heard you cry out a little earlier. I wondered if perhaps you had cut yourself shaving?”

The Major’s realisation that he was not wearing any trousers had come a second or two after Miss Mapp’s and roused in him a perturbation that was second only to her own. What on earth could he do? To slam the door in her face was an option, but could be quickly dismissed on the grounds of how rude it would look. To cower behind it with his head poking around the edge was surely unmanly. His eyes met her own fixed and somewhat desperate gaze and he decided in an instant to take his lead from her and pretend that nothing was amiss.

And, yes, this is the second instance where the major has to open his door to Miss Mapp and there are more. Indeed, if she's not at his door then she is perched in her Garden Room, watching his front door … with an eye on the High Street of course.

The pleasure of Mapp and Lucia is summed up, surely, in Alice Roosevelt's bon mot. "If you have nothing good to say about anybody," she is supposed to have said, "come and sit right by me." This sordid and unforgiving tale of unfulfilled bourgeois life in the English provinces portrays characters of quite monstrous selfishness and cruelty, devoted to humiliating each other in public, telling lies, and compensating in heartbreaking ways for the frustrations and narrowness of their lives. - Philip Hensher, Penguin Classics, July 26, 2008

Bottom line, would I recommend this book? Absolutely. As long as you know what you're getting into. The simple fact is I was smiling by the end of the first page and I continued to smile throughout the book. Is it an easy read? Yes and no. You could rush through this book and get the gist but the whole point of a book like this is to stroll through it like any of the residents wandering up Tilling High Street on the lookout for some juicy gossip. If you tread carefully you will be rewarded.

A few links worth checking are the following:

Mapp and Lucia glossary
The E F Benson website
E F Benson webpage
The E F Benson Society
Literature Map for E. F. Benson
Guy Fraser-Sampson's Literary Blog
Troubador Books' website

Guy Fraser-Sampson originally qualified as a lawyer and became an equity partner in a City of London law firm at the age of 26. In 1986 he left the law and has since gained twenty years' experience in the investment arena, particularly in the field of private equity. His is the author of two best-selling non-fiction books. Major Benjy, his first foray into fiction, was published on 11th September 2008.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Funny Strange

It's been a while since I've done a blog about one of my comic heroes but the performance of one of my short stories in London provides me with an opportunity to talk about Tony Hancock.

Actually I don't really want to talk about Tony Hancock so much as I want to talk about Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, the persona Hancock added to scripts penned by two of the greatest comedy writers this country has ever produced: Galton and Simpson. ('St John' is pronounced 'sinjun' by the way. Don't ask.)

Brits love a loser. I don't know what it is about the British but we do love rooting for the underdog. I look at the comedians we've produced over the years and they really are a downtrodden lot. I'm thinking here primarily of those who came out of the last gasp of the musical hall tradition, drifted into radio after being demobbed and appeared as if my magic on our 12" TV screens in the nineteen-fifties. I'm thinking here of the likes of Charlie Drake, Spike Milligan and Norman Wisdom among others, all of whom played the little guy so well.

Hancock had a different take on his underdoggedness – he refused to accept it. Hancock had an attitude. And by 'Hancock' I mean both the actor and his character who in all fairness was simply a gross exaggeration of the actor. The character was pompous, pretentious and opinionated and yet also surprisingly naïve and gullible at times. Hancock the actor was insecure, desperate for success but unable to cope with it when it came.

Galton and Simpson, who wrote most of his classic episodes, were very forward-thinking writers. And experimental, don't forget. Everyone always goes on about the pauses in Pinter but he was certainly not the first. And although they didn't invent the situation comedy, they ensured its continued future as a staple of TV programming for decades to come. And I've already written about how they took the essence of Beckett and transformed it into unmissable TV gold with Steptoe and Son.

What was striking with Hancock's Half-Hour is the fact that what they were presenting was such a radical departure from the rapid fire humour of people like Ted Ray, Max Miller and the nothing less than frenetic Goon Show. Hancock would mope around his house (23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam – the worst area of a very genteel neighbourhood) sighing and huffing as in the classic episode 'The Bedsitter' which opens with him lying on his bed blowing smoke rings:

'The Bedsitter' Part 1

And, if you want to see how that all pans out, here're links to Part 2 and Part 3.

What I find of particular interest is the fact that in their biography of him Freddie Hancock and David Nathan devote five whole pages to showing just how detailed the script was for this episode. Elsewhere in the book they make this observation:

From the moment the perfection of the creation was achieved the clown struggled to free himself from it. It was like watching a man trying to lose his own shadow.

Hancock suffered from depression, became dependent on alcohol and finally died under questionable circumstances alone in a hotel room in Australia; the general consensus is that it was suicide but no one knows for sure.

The private life of the comic is always something that has fascinated me, indeed the private life of any public figure. Really what fascinated me is truth. It always has.

Which bring us to my short story 'Funny Strange', performed recently by Liars' League in London.

The narrator in my short story 'Funny Strange' is not Hancock, not either of them. But he was modelled on him. I wanted to portray the clown's other face, a comedian at the end of his career and nearing the end of his life. The story was written not long after the first series of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads had been aired and I had been totally inspired by his monologues. Not all of my stories are monologues but I enjoy the format immensely.

It's a short piece, less than 1700 words, so I don't have time for anything more than a single theme. Hancock was obsessed with philosophy off camera, in particular the thorny issue of life's meaning so I make my comedian similarly preoccupied:

A comedian told a joke in a forest but there was no one there to hear it. So was it funny? I don’t know the answer to that one either. All I know is that once my audience turned their backs on me I stopped being funny, there was no one to be funny for, no one to entertain. “Crack joko ergo sum,” as the pigs say in Latin: I joke therefore I am.

It was written as a short story but in my head it's always been a monologue.

I am sure of my identity. I'm not always happy with it but unlike the actor, I know of no alternative. And when you're hugely successful being someone else it must be difficult returning to the old you. When you're a comic it must be hard not to look at the universe as one big joke and maybe not a very funny one at that.

The comedian in my story is at the end of his career. Rather than having died I tried to imagine where someone like Hancock would've ended up. Norman Wisdom now suffers from vascular dementia and is in a care home. So bad is his memory that he no longer recognises himself in his own film. I wanted my comic to remember everything and he does. He bemoans the state of the country, the falling standards of stand-up comedy, his marriage and his life. It was fascinating a) listening to an actor bring the man to life and b) listening to the audience respond to his excellent characterisation. The actor, Clive Greenwood (who stepped in at the last minute I'm told), plays the comedian as an Eastender – east end of London that is (think Bob Hoskins and you're right on the money) – and it's perfect. I sent them an e-mail when the story was accepted with a few pointers, explaining who the character was modelled on, but saying that the accent was not as important as the social class – he had to be a commoner so he could've done a north of England accent or even a Glaswegian would've been fine, but the choice he made was perfect, in fact we recently watched Hoskins on TV in a monologue and I think Greenwood might be a better Hoskins than Hoskins. Apparently he does a mean Charles Hawtrey too.

Anyway, something a little different today. Here's a video of the recording. There's no picture but a set of slides of the text. It's 11 minutes long and I just sat with a stupid grin on my face all the time it was playing, even when it got to the sad bits. I really hope I get the chance to provide them with something again. You can see the full text of the story on the Liars' League website along with an audio link should you prefer.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 10

Shuggie: Ya know, dug…
The dug: Grrrf?
Shuggie: …thurur times Ah cud dae wi sumwan ti talk to. Ya know…
The dug: Rowf.
Shuggie: Yeah, that's raight. Ah mean, luk at oor Jim. E's jist ad an innerfew an effrythin wi' sum bloke in Spain.
The dug: Grfff?
Shuggie: Aye, Spain. Whidya hink Ah said ye daft mutt? Y'know, Costa del Armanaleg. Sun, sea, sangria, siestas, sex…
The dug: Grrrrrr.
Shuggie: Yeah, I know that's a sore point wi yoo efter since we goat ya seen tae. But bear wi me wid ya? Whit wus Ah sayin? Sun, sea, sex…and Rayul Mudrid.
The dug: Pffft.
Shuggie: Did yoo jist let wan aff?
The dug: Grfff?
Shuggie: Christ, dug! Whit's Aggie bin feedin ya? Smells like (sniff) smells lik ma soaks akchally. Huv yoo bin eatin ma soaks oot the laundy agin? Ah've warnt yer aboot that huvun't Ah ye wee shite?
The dug: Yip. Yip.
Shuggie: Wull thur's nae need tae luk sae pleased wi yersel. Christ oan a bike! Hang oan whil Ah open a windae.
The dug: Grrrr.
Shuggie: Raight. Whit wis Ah oan aboot? That's it! Spain. Yeah, oor Jim's bin talkin ti this bloke cawd Barnett or Burnett or summat lik that. Saw aboot is writin an it's dead brullyint. Jawant me t'read it t'ye till Aggie gets back wi oor tea? Miby she'll huv a soasage fer yer.
The dug: Grfff?
Shuggie: Ah'll take that t'be an 'aye' then. Raight, whuruma gleasses?
The dug: Ruff. Ruff.
Shuggie: Okay dokey, Ah see thum. Raight, it's the Tell Me a Story site… At's funny innit? Innit?
The dug: …
Shuggie: Well fine. Ah thought it were funny. Yesittin comfey, dug?
The dug: Growlf.
Shuggie: Then Ah'll begin…

Thursday 18 September 2008


Where do stories come from? Where do stories come from? I wish I knew. I really do. I'd up roots and move there. There are some where I know exactly where they've come from. Take my story 'Zeitgeist' foe example, I was sitting on a bus coming back from work when a colleague said, in his very broad Ayrshire accent: "Ma wife says Ah'm too serious" and I went home and wrote a story that began with those exact words which I presented to him a few days later mainly to see if I'd got the accent and phraseology right; it's a little different to the Glasgow accents of which there are several.

'Jewelweed' was a completely different story but in some respects still the same. I've heard Harold Pinter talk about the evolution of his plays and there have been times when he's begun only with a voice, or voices, not knowing who was speaking or to whom or what about. In an interview he said, talking about his work as a director, "I work much as I write, just moving from one thing to another to see what's going to happen next. One tries to get the thing…true." That I can understand. That was how my novel Milligan and Murphy began. I was walking across the blue bridge that crosses the Clyde – we had a nice flat in the Gorbals at the time – and I 'heard' in my head the words: "Milligan and Murphy were brothers," and that was it. I had no idea who they were or anything like that or how they could have different surnames and still be brothers. I certainly had no idea who was doing the talking. No, all I had were those five words. By the time I'd crossed Glasgow Green I had a paragraph but I was still none the wiser.

'Jewelweed' had just been published in Static Movement but just bear with me before you rush off to read it. I'll put a link for you right at the end. For the moment I'd simply like to examine that very first paragraph, all four sentences of it, and then you're free to have a shuftie. Okay?

'Jewelweed' didn't begin like either 'Zeitgeist' or Milligan and Murphy. I sat down at my computer with a blank screen and a blanker mind and wrote the first thing that came into my head:

One would have thought that a prerequisite for being a primary school teacher, even before one starts to look at qualifications and experience, might be a fondness for, or at least not a total loathing of, children.

Okay, it might not have been as clean as that, but that was the gist of it. So where did that come from?

I'm not one who spends an awful lot of time looking back. I'm always struck by how much Carrie can remember about her various schools – and she talks about them often and with affection – but I don't. I remember the schools I went to and the names of a lot – though not all – of the teachers but considering how much of my life I spent in those classrooms I'm really surprisingly hazy.

I first walked through a school door with my mother in tow in August 1964. It's not there any more. All that's left is the back gate. I remember the first day reasonably clearly. We were all given toys to occupy us. I got building blocks and, being a bright kid, after about three minutes I was bored. Some time later the toys were swapped over but somehow I got skipped over. I raised my hand to inform the teacher of her oversight. She listened but I was told just to get on with what I was doing. Now I think back it was probably her first day too – she must only have been just out of uni or maybe even teacher training college.

But we are talking about the Scottish school system of the 1960s. We learned by rote and the belt was used liberally. Although some of my teachers were nice enough I do remember an atmosphere of fear being prevalent; the headmaster was a tall, stern figure, old-fashioned in his ways, with a face that looked like life had given it a good tanking. My father had cause to have words with him once – I forget over what – and this singled me out and I was convinced he hated me more than the rest. Fortunately I was a good boy and never had to be sent to his office but I always expected if I ever was my punishment would be disproportionate to my crimes. The deputy-headmistress was only marginally better but, oddly enough, I always felt she had a soft spot for me.

I guess this brings us to the second sentence in the story:

This, strangely, has never been the case and I’m sure your childhood is replete, as is mine, with wicked old spinsters who just happen to have ended up responsible for entire classes of innocent children.

I only received the belt once at Primary School. I do remember that clearly because I believed it was not deserved and the teacher – one, up until that moment I had been quite fond of – would not listen to reason. THAT was an important life lesson and I've always had an aversion for the kind of people to strike first and ask questions afterwards. Lines I got more often, in fact in Primary 4 the teacher gave me lines daily. Her expressed logic was to improve my handwriting which, to be fair, was poor but lines are lines – it felt like punishment.

Anyway, you get the idea. I really couldn't tell you why on the day I wrote that sentence or why any primary school came to my mind because, as I've said, it really isn't something I think about very often and I tend only to talk about it in response to direct questions. But I had what was in effect a writing prompt in front of me and I needed to do something with it.

As a kid I did used to wonder about the private lives of teachers. It wasn't until first year at the Academy I even saw a teacher outside of school. It was one of the art teachers and I bumped into him coming out of a library. Strange, he looked as embarrassed as me and he was attached to a wife and kids and he just didn't look right. We were both out of context. I was only once in a teacher's house. I'd entered a poetry competition and received an honourable mention and I went round to my English teacher's house to give her the good news. Did she not invite me in and offer me booze. Now that was an interesting experience. I must have been fourteen at the time. Oh, I forgot to mention she was about a hundred and seven so drink was all that was on the table. (I think I need to end this paragraph now).

Here's the third sentence:

Of course, they’re never what we believe them to be, they have lives and loves and hopes and fears just like the rest of us but they seem a breed apart, not like the rest of us, caricatures, the butt of many a joke, sketch or skit on TV.

Fine, fine fine. Everything was going just fine up until this point. And then I went and wrote this sentence and set the direction of my story in stone:

Vivienne never cared to be reduced to a stereotype even if there was some basis for the reduction.

For the record I have never had a teacher called Vivienne. Okay, I might have had a teacher called Vivienne and not known it. Teachers in the nineteen-sixties were not big on first names; they relaxed somewhat in the seventies. In all honesty I've never knowingly known anyone called Vivienne inside or outside the teaching profession.

I know a lot of writers struggle with names for their characters. I can't say I ever have. I usually jump at the first one that comes to my mind. It's not out of the bounds of possibility that I'd look up the meaning of a name to see if it was appropriate to the character – Vivienne is of French origin and comes from the word Vive, which means to live or alive – but I tend to do that before I write further. I've only once that I can remember doing a global replace on a character's name and I was never happy with the change; the original name had attached itself to the character in my head and that's what she'll always be to me, but it was the right thing to do for other reasons and she was only a minor character.

'Jewelweed' is an interesting story for another reason: it's about something I know nothing about, i.e. horticulture – and I got there in paragraph two. Someone please explain to me how that happened. Thank God for Google. Actually it might not have been Google in 1999. I'm not sure what my search engine of choice was back then.

I'm going to leave it there and let you read the story. Here's that nice convenient link I promised you a while back. By the way the character of 'Tommy Stephens' is very much me. That's what happens when you leave a precocious five year-old with building blocks. Ah, payback.

Oh, and for the record, this is my wife's favourite story.

Monday 15 September 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 9

Aggie: Whur've ye bin? Ah'm freezin ma tits aff waitin fer yoo.
Maggie: Sorry, Ma. Da kept me talkin an Ah wis late fer the bus.
Aggie: Ah hope so. Jist as loang as yoo wurnae hangin aroun wi that Duggie Scoat character.
Maggie: Ah wisne.
Aggie: Wull yoo betta no. Ah wis talkin to er next door an she said she saw im doon by the gaswurks readin Roabert Ludlum.
Maggie: E widne dae that. E towd me e wis half way throo À la recherché du temps perdu.
Aggie: Aye, yer faither tawd me e wur a Proost man when we wis datin an Ah fund oot oan the hunnymoon e'd oanly feenished Swaann's Way. Ye canne trust men, hen. Anywise next door wis alsa tellin me aboot anither cupul o reviews aff yer Unca Jim's book that Ah'd nae seen
Maggie: Mair?
Aggie: Aye. Thur's wan frae Sabrina Williams. Is she no a tennis player? Whit's she daein reviewin books?
Maggie: No Ma, she's a reggae singer. Who's the utha wan?
Aggie: Sum wan cawd Nathan KP.
Maggie: Soonds lik a nut t'me.
Aggie: Noo don be flippant young lady. Ah'm shair e's a luvely man. B'side e gave Jim's book five stars.
Maggie: Five stars? Way t'go Unca Jim. Did she give yer the web addresses?
Aggie: Aye. Sabrina's site's cawd Breeni Books an Nathan's is Inkweaver. Ah've goat a note af thur addresses in ma purse. Raight, Ah cud dae wi a wee drink. Ah jist wun a tenner at the bingo an it's burnin a hole in ma poaket.
Maggie: Well Da says t'fetch him in a fish suppa oan the way hame.
Aggie: Oh, e dus dus e?
Maggie: Aye – wi two pickles.
Aggie: Well we'll see, won't we Mags?
Maggie: Jist as lang as e knows Ah passed the wurd oan.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Is there anybody out there?

I have nothing to say and I'm saying it. – John Cage

I've been fortunate to have another couple of poems accepted for publication in Apple Valley Review. The poems are 'Petrified Poem' and 'Communication Gap'. It's a good choice by the editor since there is a definite connection between the two pieces even though they were written a year apart, August 2004 and July 2005 respectively. They could've been written within a couple of days of each other.

The first poem uses the metaphor of rock which I turn into a pun. In the UK there is a product called 'rock', seaside rock, which usually comes in sticks. The classic variety is mint-flavoured with a pink rim, has a white inside and has writing the full length of the stick, usually the name of the town in which it was purchased unless you buy your rock in Edinburgh where you get this sweet, chalky pastel-coloured stuff in lumps or small sticks and God alone knows what passes for rock in Kirriemuir.

It's about my old whipping boy, truth, and how writers have their work cut out when working with it. Truth is static: A met B and they did C to D who said, "E, F," and "G, wasn't that fun?" The truth is inconvenient, sloppy. The novelist Julian Barnes had this to say about the perverse amalgam of truth and lies that is his fiction:

Fiction is telling the truth by telling lies, as opposed to telling less of the truth by telling facts... When you read the great and beautiful liars of fiction you feel that this is what life is. This is true, even though it is all made up.

People – and by 'people' I mean 'readers' – invariably want to look behind the words on the page: "Wot's goin' on 'ere then?" They're always convinced that's there's more there than meets the eye. The big problem with fiction is that, by its very nature, it is two dimensional; even the most intellectual book in the world has no depth, none whatsoever. Life is multidimensional. I wouldn't even say it's three or four-dimensional. When you do something there's always stuff going on beneath the surface, what's going on in the character's head, their conscious motivations and then there's the subconscious ones. On a page the challenge is to suggest all of this and let the reader fill in the blanks. And that's getting into very dangerous territory. It's all very complicated. Or would that be 'complex'? What is the right word? Maybe I should've used 'difficult' instead.

So what's the hidden message? I know what you said, but what do you mean? Ah, yes, meaning. Maybe I should read the poem backwards. That used to work with LPs.

There's a school of thought, expounded in several of Michelangelo's letters as well as in a famous sonnet, that says that there's a sculpture inside every lump of rock (well, marble in Michelangelo's case) and all the sculptor has to do is remove that which isn't sculpture. This idea, which had already partly expressed by Alberti, attained with Michelangelo a higher philosophical meaning: the sculptor's hand, guided by intellect, could only take out what was already extant inside the block of marble and needed to free the "idea" inside from the superfluous surrounding it.

I've always liked this notion. I'm not sure I agree with it but that's neither here nor there. To my mind a block of text is like a block of marble, just waiting for the reader to find the meaning at the heart of the piece. Let's face it, so many great writers of the past are now remembered by quotes, scraps of what they've written often not lasting a whole sentence.

Here's a quote for you. It's not a bad one and it's a whole sentence.

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. - Edwin Schlossberg

I agree totally with that statement. I had no idea who this Schlossberg guy was when I first read the quote. I assumed he was possibly some lesser known Austrian thinker. Actually he's not but this quote was included on a site with others from such intellectual giants as Agatha Christie, George Orwell, H. G. Wells and George Burns. One has to wonder if all that Edwin Schlossberg passes onto posterity will be that quote. It's not a bad quote as quotes go. But I wonder if the context would make any difference. Perhaps his next sentence was:

And no sentence can be better contextualised than with the new Parker PumpActionTM Gel Roller.

Don't look it up. It's not a real pen. Shock horror! I made it up.

The message in 'Petrified Poem' is that there is no secret message, no hidden compartment; it's just a pile of words and if you can make something out of them then good luck to you.

The second poem is on a similar subject. What is a writer when he's not writing? I know a lot of writers fear this question. They feel they have to have a pen strapped to their hand twenty-four hours a day or they're not a 'real writer'. God, I didn't write a single word today, I must be kidding myself and everyone else. My whole life is a lie! I was talking to a young fellow I know who is going through a bad bout of writer's block and we decided he wasn't a writer any more, we'd call him a wroter instead.

This is something I tackled years ago. How do writers cope with things? What is their natural response to … well, anything pretty much? It's to write about it. I have no idea what I was so angry about in March 1985, so angry that I included the date in the title of the poem, but I was obviously having a problem with expressing it:


Unable to find words angry enough
yet still needing to write,
he resorted to scribbling wildly,
and ended doodling:
boxes within boxes.

'Communication Gap' is on a similar theme, the inability to communicate with another person through words on a page. There is a huge gulf between you and I just now. Yes, you. I'm talking to you. Stop slouching and pay attention. I have a message to convey just now. And all I've got are these measly little words. Pah!

What am I trying to communicate in 'Communication Gap' is my inability to communicate. I have nothing to say … no, I have nothing that words will contain … and yet, I cannot resist the compulsion to express the inexpressible. Or was it inexpressible? You'll have to tell me.

A poem has been described as a window and as a door but it can often be a wall with the poor poet screaming on the other side: "Is there anybody out there?" and the reader with his ear jammed against the wall: "Hello? … Hello?"

In these two poems we have a reader who is looking and a writer who is trying to communicate – a match made in heaven you would think – but the poem stands between them, resolute and even impenetrable but put you ear right up to it and you never know what you might think you hear.

Monday 8 September 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 8

Maggie: Da!
Shuggie: Whit's up, hen?
Maggie: Mere an luk at Sassy Mama Bear's site.
Shuggie: Ah've no time fer weans' stuff
Maggie: It's no weans’ stuff, Da.
Shuggie: Aye it is, Gingerloaks
Maggie: She's no that Mama Bear. She's cawd Pennylope.
Shuggie: Y'mean that poash burd aff Thunnerburds? The wan that aywis wore pink? Wi the butla, Whitsisname?
Maggie: Pearker.
Shuggie: That's the chappie. "Yuss, mulady."
Maggie: Naw. Snaw her. Snuhin like it. She's a wumman oanline who's dunna review aff Unca Jim's book.
Shuggie: Anither yin? Brilyunt.
Maggie: Aye.
Shuggie: Well, why did ye no say that then insteada goin oan aboot stories fer weans?
Maggie: Ah wisne!
Shuggie: Don argue wi yer faither. So whit did she huv ti say?
Maggie: It wis aw gud stuff. Ah don rememmer.
Shuggie: Well, it canne huv bin that gud af ye canne rememmer.
Maggie: It wis! Luk read it yersel, Ah've goat t’go.
Shuggie: Yer no goan oot wi that waster Duggie Scoatt are ye? Ah've warnt ye aboot him.
Maggie: Nah Da. Ah'm goan t'meet Ma oot the Bingo.
Shuggie: Go oan, mak yer ol da a cuppa tea afore ye go.
Maggie: Ah've nae time. Anywise yer big an ugly innuf t'dae it yer sel.
Shuggie: Hey, watch yer cheek, girl. Huv yer left that thing up oan the screen?
Maggie: Aye.
Shuggie: It says The Library at the End o the Universe. Whit's that when it's at hame?
Maggie: That's whit the site's cawd. Noo luk, Ah've goat t'go.
Shuggie: Fine. Tell yer ma t'fetch us in a fish suppa oan er way back. An two pickles.
Maggie: Two pickles? Raight. Bye, Da.
Shuggie: Bye, hen.

Author's note: Okay, there was no Aggie in this one. So sue me.

Thursday 4 September 2008

An interview with Adrian Graham

In my last blog I asked if flash fiction was a joke. Typical me I was just trying to stir things up and see what everyone thinks. I also sent a copy to a writer who specialises in flash fiction and we had a wee talk about it. (Okay, not so much a talk as a couple of e-mails and a list of questions but let's just pretend).

The writer is Adrian Graham whose blog I stumbled over a few months back. There were a few sample stories which I read, liked, and which prompted me to fork out hard cash for his short story collection, The Revelation and 100 other stories. It came. It sat on a shelf for a while and then I read it.

Well I read a bit of it, quite a bit of it, and then I forced myself to stop and do something else. Because nothing was going in. I hadn't finished one story and then I was onto another: Boom! Boom! Boom!

I stopped because I was going gobbling them up like a box of choccies. And I was beginning to not enjoy them quite so much. That's the thing about choccies, choccies are great but too many can sicken you off chocolate for … oh, a whole couple of days.

So, I put the book aside and restricted myself to one section at each sitting. To my mind the whole thing would have worked better as a three and a half month page-a-day calendar. This is not so much a criticism as an observation as to the nature of flash fiction. I could say much the same about any book of poetry.

The book is divided into seven sections: 'Me and other people we know', 'Night vision', 'Pocket studies', 'Remixes', 'Strangers in our midst', 'Computer games' and – my favourite section – 'The story is the story'. Here's my personal favourite:


Robin Mayor woke up to find himself trapped in a short story.

As soon as the shock passed he realised he had about two hundred and fifty words left, or was that about two hundred and forty words? No, make it about two hundred and thirty.

He ran into the street and screamed, “Help me! Please somebody help me. I’m trapped inside a short story. Let me out!”

No one was listening and he was burning through words so fast it would have been foolish to continue. He could feel the word count mounting. He didn’t have long - a hundred words or so.

He went onto the roof of a large building and decided enough was enough. He didn’t want to linger on knowing his time was running out and there was nothing he could do to change it.

His life would end when this short story ended.

He decided he would do it his way and make it happen as fast as possible. He would control his destiny.

“Get me out of here,” he shouted. “Get me out of here! Get me - ”

Now, this is not the first book of flash fiction I've bought. I have Sherril Jaffe's Scars Make Your Body More Interesting & Other Stories and The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard and I had similar issues with them, the Bernhard especially because his stories have hard centres and take a bit of chewing.

Before we hear what Adrian has to say, let's have a look at another of the stories that we talk about in the 'interview':

[Insert title]

‘random story generator’
insert: {character: situation}
{unexpected event}
factual info for authenticity: {Topic}
‘random story algorithm’
go to: ‘generated results’
insert: ‘random story solution’
go to: ‘outcome’
‘plot twist’: setting “average” believability: “medium”
insert: ‘something unexpected’
‘something more unexpected’
hidden: *marketing tie-in*
‘romantic encounter’
protagonist’s fortune rating: “2”
insert: {element of chance}
{the big comeback}
protagonist’s fortune rating: “9”
satisfying solution: happiness: “7” realism: “4”
hidden: *theme*
add-on: {potential for sequel}

1. Adrian, on your own blog you say:

I know people who are eager to dismiss Internet creativity because it doesn't fit into a traditional pattern. It breaks the established notions of how written stories should be created and distributed. I like a good book, like the next person, but the world is changing.

So why bring out a book of flash fiction?

I've always loved creating things. I used to paint a long time ago. I enjoyed the satisfaction of making physical objects. With writing the closest we get to that is the production of a book.

2. In my previous essay I suggested that flash fiction has a lot in common with the common-or-garden gag comprising of a setup and a punch line. Do you think this is a gross oversimplification?
No, I agree with it. I'm sure there are flash fiction writers out there who would disagree though. My writing fits the gag formula, and if it's not a joke then it's a tragi-comedy. I enjoy creating a situation and then subverting it. That’s a standard joke formula. Woody Allen said somewhere that the best way to write a joke is to get the punch line first and work backwards, and that's often how it works for me. Comedy is great because it allows the writer to tackle a serious subject in an approachable way.

3. In 'Detention camp sixteen' a man wakes up in a detention camp where the inmates are forced to write comedy. When he questions the guards the man is beaten senseless. He awakens in his own bed and believes he has just experienced a nightmare. He dozes back off only to awake in the detention camp with a guard beating him and telling him to get writing. This, among other stories, struck me as owing a debt of gratitude to The Twilight Zone, a show that relied heavily on often ironic twists. Was this show a particular influence and, what other influences can you cite?
That's great you've spotted that. I am a fan of The Twilight Zone, especially the famous, 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' episode when a passenger sees a gremlin on an aeroplane wing. In terms of other influences there are James Thurber's, 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' and Roald Dahl's short stories (I enjoyed the television series, Tales of the Unexpected when it aired). Surrealist art is a strong influence as is Philip K Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Matt Madden's graphic book, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. I read Dan Rhodes', Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories after I'd finished the first collection and dithered for a title so I ‘borrowed’ the title idea from him. To my mind that book is the ultimate flash fiction collection.

4. In the 'Remixes' section of your collection you write a spoof of 'Goldilocks' and a sequel to 'The Hare and the Tortoise' and it's obvious that this format is well suited to lampooning subjects which are familiar to the reader already and have, in effect, done much of the setup for the writer. What do you think about this?
Totally. It's a lot of fun subverting someone else’s hard work! I came to this in the way a DJ might remix music. It's fun playing with the readers assumptions about which reality they're in - an 'enchanted fairyland' or normal contemporary life. I think playfulness and subversion are hallmarks of flash fiction, for me at least.

5. All the stories I've read by you veer towards the short end of the flash fiction spectrum, circa 250 words. Why is this length so attractive and how do you resist the temptation to become formulaic in your stories? I'm thinking here about your short story '[Insert title]'.
250 words are long enough to set the scene, introduce a character, throw in a plot twist and close. Anything less, for me, just feels like there isn't enough space for any development to occur. Any longer and there are too many possibilities and it loses its tightness. The stories revolve around a simple concept and 250 words are enough to convey that. As for maintaining the quality and not being too formulaic I go on gut feeling. If it doesn't hit me then it's destined for the bin, right there. Plus I get bored very easily. By the time I neared the end of the first collection the writing process had become the subject. It was time to stop or I’d end up in some insane loop.

6. How would you defend flash fiction against those who think it's not a serious literary form?
It will take time for some people to understand what flash fiction is about. Eventually they'll get the hang of it. The biggest problem is fear - people are afraid of its brevity. It’s almost threatening. I’d say to them, there’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s only short fiction.

One of the delights of being a flash fiction writer is that it does have a subversive side and you can play that up or down. You can say what you like because you don’t have a ‘literary’ reputation to lose. I’ve always believed exciting fiction needs that critical edge. That’s what keeps it ‘alive’.

7. There are great novelists one could point to, great poets, great story writers … but I can't think of a great flash fiction writer. Do you think the time will come? Or has it come?
I say, 'well done' to any writer who makes it big or is credited with the 'great writer' badge, but the best a flash fiction writer can hope for is being called a 'cult' writer. As for the future, anything can happen.

There's a lot of good work being done right now on the web. This is where flash fiction seems most active. You can’t comfortably read a novel on a computer screen but you can read a flash fiction. If you're after some free flash fiction the bearded lady blog has been posting some great stuff recently and Adam Maxwell has been pushing flash fiction into digital media with his award winning podcasts.

As for defending flash fiction it’s important to remember that most of the practitioners, myself included, write these things at speed. We’re simply not aiming for traditional values of ‘greatness’ otherwise we’d be writing novels in the style of Graham Green.

If you want a music analogy we’re not composing classical music we are pumping out dance or rock music. The whole essence of what we’re going for is radically different from traditional ‘literature’. That’s not to say we don’t believe in quality - we do. But the arbiter of that quality is the excitement and sheer fun of writing and reading flash fiction - not holding the writing up as some artefact of ‘great literature’.

8. Do you work in other formats? If so, can you illustrate?
I've written regular length short stories and two novels. Writing a novel is a bit like constructing an intricate puzzle that unleashes itself on the reader over time. My first novel took five years to complete. The second, three months. I've done some graphical / text stories. That’s an area that interests me. I wanted to do a graphical novella but the artist couldn't give over enough time so we had to cancel the project. I’ve made a few short films. I'm always going back to flash fiction. All you need is a pencil and paper and you can create a billion pounds worth of special effects in the readers head.

9. I know you're preparing a second collection. What can you tell me about it?
The second batch is destined to become a limited edition hardback, something really exquisite. The stories are the same length but more sophisticated, more grown up. The confidence I’ve gained has allowed me to loosen up and be more honest. It was tempting to bring back some of the old characters, but I resisted. Maybe another time!

Thank you.

And I'd like to say thank you too to Adrian for those considered answers, so, thank you.

I think we've raised quite a few interesting points over the last couple of blogs. And, as usual, I don't think we've come up with any great answers. For my own part I think I've developed a bit more of an appreciation for Internet publishing. A lot of sites will present you with a quote or a thought-for-the-day and they're fine in their own way but they're maybe just a little insubstantial, a wafer thin mint compared to the champagne truffle with a velvety smooth, dense ganache centre, rich with whipped Vermont cream and butter, and thinly coated in Belgian chocolate that is a flash fiction.

Let me leave you with one last one to chew on from Adrian's forthcoming collection which is to be called Love Can Find You Digitally.

The Land of First Served

You don’t get second chances in The Land of First Come First Served. That was why I emigrated to No Worries. But they threw me out when I got anxious. They didn’t want people like that.

I ended up in Tough Luck. The people there were all mean and complained they’d been sent there by mistake. Everyone had a story that was worse than everyone else. I spent some time in Rock Bottom. That place was terrible. Then I took a train ride to New Beginning. It seemed like the perfect place for a fresh start. I got a job and met a woman. The whole thing was turning out better than I could have ever expected. I began to get positive about my life. I realised I had the potential to achieve things, to be somebody. I woke up in the morning and couldn’t help smiling. For the first time in ages I knew where I was going.

I got a promotion at work. My manager thanked me for my ‘outstanding contribution’ to the company.

When I got home I could tell from my wife’s eyes that I was the most loved man in the world.

I put in an application for Happy Ending. They sent it back with a rude letter saying it wasn’t over yet.

In the land of First Come First Served you don’t get second chances.

Monday 1 September 2008

Is flash fiction a joke?

The thoughts we can understand are very little thoughts... – Jerome K. Jerome

I don't write flash fiction. Okay, I've written two stories that you could call flash fiction and that's it. I even had one of them published so there. But their brevity was more a matter of circumstance than intent. I never sat down to consciously write a piece of flash fiction. I just said what I had to say and got off the page.

If I were to sit down and make up my rules of writing – which I have no intention of doing – one of them would be that: Say what you have to say and get off the page. It surprises me that I haven't been drawn to shorter prose forms because I do write short poems. I think part of it has been that I have never thought about flash fiction as a form in itself. I didn't imagine there were any different rules to writing a flash fiction – Is that correct English? – than there were to writing any story.

I suppose a flash fiction is okay. You have a novel, a novella, a novelette, a short story … and, a flash fiction. Doesn't sound quite right though, does it? Apparently the French call them nouvelles – I like the sound of that – la nouvelle. Other names for this type of writing are: short-short stories, sudden, postcard, minute, furious, fast, quick, skinny, and micro fiction and I have no doubt that there are others but that will do for right now.

There are of course types of flash fiction that have acquired unique names. Wikipedia mentions three:

One type of flash fiction is the short story with an exact word count. Examples include 55 Fiction, the Drabble and the 69er. Nanofictions are complete stories, with at least one character and a discernible plot, exactly 55 words long. A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, excluding titles, and a 69er is a story of exactly 69 words, again excluding the title.

Now, I have a problem with these. It's the same problem I have with the clerihew, the grossblank, the lento, the pantoum, the etheree and all other such contrived poetic forms. As an exercise it's interesting to challenge oneself but that's about it. Anyway, I think that's a subject for another time.

The bottom line, as regards flash fiction or the 'short-short story' as Collier’s magazine in the 1930’s described it, is an arbitrary editorial decision. Collier’s started a new feature and asked for stories that would fit on one page of their magazine (no actual word count was specified but it was easy enough for writers to work out a rough limit); the maximum for most magazine is 1000 words; the editors of the original Flash Fiction anthology decided that they would include only stories that would fit on a two-page spread of the typical literary magazine, or 750 words; MicroHorror draws the line at 666; Right Hand Pointing won’t consider work over 500 words; Jerome Stern who edited MicroFiction, drew the line at 300 words or less; The Abilene Writers Guild Annual Contest sets the limit at 250; Dogzplot define 'flash fiction' as anything up to 200 words … and then there are the Drabble, the 69er and the Nanofiction magazines and, finally, the e-zine OneSentence publishes stories that are exactly that, one sentence long. Here's an example:

My dog is nineteen years old and I just taught him a new trick.

Okay, so we have a sort of length. So the next question is: How does a piece of flash fiction differ – if indeed it does – from a regular short story? The basic elements of most stories are a protagonist, some kind of conflict, obstacle or complication to overcome and a resolution to that encounter: i.e. the chicken was knocked down whilst crossing the road. That's nine words and it covers all the bases but I wouldn't call it a story and yet more can be said with less as Hemingway aptly demonstrated:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

So where's the protagonist, eh? He or she isn't there in fact the only noun in the piece is 'baby shoes'. The fact is the protagonists are all implied. If there are 'baby shoes' then logic dictates that there once may have been a baby. That the shoes are for sale suggests an owner or owners who have the right to sell the shoes. That there might be a relationship between the child and the owners of the shoes is not an unreasonable one to make.

In his short essay, Awww!, Randall Brown says: "Great flash pieces have that “centerlight pop”; without it, the flash does not burn brightly enough to justify its brevity, its suddenness." 'Aw' might be the effect – and in some cases it will be – but in other cases I suspect it might be an 'ah', 'oh', 'argh' or even an 'err?' – in other words a climax, a … punch line.

In an article on George S. Kaufman, Woody Allen provides the following anecdote:

[Moss] Hart has written about Kaufman's ability to edit and pare to the bone, to throw out jokes should they dare to impede the plot -- to kill his children. Kaufman felt that while a drama could survive with a bit of slack, a comedy had to be airtight. The story is told of a playwright suffering with his opus in Philadelphia who asked Kaufman how he could improve it. Without seeing the failing play, Kaufman replied, ''Make it shorter.'' – New York Times

Flash fiction is about as short as it gets.

Q: So how does a piece of flash fiction differ from a joke?
A: I'm not so sure that it necessarily does.

For three years, the young attorney had been taking his brief vacations at this country inn. The last time he'd finally managed an affair with the innkeeper's daughter. Looking forward to an exciting few days, he dragged his suitcase up the stairs of the inn, then stopped short. There sat his lover with an infant on her lap!

"Helen, why didn't you write when you learned you were pregnant?" he cried. "I would have rushed up here, we could have gotten married, and the baby would have my name!"

"Well," she said, "when my folks found out about my condition, we sat up all night talkin' and talkin' and decided it would be better to have a bastard in the family than a lawyer."

What makes this not flash fiction? Is it intent? Jokes are common. Stories like to think they're not. There is a trick to writing good comedy and that's not to treat the audience like a fool; the comedian can be the fool, his subject can play the fool but the audience has to be placed above all of that looking down. In an interview, the writer Barry Yourgrau – who has achieved some level of fame as a flash fiction author – said this:

I find very short items, when good, expand in the reader's imagination. I sometimes, say, like to break off a story right before it's resolved - at a surging cliff-hanger. Let the reader finish things up. – The Millions

Now, the joke above is not a very good joke but it does respect its audience. It doesn't explain itself and relies upon a certain degree of worldly experience from them. Flash fiction is the same. It doesn't have the time to explain things. The thing is, when I look at the story about the dog I'm reminded of the humour of Steven Wright who is famous for his one-liners like:

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

There is a protagonist, an obstacle, a resolution, even a moral but is it flash fiction?

What makes a good joke? That is a good question. Simply put, although I don't think there's anything simple about it, the best jokes are often those that put ideas together in original or unexpected ways. It's also about the relationship between the setup and the punch line. Often this involves misdirection and I think that is something that the best stories do too:


"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

Richard Brautigan – from Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970

The setup and the punch line is just one way of looking at the structure of a story. Most traditional stories have a plot that leads to its climax or dénouement and the best of these are where they're unexpected.

This was something that the long-running television show The Twilight Zone did very well. The stories would typically end with an ironic twist that would often see the guilty punished but sometimes the innocent too, if I can summarise 'Time Enough at Last':

Henry Bemis is a man who loves books and yet is surrounded by those who would prevent him from reading them; his wife even defaces one of his books at one point as a joke. A bank worker by pure fluke Bemis survives the end of the world in the safety of the bank's vault and finds himself alone with enough food to last him a lifetime but no one for company. Just when he thinks he can tolerate the loneliness no longer he stumbles across the ruins of the public library with all of its books still intact and readable. Every book he could ever hope for is his for the taking, and he finally has all the time in the world to read – and no one to stop him.

Organising the books he plans to read by month, Bemis proclaims he has enough to last several years and time enough at last to read them. Just as he reaches to pick up his first book, he trips and his glasses fall off and shatter. In tears, he picks up the remains of his glasses and sobs: "That's–that's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed! It's not fair! "

Now, as was often the case, this was actually an adaptation of a short story. I doubt it was a piece of flash fiction and there's a reason for that. In this story we need time to get to know Bemis and to empathise with him. It's only once we have something invested in him that his loss becomes ours. It is also the kind of cliff-hanger that I believe Yourgrau was on about because we don't know what happens to Bemis. He might go out and find an opticians and see what lenses they have lying around and be back with his books the next day or his might just pull his gun out of his pocket and blow his head off there and then.

If you think about it, the best stories – long, short or middling – always have scope for more. Life is full of ups and downs. George kills Lenny and a few pages later the book is done but what happens to George afterwards. In truth he probably ekes out an existence as best he can and dies quietly sooner than he might have liked but not soon enough for him to get the bitter taste of murdering Lenny out of his mouth. But that's another story and one day someone may well have a crack at writing it.

Compression is not everything. Look at the synopsis I provided above of 'Time Enough At Last' – with, I hasten to add, the assistance of Wikipedia – it's not very good. You get the idea but it's lacking, isn't it? I did toy with the idea of trying to rework it as an exercise but I have enough on my plate at the moment.

It's often said that in poetry you need to make every word work overtime and the same can be said for flash fiction. Take the example by Hemingway – even his spaces are crammed with meaning. It's not poetry. It doesn't pretend to be poetry but it does what the best poetry does and, in most cases, without resorting to poetic language and being accused of being prose poetry.

The first time I heard the expression 'prose poem' was in 1976 when I bought a collection of short stories by Solzhenitsyn. It included at the end a number of, what it called 'prose poems' and here is my favourite:

translated by Michael Glenny

I threw a rotten log onto the fire without noticing that it was alive with ants.

The log began to crackle, the ants came tumbling out and scurried around in desperation. They ran along the top and writhed as they were scorched by the flames. I gripped the log and rolled it to one side. Many of the ants then managed to escape onto the sand or the pine needles.

But, strangely enough, they did not run away from the fire.

They had no sooner overcome their terror than they turned, circled, and some kind of force drew them back to their forsaken homeland. There were many who climbed back onto the burning log, ran about on it, and perished there.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – from Matryona's House and other stories

I read it over many times to try and work out in my head why it wasn't simple a very short story especially since it had the feel of a fable about; it was just lacking the moral at the end. I kinda thought it was a bit like Animal Farm, saying something political that I wasn't getting.

Since then I have read flash pieces that come perilously close to being poems which leads me to suspect that the definition has moved on from 1971 when these stories first appeared in English.

The question that's begging to be asked is: Why the explosion of these now? It's not a hard question to answer but I like how Pamelyn Casto put it:

Some claim that the proliferation of the short-short story is due to modern readers' attenuated attention spans, our shortened sound-byte, text-byte mentality. Others think it is because of the "asthmatic" conditions under which we live--our fiction is reflecting the out-of-breathness of modern life. Some suggest that it is due to increased printing costs and the way in which editors can include more variety and less length in their publications. And some think it is because so many have lost faith in the traditional way of telling stories at great length. Such readers and writers realize that "truth" comes only infrequently and only in flashes. - Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction

What she didn't mention is that flash fiction fits new media. It's why they're so popular in China where they read whole novels on their phones these days. I like the convenience of them myself. When one appears in my FeedReader I know it's not demanding that I make a cup of coffee and settle down in a comfy chair for an hour. I can stop what I'm doing and take a story-break of a couple of minutes.

This is not meant to trivialise the format either, far from it. Like all forms of writing it has its good and its bad exponents. I don't believe that flash fiction is a joke – in the bad sense of the word – but I do believe in its most straightforward expressions it owes a debt to the humourists of the past.

Humour has moved on and so has the art of story-telling. Let me leave you with a few from the books on my shelves to have a think about.


She bought the stuff and gave him an eight dollar bill. He didn't have change. All he had was a three.

Sherril Jaffe – from Scars Make Your Body More Interesting & Other Stories


She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French film."

Amy Hempel – from Tumble Home: a novella and short stories


For years after our mother's death, the post office continued to deliver letters that were addressed to her. The post office had taken no notice of her death.

Thomas Bernhard – from The Voice Imitator

My next post will be an interview with the flash fiction writer Adrian Graham and a look at his collection The Revelation and a hundred other stories.

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