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Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Gathering Night


The Gathering Night I’ve thought quite a bit recently about what historical novelists go though to try to make sure their books are as accurate as possible. In some cases the information available to them is plentiful as in the case of Jay Parini’s book on the last days of Tolstoy where it feels like everyone and his dog was writing a daily diary. Warwick Collins chose as his subject an even more famous writer but focused on a period of his life for which there wasn’t much information and so there’s a fair element of conjecture in his work. He’s not simply needed to imagine conversations but to think of ways to plausibly link what hard facts he had together.

Imagine then the problems faced by the writer Margaret Elphinstone who chose to write about a family who lived in Scotland around about 6150 BC – that would be slap bang in the middle of the Mesolithic period. Okay, no written records then. What then have archaeologists managed to glean from dig sites? Well, they’ve unearthed evidence of a nomadic people who used small stone tools (microliths, microblades and scrapers) often made of flint or chert, who lived in tents, kept domestic animals, could sail (the remains of canoes have been found), fished – obviously – and hunted using bows and spears. There are archaeological digs in Scotland – Margaret herself went to two in Orkney and Coll; in fact it was finding a microlith on Coll that started her thinking about Mesolithic Scots – but since the artefacts uncovered were not so good (possibly because of the acidic soil) she found it necessary to rely on data from Scandinavian digs.

The similarity to Native Americans is striking and when I began reading The Gathering Night I have to say the people I used as a benchmark were Indians but instead of the Sioux, the Crow and the Cheyenne we have the Auk, the Lynx, the Heron and the Seal tribes and instead of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse we have Bakar, Nekané, Amets, Kemen and others, Basque names. Her choice here was not an arbitrary one:

I use Basque names for my characters because, although no one has any idea what languages were spoken in Mesolithic Scotland, Basque is thought to be the only extant language of pre-Indo-European – which is to say, pre-agricultural – origin on the western seaboard of Europe.[1]

So what were these people like? Margaret took the position that “wherever there are people there will be emotions, rituals, metaphors, stories, art... in other words, a constant search for meanings.” Most primitive cultures are spiritually aware. They have medicine men or shamans. The Auk People have Go-Betweens, old men, and occasionally a woman, who are capable of communion with the spirits and who also, although not rulers, are individuals that the people turn to for guidance. The Go-Betweens’ spiritual practices in the book were based on her readings in shamanistic spiritualities from many different parts of the world.

Outlining his concept of the archaic mind, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico claimed that we cannot access primordial thought directly: “It is beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men”[2] and he’s right but where’s the fun in that? This isn’t the first time that a writer has let his or her imagination run riot. William Golding’s second novel, The Inheritors, concerned the extinction of the Neanderthals and before that Jack London’s Before Adam portrayed the brutal extermination of the Australopithecine by Homo Sapiens but the writer most people probably think of is Jean M. Auel best known for The Clan of the Cave Bear which is Clan of the Cave Bear set during the rise of Cro-Magnon Man (and again the demise of the Neanderthals). Her novels are described as “speculative alternative historical fiction”[3] and she does seem to employ “significant poetic licence”[4] in her writing; The Gathering Night is on the whole much more realistic in its speculations and avoids Auel’s sex scenes completely.

The basic story in this book is a simple enough one told by several different people over eight nights. Each night deals with events at a particular campsite starting and ending with River Mouth Camp. We hear in the opening section, which is narrated by Haizea, about the disappearance of her brother, Bakar and his presumed death. Later in the book we learn of his return to this world. A number of things have to happen though for that to take place. And the spirits – we are led to believe – ensure that they do. The spirits are a big part of the lives of the Auk people and oversee the relationship between individuals, families, tribes and between People and Animals. A number of words are oddly capitalised. Some like Moon, River, Sun and Mountain are clearly regarded as entities with which the people have a relationship but I wasn’t sure why Years, Red and Yellow gets capitals. I assumed this was a mark of importance but considering this is part of an oral tradition I found it out of place but not troubling. This is what Margaret told me:

The capitalisation indicates the spiritual status of what is being talked about. The English language can’t take account of this – we’re moderns and we don’t think like that. Hence ‘Bear’ is the animal in a spirit context; ‘bear’ is more in the nature of a good dinner.

The second part of the story is told by Alaia, Bakar’s other sister. She talks about the birth of her daughter, Esti:

We were alone in the winter house – just me and my mother and Haizea and the sound of the River. The River sings many songs at River Mouth Camp, sometimes loud and angry, and sometimes in the gentlest of whispers. On the night of Esti’s birth the River sang with its whole throat. It told of snow melting in the hills, of water under the earth stirring deep roots, of white waters filling empty streambeds, of overflowing banks and flooded marshes. In Thaw Moon the River sings of its own strength, and its death for People or Animals to meddle with it.

When Esti is born no one at first recognises her. Nekané, Alaia and Bakar’s mother, had hoped her daughter-in-law would bear a son; she anticipated the return of her son but much has to happen for that wish to be fulfilled. When the old woman looks into her granddaughter’s eyes all she can see is the child saying, “I am not him. I am not him.” Just before sunset the men return from hunting and Amets gets to see his daughter for the first time:

“I didn’t recognise you at first, grandmother. I last saw you long ago, far away under the Sunless Sky. You are Esti. You’ve come again to bring sweetness into our lives.”

Because Amets recognised his daughter she was able to live.

The name Esti is not an Auk name. Amets had come from the Seal People and had been taken in by the Auks. This was not common practice, tribes tending to stick to their own hunting grounds, but not frowned upon as long as protocol is met and the newcomer respects their beliefs. This is how Bakar will eventually return to this world, he will be reborn and if someone recognises him his name will be spoken again.

In the novel some people are named whereas others are not. When Alaia takes up the tale she describes how her husband and her father had left camp:

Amets and my father – as you know, his name isn’t in the world now – had gone hunting upriver.

It’s an expression that’s used often, his or her name isn’t in the world now, and it took me a while to realise that the Auk people who are the focus of this story view names in a different way to us. When someone dies their name is never spoken again until they are reborn – reincarnated – and recognised by someone which is why certain characters are mentioned by name by the storytellers even though they have died because children have been born subsequently and someone has “seen” a father or an uncle or some dead relative in the child.

All the while this is happening Nekané is “becoming Go-Between.” She had taken the loss of Bakar hard and had spent a long time wandering in the wilds looking for him. It’s during this time that her spiritual awakening begins and she realises her calling. She also meets her spirit guides, a Swan and a Dolphin; why these she doesn’t learn for a good few years however because although the telling of this tale takes place over eight nights their tale actually covers about twelve years by my reckoning. The spirits it would seem take their time over things.

If I had one difficulty with this book it was with these spirits. I had no problem with any of the four Go-Betweens – Zigor, Hodei, Aitor or Nekané – relating encounters with them or out of body experiences but when Osané talks about them this is what she says:

red-yellow flames The spirits rose over the Go-Betweens’ heads as they drummed. They swooped over the People. They showered down Red and Yellow. They shot back to the Go-Betweens like arrows made of fire. The spirits dipped over my brothers’ heads as they passed.

There’re not a lot of descriptions like this and we could perhaps put this down simply to embellishment on the girl’s part. The events surrounding this appearance are emotional and she’s at the centre of everything. I asked Margaret:

I deliberately left it so the reader had to make up their own mind about the spirits. I don’t suppose you or I would have seen a thing if we’d been there – I think that people see what they believe in, sometimes to an astonishing degree. (That includes us, but that’s another story.) I don’t think Mesolithic people would even ask our post-enlightenment questions about the boundaries between the real and the supernatural. The question has no relevance to their world so I don’t answer it. But I agree it’s unsettling for the modern reader – at least I did hope it would be.

Needless to say people are quick to assume things about the spirits. When something goes wrong they get the blame and when things go well they get the credit. What is interesting is that none of the sprits are viewed as bad per se. If bad things happen the root cause is inevitably assumed to be the fault of the humans. I mentioned that this book takes place circa 6150 BC. Margaret didn’t pluck that date out of thin air. Although the Mesolithic Period constitutes more than half of Britain’s history, we know next to nothing of the lives led by our early ancestors. The archaeological record is, as I’ve said, minimal. The only event known to have occurred in the entire period was a tsunami which struck the east coast of what is now Britain around 6150 BC. This disaster becomes a key element in the story.

It is not something that affects the Auk people though, not directly at least. The first they learn about it is when a young man called Kemen, a member of the Lynx People, arrives in their camp and talks about how he, his brother, Basajaun, and a few others survived the tidal wave that destroys their village:

The grey cliff roared like a waterfall. Its sound filled the world. It raced towards us.

We froze.

The grey cliff crashing down. Our world ending.

‘Kemen, run!’

My body came back to me. We raced back along the beach. The grey cliff screamed behind us.

Basajaun ran faster than me. He always could. I turned once. I saw the cliff made of water. All the thunder I’d ever heard was rolled up inside it. It flew towards me, faster than an eagle. I ran.

The trees bowed in the wind.

Basajaun glanced back. I smelt the water. It roared over us. It was swallowing my head. Basajaun ran back to me, and seized me by the shoulders, ‘Too late. Hold on!’

The sea smashed down on us. Its roar swallowed us; it gobbled us like little fishes. Its belly was noise and whirlwind. We kicked and fought. No air. I was drowning. I died.

It was a kind of death anyway. Because in that crashing sea my old life was swept away, and, in so far as I still walk the earth – I, Kemen, in this body – I’ve come back from the dead, so I must have been born all over again, out of that wave which swallowed Basajaun and me.

Because after I’d died – inside that whirling water-cliff – the sea spat us out.

Basajaun is not with Kemen. It seems he decided to take a woman and stay with the Heron People. The Auks are a little wary of him – how could the spirits allow such a terrible thing to happen unless something just as terrible precipitated it? – but the Auk People, after intercession by Zigor, the most senior Go-Between, accept him and he receives the mark of the Auk people on his back. Why the back is significant: no man can see his own back. Kemen takes (well, basically is ordered by Zigor to take) Osané as a wife and ends up joining Amet’s family effectively taking the place vacated by Bakar who, as I’ve said, was waiting to be reborn.

Okay, that restores the universal balance. Well done spirits. The thing is in pairing up Osané and Kemen feathers are ruffled. Edur had his eye on Osané and now Kemen finds himself with at least one enemy. But the spirits can see the bigger picture. All they have to do is be patient and wait for Basajaun, Kemen’s brother, to arrive a few years later and then everyone will be where – and who – they need to be. Those in-between years are not good ones for the Auk People. The Animals are not giving themselves the way they used to. They won’t listen to the male Go-Betweens when they speak to them and it’s only then that we can see why a female Go-Between is needed, to resolve what happened to Osané, to discover why she had to leave her family in such a rush and go with Kemen and to learn what happened to her son although by this time Bakar has returned them in the form of Kemen and Osané’s second child. There is without a doubt a flavour of Greek Tragedy here. Only when certain truths are revealed and matters put straight can life return to normal.

What Margaret has produced here is an utterly believable world, my one reservation about the physical representation of sprits aside.

I really wouldn't like people to think: 'Oh there's nothing there so she made it all up', I would like to think there is nothing in the book that hasn't been real for somebody at some time in some place. Of course, there are hypotheses about Mesolithic Scotland because there are so few signs, but that doesn't mean you go off into a complete fantasy.[5]

For my own tastes the book is a tad on the long side. There are lengthy descriptive passages that certainly add colour to the work but, and again I’m basing this opinion on the view I have in my head of North American Indians as a laconic race, the storytellers could have made their points perfectly well using a fraction of the words used. Here’s an example of what I’m on about from the opening to ‘Fourth Night: Salmon Camp’:

In Light Moon I carried the fire to our Salmon Camp – the one that was my father’s Birth Place. Salmon Camp is a place of many waterfalls. Salmon leaping We fall asleep to the sound of water rushing through the gorge below. Two Rivers meet just above our Camp. One comes from Mother Mountain, the other from Salmon Camp Hill. Many streams had fed those Rivers and helped them grow strong. Whenever the streams cross the precipices that line the hillside they make more waterfalls, until the whole hill sings. At the foot of every waterfall there’s a dark pool. The streams sing to the Salmon with many voices. When the Salmon hear the call of the waters they come in from the sea and leap up the falls. They jump from pool to pool until they lie in the lap of the hills. The high pools are the Birth Place of the Salmon, and their Death Place too. All the while we’re at Salmon Camp we hear the Rivers sing to the Salmon. The songs of the water live in our hearts and become our songs too.

Now I hate to criticise this because there’s nothing wrong with that paragraph at all other than the fact that you could skip it and miss nothing as far as the plot goes. So if you’re the kind of reader who wants to get to the point then 368 pages of the above could feel like hard work. There’s not a taste or a smell that she doesn’t describe. At least it feels like that. And yet strangely one Amazon reviewer said this:

I do have to admit to being a little disappointed that it is more about people and less about their surroundings than I had hoped for. Margaret Elphinstone has a real but in this book under-used talent for descriptive writing, which is a pity when she has been clever enough to pick such a potentially fascinating setting for her story.[6] – italics mine

I read this book over eight days, one section a day. And the inclination to jump paragraphs was strong although I found the story interesting enough and its resolution believable. I particularly liked her decision to have the main parties involved tell their own bits of the tale. That said most of the time I couldn’t tell you who was talking, the voices tended to blend into one.

Apparently most of Margaret’s books have maps and I would have thought this was a book that would have benefitted from one but she decided this time to leave it out:

[S]ome of the Camps in the book are on known Mesolithic sites. Of course there must have been infinitely more Mesolithic habitations than the ones we know about. I don’t want to say exactly where the places are. Sea levels have changed considerably since then anyway. But if you want a clue – look at the map of Mull and Ardnamurchan. I’ll say no more.[7]

The book does have a dramatis personæ, rare these days but a definite help.

As I said at the start of this article I’ve been impressed at the lengths historical novelists go though to try to make sure their books are as accurate as possible. Margaret Elphinstone is right up there. I mentioned the digs she went on. She also made her own flint tools and constructed her own cowhide coracle. All this research is thoroughly integrated into the narrative. You never feel you’re reading a textbook masquerading as a novel. Apparently “she leaves out about 90% of her research.”[8] An interesting read especially bearing in mind it was written with the news of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami fresh in her mind.


Margaret Elphinstone was born in 1948 in Kent, and educated at Queen's College, London and the University of Durham. She is Professor of Writing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where her main areas of academic research are Scottish women writers, and the literature of small islands. She has done extensive study tours in Iceland, Greenland, margaret-elphinstone-3-by-gerry-mccann-lst038225Labrador and the United States. She lived for eight years in the Shetland Islands and is the mother of two children.

Her fiction includes the novels The Incomer, A Sparrow's Flight and The Sea Road, a re-telling of the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic. She has also published a collection of short stories, An Apple From a Tree, two books on organic gardening, as well as a volume of poetry, Outside Eden. Her fifth novel, Hy Brasil, is set on a mythical island in the mid-Atlantic, Voyageurs, the next, takes place during the 1812 War in North America, and Light is set in a remote lighthouse in the 1830s.


[1] Margaret Elphinstone, extract from the book’s afterword

[2] Giambattista Vico, 1984 [1744]. The New Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p.378

[3] Wikipedia entry for Earth’s Children

[4] Ibid

[5] Susan Mansfield, ‘A shard of flint inspired Margaret Elphinstone's evocative novel about hunter-gatherers in Scotland’,, 30th July 2010

[6] Mr A Rabjohn, reviewer

[7] The Gathering Night Interview with Margaret Elphinstone’,

[8] Doug Johnstone, 'Margaret Elphinstone: The Gathering Night', The List, 14th May 2009

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Are you a dog writer or a cat writer?

Before I begin today’s blog proper I’d just like to welcome all my visitors today from Words of Wisdom. So, welcome. Today I’m featured as a Blogger of Note. For anyone new to my blog what can I tell you? This is a literary blog. I post twice a week. On Mondays there’s generally a book review and on Thursdays an article on some literary topic. I’ve been blogging for just over three years and so there’s a fairly hefty back catalogue growing. You can find an itemised list of posts on my website here but if I was to recommend three to you I’d probably go with: Learning poetry by heart, Philip Larkin: some personal observations and Five . . . sorry, six . . . things to do when you have writers block and one thing not to do.

And now onto today’s post…


Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you. - Mary Bly

I’m a cat person. I know what I mean when I say that but what do you think I mean? Do I mean I like cats or that I’m like a cat? Or something between the two?

The bottom line is that I don't know what I'm talking about. You don't know what I'm talking about. You think you know and that helps you cope but the bare fact is that it’s impossible, or as close to impossible that it doesn't make any difference, for you to understand me. I don't understand myself. We use words and expressions all the time without having a full and clear understanding of the words we’re using.

When I'm writing like this I understand. I know what I'm trying to say. But then I read back over the words and realise that what I intended to say it not what I've actually said. It's as if something's wrong with my wiring. I think ‘dark’ but I type 'black' which is close enough for government work - you get the gist - but why write if you're going to get it wrong all the time?

If you can't change something or fix it then you have two choices as far as I'm concerned: lie down and die or work within your limitations. When I write 'great tome' I realise that the majority of readers will interpret that as 'big book'. Seriously I have no idea what a 'tome' is; I'd have to look it up. I probably have at some time and forgotten. And Tome yet I used the word fairly regularly without compunction. The thing is when I write ‘great tome’ I’m thinking ‘big book’ so why don't I write 'big book'? Sometimes I do. I did just then. But writing would be colourless if we did that. And there’s another word, ‘compunction’ – I know that I can bung in ‘without compunction’ at the end of a sentence like that but when else would I use the word ‘compunction’? I’ve feeling very compunctive today? Or would that be compunctual? Have you never noticed that there are words that only ever get used in one place and nowhere else? And we use them because we’ve heard other people use them.

Is 'recall' the same as 'remember'? They're synonyms and I treat them as if they're interchangeable but is 'recollection' the same as 'remembrance'? Not quite. You can see the subtle difference in the noun where it's not so obvious in the verb. Also you can recall faulty goods and expect them to be returned but if you simply remember faulty goods they’ll stay where they are.

What I’m basically saying here is that we take language for granted. We don’t think enough about just what’s going on. I think a dictionary is an hysterical thing when you think about it. Every word is defined by using other words that are defined elsewhere in the book which are themselves defined elsewhere often using the word you’re trying to find the definition of:

v. re•mem•bered, re•mem•ber•ing, re•mem•bers
a. To recall to the mind with effort; think of again
b. To recall or become aware of suddenly or spontaneously

tr.v. re•called, re•call•ing, re•calls
3. To remember; recollect.

v. rec•ol•lect•ed, rec•ol•lect•ing, rec•ol•lects
To recall to mind.
To remember something; have a recollection.

Little Girl Fond Matches So ‘to recall’ means ‘to recollect’ which means ‘to remember’ which means ‘to recall’. It’s a wonder any of us learned English in the first place.

In The Little Girl who was Too Fond of Matches the narrator uses the word ‘rememory’ as a noun which I think is wonderful. I find the word ‘remember’ interesting because we use it for putting thoughts into memory and for getting them back out again. That’s because the prefix re- doesn’t just mean ‘again’:

1. Again; anew: rebuild.
2. Backward; back: react.
3. Used as an intensive: refine.

Understanding words is not merely an intellectual exercise. Language is something we experience. Our vocabularies grow rapidly over the first few years but once we’ve become adult they tend to level off quantitatively but I would suggest that qualitatively our appreciation of language grows until we die or until some ailment curtails the learning process, something like Alzheimer’s disease.

The more we interact with a word the deeper our understanding of it. To someone who has spent a lifetime breeding and training dogs the word ‘dog’ will have a much deeper meaning than it will have to someone like me who has never owned one and spent little time around one, although I’ll pretty much pet anything. Each of us carries around a personal dictionary.

The family at the end of our street had an Alsatian, a rather nasty creature, called Rex. When he died they went Scottie out and bought another one and called him Rex too. My friend Tom’s parents had two Golden Retrievers, one called Kim and the other, Glen. And those are the three dogs I’ve had the most experience of. My father had a Scottie called Butch but he died before I was born and he swore he’d never get another and when my dad swore never to do a thing he never did. ‘Boom Boom’, my downstairs neighbour, has a dog, an English Bulldog, who barks at everyone and anything; I’ve not petted him.

As I said though at the start of this essay I’m a cat person:

A team of researchers led by psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas at Austin wanted to find out. They posted a questionnaire online as part of a larger study about personality called the Gosling-Potter Internet Personality Project.

About 4,500 participants answered questions that measured their personality inclinations in five areas: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These five dimensions have been shown in previous research to encompass most personality traits. They also indicated whether they considered themselves cat people, dog people, both or neither.

It turns out that the "dog people" -- based on how people identified themselves, not on what animals they actually own -- tend to be more social and outgoing, whereas "cat people" tend to be more neurotic but "open," which means creative, philosophical, or nontraditional in this context.

Dog people scored significantly higher on extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness measures, and lower on neuroticism and openness than cat people, the survey found. The effect persisted regardless of gender of the respondent. – Elizabeth Landau, How are dog people and cat people different?, CNN, 13th Jan 2010

voltaire-and-roussau-boris This doesn’t mean I’ve never written about dogs. In the past thirty-five years I’ve actually written eleven poems that reference dogginess in some way. Only four reference cats. None are about specific animals I’ve had any experience of apart from the cat in Voltaire & Rousseau’s bookshop on Otago Lane (off Otago Street):

Sometimes the
        owner nods to me but his
        cat never stirs. I asked
        him once if she was stuffed but the
        guy never answered me.
(from ‘The Bookshop on Otago Street’)

and that’s just a cameo. (BTW the cat’s actually a tom called Boris.) Needless to say I’ve never said more than two words to the owner of that bookshop and I know for a fact the cat’s not stuffed because I’ve seen him wandering around the place. Of course anyone reading the poem will have to take the word ‘cat’ and imagine what kind of creature I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s the guy that’s stuffed.

In most of the other poems both ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ are metaphors, abstracts, like in this piece:

An Old Friend

The pangs of conscience came later
like an ancient dog,
blind and arthritic,
that he could not bear to destroy.

Though a good few paces behind him,
and forever late,
it always arrived,
knowing no one else would have him.

Even if the old man could find sleep,
when he opened his eyes
the dog would be there,
its pearly gaze transfixing him.

17 October 1986

greyfriars-bobby-edin I’ve read about faithful dogs, the Greyfriars Bobbies of this world, but I’ve never experienced that kind of devotion from an animal. My mother’s cats were certainly not like that. Actually the dog I had in my mind in the poem was Candy’s dog from Of Mice and Men:

The old man came slowly into the room. He had his broom in his hand. And at his heels there walked a dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes. The dog struggled lamely to the side of the room and lay down, grunting softly to himself and licking his grizzled, moth-eaten coat.

Other references to dogs in my poems:

You can't always tell a
dog by the person
pulling its lead;
(from ‘Stray’)

He's a junkie, returning to vomit
        like a dog, or a moth to light.
(from ‘Chains’)

Time is a dog which haunts you –
(from ‘Time Part II’)

Never again will I fret
like a sick dog at night.
(from ‘Homage (13.10.83)’)

like the sound of rain against a window
and the barking of dogs
or strange noises upstairs.
(from ‘Deserted Lives’)

Frankly there are as many sins as dogs
but not all dogs are Dachshunds or Great Danes.
(from ’57 Varieties’)

In all of these I’m referring to negative qualities and using dogs to underline my meaning. I’m sure a dog poet would have used very different metaphors and similes.

Bagpuss In the cat poems, one talks about a starving cat (a thing to be pitied), in another a cat knocks something over (in that cute way cats do), the third reference is to the cat curled up on the desk in the bookshop (shades of sleepy Bagpuss there) but it’s the last one that’s the most interesting:

Me? I sit
on the fence and
watch the traffic
go to and fro
day in, day out.
I suppose it's
the cat in me.
(from ‘Unbeliever’)

This is the only one where I say that I am like a cat as opposed to be someone who simply likes cats. Edgar Allan Poe had a pet cat, Catterina, when he lived in Philadelphia. The Brontë sisters were well-known as cat lovers. Raymond Chandler talked to his black Persian, Taki, as though she was human and called her his secretary because she sat on his manuscripts as he tried to revise them. Jean Cocteau dedicated Drôle de Ménage to his cat Karoun, whom he dEdward Lear and his cat Foss escribed as "the king of cats." Hemingway shared his Key West home with more than thirty cats. Edward Lear was devoted to Foss, his tabby cat. When he decided to move to San Remo, Italy, he instructed his architect to design a replica of his old home in England so Foss would not be disturbed and suffer a minimum of distress after the move. George Sand (real name Amandine Dudevant) reportedly ate her breakfast from the same bowl as her cat Minou. H.G. Wells’ cat, Mr. Peter Wells, had the habit, if a guest talked too long or too loudly, of getting up from its chair, protesting loudly and stalking out of the room.

Elizabeth Barrett was an invalid and confined to the house for many years. During this time she acquired a love of poetry and wrote the famous dog poem simply called 'To Flush, My Dog'. (I would point out that ‘flush’ in this poem Travelswithcharley2 is a proper noun and not a verb.) John Steinbeck’s poodle was the namesake for his book Travels with Charley. Truman Capote had a bulldog called Maggie. Sir Walter Scott’s bloodhound, Nimrod, killed his cat, Hinse. Jules Verne’s dog was called Satellite. Samuel Beckett kept a Kerry bitch when he was a young man in Foxrock. He mentions the bitch at some length at least three times in his writings. When the Kerry bitch he grew up with was diagnosed with cancer and had to be destroyed at the age of 12, Beckett plunged into such deep gloom that he contemplated suicide. Luckily, instead he wrote Krapp's Last Tape. In The Last Will and Testament to an Extremely Distinguished Dog, written by Eugene O'Neill, the author paid tribute to his beloved Dalmatian, Blemie. Growing up James Thurber had an Airedale named "Muggs"; Thurber wrote a short story about him called "Muggs, the dog that bit people", a very funny story apparently.

The bottom line of all this is that it would seem that it’s in our genes. We’re instinctively cat people or dog people. I’ve never owned either and had our cockatiel not decided to land on our windowsill to try and escape from an attacking magpie I wouldn’t have a bird. The only pets I’ve bought have been fish and snails – the fish gets called ‘Fishy’ and the snails ‘Sluggies’ – so God alone knows what that says about me. Both have appeared in two poems, one each, and one shared:


There was once a bird, a fish and a pond.
"I love you," said the bird to the fish.

"I love you too," said the fish in the pond,
"but I can see no future in it."

True, thought the bird. "Grant me, please, one last thing:
a good bye peck – one kiss and I'll go."

"One kiss," she said. Just then the bird plucked her
from the pond and swallowed her whole.

"But you love me," she cried from inside him.
"I do," he smiled, "just not in that way."

That said, the bird sat for the longest time
till the ripples had all vanished

and the fish had become a memory.
Then he flew away.

Thursday, 24 July 2003

We began talking about memory and that’s where we’ve ended up. With a collection of memories that have all blurred together into what ‘a dog’ is and what ‘a cat’ is because the dogs in my poems are just that, dogs, some abstract notion of what comprises a dog. But I’m not drawing on my own personal interactions with dogs, I’m also drawing on how dogs have been represented in literature, art and in common culture. Where did the expression ‘sick as a dog’ come from? Cats can be sick. I’ve seen sick cats. I’ve seen cats be sick. And, although I’ve never witnessed it (or if I have then I’ve blocked it) they will also eat their own vomit. So why did I use a dog in my poem? Because I had a religious upbringing and was well aware of Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”

Monday, 23 August 2010

The White Road


I never expect anyone to enjoy any of my stories, if they enjoyed just one, then that's a wonderful thing for me. – Tania Hershman

Chamber music and short stories have much in common. Both are underappreciated art forms. Just look at the schedules for concert halls and you’ll see the disparity. And the same goes when you compare novels and short fiction. Short stories and chamber works are regarded as the kind of things students have to work their way through on the way to writing the great British/American/[insert your country here] novel and the list of great writers who started their glittering careers by publishing a collection of stories is indeed likely to be short. Ian McEwan jumps to my mind (with not one but two collections) although I imagine there will be one or two more.

The main problem these days is finding a publisher that’s at all interested in short forms. I honestly wonder how McEwan would fare if he was starting out in today’s publishing environment. I suspect that one of the company’s he might end up submitting his work to would be Salt Publishing and, Salt, always willing to take a risk, would probably snap him up.

Which brings me to Tania Hershman, one of Salt’s current stable of writers. Tania works exclusively in short forms, stories, flash, poetry. Some of her pieces are so delicate they’re over and done with in a page, two at the most. Even her long stories aren’t especially long – a dozen pages was the longest in The White Road, her début collection; most clock in at half that.

Her style here is variable. Some of the stories have your standard beginning, middle and end, one even runs backwards but most are slices of life, and some pretty thin slices at that, slides that she puts under her microscope for us to examine at our leisure. For example, the story ‘Express’ describes an ex-pat’s journey from Heathrow to Paddington. Nothing spectacular happens. There’s no breakdown, no hijacker, no bomber, just someone comparing him or herself to their fellow commuters. I was frankly puzzled by the story, written unusually in the second person, until I read Tania’s short essay describing her return to the UK after spending fifteen years in Jerusalem. Because the person is described as wearing a “cotton shirt, deliberately untucked and hanging over your loose trousers” I assumed that this was a male but after going over the story again I can see that that’s never made clear – clearly an ambiguous gender is underlining an ambiguous national identity.

This is a collection of two halves and many slices. By that I mean that there are two kinds of fiction going on here, short stories with flash pieces sandwiched in between. ‘Heart’ is the shortest story in the collection at exactly 100 words:


She drew her hands out of the chest cavity and looked at the clock.

‘Time of death,’ she said.

In the locker room, she stripped off her bloodied scrubs and put on clothes for the real world. Then she left the hospital and turned the corner, rain flattening her hair.

At Sammy’s, she sat at the bar, lit a cigarette and ordered a drink. When it came, she exhaled through her mouth, touched her fingertips to the rim of the glass, and remembered how it was to have a man’s heart beat itself out in the cup of her palms.

Heart in hands On Amazon I found a few reviews of her book that specifically mention her flash fiction. “Her flash fiction is palpable, trembling in the moment,” said Melissa Lee-Houghton while Elizabeth Baines wrote: “Some of the flash stories in this collection are the best and the most resonant I have ever read.” Both are fellow British short story writers and Baines has also been published by Salt. The two key words here are “palpable” and “resonant” which means what the two of them are saying is that there’s a reality to these stories that sticks with you after you’ve read them. Now I’m happy to say that I agree with that statement as far as the longer stories go – the title story in particular will haunt me for years – but personally I found this particular flash piece slight. It is what it is. I’m not saying that I haven’t followed it. The thing is, had this been a poem, which would also have taken up one page, I might have been more inclined to let her away with this. Is this because readers of poetry are used to being short-changed whereas prose readers expect to be led by the nose?

This is what Tania had to say:

In terms of whether you have different expectations reading poetry and reading prose that is something I think it's completely subjective. Perhaps some of my flash stories are actually closer to poems, perhaps they might be prose poems, although I don't know what the definition of a prose poem is. I don't know if it would change the reading experience if they were "marketed" as poetry. And a lot of it is about the marketing, I think. I very much liked what Janice Galloway said: she doesn't label her writing as anything, it is her publisher that decides that one book is, say, a memoir rather than a novel. I don't think it's a writer's place to assign labels like that. I love that readers have called my stories all sorts of things! I think there is so much room within a short story – and especially with flash fiction – for the reader to insert themselves, because so much is left unsaid, so much is between the lines, that I wouldn't in any way want to impose what I happen to think a piece of writing is.

When I read, I know that I have to pay much closer attention to a very short piece, that I can't approach a one-page story or a poem in the same way I would approach a 10-page short story, or a novel, say. I always look to see how long a story is before I start reading, so I can pace myself accordingly.

But thankfully each reader has their own likes and dislikes, otherwise this world would be quite a dreary place, and I am not at all put out if someone tells me they preferred my longer stories, or if someone liked only the flash fiction. To have someone tell me that one of my stories spoke to them in some way is such a joy for me, is not something I ever expect! What do I expect from a reader? Nothing at all, to be honest, because I don't expect there to even be a reader. I write only for myself; a potential reader is really the last thing on my mind, especially when writing very short stories, many of which are written fast, in one sitting, before my Inner Critic has a chance to work out what I'm up to! My newer short short stories are, I think, moving away from realism and perhaps becoming more abstract and less like a traditional story. Perhaps they will appeal to fewer readers. But that doesn't mean I will change my writing in any way, because I write what speaks to me, what I feel best expresses what I am trying to express in the only way I can express it.

So what can I say about ‘Heart’? In a massive orchestral work, something like Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, let’s say one of the oboists plays a G♯ instead of a G. Seriously who would notice? But in a delicate piece like Pärt’s Für Alina you would notice. You would most definitely notice. I’d have to admit that in this instance she ‘plays’ the thing perfectly, every word is carefully chosen, the pace is precise and, to use an expression I’m fond of using, it says what it has to say and gets off the page. So ten out of ten for technical achievement but it didn’t move me. I guess I’m simply not the right reader for that story. Sally Zigmond though clearly was. This is what she wrote on her blog:

‘Heart’ … is probably the shortest story in the collection but it has stayed with me the longest because I am still there with that heart in my hand and then the cold wine glass. I feel what the surgeon feels. I am her. I don't need any more. I don't want any more.[1]

In her response to my e-mail Tania mentioned that she is finding herself moving towards a more abstract style. The best example I could come up with in this group would, I imagine, be this flash piece:


Her elbow twitches. He doesn’t know her, her father, her community. He doesn’t know that her long skirt, long sleeves, means that she doesn’t, can’t . . .

His hand floats between them.

Will you be warm, soft, cool, moist, strong? Will you take mine gently like Rivky on the way to school? Or will you be firm, squeezing, crushing? When our skins touch, will I jump, gasp out loud? Will you know that I haven’t . . . ever?

And afterwards: will you be printed into my palm, an impression in clay?

Elbow twitches, wrist jerks, and her fingers move stiffly into the air, reaching for him.

hands-of-couple-reaching-for-each-other-resize Now this is more like poetry, a certain kind of poetry anyway, one that, to use Beckett’s expression, “envaguens” things by missing out critical data allowing more room for the reader to interpret the piece. Clearly this story is related to ‘Express’ and is about the difference in cultures. So what are the missing bits? I looked up ‘Rivky’ in Google and the first thing I got was an entry for ‘Rivky Mitzvah’ so probably a Jewish name which means they live under the Law which means she would be required to dress modestly, hence the long skirt. Needless to say the owner of the hand is unlikely to be someone of the same faith or he would know how her community would view fornication. Describing herself as clay also has religious connotations since both the Bible and the Quran speak of Man as being made out of clay.[2] So, not terribly abstract but who knows what she’s writing now?

For me this was a better story but again, clocking in at only 108 words, it was never going to be especially deep. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate flash fiction – I subscribe to a couple of sites that post it regularly – but one or two a day is enough for me. That’s where I think this collection works because the flash pieces are interspersed between the longer stories. I have a few books that contain nothing but flash and I find them hard work en masse like that.

So what did move me? Well for me it was the title story as I’ve said. It’s not long – 7½ pages, a touch over 2000 words – but it was the perfect length for me. I recommend you read it right now. It’s online here. That way you won’t feel that I’ve ruined it for you when I talk about it.

Go on. Do it just now. I’ll wait.

Right, if you’ve not read it then be it on your own head.

The story begins, as do most of the non-flash pieces in this collection, with a quote from New Scientist:

What’s long, white, and very, very cold? The road to the South Pole is nearing completion . . . this road will stretch for more than 1600 kilometres across some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.

Basically what we have here is something that most writers will be very familiar with – a writing prompt. I’m always amazed personally how well I respond to an external push to write and I have to say if I’d read that article it would have definitely set the gears in motion. But it’s what she does with it that’s so magical. We’re all familiar with the “Last petrol for x miles” signs. What we have here is a “Last coffee for 1000 miles” situation. Question: What kind of person chooses to run an establishment like that? Well we have clues, the scientist who “looks so much like . . .” and “[s]ome things the eye shouldn’t see” but we never get to see what Mags saw, what she no longer wants to see, that she would go to such extreme lengths to not see again. Of course the pragmatist in me was quick to point out that you cannot unsee what you have already seen. The best you can hope for is to forget what you’ve seen. But here we have an Oedipal state of affairs, a metaphorical plucking out of the eyes. Oedipus, like all other blind people would ‘see’ black though, wouldn’t he? So how can Mags ‘see’ white? Clearly this is a metaphorical ‘seeing’ and the whiteness is symbolic.

‘The Incredible Exploding Victor,’ another standout story for me, tells the story of an obese boy whose mother expresses her love for her son by overfeeding him. It has a similar poignancy to ‘The White Road’ but leavened with gentle humour this time:

Victor Bloomfield was my best friend in junior school and when he told me he was going to explode I believed him.

‘It’s gonna happen, it’s in-evitable,’ said Victor, taking an enormous peanut butter sandwich out of his Superman lunchbox. He bit into it, chewed for a while, and then said, ‘It’s not so bad, I don’t think it’ll hurt.’ He shuffled around to face me. ‘Howie, probably best not to stand too close when I feel it coming. It’s going to be messy.’

Although this has a quote from New Scientist at the beginning, the connection is tenuous; expanding stars may have given Tania the idea but this is another very human story. As is ‘You’ll Know’ which is only 2½ pages long but packs a heckuva punch. The question it asks is a simple one, this time inspired by a BBC news reports: what would you be willing to sacrifice to adopt a kid? There are stories aplenty about the lengths people have been willing to go to but in this story Tania cuts to the quick. What if money wasn’t the issue? What if they wanted something . . . well, a bit more personal?

Some of the stories are about the effects of new technology on our everyday lives. I enjoyed ‘Evie and the Arfids’ in which a woman gets a job applying radio-frequency identification tags to clothing but it’s only when she befriends a girl in tracking that she realises that something dark is going here. The same goes for ‘Brewing a Storm’ in which a businessman (also called ‘Bloomfield’ for some reason) learns that the new proposed “cloud rehabilitation” procedure with its “success rate of 97 percent” is not the miracle he’s told it is. What will he do when he learns the truth Space Car though? ‘Space Fright’ is basically science fiction, about a man taking a woman for “a spin in his new XCOR 5000” – that would be a space-car. "Science to me is endlessly fascinating" Tania says. "Scientists ask themselves ‘what if?' This is the same question fiction writers ask." Is her science accurate though? Is that even important? In an interview with Clare Dudman, Tania said:

[Y]ou may run into problems with the scientific community if you do that without what they might see as “credentials”. Because of my science education, I, for example, feel quite free to make up science. I have a story in which I have done just that. I make no claims for the accuracy of the science, but I know there is great debate … about whether this is acceptable or desirable. I am a great believer in fiction being fictional![3]

Strangely enough for a body of work which has a common thread I didn’t find this is as unified a collection as it might have been because she goes off at a tangent all of a piece. This has more the hit and miss flavour of a mix-CD than a shop-bought album. What it does demonstrate, however, is the breadth of Tania’s ability as a writer even if it also at the same time reveals some of the limitations of her chosen form. I can only see her getting better.

The final story, ‘North Cold’, for example, has been described as magic realist in tone. I personally felt it like something Ray Bradbury might have conceived, a man who is helped to look younger by a device passed down to him by him by an elderly aunt. Defining magic realism is hard but you can read her thoughts on the subject over on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog here. One of the stories that’s cited in ‘Plaids’ in which a woman has a conversation with her knees. I wouldn’t personally say that on its own is enough to qualify the story as magic realist – it’s really no dafter than Shirley Valentine talking to her wall – but I don’t think Tania would worry too much. Let me leave you with a video of her reading that story:

I bought this book to help out Salt who, as you probably know, has been struggling to keep afloat. If you haven’t supported them by buying a book then this one would not be a bad choice. It was published in September 2008 and most of the stories, the longer ones anyway, were written in 2004 when she was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, but, remember, just like good music, good stories don’t go off. The music I’m listening to while I type this (a rather lightweight concerto for fortepiano which you can listen to here in case you’re interested) was written about 250 years ago by a composer called Domenico Cimarosa. He’s not quite up there with his contemporary Mozart but the simple fact is that he has not been forgotten. Only time will tell if Tania turns out to be a Cimarosa or a Mozart.


Tania Tania Hershman was born in London in 1970 and in 1994 moved to Jerusalem, Israel. She now lives in Bristol. Tania is a former science journalist and her award-winning short stories combine her two loves: fiction and science. Many of Tania's stories, which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in print and online, are inspired by articles from popular science magazines. In November 2007, she founded The Short Review, a unique website dedicated to reviewing short story collections. Tania blogs at Tania Writes. She is the European Regional Winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Short Story Competition. The judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers had this to say about her first collection:

We would also like to commend Tania Hershman ...whose work stood out for its remarkable quality. We look forward to seeing more of [her] writing in the future.


[1] Sally Zigmond, ‘A Series of Blinding Flashes’, Sally’s Book Blog, 14th April 2009

[2] “Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am creating a human being from clay.’” (Quran 38:71). This is comparable to the biblical verse, “And The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) Later, though, Jeremiah he talks metaphorically about creation: “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” (Jeremiah 18:4).

[3] Clare Dudman, ‘Walking the White Road Stop 1’, Keeper of the Snails, 28th October 2008

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Just what the world needs - another book of poetry

Think Cover

Vision is the primary medium of thoughtRudolf Arnheim

A month ago I introduced you all to my collection of poetry This Is Not About What You Think. This week I’m going to talk a bit about the thought behind the collection.

The world is full of poetry books, Selected Poems of..., Complete Poems of..., chapbooks, broadsheets, The Nation’s Favourite Poems about love or children or war or animals or journeys or celebration. Best ofs, Books of... Anthologies of... and The World’s Greatest. In most cases the poems will have been cobbled together from a variety of sources and it’s very hard to say what a collection of poetry is about. Very few books of poetry were ever that by design.

Don’t get me wrong, some poets have sat down with the express intention of writing a sequence of poems which they aim to publish as a group. For example:

Raylene Hinz-Penner wrote a sequence of poems about the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe;

Sinéad Morrissey wrote a sequence of poems about a train ride through China with a group of other writers;

Stevie Krayer, has written a sequence of poems about the River Aeron and

Sharon Dolin wrote a sequence of poems about the untimely accidental death of her fiancé.

I myself have three sequences of poems: The Bedroom, which is a set of four poems looking at a bedroom over four discontiguous seasons; The Drowning Man, a series of poems that explore the idea of drowning in emotions and Sweet William, a series that took years to finish (if it is indeed complete) in which I explore the universe of a boy with an unspecified kind of Savant syndrome. These three sequences account for a tiny fraction of my output. I never sat down to produce a sequence of poems; I just found myself returning to the same themes and gradually the little groups gelled.

The problem I have been faced with, and this is a dilemma most poets have to confront eventually, is when they decide they have enough material to publish a collection, how do they choose? How do they select a) which poems and b) in what order they appear? This is the reason I have never tried to get a book published before now. It’s not that I didn’t have enough poems because even if I restricted myself to the published poems I have more than enough to pick from, it’s simply that the poems don’t go together. Not in my head. I’ve made lists, dozens of lists over the years, but I have never been happy until now. Finally I have decided to bring out a collection that seems to makes sense as a unified body of work. At least people will try to make sense out of it.

Eyes_Wide_Open_1280x800 Amongst the senses, Plato gave primacy to sight. When he decided that we had five senses, Aristotle ranked sight over hearing: 'Of all the senses, trust only the sense of sight'. Plato and Aristotle closely associated vision and reason. This has been a persistent bias in Western culture. Thinking is associated with visual metaphors: 'observation' privileges visual data; phenomenon (Greek: 'exposing to sight'); definition (from definire, to draw a line around); insight, illuminate, shedding light, enlighten, vision, reflection, clarity, survey, perspective, point of view, overview, farsighted. Other words associated with thinking also have visual roots: intelligent, idea, theory, contemplate, speculate, bright, brilliant, dull. And there is no shortage of commonly-used phrases which emphasize the primacy of the visual:

● Seeing is believing

● Let me see; I see

● I'll believe it when I see it with my own eyes

● Seeing eye to eye

● It's good to see you

● Love at first sight

● What does she see in him?

● In the mind's eye

● Draw your own conclusions

● See what I mean?

When students in one study were asked to list the sense they'd least like to lose, 75% listed sight. – Visual Perception 1, Aberysthwyth University Lecture Series, Reading the Visual

We do the same with clouds and inkblots, flames and even stains. How many people have seen images of the Virgin Mary in a pizza, a tree stump, a grilled cheese sandwich or an underpass in Chicago? Some people of course are more suggestible than others:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the Mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)

Humans are – I was going to say ‘obsessed’ but that’s probably not the right word – are programmed to look for order. We don’t cope well with chaos. We’re also prone to snap decisions. What do you see here?


You’ve probably seen it before. It’s either a duck or a hare but you will have seen one first and probably needed to look for the other one before you managed to see it. But if you’re like me then your mind will continually drift towards the image you saw first.

I’ve used Rorschach inkblots for years now as a kind of logo: the covers of my books will all have them, and within the novels, stories and poems contained therein you’ll find references to them. For my latest book I was going to use a wraparound cover again as I did with my first two novels but the impact is stronger if you can see the complete image without having to open up the book. I’d be interested to know what you see.

The poems are arranged in seven sections beginning with poems about childhood and ending with poems about old age. An allusion to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man? Not consciously but it’s impossible to read these thus arranged and not build up a picture of some man’s life. But is it mine? Yes and no. All the poems were written by me and only me. This is all my own work. But not everything in the poems happened to me. As I say in the book’s introduction:

What they all are are my reactions to certain subjects some of which I have experienced first hand, some of which I’ve witnessed others experience, others of which I’ve read or heard about and a few of which I’ve simply imagined. But they’re my take on all of these. I am a writer; my natural response to life is to write about it. I wrote the poem about the stillbirth the day I heard about it; ‘Making Do’, a poem about my own mother, I completed years after her death.

But these poems, arranged this way, feel like someone’s life, someone who had an unhappy childhood, got married too soon, whose marriage falls to pieces because of something he had no control over and who ends up old and alone. Did I have an unhappy childhood? My wife thinks so because all I ever talk about are the bad bits but the fact is that it was probably quite an average childhood. Did my first marriage fail? Yes. Was it because of something I had no control over? In all honesty I can’t answer that. I tried to save it but how much I was to blame for it failing I don’t know. Did I end up alone? For a while, yes, but not for long. I’ve spent most of my adult life married to someone and I’m not that old yet. Whether I end up by myself in my dotage only time will tell.

There are poems I chose not to include in the collection like this one:


One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.

No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982

The reason? Because it didn’t fit with the theme of the book. Yes, the marriage in the book ends in divorce but ultimately it’s because of infidelity which is not why my first marriage ended.

Am I cheating you in some way? No, I’ve been up front. The title tells you that these poems are going to be about something other than your first reading of them. You will find that first reading hard to shake though. You’ll have already joined the dots, filled in the blanks, read in between the lines and tried to make sense out of what 64000-question2 you’ve read. But have you gotten through to the truth? Ah, now that’s the $64,000 question.

Considering how much time I’ve spent in the past not being able to decide what poems should go in a collection, I actually came up with this grouping in a shockingly short amount of time. Once I had the theme. But this collection wouldn’t have worked even five years ago. So many key pieces have been written in that time. At the end of the book what I do provide is not so much an index as a list of the poems in the order in which they were actually written. The oldest poem was written on 28th April 1979; the most recent poem was finished on May 25th this year. The collection covers 31 years during which time I’ve actually written 536 poems. This book contains 83 of them. More books are on the way. This is an ongoing process.

The book is now available. Review copies are being sent out now so we sit back and wait. If you have not received a copy and would like to do a review or an interview please drop me an e-mail with your contact details. I’m happy to send hardcopies but if you have some kind of eBook reader and can work with a PDF then obviously that would keep my overheads down. I’m never going to make a fortune out of this book but if I could break even I’d be happy. Also if you would like to recommend a site or magazine that you think I should approach please do. I’m happy to receive all the help I can.

For those of you who are solvent/generous/interested and would like to own your own copy they can be purchased directly from the FV Books website. The prices of all my books are reasonable. I think books are terribly overpriced and a lot of the time I simply won’t pay the money. My interest is in getting my poetry and prose read by people. I believe I have something worth saying. It’s simply a matter of getting the right poem into the right person’s hands and seeing what they see in it.

If you’ve not read them already here is a link to the first section of the book on my shiny new website. There have already been some nice things said about the book by these people: Colin Will, Dave King, Kass Schoenhals, Lena Vanelslander, Paula Cary and Annie Wyndham.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Complete Brigadier Gerard

The Complete Brigadier Gerard Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those authors who will be remembered forever because of one creation (Holmes). The same could be said for P G Wodehouse (Jeeves) and John Mortimer (Rumpole) and I imagine that will be J K Rowling’s fate no matter what else she writes. Wanting to devote more time to his historical novels Conan Doyle famously killed off Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem,’ which appeared in print in 1893 but bowed to public demand and, eight years later, wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as a one-off to try an appease his fans before finally giving in two years later and resurrecting him properly.

After he’d thrown Holmes over Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle began work upon an unlikely replacement. Holmes can often be funny – any character that’s awkward in general society is open to gentle ridicule – but in the character of Brigadier Gerard, a swashbuckling French Hussar, we get to see Conan Doyle’s lighter side.

The hero of these seventeen stories, Etienne Gerard, served in the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars. If he has one thing in common with Sherlock Holmes it is the fact that he has absolute confidence in his own abilities. This could be read as mere vanity but as you read through the stories it is clear that what we have here is the quintessential soldier, a gentleman of the first order for whom duty and honour are everything. And he doesn’t mind telling you:

It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing. It is true that I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them. It would be an unworthy affectation if I were to pretend that my career has been anything but a fine one. The incident which I will tell you tonight, however, is one which you will understand that only a modest man would describe. After all, when one has attained such a position as mine, one can afford to speak of what an ordinary man might be tempted to conceal. – ‘How The Brigadier Played For A Kingdom’

In his book Old Gods Falling, Malcolm Elwin voices the suspicion that “Dumas’ d’Artagnan was in his direct line of ancestry.” He is, of course, being facetious because if that had been true then Gerard would have been sure to make mention of it as many times as he sees fit to mention his medal. But there is a connection:

‘We say “Proud as a Scotsman”’ remarks the Duke of Buckingham in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers to which the Gascon d’Artagnan replies ‘And we say “Proud as a Gascon”: the Gascons are the Scots of France.’ Etienne Gerard is of course a Gascon… – Owen Dudley Edwards, Introduction to The Complete Brigadier Gerard

And Conan Doyle is of course a Scot.

adventures of gerard_cv, Wed Aug 23, 2006,  9:38:44 AM,  8C, 4678x6738,  (1322+876), 100%, bent 6 stops,  1/60 s, R112.7, G77.3, B87.0 Gerard tells the stories from the point of view of a sixty-year-old man now living in retirement in Paris. The stories as they were published and as they appear in the two books that make up this collection, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, do not run chronologically however. The titles also add to the confusion in that they mostly begin with something along the lines of ‘How the Brigadier…’ but the fact is that in the majority of the stories Gerard isn’t actually a Brigadier. Some nice person had tidied up the facts and dates and posted them in Wikipedia:

We discover that he was born in Gascony in the early 1780s (he is 25 in ‘How the Brigadier Captured Saragossa’); in ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’ he attends a review of troops about to depart for the Crimea (1854-5), and this is the last identifiable date in his life, although ‘The Last Adventure’ has a still later setting, with Gerard about to return to his Gascon homeland. He first joins the 2nd Hussars – the Hussars of Chamberan – around 1799, serving as a Lieutenant and Junior Captain. He first sees action at Marengo in Italy in 1800. He transfers to the 3rd Hussars of Conflans in 1807 as a Senior Captain. He speaks somewhat idiosyncratic English, having learned it from an officer in the Irish Regiment of the French Army. By 1810 he is Colonel of the 2nd Hussars. He serves in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Russia. He is awarded the Grand-Cross of the Légion d'honneur by Napoleon in 1814. There are various discrepancies in the accounts of his life, not the least that in none of the stories except the last is he married.

We’re never in any doubt where we are when we begin a story though because they are all preceded by a short paragraph giving us the exact date on which the story that is to follow begins. The opening story, for example, is ‘The Medal of Brigadier Gerard’ which is set in:

1814, and, as stated, 14 March, a month before Napoleon’s abdication and retirement to Elba.

Gerard’s tales of his valour do not vary much one from the other – he is generally sent on some mission (often at the behest of Napoleon himself) – gets into a pickle, gets out of said pickle and carries out his mission. By ‘pickle’ I mean that he usually winds up trussed up in a cellar or something with only his dignity for company. How he manages his escapes are often more a matter of chance than skill on his part. Brave he may well be, bright he is not. But he knows how to obey orders. Take for example the scenario in ‘The Medal of Brigadier Gerard’. Gerard is called before the emperor himself along with another soldier, Major Charpentier:

'I will be frank with you, gentlemen, as with two comrades. You have both been with me since Marengo, I believe?' He had a strangely pleasant smile, which used to light up his pale face with a kind of cold sunshine. 'Here at Rheims are our present headquarters on this the 14th of March. Very good. Here is Paris, distant by road a good twenty-five leagues. Blucher lies to the north, Schwarzenberg to the south.' He prodded at the map with the sword as he spoke.

'Now,' said he, 'the further into the country these people march, the more completely I shall crush them. They are about to advance upon Paris. Very good. Let them do so. My brother, the King of Spain, will be there with a hundred thousand men. It is to him that I send you. You will hand him this letter, a copy of which I confide to each of you. It is to tell him that I am coming at once, in two days' time, with every man and horse and gun to his relief. I must give them forty-eight hours to recover. Then straight to Paris! You understand me, gentlemen?'

Ah, if I could tell you the glow of pride which it gave me to be taken into the great man's confidence in this way. As he handed our letters to us I clicked my spurs and threw out my chest, smiling and nodding to let him know that I saw what he would be after. He smiled also, and rested his hand for a moment upon the cape of my dolman. I would have given half my arrears of pay if my mother could have seen me at that instant.

'I will show you your route,' said he, turning back to the map. 'Your orders are to ride together as far as Bazoches. You will then separate, the one making for Paris by Oulchy and Neuilly, and the other to the north by Braine, Soissons, and Senlis. Have you anything to say, Brigadier Gerard?'

I am a rough soldier, but I have words and ideas. I had begun to speak about glory and the peril of France when he cut me short.

'And you, Major Charpentier?'

'If we find our route unsafe, are we at liberty to choose another?' said he.

'Soldiers do not choose, they obey.'

This is an important point because the route that Gerard ends up with, he learns from an old friend, Bouvet, will take him straight through the heart of enemy territory:

'The enemy is there,' said he. 'You cannot go.'

'I prefer to go where the enemy is,' I answered.

'But why not go straight to Paris with your despatch? Why should you choose to pass through the one place where you are almost sure to be taken or killed?'

'A soldier does not choose—he obeys,' said I, just as I had heard Napoleon say it.

Long story, short – Gerard follows his orders blindly, ends up being captured, escapes, runs the gauntlet, survives, delivers his message and returns to Napoleon anticipating a medal for his outstanding bravery:

When I came to the headquarters I was shown straight into the Emperor's room. He was drinking coffee at a writing-table, with a big plan drawn out on paper in front of him. Berthier and Macdonald were leaning, one over each shoulder, and he was talking so quickly that I don't believe that either of them could catch a half of what he was saying. But when his eyes fell upon me he dropped the pen on to the chart, and he sprang up with a look in his pale face which struck me cold.

'What the deuce are you doing here?' he shouted. When he was angry he had a voice like a peacock.

'I have the honour to report to you, sire,' said I, 'that I have delivered your despatch safely to the King of Spain.'

'What!' he yelled, and his two eyes transfixed me like bayonets. Oh, those dreadful eyes, shifting from grey to blue, like steel in the sunshine. I can see them now when I have a bad dream.

'What has become of Charpentier?' he asked.

'He is captured,' said Macdonald.

'By whom?'

'The Russians.'

The thing that Napoleon had failed to convey to Gerard is that there were two different messages and that he had been entrusted with false intel to misdirect their enemies. Charpentier, who allowed himself to be so easily captured, had the true message. Gerard is devastated:

'Sire,' said I, and the tears would trickle down my cheeks whilst I spoke, 'when you are dealing with a man like me you would find it wiser to deal openly. Had I known that you had wished the despatch to fall into the hands of the enemy, I would have seen that it came there. As I believed that I was to guard it, I was prepared to sacrifice my life for it. I do not believe, sire, that any man in the world ever met with more toils and perils than I have done in trying to carry out what I thought was your will.'

Things turn out well in the end, for him at least. Napoleon acknowledges his bravery and instructs the Duke of Tarentum to see…

'…that Brigadier Gerard has the special medal of honour, for I believe that if he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.'

sherlockholmes What is particularly interesting about the structure of this story is that it inverts the Holmes formula. The whole point of a Holmes mystery is to find out whodunit and how (and ideally to apprehend them) whereas in this first adventure Gerard is not in possession of all the facts but proceeds on the premise that he knows all he needs to know.

This is typical of the kind of escapade that befalls Gerard throughout his distinguished career. Another good example can be found in ‘How the King Held the Brigadier’ in which Gerard, still only a Colonel at the time, mounts a daring escape from Dartmoor Prison, rescues a damsel in distress and borrows a coat to cover his French uniform in which he discovers a letter addressed to the Governor of Dartmoor Prison:

The letter caused me [some] perplexity, for the Governor had always shown me every courtesy, and it offended my sense of honour that I should interfere with his correspondence. I had almost made up my mind to leave it under a stone upon the roadway within musket-shot of the gate. This would guide them in their search for me, however, and so, on the whole, I saw no better way than just to carry the letter with me in the hope that I might find some means of sending it back to him. Meanwhile I packed it safely away in my inner-most pocket.

As circumstances would have it his escape does not go according to plan. He decides to travel northward and so heads into the wind only to find in the night the wind has shifted to a southerly direction and he ends up right back at the prison:

I soon perceived that accident had done for me as much as the most profound cunning. My guards naturally commenced their search from the place where I had taken Sir Charles Meredith's coat, and from my hiding-place I could see them hurrying along the road to that point. Not one of them ever dreamed that I could have doubled back from there, and I lay quite undisturbed in the little bush-covered cup at the summit of my knoll.

In the end, after further misadventures and an unfortunate encounter with a very civilised pugilist Gerard finds himself face to face with the governor and is able to hand over the letter which read:

'On receipt of this you are directed to release Colonel Etienne Gerard, of the 3rd Hussars, who has been exchanged against Colonel Mason, of the Horse Artillery, now in Verdun.'

danny-kaye-56 I could go through the whole book like this but I think I’ve made my point well enough with these two examples. Conan Doyle relishes his job here and although I first thought of Gerard as a bit of a buffoon – the kind of character that Bob Hope or Danny Kaye would end up playing in a period drama – there’s a bit more to him, though not a lot. That said Steve Carell is looking to tackle the role sometime in the foreseeable future so maybe I’m not too far off the mark when I picture him looking like Danny Kaye sporting a handlebar moustache. (Think The Inspector General.)

The stories were originally published in The Strand magazine between December 1894 and September 1903 and Canongate’s new edition prints the stories in the order they appeared there with the addition of a late 1910 story, ‘The Marriage Of The Brigadier’ that did not appear in the original editions. Also included is the November 1894 story, ‘A Foreign Office Romance’, which, although it doesn’t actually include Gerard, clearly prefigures the series in structure, character and theme and so it makes sense to see it in its proper place at the head of this collection.

A superficial reading of these stories is the easy option. They’re light, don’t get me wrong, and carry no deep messages but what they also are – remember this is the writer who did Sherlock Holmes’ thinking for him – filled with small details and insights, the kind of thing that it’s easy to skip over. Unlike Holmes, however, Gerard is willing to see the good in everyone, even an emperor who was quite happy for him to lay down his life simply to confuse his enemies.

The problem is that we think we’ve seen this kind of OTT hero done before. What came to my mind when I first started reading this collection was the heroic test pilot ‘Ace’ Rimmer in Red Dwarf. On the surface it’s easy to think about George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman too but there’s a difference in that Flashman is fundamentally a coward but still want the plaudits. Gerard is happy to go through hell to win his plaudits but once he has been through hell he fully expects his plaudits to be sitting waiting on him on his return.

In his lengthy and informative introduction to the new Canongate printing, Owen Dudley Edwards feels it logical that the collected Brigadier Gerard stories are a prime candidate for “the greatest historical short story series.” I can’t honestly imagine there being much competition although I could well we wrong.

The Complete Brigadier Gerard was published on 5th August and you can pick up a copy on Amazon for under a fiver.

Complete texts online:

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard

The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

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