I rarely set out to write a story with a preconceived idea - when I try it rarely seems to work. So when, in a moment of grandiosity/delirium (you choose) I thought I might attempt a state of the nation narrative in, perhaps, three to four thousand words, you might predict that it wouldn't go well. The strange thing, though, as the theme faded away and the characters took over, is that some of that sense of a sad, lost country, directionless but still trying, remained. So what's left is two old friends in a spiky relationship, walking along a railway track towards a lost world and time that might just be regained. One for my collection, if it goes ahead...
It seems strange to be saying that my first publication of the year will be coming out today. Strange because in preceding years there would have been several more by now. Strange also because six months ago I was seriously contemplating giving up writing altogether. Since then I’ve been invited to submit stories for a collection and so, gratefully, have found myself back at the coal face.
Today’s story is called Hidden Places. Originally it had a slightly different title, and some five years ago the shell of the narrative was shortlisted in an international writing competition. Despite that I was never happy with it, and the version appearing today has had a complete remake, including a different ending. When is a story really finished? You could almost call that a philosophical question,
As on so many previous occasions I’m profoundly grateful to Laura Black, Fictive Dream’s editor and the most caring, professional person any writer could wish to work with. Having another story in Fictive Dream feels like coming home. You can read Hidden Places via my Stories page here
After a few months of working on my collection, I'm delighted to be returning to Fictive Dream on 5th June with a London-based story called Hidden Places. I can spend hours wandering around the City of London and it always charms and surprises me - step down an alley off a busy major road and find yourself in a tiny flagstoned square, empty, peaceful and almost silent. Or you might come across a traditional bookbinder, or the shop that, well within living memory, employed a man who stretched Sickert's canvases. If you've ever stayed overnight in central London you might have been surprised by how quiet it can be - everyone comes there to work then everyone goes home. So it's an unseen London that the story's about, or London as seen by a confused outsider. Which might amount to the same thing...
For the past four weeks I've been working intensively on a story called With Every Choice Something is Lost: a rural setting, an unusual vocation, and two outsiders improbably join forces - (what is it about the short story form and outsiders?). As the narrative grew, I kept thinking about the question of describing appearance. Some writers, apparently, can't see the point of it, not a view I share. In this story, where one character began as distant and enigmatic, I found it helpful to imagine I was building a sense of her incrementally alongside the reader, using both her mannerisms and visual clues such as physique, facial expressions, and dress sense. This, it seems to me, is how we most naturally get to know one another in 'real life'. My GP recently told me how much it helped to actually see her patients again now lockdown is over: 'You can tell so much by looking at them.' I feel the same about my characters - the more clearly I can visualise them - especially ways in which they are divergent - the more they begin to live in my mind, and the more relatable they are likely to be to the reader.
Last week I attended a lecture by Professor Frank Shovlin on his recent publication, The Letters of John McGahern. For me, McGahern is an exemplar in his approach to the short story (also a great novelist). I can honestly say I have never read one of his characters that I haven't believed in. There were many nuggets in Prof Shovlin's brilliant lecture I could share, but I'll confine myself to one. Looking through McGahern's papers he came across twenty-four hand-written drafts of an early story, some showing only minute changes to the one previous. When I read McGahern I my eye simply floats across the page, and now I know why. Encouragement too for those of us who find writing fiction arduous: even great writers can. We usually only see the result, but just occasionally get a glimpse of the effort behind it.
I've just re-edited a favourite old story called 'Getting Our Heads Together in the Country'. As the title might suggest, it features a group of musicians, caught in the act of rehearsing a new record just as the era of peace and love was slipping away. This one's been around a long time and for some reason I've never sent it anywhere - strange really as I have great affection for the characters. I do wonder, though, if anyone now would get the references. I'm just too young to have been part of that time, and I've always wished I was born a few years earlier. Each era has its flavour, hard to create in retrospect, but I've done my best. A circle of hippies, sitting in a field somewhere in the west country, with nothing on their minds but music. Who would believe it now?
Finally I've got to the end (as opposed to finished) a 7.5K worder about a tiny, hand-picked community living what you might call an esoteric life on a small unspecified Hebridean Island. Really this one wanted to be a novella, but I wasn't sure if I could co-exist with the characters for the length of time that would take. Also, my stories evolve as the characters reveal themselves - I don't often have preconceived ideas - but the longer the piece the more the writing process benefits from some sort of structure. As it is, my task now is to go back and try to tie things up, where they need tying up. A story of love and unexplained death might be a fair description, or it could be about escapism, or seeking one's true self. Ultimately I do my best and then the reader decides. Wish me luck.
I thought perhaps I should explain why all seems quiet on the publishing front. There being many a slip twixt cup and lip I don't want to say too much but, truth be told, I've been invited to submit a collection of stories by my favourite hard copy publisher. I don't have full details as yet, but the stories I've written and hope to write this year will be directed towards that end, my entire aim being to come up with work good enough for the project to go ahead. Please wish me luck...
A truly wonderful writing moment today. I was walking along the shelf on Richmond Hill when I noticed two elderly people sitting on a bench, taking the sun. If you've kindly taken time to check in here you'll know that I've recently read, and thought a lot about, Claire Tomalin's brilliantly insightful biography of the young H.G. Wells. So when I realised that said elderly couple were Claire and her husband Michael Frayn, the chance to thank her and have a writerly chat was irresistible. She thinks that Wells will always be read, possibly his earlier science fiction more than the social realism that cemented his reputation, and reminded me that The Time Machine was set in Richmond not far from where I stood. We agreed wholeheartedly that Tono Bungay is an enduring marvel of a book. Not a long exchange, but one I will always treasure. A great author and a gracious, friendly person.
I've just completed a story set in mid-seventies London - two characters in transition in a liminal time. There's a strong element of music in the narrative: at that time several genres had grown tired and were about to be usurped. It made me think how much restlessness we can feel as individuals when change in the broader culture is in the air but yet to happen. One of the characters knows her pathway in life, or thinks she does, and the other is groping his way forward, dreaming, yet to find himself. If the story is about anything I suppose it's about how if you can't define yourself, somehow or other life will do it for you. I must admit I have a particular fondness for these two characters...
Why is it that you can unlock a character simply by changing their name? It's happened to me a number of times now and I always find it surprising. It's not that I necessarily gain a better visual sense - I rarely visualise my characters acutely - but more that for some inexplicable reason when their name changes something intrinsic about their way of being in the world. Then they move. And when a character moves, the plot moves. Something to remind myself when I haven't a clue where to take a story next...
Continuing to read Tono-Bungay, now in conjunction with Claire Tomalin's lucid biography The Young H.G. Wells, I've been thinking again about exposition. I've never really bought into the tyranny of 'show but don't tell': a useful guideline for sure, but one which can be guaranteed to stultify a longer narrative - I'm thinking of anything above two-thousand words - when applied in excess.
Tono-Bungay is written in the first person, and the narrator is apt to go off on rants, or at least spend several pages explaining to the reader his state of mind (which is generally volatile). Reading one such passage last night I found myself completely engrossed and now I wonder, in view of the current prejudice against this type of writing, why it seems so effective in Wells' hands.
One reason is the sheer energy in his style - Well's prose can be clumsy, especially to the modern ear, but it never lacks zip or indeed charm. Another is the intimacy he manages to create. I felt the narrator was speaking directly to me, from the heart and with great honesty. No reader who is absorbed will be bored. Thirdly, in this instance exposition is used to move the plot forward at a considerable rate. So within ten pages of densely packed typeface my relationship with the narrator deepened at the same time as his circumstances, and hence the plot, evolved. And all through 'telling' not 'showing' (though I refuse to make a rigid distinction between the two, but that's another thought for another day).
You might conclude that a lively, engaging narrator can hide a multitude of sins, but my question is, are they really sins in the first place?
A happy and peaceful new year to anyone who's kind enough to be reading this. I can't give away too much at this stage, but just after Christmas an unexpected but very welcome message arrived, so it looks like I'll have a serious project to keep me at my desk during 2022. I'll explain more when it's possible, but just to say at this point that my previous plans to stop writing are well and truly on hold. Wishing you all joy and inspiration for the year to come.
I once had H.G. Wells' autograph, on a tiny scrap of paper. Then I lost it. My parents had approached him at a meeting of the Fabian Society and apparently, though he normally refused such requests, on this occasion he relented. It's decades since I read his novels, but recently something has drawn me back to that era - and elderly cloth-bound books in general. So I find myself fifty pages into Tono-Bungay, stunned by H.G.'s energy, imagination and consummate use of vocabulary. It's also fascinating to see how uninhibited the writing could be in that less fastidious age. As for me, I'm returning to a story begun in 2020 about floods and isolation, trying not to get too technical about methods of damp-proofing. I wonder why so many of my characters find themselves cut off from the rest of humanity...
Strange happenings. I fully expected to at least have a break from writing for a while, but the muse rarely listens to my plans. So I find myself four thousand words into a story about some New Age types who have set up store on a previously unpopulated Hebridean island. And if that wasn't enough, a story set in the 1920s somehow fell into my head after watching a documentary on the brilliant Buster Keaton (much funnier than Chaplin in my opinion). The latter will definitely be completed, though I have no immediate plans to submit for a while. New and unexpected inspiration, it would seem. I left Twitter last month - could that have anything to do with it?
Today my latest story, Liminal Spaces, appears in my favourite online journal, Fictive Dream. As this will be my last story for some time, possibly forever, I thought it would be good to make it about the solitary, brain-scrambling and often demoralising act of writing fiction. Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time sitting alone trying to imagine characters, situations, dialogues and, not least, story lines. The result has been a hundred and twenty completed stories and perhaps another twenty unfinished. I’m left in awe of anyone who can devote a lifetime to writing fiction, let alone those rare souls who somehow make a living from it. At this point I have no idea whether I’ll write another story or, if I do, whether I would submit it with the hope of publication. In the meantime my website will stay up, and every story that’s still online will remain available. Thanks to everyone who’s taken time to visit and read, and special thanks to Laura Black, Fictive Dream’s wonderful editor, for all her kindness, support and guidance. You can read Liminal Spaces via my Stories page here
I always wanted to be a poet, but the gods would only allow me to write short stories. Just occasionally though, when they've gone for a tea break, I sneak in something you might call a prose poem. Today I'm delighted that one such, The Noah of the Marshes, appears in the fantastic Fragmented Voices, home to great prose and poetry both. I've been writing for some years now, and certain themes have begun to emerge, one of which is a person or group who retreat from the world in pursuit of solitude. This story is a return to that theme, and owes much to the mesmerising documentary, Man of Three Rivers. Watch it on YouTube and be transported back in time. Heartfelt thanks yet again to Rue and both Natalies at Fragmented voices. You can read The Noah of the Marshes via my Stories page here
I’m honoured to be able to announce that my story A Meeting in Fitzrovia is going to be nominated for Best of the Net. When it first appeared in Fictive Dream it drew some very personal responses, and I’m deeply touched that Laura Black, Fictive Dream’s wonderful editor, has chosen to put it forward.
I’ve sometimes wished, for various reasons, that I could have been born in an earlier time. Many of the books in my childhood home had been published between the wars. In consequence their authors had in many cases died before I started reading them. This was sadly true of Dylan Thomas, who had exhausted his romantic ideal of a poet’s life by the time he was thirty-nine. As a person he remains a controversial figure, with a lifestyle typically viewed as feckless and dissolute. But he kept the loyalty and affection of his friends, was known to be effortlessly amusing and also unquestioningly generous to other poets. I will never tire of reading his work. In short he captured my adolescent imagination and never let it go. If I could go back anywhere in time, very high on my list would be to a Soho pub sometime in the nineteen-forties, sharing a few beers with Dylan. I thought the next best thing would be to have the narrator of a story do it. If you’d like to join him just click here
Sorry for the long pause. For various reasons I've been having a break from writing to reassess. I hope to post a new story soon, also some news as to what the future might hold. Thanks for you patience...
Most of my teens took place in the 1970s, a decade I came to detest. As an aspiring guitarist it seemed to me that all the best music, not to mention literature and fashion, had happened just a few years earlier. In my story The Time I Never Had, which comes out in Nymphs Publications today, my narrator feels pretty much the same. You can read it via my stories page here
The possibility of using fiction to explore memory has interested me more and more as the years pass. The phenomenon of memory, with all its tricks, evasions and shifting perspectives, is, by its nature, partial and inexact. It is dependent on the perception of the person or persons remembering, and as such is inherently subjective and dynamic. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, significant memories have the power to shape an entire life. In my story A Retrospective Diary, which comes out today in the ever excellent Fictive Dream, the narrator, groping for truth, seeks to reassemble distant events through a miasma of things remembered, partially remembered, or seemingly lost. You can read it via my stories page here
Out of the blue the kind people at Bandit Fiction have reissued my story Fascination. It was written a while ago, I think after I visited the Modern Lovers exhibition at the Barbican. I find the relationship between artist and muse an extraordinary thing - the quality of seeing in the artist, the depth of scrutiny to which the model submits, the passion, the restraint, the element of mystery it must involve. That's what I've tried to get across. You can read Fascination via my stories page here
Today it’s an honour to contribute a story to Fictive Dream’s fifth birthday celebrations. My personal debt to Laura Black, Fictive Dream’s superb editor and a much-valued champion of the short story form, has grown each year. Laura allows, in fact encourages, contributors to write in their own voice: one reason why so many authors submit again and again, and why Fictive Dream has such an extensive and devoted readership. The result is an archive of high-quality stories as diverse in style, and wide-ranging in subject matter, as anything you could hope to find online. Thank you, Laura, congratulations, and happy birthday Fictive Dream!
Because it’s a special day, and because it’s my favourite of all my stories, I’d like to give a little background to my contribution, Satyagraha and Ernest Jones.
Sometimes a story arrives so naturally it feels like it’s always been there. In my twenties, living with an Indian family and studying yoga and meditation (before they became trendy and diluted), I began to read Louis Fischer’s ‘Life of Gandhi’. Total obsession followed. This was before the film came out and before YouTube, so the mental images I had of Gandhi were drawn from what I could read and a few black and white photos. At some point, as if it was no big deal, my father mentioned that one of his boyhood friends had gone to stay with Gandhi at his ashram.
My father being a reticent man who, like many of his generation, had lost friends in WW2, I didn’t ask too many questions. Gradually, however, a few tantalising details emerged. The said friend, Ernest Jones, lived locally to my parents in Brentford. As ardent young people they had all attended the Methodist Mission there (until my parents thought it prudent to convert to Catholicism, but that’s another story). Ernest, my father explained, was viewed as a singularly good person by everyone who knew him. In those days (circa 1930s), services at the Mission Hall always ended with the national anthem, Ernest alone, my father remembered, refused to stand. Apparently the gesture stemmed from his opposition to the division of nations. Sometime later, and decades before the advent of social services, he set up an establishment to help what would then have been called juvenile delinquents, somewhere outside London.
And that’s it. I never found out more. So imagination and guesswork have had to fill the gaps. I surmise that Ernest would likely have been a pacifist, and therefore a conscientious objector. His stance, or rather lack of it, towards the national anthem suggests this, and pacifism was not uncommon among Methodists during and between the world wars. Remarkably, in those conformist times and in that censorious company, no-one took offence. This, I feel, says much about his character. My father, pedantic about language and not given to hyperbole, more than once described him as a saint.
I was born in South Ealing, right on the border with Brentford. Into the 1960s and beyond it remained a parochial area, in mentality more like a village than a suburb of London. Attitudes tended to be fixed. I don’t remember a lot of individuality, let alone digressive behaviour. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like some thirty years previously. The fact of a young man, from that background, having the desire and initiative to travel alone to India would in itself be unusual. The fact that his reason was to spend time with a man being referred to as ‘Mahatma’ (great soul) in his own country but viewed as dissident in what was still colonial Britain is even more remarkable.
So I imagined what it would be like when they met, these two very singular men. I wondered if each saw something of himself in the other. I wondered what inspiration Ernest brought back with him to those quiet suburban streets in the wake of a second world war.
And that was where the story ended, but I’ll just mention a couple of other things. The person playing the harmonium – in the first paragraph – might well have been my mother (my maternal grandmother continued to attend The Mission until she died aged ninety-one). And one of my sisters once met Ernest’s sister, still living in Brentford some five decades after the year in which the story was set. My sister told me that when this ordinary-looking, rather elderly woman took her hand she felt a sensation of heat flowing up her arm. So I transferred this small memory to Ernest. Now you know as much as I do.
You can read Satyagraha and Ernest Jones via my Stories page here
Funerals can be strange occasions. Sad, by default, but when I think of some I’ve attended I’m struck by the sheer spectrum of emotions and behaviours on display. Not surprising I suppose. Humans are complex creatures, and perhaps the most natural thing to feel towards those we've known and lost is ambivalence. Especially when things hidden, often for decades, emerge to reveal or confuse. Today my story Death Duty appears in Confingo – surely the most beautifully produced of all literary journals. Thanks again to editor Tim Shearer for including another of my stories in this superb publication. To order Confingo 15 click here
Next week the fabulous Fictive Dream turns five, a landmark for so many of us who’ve had our stories published there, made friends with other Fictive Dream authors, and read so many high-class stories in its pages. I’ll say more soon, but for now I’m so pleased that, as part of the celebrations, my story Breath is being reissued. You can read it via my Stories page here
Delighted that my story Sitting with Mr Griffiths appears today in Nymphs Publications, a really excellent online journal of prose and poetry that I would recommend wholeheartedly.
Childhood – how it is viewed and what it entails – has changed almost out of recognition in my lifetime, and I’m not even that old. I remember, as a young teenager, going out alone at six-thirty on freezing winter mornings to deliver papers in dark streets, before cycling off to school. Most of my friends did it, no-one thought it strange. So this story was written after hearing a particular memory of someone who was also a child at around the same time. I sometimes wonder how we’ve got from that point to where we are today. It all seemed so normal then…
You can read Sitting with Mr Griffiths via my Stories page here
Male friendship is a theme I’ve returned to a lot, so it’s apposite today to be returning to a story first published a couple of years ago in the Nottingham Review, now alas no more. The rapport that comes so easily when we’re young can be hard to re-establish latterly, when lives have diverged. But so often tendrils, in the form of memories and assumptions, linger to confuse. On the Outside of Everything describes two friends who meet in reduced circumstances after a long gap. I’m very grateful to Bandit Fiction for giving this story another chance to be read.
It’s a joy to return to the pages of Lunate Fiction today with my first publication of the year, a tiny story called The Finding Gene. I never set out to write to any particular length, but in this instance seem to have come up with something that could reasonably be called flash fiction – not the shortest story I’ve written but close. For various reasons it’s a piece that’s dear to my heart – thanks as ever to Gary and Han for their support in giving it a fine home.
Perhaps there's no such distant time as the recent past. It's hard to imagine that a young teenager might be asked, as a matter of course, to wait alone in a cold church early on a winter's morning. Well within living memory, however, this was not unknown - I recently heard the experience described, not without humour, by a former altar boy on the radio. That's how my story Waiting for Mr Griffiths came about. I was delighted to learn today that Julia Kova, editor of Nymphs publications and surely one of the nicest people in the field of publishing. has accepted it. It should appear in a few weeks time, at which point I'll say more. Thank you, Julia!
In what has been a fallow time for writing I was heartened to learn this week that my story A Retrospective Diary has been accepted for publication in Fictive Dream, probably in June or July. The story returns to the themes that interested me when I first returned to fiction: memory, it's arbitrary and often confusing nature, and the contrasting perspectives of an older and younger self. In the story the narrator looks back to a brief, formative time fifty years ago. He has changed, his perspective has changed, the culture he tries to remember has changed, and even the events he is driven to revisit are no longer intact in his memory. Nevertheless, he is impelled to make the attempt. In writing this story I drew to some degree on some training I once did on false memory syndrome - the belief that something has happened when circumstance suggests it has not. But also the sense of a lost voice, a lost time, and events that, however much we might try, can never quite be recaptured.
I've just completed the editing process for a story called Ernest Jones and Satyagraha, set between 1930s Brentford and India. It's based on a few snippets I was told by my father about one of his boyhood friends, and a personal hero who died before I was born. The clue is in the title. It's due for a very special publication in May which has yet to be announced, so I'll explain more then, except to say for now that it's a story that means a great deal to me, for a number of reasons.