Eating and reading Shortbread

I’ve written about the influence on me of Hemingway’s novels but his short stories had an even greater impact. Perhaps they were the pattern for today’s mantra, ‘less is more’. In some mysterious way a mere incident, scenario or brief episode transmuted itself into an epic story. I recall the stories so well: a young soldier returning from the war, wounded in spirit, trekking the wilderness alone in search of a life gone by; long before On The Waterfront a washed up prize fighter awaiting his Armageddon in a run down hotel; a young couple at a railway station, she newly and frighteningly pregnant, he staring out at those lovely Spanish ‘hills like white elephants’. I read these stories fifty years ago and they still live for me.

I used to read a lot of short stories when it was easy to find them at W H Smith. Argosy magazine was my favourite. As a young man, impecunious, I gave up many a pork pie and soft drink lunch in favour of buying the latest issue. Argosy has been dead these many years and more’s the pity. If ever there was a time when the human psyche needed to be nourished in small, digestible portions this has to be it. The advent in 2007 of, digital as it was and is, focussed my mind and broadened my understanding of short fiction. As has so often been said, writing is, by its nature a solitary pursuit but it’s good to know there are plenty more out there being as solitary as you. As the poet said, No Man Is An Island … Shortbread indeed.

As a sidelight, when will I be able to jump on a train, in my pocket a Shortbread magazine containing this month’s selection? Yes, paper! To have and to hold …

I conceived and wrote my first short story in 1956 and my second in 2002 but in the interval conceived hundreds of others without actually writing them. Perhaps I should have had what it takes to break away, release myself from the main river that speeds us all downstream into that great ocean of what has been? You know, drop out and live in the proverbial garret and just do it? Like Hem, like Mr Shakespeare? But perhaps not. I have loved and still do love my life and the fruits of it and anyway you cannot be like someone else, certainly not if you spend time looking backwards. To be any use as a writer of stories you need to realise and to reveal in your words the truth in what you are yourself. All else is window dressing and cannot count.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that short fiction is a kettle of fish in some way apart from length different to long fiction. Neither for me should it be some kind of Readers Digest or journalistic compression. Beautiful prose is beautiful prose and does not waste words or fail to move its reader. And the way I see it a short story is, as it should be, an incident or an episode in a life and therefore there must be a before and an after to that life: short story into novel perhaps?

Please excuse the commercial but I’ve just described the birth of my new novel, Going with Gabriel. This was conceived as a short story called Len the Piper. Poor old Len, to be reborn as this Gabriel fellow, to never see the light of day beyond the hard disk of my PC! But he lit the torch that helps illuminate in some small way one dark corner of our world. Or so think I.

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