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Review: Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

Mark Gatiss gave us an episode of Sherlock in the original, Victorian setting, but only a fool would not have expected him to weave it into the end of the last episode of the modern adaptation.

After a selection of scenes from previous episodes, the story is introduced by John Watson, in his army uniform, being showered by debris from an exploding shell in the Second Afghan War. This is straight off page 1 of the original version of Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study In Scarlet’. (If you have never read this, then do so, as soon as possible.)

Everybody wants to know the resolution to the apparent suicide of Moriarty at the end of the last mini-series. The programme started by giving us a story which apparently had nothing to do with Moriarty, and then it did have something to do with Moriarty, but not in the way we were expecting, and then we did get some development of the story in the previous episode, but not a resolution, and then we got another cliff-hanger.

It is a testament to Gatiss’s skill as a story-teller and constructor of plot that he manages to dazzle the audience in this way, and maintain the tension, without ever degenerating into “one damned thing after another” (as happens in ‘24’, for example).
All the characters were rigorously played by the same actors as their modern counterpart, right down to the chap who says, “He is always like that” (Dr Stamford).

Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), the pathologist who never appears in the Conan Doyle original, looks great in a moustache. I wish I could say the same for John Watson. It was obvious how a masculine disguise would have been necessary for a woman to be a pathologist in Victorian times, but even I did not supsect that this would turn out to be a key part of the plot. The same goes for John Watson’s petulant exchange with the housemaid over his breakfast.

When Gatiss is not inventing new characters, he is setting up relationships and axes of tension between existing ones, chiefly between Mary Morstan (spy) and Mycroft (spymaster), between Holmes & Watson (subjects) and Mary Morstan (investigator). Not only is Watson his own man (as all modern Watsons have to be), but Molly Hooper, Mary Morstan, and Mrs Hudson are their own women. The subtle and unintentional homo-eroticism of the original stories has been replaced by deliberate and blatant homo-eroticism between Sherlock and Moriarty. Under the layers of physical and psychological evidence and plot, under the raising of social and philosophical questions, against the settings and characters and the subtext-laden dialogue, we always get back to the same issue: the never-ending struggle of Sherlock and Moriarty to alleviate their own boredom. Sherlock and Mycroft are both fellow-sufferers from hyperlexia. Moriarty’s condidtion may resemble hyperlexia, but I suspect him of being merely a vulgar adrenaline-addict, rather than being addicted to the assimilation and analysis of coherent data.

The wait for this was too long. “So that Martin Freeman could portray Bilbo Baggins” is, in my opinion, one of the worst imaginable reasons for the delay, but it can’t be helped. I cannot wait for the next one. In ‘The Abominable Bride’, Mark Gatiss has succeeded in writing an ultra-promiscuous adaptation of a set of Victorian stories, and producing something which is better-thought-out, more plausible, and more gripping than the original. He has even managed to create a story which ends with “and then it was all a dream” without it seeming to be a cliche. Good writers avoid cliches. Great writers use cliches in new ways.

Finally, I come to the awards section.

Coolest Man On The Planet: Benedict Cumberbatch, for the way he delivers the line, ‘The name is Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221B, Baker Street.’
Most Unlikely Person: Jane (Stephanie Hyam – ?) the housemaid, who just wins it ahead of Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) in men’s clothes.
Best Editorial Decision: making Mycroft fat again, but making him the subject of a tontine with Sherlock, and addicted to plum pudding.
Best Line Other Than Sherlock’s: ‘He didn’t want a drink: he needed one’, or ‘You’re Sherlock Holmes – wear the damned hat.’ (both John Watson). The latter is narrowly the winner.
Best sideburns: Lestrade (Rupert Graves).



Review: A Firm Of Poets at Unity Works, Wakefield 26/11/2015

This is the first time I have paid to see A Firm Of Poets. The evening was worth every penny.

The music was provided by a band whose name I didn’t catch. Their line-up was: electric piano, guitar, and violin. The violin playing and backing vocals were provided by Matt Abbott’s girlfriend, Lucy Relins.

The format was the same one that A Firm Of Poets always use. They line up five chairs. They line up five poets. Each poet does a single poem and then it moves on to the next one. Sometimes there is a preamble or banter about the previous piece, but it is always kept to a merciful minimum. They all recite from memory. I don’t know how they do it.

The compere was Geneviève Walsh. Her performance was the best I have seen. A Firm Of Poets are accessible and alternative at the same time. Geneviève is the embodiment of this. I heard her poetic voice more clearly than I have in any previous performance. She is maturing in her presentation, and staying crazy and uncategorisable at the same time. If Geneviève Walsh ever enters the same room as Alan Bennett, there will probably be a thermonuclear explosion.

Matt Abbott is only 26 years old. Like Geneviève, in this performance he spoke with the clearest voice I have ever heard him use. Part of his patter was the comparison and contrast between audiences that expect rhymed pieces (music crowds) and those that expect unrhymed (lit crowds). Matt has mastered both. He also does pieces that leave the listener wondering if they were rhymed or unrhymed. His last three pieces were political. He can do political poetry that has a mixed-aged, mixed-gender audience stamping their feet, clapping, and shouting. I have lost count of the number of failed attempts at political poetry I have heard.

John Darwin’s work has a depth and breadth that defies description. The man himself is quitely-spoken, philosophical, and introspective. His work is inventive and profound. His performances are crafted, to the extent of being like those of an old-time music hall performer. He reminds me faintly of Eric Morecambe. It is impossible to tell whether everything is rehearsed to the nth degree, or if is improvised. I guess that the truth is somewhere in between. He is also a Manc, which helps to diversify what might otherwise have become the contemporary poetry equivalent of Last Of The Summer Wine.

If A Firm Of Poets were a set of spice jars, then Victoria Garbutt would be the chilli powder. Apart from the three years I spent at Liverpool University, I do not get Toria’s drug references, but I do get her anger and the stylishness of her delivery. I heard five poets this evening. I preferred some of them to others. The fact that there was a range of voices is something I would never change. Toria keeps the preamble down to virtually zero, which is greatly to be applauded. She also met most of the evening’s quota of swearing, which is also a thing to be encouraged. This was commendably augmented by the representatives from A Republic Of Poetry, particularly with regard to the word, “wanker” by a gentleman from Featherstone.

Ralph Dartford’s voice also came through more clearly in this performance. He added touches of comedy and pathos, as well as delivering his blockbuster, ‘Safe Home’, with topical variation.

Jacqui Wicks produced the performance. As a production, it could not have been bettered.

If I had to think of one word to describe the whole event, it would be: Shakespearian. We had everything: characters, voices, stories, love, sex, death, substance abuse, childhood, old age, madness, familiarity, strangeness.

The auditorium of Floor 4 at Unity Works was packed. Everybody in that auditorium apart from the performers had paid ten quid to get in. This is A Firm Of Poets. This is the People’s Republic Of Poetry. The next performance is at the Barnsley Civic on Saturday 28 November. I won free tickets.

Review by A Firm Of Poets

I am delighted to have received the following review from my friends at A Firm Of Poets:


The Firm is about to embark on a nationwide tour. The dates are here:


I have just bought tickets for their performance at Unity Works in Wakefield. I would be going to others, but some of the local ones clash with performances I am giving.

I think The Firm is really starting to get somewhere. I wish them every success with the tour.

Review: Holding Your Hand Through Hard Times: a collection by Firm Of Poets

56 pages


ISBN 978 0 9930192 0 3

Published by Ossett Observer Presents, 2014

This chapbook features poems by Ralph Dartford, Matthew Headley Stoppard, Geneviève L. Walsh, John Darwin, and Matt Abbott.  I know all these people.  I have been given very generous lifts in the car belonging to Ralph and his wife, Jacqui.  I have interviewed Matthew Headley Stoppard on my radio programme, and shared a stage with him during the promotion of the Grist poetry anthology.  I have headlined and done open mic at Spoken Weird, run by Geneviève Walsh.  I have read a poem at Write Out Loud in Sale, run by John Darwin (where Ralph and Matthew also performed) and I have heard Matt Abbott perform many times, in Wakefield and Sheffield.

The first thing that strikes you about this book is the production quality.  As a manufactured object, it is a thing of craft, beauty, and durability.  It is held together with red stitching which reminded me of the seams on a pair of stockings.  The cover design is distinctive but minimal.  There is an endpaper made of textured black paper which looks almost as if it has been retrieved from a bonfire without being broken.  The text uses two colours, black and red, which appealed to my anarcho-syndicalist background, and two fonts (the maximum number permissible in a single document which doesn’t contain equations or scientific notation).  The poems are divided by author, and appear in the order I listed the names previously.

If you happen to live near Wakefield, the nicest way to obtain this book is to visit Rickaro Books in Horbury, where it is currently in stock (http://www.rickarobooks.co.uk/).  (While you are there, you might also like to have a look at a copy of ‘Escape Kit’.)

Ralph Dartford’s work is free verse, mostly with short lines, and uses rhyme, rhythm, and stanzas, but not in a regular form.  His subjects are marginal lives, relationships, and the passing of time – all good stuff.  His last poem is political and is that rarest of objects: a political poem that sounds as if it was written by a grown-up and which actually works.  Ralph achieves this by observing one of the simplest rules, which is to write from the personal, the detailed, and the practical, rather than the impersonal, the abstract, and the hypothetical.

Matthew Headley Stoppard uses longer lines which are harder to enunciate than Ralph’s.  His subject matter defies categorisation, but the poems all have a clear narrative voice.  The vocabulary contains a lot of words, and goes near to the point of becoming poetic, e.g. with ‘ellipsis’ and ‘dovetailed’, but the language feels free and experimental rather than pretentious or over-written.  I am fascinated to see how MHS’s already mature-sounding style will develop as he approaches the age of thirty.

Geneviève’s first poem has the same narrative mode as some of the passages in ‘The Damned United’, by David Peace – the ones in which the voice of Brian Clough is narrating.  In other words, there is an unreliable, first person narrator, who addresses himself (herself, in Geneviève’s case) in the second person.  The effect in both places is to make the narrator sound unhinged.  Her poems use a lot of figurative comparisons, but still manage to sound contemporary.

John Darwin’s two main themes are a sense of place, and mortality, sometimes with both in the same poem.  One of the poems is set in Turkey, but for a reason related to the subject, not for the sake of sounding exotic.  John uses rhyme and rhythm, in a manner which is more regular than most of the other work, but he doesn’t use standard forms.  As I implied earlier, all these poems are written for performance, by seasoned performers.  Matt and Geneviève are loud performers.  Ralph, MHS, and John are clear but quiet performers.

Matt Abott’s poems are about a sense of place, romantic longing, and a review he once received via a posting on the Channel 4 website.  ‘This One’s For Tim’ is the only poem in the book which is about writing poetry.  It is also the most regular in form (five quartets, each with a rhyme scheme AABB).  ‘Drunken Culinary Kingdom’ is about one of The Forbidden Subjects For Contemporary Poetry – going for a drunken night out.  It is also regular in form, apart from a variant middle stanza.  Matt does this kind of thing much better than most of his contemporaries, but I think it reads less well on the page than some of his other work.

The collection is fairly well-balanced (in the artistic rather than the mental health sense).  It contains a lot of craft, some guile, a mixture of emotions, and it will try to hit you over the head with a tyre-iron in places.  If you are interested in poetry which is urban, contemporary and unpretentious (like mine is) then buy it.  If you have any affection for books as manufactured objects, then buy it whatever your opinion of poetry is.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (content warning: rude words)

Stewart Lee reached new heights in the last episode of ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ on Saturday 8 March 2014 on BBC 2.  However, he missed at least one trick.

And what about the Battle of Britain eh?  Those bloody Poles, and bloody Czechs, and bloody French pilots COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE and taking jobs from our fighter pilots, those that hadn’t been killed.  COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE and talking Polish, and Czech, and French all the time, and being told off by Air Marshal Dowding for not speaking the fucking language.  And then, when the struggle was at its most bitter and intense, those bloody Poles, shooting down more enemy planes per capita than any other Allied nation in the conflict, and taking more casualties.  They bloody CAME OVER ‘ ERE and took jobs from our pilots that we didn’t have in sufficient numbers but that’s not the point and they didn’t speak the fucking language and then, while they were being all Polish, and all foreign, they CAME OVER ‘ ERE and they  LAID DOWN THEIR LIVES FOR OUR CAUSE WITHOUT QUESTION OR HESITATION.  Bloody Poles, and bloody Czechs, and bloody French, COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE, pitting everything they had to try to save Western civilisation from the otherwise inevitable downfall of humanity that was Adolf Hitler’s ultimate goal.  COMIN’ OVER ‘ ERE and, bloody succeeding.   And for what, eh?  For what?  They CAME  OVER ‘ ERE just so that we could have this bloody conversation, against a background of civil government which, no matter what its specific shortcomings with regard, for example, to recent events surrounding the Stephen Lawrence investigation and creeping privatisation of the NHS, still preserves independent institutions which hold the potential for a rejuvenated, modern democracy if only members of the public, empowered as they are by new and widely-available forms of mass communication,  could be encouraged to ask more questions, put those institutions to work, and engage with them.   Bloody foreigners.  COMIN’ OVER ‘ERE.  We’ll fight our own battles in future, and instead of filling vital shortages of personnel, skill, and morale with fanatically-motivated people who regard themselves as our natural allies, we’ll fall back on a sclerotic class hierarchy, xenophobia, and a mythologised and grotesquely-misplaced belief in our own self-sufficiency.

Review: ‘Staying Afloat’ by Sue Wilsea

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 127

156 pages

GBP 9.00




I bought this book at a reading hosted at The Leeds Library.  Jamie McGarry, the editor-in-chief at Valley Press, was on a promotional tour with some of his authors.  The evening featured readings by James Nash, Michael Stewart, Matthew Headley Stoppard, and Sue Wilsea: each author read his or her own work.  

The book contains 19 stories.  Most of them are about 7 or 8 pages long, making them on the “short” side of a short story, in keeping with the current fashion.  The blurb on the back describes the collection as being about “men, women, and children, and the ways in which they keep their heads above water.” I would have said instead, “and the ways in which some of them keep their heads above water, and some of them drown.” 

 Before I get carried away, I will set out everything negative I can think of about this collection.  The story, ‘A True Vocation’, while well-written and containing dramatic tension, is comic and, in my opinion, jars with the rest of the collection.  This story is like finding an orange segment in a salad: it is not that I do not want to consume it – on the contrary – it is simply that I would have preferred it separately.  Most of the subjects dealt with are dark, and a few of them are terrifying.  This comic story seemed like a deviation from the main theme of the collection.

 I also have a few minor, technical reservations about some of the narrative voices.  I spotted what I would consider to be minor inconsistencies, particularly when the narrative mode is third person with limited omniscience.  This, as I keep saying, is in my opinion the most technically difficult of all conventional narrative modes.  This is more a criticism of whoever edited the collection rather than of the author.  I also admit that this is technical nit-picking at its meanest. 

And I’m not mad-keen on the title.  ‘Staying Afloat’ is fine as the title of an individual story, but I think the collection as whole deserves something that, while apt, is close to being unique.  There are umpteen books called ‘Staying Afloat’. 

 Apart from that, this is probably the best collection of short stories I have ever read by a living author.  That assertion will sound exaggerated unless I explain in some detail why I make it.

 This collection is an outstanding example of what is possible in contemporary short fiction when the writer gets the simple things absolutely right. 

 The first thing that Sue Wilsea does faultlessly is to start in medias res.  There are no preambles.  The first word of the text is the first word of the story. All you get is the story.    That might sound obvious, but it is something one does not always see, and here it is a major contribution to the addictively page-turning quality of the collection. 

 The characters in all the stories are powerfully depicted.  After reading each one, I felt as if I could have written a companion story featuring the same protagonist because, in just a few pages, I knew who the protagonist was – no matter how conflicted, exhausted, broken-down, or insane, and no matter how different the character’s background and circumstances were from my own. 

 The stories are all stories – not just bodies of words.  There are hooks, inciting incidents, story beats, climaxes, epiphanies, and (contemporary) resolutions.  In short: there are beginnings, middles, and ends.  The subject matter and the style of these stories is contemporary, but the structure of them would have been familiar to Aristotle.  In keeping with contemporary fashion, the endings mostly “get out quickly”, Raymond Carver-style.  The exception to this is the last in the book, ‘Dabblers’, which is set over a span of many years, and is technically not a short story but a very, very short novel (but no less well-written and entertaining for that).  Not once in reading this collection did I get to a last line and think, “What was the point of that?”  Sue Wilsea has assiduously applied one of Kurt Vonnegut’s maxims: the one that says, “Use the time of a complete stranger in such a way that he or she will not consider it to have been wasted.” 

 Those are the basic things.  There are many other things to be commended. 

 One is that several of the protagonists are, as the blurb suggests, children.  The age-range of the characters is from the unborn to the cradle to adolescence to adulthood to senility to the grave.  This lends the collection a universality which one seldom sees so powerfully.  This universality is strengthened by the themes dealt with: conception, childbirth, infidelity, bereavement, self-deception, self-realisation, loss, survival – all depicted through characters and details, strictly according to the method of “show, don’t tell”. 

 As one would expect in a contemporary collection, characters in various states of mental extremis – nutters, if you prefer – feature largely.

 The collection has a sense of place.  The cover illustration, featuring a stylised depiction of the Humber Bridge, indicates Sue Wilsea’s connection with the East Riding of Yorkshire, and its coastline.  In this, and other subtler ways, the personality and genius of the author becomes evident as the stories progress.

Review: Front Lines, edited by Dan Formby.

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 10 3

56 pages

GBP 7.50


‘Front Lines’ is a collection of short stories by writers under 25.  It is edited by Dan Formby, who also wrote the opening story, ‘Dead Stone’.  There are 6 stories, each one between 6 and 10 pages long.

 The stated theme of the book is ‘modern society’.  I bought the book in spite of, not because of, that billing.  When I was in my early 20s, an age at which I had the aspiration to be a writer but no idea how to go about doing it, I was interested in writing fiction which had a social or political message.  Everything I wrote during that era was garbage.  Since then, I have grown to loathe didactic fiction.  I am not saying that fiction cannot or should not have a message.  I am saying that the basic rules (show, don’t tell; create convincing characters; depict an engaging setting; load the dialogue with sub-text) have to be observed.  The characters, the inciting incident, the twist(s), and resolution should come first, and the message, if there is one, should come afterwards. 

 ‘Dead Stone’ by Dan Formby begins with a quotation from another work.  As I often find, the quotation gave no insight into the story the first time I read it, and seemed scarcely less opaque after I had read the story.  The first three words of the story are ‘I heard tell…’ which sounded alarmingly archaic.  I looked in the rest of the text for a reason why the narrator’s voice sounded like this, but did not find one.  The protagonist admits in the first half page that he is an idiot.  There are stories which are engaging, in spite of having a dislikeable protagonists (an outstanding example of which is ‘Doctor Jack O’ Bear’ by Richard Yates).  There are, more frequently, stories which are supposed to have an empathetic protagonist, but which don’t succeed in generating the empathy.  ‘Dead Stone’ is in that category, in my opinion.  This is a story about a self-involved character who makes a bad life-style choice for no good reason.  The ‘modern society’ theme that is examined is homelessness, and the ways that the homeless and the not homeless regard each other.  The story erupts into violence towards the end. In spite of this, most of the impression I was left with was dissatisfaction with the narrator’s voice, which uses far too much telling and not enough showing. 

 ‘Stop Gap’ by Felice Howden is, like much of my work, a modern version of ‘Little Red Riding-hood’ (“If you go into the forest, do not talk to the mysterious stranger”).  It is narrated in the third person, and concerns a protagonist called Roger.  The handling of the third person narration is competent, but I think it would be better if Roger were a first person narrator.  Roger has eighteen hours to kill before he catches a plane.  He goes to a pub, meets the mysterious stranger, and is then taken to a squat.  Alcohol and drugs are a factor from then on, and the story becomes a stream of consciousness, written from Roger’s point of view.  This is quite a vivid and convincing description, but it reads as one thing after another, rather than a set of story beats.  I got to the end of the story without seeing an epiphany, nor anything to indicate why there was no epiphany. 

 ‘Viral Marketing’ by David Whelan is the second story which begins with a quotation.  The quotation is something to do with greed, or mindless consumption.  Again, I saw no reason why the story needs the quotation. 

 This story is narrated in the third person, is 10 pages long, and yet contains four section breaks, each one with a change of protagonist.  It therefore breaks the rule that you should not change the narrative point of view until the character and voice of the first narrator has been properly established.  It also breaks the rule that you are allowed to break a rule if it is for a worthwhile reason. 

 The final section of the story, about half a page long, is an apocalyptic about a (conventional) war between the USA and China over water resources which are being strained by rising population and global warming.  I dislike apocalyptics as a genre: I have yet to read one which I find scientifically and socially plausible (even including ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Brave New World’).  This section was ludicrously short for the breadth of the subjects it touched on.   

 ‘This Hopeless War’ by James Mcloughlin sounded from its title that it was going to be a anti-war story, but is in fact about self-delusion and mental illness.  It indirectly recapitulates the earlier theme of homelessness, and the fact that it does so indirectly is a good thing.  This is the best story in the collection, mainly because it is the one that treats its disturbing subject while sticking to the rules of short story writing: the protagonist, while insane, is empathetic.  There is a twist near the end.  There is no epiphany, but there is enough to show the reader why there is no epiphany. 

 ‘Climb’ by Ryan Whitaker is narrated consistently in the first person by a single protagonist.  Unfortunately, I do not like the narrator.  I find the subject matter uninteresting and I do not see what this story has to do with the theme of the collection.   

 ‘Patrick’ by Nathan Ouriach is an evocative depiction of a relationship between the narrator and his pregnant partner.  This story breaks most of the rules.  There is characterisation, but there is no detectable inciting incident, or development, or climax, or epiphany, or resolution.  The timeline of the action of the story is very short, but contains reminiscences about how the characters met.  It reads like a piece of life writing rather than a short story, but does have page-turning quality.  Nathan Ouriach can therefore be congratulated for breaking the rules but still producing a readable and engaging piece of writing.  There is no didactic point in this story, but it maintains the theme of ‘modern society’ because of the life-style of the characters. 

 In the ‘ABC’ philosophy of creative writing (Art – Business – Craft) this collection does have things to commend it.  The main thing I admire about it is the business element: the fact that it was published at all.  Valley Press is one of the most dynamic independent presses that I know.  For these six writers to get their work into a Valley Press printed book (produced with Valley Press’s accustomed high quality) is no mean feat.  To do that before the age of 26 is outstanding.  I hope to see more work from these contributors, preferably in collections which are open to writers of all ages.  In order to continue to be published, I believe that most of them will need to pay much greater attention to the craft elements of writing, and cultivate the ability to write about edgy and contemporary subjects without breaking too many of the basic rules of story-telling.

Review: ‘Morvern Callar’ by Alan Warner

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (2 May 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099586118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099586111

‘Morvern Callar’ is one of those books that I wish I had written.  It is written entirely from the point of view of the eponymous protagonist, in the first person and the past tense.  Except, not all of it is strictly in the first person.  Sometimes the narrator refers to herself as “you”.  A sentence which contains two personal pronouns tends to use “I” first, and “you” second, but this is not absolutely consistent.  The narrative mode is therefore unique.

The narrator’s voice is very idiosyncratic, not just in its grammatical person, but in vocabulary and emotional tone. 

The first thing the narrator does is psychopathic.  The emotional reaction is “normal” (whatever that means) but the physical action is insane.  The development of the narrator’s character becomes more and more empathetic after that.  This is a form of literary cheating, but it works brilliantly.

This is so far the only book by Alan Warner I have read.  I can’t decide if this is a book written by an intuitive, untrained writer who had never read the creative writing rulebook, or if it is a calculated attempt to write a conventional novel that is disguised to look unconventional.  The answer to that question probably does not matter, because I finished it in three sittings. 

This book reminded me of ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Iain Banks.  It takes place in more than one setting, unlike TWF, but, like TWF, each of those settings is deliberately limited, in order for the writer to depict it more vividly. 

It reads like a piece of life-writing.  This happened, and then that, and then this other thing.  Some of the things that are raised in the story are not resolved, in a manner which seems almost careless.  But the voice of the narrator is so convincing and engaging that this doesn’t matter. 

This is a book which is irritating and satisfying in equal measure.

Review: The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes, Part 1

Paperback: 206 pages

Publisher: Unthank Books (14 Feb 2013)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 095642239X

ISBN-13: 978-0956422392

Price: GBP 12



 I requested a review copy of Ashley Stokes’ first collection of short stories in 2012, before it was published.  I have not written a review of it before, because it is taking me a long time to decide what I think about it, which is a good thing. 

 I have still not made up my mind about the collection as a body, and so I have decided to review individual stories.   I’m starting with the last story in the book, which is entitled ‘I Remember Nothing’. 

 Like many of Stokes’ short stories, it is a long one by contemporary standards – nearly 30 pages.  It is a complicated story and, given the timescale of the narrative and the amount of development that the protagonist undergoes, I would suggest that it might be considered to be a novella.  It would also, in my opinion, make a good film script. 

 The story opens, like ‘The Great Gatsby’ (a book on which Ashley Stokes and I have diametrically opposing views – he loves it and I hate it) with some historical reminiscence which is, by contemporary standards (the second time I’ve used that phrase) arguably irrelevant and mis-directing to the reader. 

 The protagonist is an intellectual 15-year old boy.  Like many intellectual teenage boys, he finds himself the victim of the school bully.  This is just one strand of a multi-threaded story.  The protagonist is neither a goodie or a baddie – he is a human being with limited resources, filled with self-doubt, and just trying to do the best he can.  This is very contemporary. 

 The narrative mode is first person unreliable, past tense.  The protagonist is only referred to by his real name nearly at the end, and turns out to be called Foxton.  There is quite a lot of direct speech, mostly conversations between the Foxton and either his amazingly enlightened history teacher, or the elderly and mysterious Mr E.  Foxton is Mr E’s paper-boy.  Foxton and Mr E talk about Foxton’s history lessons, which are concerned with Nazi Germany.   It is left to the reader to decide what he/she thinks about Mr E’s opinions. 

 The setting for the story is elaborately developed, which is another aspect of it which makes it feel like a novella rather than a short.  This development takes place mostly inside Foxton’s head.  He devises an alternative set of names for the places and things in his surroundings.  For example, he calls the school bus Kindertransport 151.  This did make me empathise with Foxton.  It is the kind of thing my contemporaries and I used to do at school as part of the struggle to escape boredom.  Foxton’s implied yearning for the conflict and complexity of Weimar Germany contrasts with the backdrop of the 1980s, which is convincingly-created. 

Given the story’s themes of survival, teenage confusion, and the colossal shadow cast by World War Two, I would be very interested to hear what Ashley Stokes thinks of my forthcoming novella, ‘Escape Kit’.

Review: Collected short stories of Richard Yates

Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 3rd 2002 by Picador (first published May 3rd 2001)
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
ISBN 0312420811
ISBN13: 9780312420819

This book contains the collections ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love’, and also some uncollected stories. The titles of both those collections are impeccably well chosen and accurate. It occurs to me that a technique for writing short fiction might be to think of the title of a collection before thinking of any individual story.

Richard Yates is possibly the best value for money short story writer I have ever come across. There is not a single poor or unengaging story in the book. The quality is astonishingly consistent. Unlike with Raymond Carver, or a lot of contemporary collections, there is no story which leaves you thinking “What was the point of that?”

The biggest theme in Yates’s stories seems to be vulnerability. At times, one finds oneself captivated and horrified at the same time. An outstanding example of this is ‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’. This is that most technically difficult of writing projects – a story without a single empathetic character. The pleasure the reader gets is from the acuity of the observation of human behaviour, and the expertly controlled way the story unfolds.

Yates began publishing these stories in the late 1950s. Many of them have an evocative, post-war atmosphere, like the American equivalent of Graham Greene. At the same time, the themes are universal and the style is contemporary.

The settings and the life-styles of the characters are comparable to Carver’s. The characters are unglamorous, often short of money, often hate their jobs or surroundings, and are nearly always unfulfilled. Another difficult feat that Yates achieves (several times) is to write engaging stories about characters who are writers.

When I was collecting critiques of my story, ‘Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please?’ a friend compared it to Richard Yates. I can now see a thematic resemblance – miscommunication, frustration, unfulfilment – and it is one of the greatest compliments my writing has ever been paid.