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The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

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Roman’s next move could topple his Chelsea Empire


It surely can’t be the same season and yet it is. Chelsea began this campaign steamrolling the opposition and notching up impossible scores. Drogba and Anelka and co were unstoppable. But this weekend Chelsea crashed out of the FA Cup, the one trophy their fans must have been counting on their team to comfortably retain. The coming week is make or break for the blues as they take on Copenhagen in the Champions League. After letting slip the Premiership to a way below par Manchester United side and an Arsenal team still in development, Chelsea’s only hope for silverware this term is in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti started this season as if he could do no wrong after reclaiming the title for the London side after a 3 year stay in Manchester, but it would seem he has to win the trophy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has always coveted and never won to keep his job.

Indeed it feels as if Abramovich’s tenure as Chelsea owner has reached a sort of tipping point. The unspoken fear around Stamford Bridge has always been what if the big Russian tires of his English plaything and leaves the club. It was the one consoling thought for many football fans as they watched Chelsea steadily ascend to the heights of world football; that the situation was unstable and one day Chelsea would crash and burn. It’s been said again since unfathomable amounts of oil money were ploughed into Manchester City. But so far Roman’s defied the expectations and hopes of the doubters, and continually funded his club. He’s proved the role model and catalyst for countless other investors to take the leap into English football. And thanks to Roman’s success and commitment, fans have even started welcoming benefactors in lots of cases.

Since the departure of the Special One however, Abramovich’s record with managers has been poor, with Ancelotti the only real success, besides Hiddink who was a temporary measure. And the chopping and changing of managers has disguised the relentless decline of the club’s squad. Once unbeatable and prized assets like Drogba, Lampard and Terry are ageing and no longer capable of consistent greatness. Once again Roman dipped into his vast wealth to try and resurrect his empire during the transfer window. Fans might have been reassured by this continued investment and the arrival of Torres and Luiz. But the Spaniard from Liverpool is yet to ignite and is not a long term solution. David Luiz displayed commanding defensive ability and sublime passing on his full debut against Fulham, alongside experienced Terry at centre back. It will take a whole clutch of young signings like Luiz to rejuvenate a Chelsea squad that has been neglected and has become predictable.

Ancelotti is coming under considerable fire of late for his tactical decisions. There’s no doubting that he is playing far too narrow through the midfield and into the hands of opponents that no longer see Chelsea’s defence as invincible. He’s certainly trying too hard to accommodate Torres without thinking first of the need for results and team chemistry. But in many ways Ancelotti is limited by his squad, a group of players he had little hand in selecting. There are an abundance of central midfield players in the Chelsea team, all of them quality players, and Ancelotti is trying to play to his strengths.

The danger is that Abramovich will simply sack another top class coach and there will once again be a period of upheaval. There’s an unquestionable need for change and fresh legs at Chelsea, but this will be best managed through continuity as well. It’s a real shame that the pressures of modern football and the heavy egos of club owner’s mean that managers no longer get time to shape a side to their vision. If Roman Abramovich is truly serious about winning the Champions League, and establishing Chelsea as a long term force at the top of football, he’ll keep faith in a manager who’s already proven himself and back him with the resources he needs. Top coaches deliver with time as Alex Ferguson proves. Take a reactionary axe to his management team as well as his squad and Roman might see his football empire crumble into mediocrity.

Ed Miliband can learn from Obama the salesman


President Obama’s State of Union address was a politically shrewd and inspirational sales pitch. At times it felt like a return to the stirring rhetoric of his election campaign which so captured the hearts of not only Americans, but citizens across the globe. He was playing his back-up card, his own magnetic charisma and charm, in an attempt to recover the legacy of his first term. It was a bold speech but it wasn’t flawless; occasionally Obama uncharacteristically tripped over his words and the key policy goals won’t win over everyone. But often his tone and message seemed perfectly tailored to the mindset of his nation. Despite the patriotic focus on America however there are numerous lessons leaders of left-wing political parties around the world, especially Labour’s Ed Miliband, can learn from the tactics, execution and content of the President’s speech.

There was a somewhat forced emphasis on pluralism and cooperation across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband has already started to learn this lesson himself. He began his tenure as leader aggressively pursuing the Lib Dem vote and he has now softened his approach to encourage teamwork against the worst of the cuts, and leave the way clear for a Lib-Lab coalition. In particular he’s gone to considerable lengths to retract comments he made about Nick Clegg, in the heat of the moment swept up by the public venom for the man, to appease the Lib Dem leader in the event of a close parliament once again at the next election. President Obama repeatedly praised the new Republican leader of Congress and even incorporated the story of his humble background into the appealing sense of patriotism and history coursing through the blood of his words.

This search for common ground with Republicans was of course necessary. The Mid-Term results left Obama in a desperate legislative position and in dire need of supporters for his landmark policies on both sides of American politics. Health Care has bogged down Obama’s Presidency thus far and in this speech he sought to draw a line under it. In the spirit of national cooperation, which Obama highlighted so much during his election campaign and then unwisely forgot during his first years in power, he asked anyone with improvements to the Health Care Bill to come forward and work with him. He also quipped that he had heard some people still had problems with it, laughing off the gaping ideological divide. Instead he set his sights firmly on a new ambitious primary objective and set about selling it in a way that would appeal to both hesitant Republicans and indifferent voters.

At the core of this address was a striking commitment to green-tech and clean energy. You could see the firm imprint of the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil leak on the President’s words as he announced wave after wave of intention to develop green programmes. I urged David Cameron on this blog to utilise the platform presented by the oil leak for green growth and it seems Obama is finally seizing the opportunity to push through his Climate Change objectives under a different guise. And that’s the vital point about this speech; the way in which Obama sold the solutions to Climate Change and the environmental challenge.

Nowhere do the words “climate” or “global warming” appear in the text of the address. At no point does he bellow any frightening warnings about the excess of the American way of life, but the implications are there. He uses the guilt, anger and worry people feel about the oil leak to smuggle in leftist policies like the removal of subsidies for oil companies, who are “doing just fine on their own”, and tax breaks for millionaires. He cites the deficit, the Republican’s Holy Grail (much like the Conservatives here) as his main reason for such money saving measures, not punishing success, an obstacle so often to the removal of unfair, outdated tax relief for the wealthiest in the States. He reinforces his deficit argument still further by promising a prolonged spending freeze which he backs up with figures that claim to eat away at the debt at unprecedented levels. Could some Republicans be warming to the President’s policies?

You’d think not if he was emphasising investment for green energy and massive cuts to emissions. But Obama’s presentation of the measures was key. He talked about “winning the future” and set up the race for clean energy between America and China, drawing comparisons with the Communist struggle and the space race. He set about inspiring his countrymen, and patriotic Republican opponents, by fusing the need for a green revolution with a sense of historic nationalism and pride in America’s achievements.

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. …

We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.”

When Obama was elected, even I in rural England, felt a part of real history for the first time in many years. It’s easy in our modern world to feel like it’s all been done and there are no discoveries left, no bold new challenges to conquer or visions to forge and realize. But with Obama’s reference to the “Apollo projects of our time” he excites people and presents Climate Change and its problems as an opportunity to reinvent in fairer, bigger and better ways. He pledged to aim for 80% of American energy to be green by 2035 and for 80% of Americans to have access to the enormous potential of high-speed rail within 25 years.  When these figures are all about doom and gloom Climate Change, which some people still doubt, they leave voters cold. But simplify the message to security, better environment and more jobs and a stronger economy, and they’re interested. 

I’ve thought for a long time that Climate Change is the challenge of our generation, one we cannot afford to ignore, but that it is also an opportunity for a reinvention of society with the potential to banish unfairness and find sustainable solutions to poverty. Green politicians are constantly going at the issue in the wrong way, an alienating way. Ed Miliband and his new Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls need a plan for growth. This plan needs to not only be credible and obviously a better route to deficit reduction than Coalition cuts, but inspirational and worthy of votes. Miliband needs his own “Big Society” idea and sell green growth, like Obama in his State of Union address, and he has it; a popular economic policy with a vision that can define his new party. Britons too have a strong sense of history, when it’s properly stimulated, and Miliband could make the case for Britain becoming a world leader on green growth. In fact follow Obama’s example and major policy areas suddenly entwine and give much needed direction; the economy and the deficit, security and Britain’s foreign policy role, our partnership with America and Climate Change.

Of course Obama might not succeed and it certainly seems unlikely he’ll achieve everything he aimed for in his speech. But he has set out a direction for the end of his term. One that could potentially change his country and the world for the better. Ed Miliband can’t afford to dither much longer about the direction of his party. The longer he waits the harder it will be to achieve genuine policy goals he has long committed to, like a banking bonus tax, a solution to tuition fees and investment instead of cuts. Sell it all under the right sort of green banner and he has a refreshing, substantive alternative to Cameron’s bruising cuts and hollow “Big Society”.

Blog Blitz


I have neglected this blog terribly. December has thus far been a totally barren month and this is not at all in the spirit of festive good will. I must rectify this. I doubt I have such a thing as a “regular reader” anymore, the friends I’m aware of that used to follow this are simply far too busy these days. But if you’re out there and by some miracle check things here often enough to have been disappointed by the lack of output, I apologise. I was away in Spain and since I have simply been lazy and slightly emotionally erratic. Here is my bumper Christmas plan to put things right:

1)      Firstly I shall publish two reviews that are already available via the excellent FlickeringMyth, of an African documentary and blockbuster Iron Man 2.

2)      Secondly I’ll unleash a trio of top British films I’ve watched over the last two days on my new Blu-Ray player. I have only watched them as DVDs but all three look marvellously upgraded by the technology, a pleasant surprise as I assumed it all to be a barely noticeable gimmick. Any of the films I watched would be Christmas gift worthy. (The Disappearance of Alice Creed/Fish Tank/ In The Loop)

3)      Thirdly, or perhaps in between to break up the movie fest, I’ll publish one of my doodles from my recent holiday.

4)      I also plan to release a political piece on the Lib Dem tuition fee saga and…

5)      … a football based article about the controversial FIFA host nation decision for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

6)      Finally I’m currently devouring Michael McIntyre’s book Life and Laughing, which has personal significance to me as well as being truly gripping and funny. I’ll jot down my thoughts on this and some books I read on holiday when I’m done here for your (whoever you might be) pleasure and amusement.

Right that’s it. I’ll get on with it and try not to get bogged down with friends and the snow.

Spooks returns tonight!


With no Doctor Who to look forward to on British television screens each Saturday I have been despairing that there is no serial drama in which to immerse myself. A good weekly show with a strong, engaging narrative arc can allow me to escape the troubles of life for an hour, completely losing oneself in the characters and then having something to look forward to through the mundane disappointments and lows of the next week. With the return of the ever reliable and amusing New Tricks on Fridays to BBC1 my cravings were eased, but now the MI5 spy drama Spooks returns to our screens, starting this Monday at 9pm. Whilst New Tricks is well acted and comforting it is rather samey TV. Spooks has that rare dusting of glamour and exciting action for a British series, as well as being bold enough to reinvent itself each time it returns. In Spooks no character is safe from being killed off and the tense action usually plays out against tantalising shots of the sophisticated London skyline. Tonight’s opening episode of the ninth series takes place in Tangiers however and as ever introduces a raft of new characters and plotlines.

Richard Armitage, who played Guy of Gisbourne in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, has taken well to the spy drama playing Lucas North, a mysterious figure who returned from the cold of Russian imprisonment to effectively replace Adam Carter, Spooks’ long term leading man played by Rupert Penry-Jones. Replacing Jones was no mean feat but in the last series Armitage managed it, convincingly playing the disturbed, Bond like key man of Section D. This new series looks set to focus on the character of Lucas and may represent an interesting new direction for Spooks more focused on the personal story of one man, as opposed to new, distinct terrorist threats being dramatically thwarted each week. The exotic location of the first episode sets a more James Bond like tone of action and isolation for the spies, with Armitage saying in interviews that this series will delve into the questions of identity surrounding the operatives. The new series is also stripped of Hermoine Norris, who played Ros, a character I always found slightly annoying, and especially so by the end. Norris’ version of a spy always seemed a cold, uninteresting caricature. Constants like Ruth and Harry, and Harry’s relationship with his political masters are welcome leftovers however. Below is a trailer for the first episode, I hope it lives up to expectations!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vde3_saF0GE