THE FIRST HINTS OF PURPLE
In the majority of cases, these stories correspond with what ‘a story’ usually means when the word comes to mind; and, as such, they would survive well enough on their own, or so I like to think, without the commentary given below. Not infrequently, however, I tend to branch out from that simple definition into what I would describe as short ‘literary entities’ which, for the most part, retain a beginning, a middle and an end - whilst fighting shy of some of the more predictable features commonly associated with fiction. In this sort of work, the thematic development or storyline may be eventful, tenuous or merely the progression of thought on the part of a character or characters. And occasionally, it may be the narrator alone whose reflections follow a path from a beginning to a conclusion that was by no means always predetermined when the starting pistol fired.
Where the reflective element dominates, the so-called ‘literary entities’ mentioned above often take the form of what I can only describe as Contemplations in which, with or without an active human participant, the unexpected or the fundamental indeterminacy of things in general is looked at or made manifest in much the same way as objects are isolated and preserved, for example, in the fiction of a painting: perhaps a still life of flowers, a portrait of a peasant smoking a pipe, or a steam train chugging its way through a nineteenth century industrial landscape. Nevertheless, although familiar, these are reference points which, when looked at aslant and with detachment, can also take on the otherness of a reality that cannot be captured by laboratory instruments or deduced from mathematics or philosophy. In these ‘Contemplations’, I therefore wilfully confuse the categorical distinction between the everyday and the mystical; and I do so because that is the way I see things.
I do not like the term ‘flash fiction’, although the implied brevity may often cover what I do. At the same time, I do not necessarily disdain that description in relation to the work of other writers. On the other hand, in my own case, the words seem to have an underlying vulgarity at variance with the environment in which I instinctively operate - even if the content of a given piece concerns something that is vulgar, disparaging or merely comic.
Apart from my inability and disinclination to write longer works such as novels, there is the more positive motive of wanting to approximate to the nature and appearance of poetry or, as implied earlier, to works like paintings which have a limited size and are virtually accessible at a glance. And this, in a way, pins down what I have already suggested: namely, that what I aim at is often more contemplative than processional, thereby capturing what I think and feel in a form analogous to the plastic arts. As an example, consider Renoir’s painting ‘The Skiff’ in which two young women, on a brilliant sunny day, are caught rowing across a lake against a background of woodlands and an imposing country mansion. But it is the painting’s ability to hold on to the place and the event that interests me so much more than would be the case if I were standing on the shore gazing at the actual, down-to-earth, essentially impermanent reality.
On the latter point, perhaps I can conclude with another example by citing ‘The Return of the Native’ by Thomas Hardy which I haven’t read since my mid twenties - a very long time ago indeed. Sadly, I can no longer remember the story at all. What I do remember, however, is the opening sequence describing Egdon Heath: the atmosphere at nightfall, the almost religious gloom, the silence, the louring intimacy of land and sky and, in the distance, the minute ghostlike figure of the reddleman, the only living thing trudging almost out of sight along a country road. But although this is fundamentally a picture, it is also a moving picture with a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet despite being a picture that moves, my memory has enclosed it within a frame. And it is within a boundary like this that much of my work seems to emerge.
Not forgetting, of course, that the exceptions prove the rule!
* * *
Now, inspiration without divine intervention must be accounted for by less exalted origins. And at the physical level of genes, inherited characteristics, and the nature-nurture controversy, I can offer no insights when it comes to my own work. Both my parents were sane, unexceptional and, as the world sees things, very ordinary. My mother’s mother gave birth to something like ten children - at least one of whom was conceived out of wedlock; and my mother’s father, classed on his marriage certificate as a farm labourer, was described in acid terms by family lore as a clodhopper. On my father’s side, things were more regular: although his father was a forceful character with a short temper, his mother was a gentle, forbearing woman who taught her son to embrace the virtues (in those days Christian ones) - which he very clearly did, despite being a reluctant doubter.
This introduction, in order to focus on what I’ve written, doesn’t include a lengthy account of my background - a background, nonetheless, that provided me with a mother who was an entirely conventional countrywoman who, unlike her own mother, was maritally faithful. She was also a live wire with an amusingly forthright manner and an acute sense of humour much laced with sarcasm that required a cautious response. By way of contrast, I had a highly aware father who stood on the sidelines, trod carefully, drove a delivery van and was universally admired as an English gentleman with a moral influence that only really took effect on me after his death. My parents presented just two other contrasting features. My mother spoke with a New Forest accent in a local dialect that included some highly colourful slang whilst my father spoke standard English with no regional accent at all.
* * *
It is a plain fact, I suggest, that genealogical tables alone are insufficient when it comes to accounting for how anyone thinks and feels. God, for me, lies forever at the forefront of a background - with all honour, rights and gratitude duly granted and mercy begged for. As a material being who is still alive, however, there is something else that bears down on me like a pleasant breeze - by which I mean the fields and hills of England.
Not far from my London home there is an unforgettable Surrey slope, agelessly tolerant of the wind and driving rain from the south, where the bluebells in springtime far outstrip the sky in their intensity of colour beneath the crumpled, green, half-open leaves of the beeches. As a boy, it was a place I knew well; as a rumbustious teenager, I never lost sight of it... And today, much later in life, it remains a visionary source of inspiration that acts as a template for all those many other places that are similar.
I still go there whenever an obliging friend can give me a lift. And over the course of a lifetime, it has never changed.
1 July 2016