Now incorporating The Sudbury Hill Harrow and Wherever End Times

Friday, September 23, 2005

Notes from Small Wonder 2005

The Short Story Festival


Rachel Seiffert and Tobias Hill are two excellent short story writers. Tobias read a story from his two years in Japan. Shades of Murakami I thought, and none the worse for that. I referred to Rachel Seiffert recently when I bought her collection "Field Studies" on the strength of a marvelous reading of her award-winning story "The Crossing" on Radio 4. She read an extract from "Second Best" the closing story in the book. I thought she would have done better to read one of the shorter stories in full. Interesting.


Zadie Smith read from Martha and Hanwell. She has a strong, sonorous voice and read without any sign of nerves or hesitancy. There is a relentlessness to her writing, which she almost acknowledged when she stopped, by saying 'It could go on for ever.'

Zadie stayed till the first interval of the short story slam. This year's theme was "Revenge". I thought the first group were the best, including Sean Lusk's piece which nearly won it for him again this year. His comical massage parlour nightmare had the audience in stitches but in the end took second place to a wicked "hell hath no fury" piece Thump Sandwich by Tessa Sheridan, which proposed new uses for kitchen utensils. It was great fun, but even though they managed to fit 18 entrants by the end, my name never came out of the hat. I think mine would've been the only political piece; you can read it below.


William Boyd's story "Seven Lunches" was highly amusing, though his commentary put me in mind of an uncle who knows all about cars or electronics and likes to explain this to you. He expounded his thesis that the short story is a better subject for film adaptation than the novel, the length of a standard film being what it is. My companion fell asleep during his talk, but to be fair to Boyd, she fell asleep during most of the readings.

John McGahern made a great impression on people in the audience who didn't already know that he's one of the best writers around. On the question of whether people recognised themselves in his books, he said that when he had portrayed a little man who sat on the bar all day and talked about sex and football (in The Pornographer I think, not sure) six people had gone into the local solicitors to enquire about the feasibility of suing him. The solicitor told them if they were to have any chance of success they'd have to decide which one of them it was. McGahern's conclusion: there must be a lot of people in North Roscommon who sit on the bar all day talking about sex and football.


Grace Paley was too ill to attend, had to cancel at the last minute, but had been so looking forward to the event that she took the trouble to make a video, taken by her daughter, to talk to the audience. It was the highlight of the festival, she is a life force all right.

Her recollection of segregation and relating of it to her own black grandson was wonderful. She recalled two bus trips from New York to southern states, one in which her mother had refused to move to the front when they crossed into a segregated state, where blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. In a depiction of this incident she had written that her mother argued with the driver, but her sister later informed her that her mother had merely said 'No' firmly, three times. We were reminded about the disgrace of black soldiers in the second world war being forced to sit behind German prisoners on buses.

Grace Paley's parents had fled the Russian pogroms, and the irony of this manifestation of racism in the so-called "land of the free" was brought home to her when she made her own bus trip south. As before when they crossed the state line the segregation was implemented, and she was sitting at the front of the boundary with the back of the bus. The bus was crowded and a black woman carrying a young boy, heavy and asleep hanging from her neck, wouldn't take the seat but through exhaustion agreed to let her child rest on Grace Paley's lap. At just 21 she thought ahead to when she would have a child of her own, feeling that same weight comfortably pressing her down. At the end of the journey a white man turned to Grace and said, 'I wouldn't have touched that thing with a meat hook.' Later in life, she felt that she'd already held her own black grandson sixty years earlier.

The boy appears briefly as people and dogs come and go in this home video. I hope the video will be seen more widely, it's fascinating and touching. Ali Smith and Paul Bailey talked about her and read from her stories, and she read her story "A Conversation with My Father" as well on video. Grace Paley is that rare thing, a U.S. socialist. Before saying goodbye, she referred to our shared opposition to the war in Iraq and the thousands of deaths it has caused.

The cherry on the icing of the festival was Simon Callow, who brought two of Charles Dickens' short stories ("Going into Society" and "Doctor Marigold") to life, in a tour-de-force performance. We were reminded that Dickens was not just an author but a performer, a superstar of his day. The stories amply demonstrated his mastery of an audience, by turns making them laugh and cry.


There were other delights I hardly have time to write about, such as poets on short stories, including a surreal story by Sean O'Brien satirising the literary scene. (In spite of the title of this piece, I didn't actually take notes, only mental notes.) There were crowd pleasing pieces by Romesh Gunasekera and Sophie Hannah - hilarious story about babies writing thank you cards etc, and killingly logical poem telling men to take one of these things and do it properly: fidelity or an affair (halfway through affair, man goes on guilt trip about family... "not very good at it / but at fidelity, you are also shit. Choose one thing and do it properly..." something like that.)

In the same session, the refreshingly serious David Constantine read from his collection Under the Dam, concerning frozen bodies exposed by melting glaciers - held in youth, revisited by children now older than the dead - with all the pent-up deluge waiting in valleys to burst out and so on. Constantine talked about the supremacy of life over art, how all writing must end as pointers outwards or inwards towards reality, and never to forget that, or try to place art above life, or try "to contain" perhaps. (I can't remember his exact words.) Sean O'Brien commented afterwards that by contrast, his writing concerned people who held art to be above life and who in his surreal world prefer to live in books and libraries.

I couldn't make it to Ian Rankin's reading, unfortunately. You can see from the program that I also missed several other interesting writers.



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