Two things to blog about this month, one run-of-the-mill, the other a bit special, which fully deserves the adjective 'inspiring'.
First, the ordinary. While I'm sorting out the final draft of The Nightmares of Invasion, the second in the Bright Sea Dark Graves trilogy, I'm also putting together another collection of short stories, some already published, others new, for my private JOSLIN BOOKS imprint. This is one of the many, many things I like about independent publishing. It's almost like being a poet making a retrospective New and Selected, something it would be really, really foolish to ask a publisher to do unless you are incredibly famous. And to make Createspace paperbacks out of them as well as ebooks gives the whole project a sort of three-dimensional quality, a mark of permanence. Even if nobody buys them, they are still there to be had and that in itself, is a great comfort.
So this time I'm taking two already commercially published stories, another published first in last year's Flash in the Pen, one which is new, a retelling nobody's heard before and, to end with, a very tiny novel. The two commercially published stories first appeared in OUP Young Oxford anthologies. The first comes from the Young Oxford Book of Train Stories (2001), which I edited, the other from An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Dennis Pepper, from way back in 1984. I've always like the second story, Lost Leader, because it has a slightly skewed notion of Christmas and a bit of supernatural weirdness as well, though in a rather unexpected (to me at any rate when I wrote it) way. But I have a real soft spot for the first, Danny's Last Duchess, at present the working title of the whole book. Do you note a slight echo of Robert Browning in that title? If you do, you're right. But what can Browning's jealous, murderous and remorseful Duke have to do with train-spotting? It's not quite a Coming-of-Age story, nor quite a Rite-of-Passage story. I suppose it's a foretaste for the two main characters of what coming of age and rites of passage may entail. The retelling is of Yan Tan Tethera, a very brief version of which I found in Kathleen Briggs's wonderful Dictionary of British Folk Tales and thought needed expanding a bit. The new story is called Staying at Home - and that's something of a Rite-of-Passage story too. And perhaps there's a supernatural element in it as well. Actually, now I think of it, I'm not sure that I really know.
Rugby Midland Station. 'The Bedstead', an essential ingredient, though without the daring railwaymen, in Danny's Last Duchess. This photograph was taken sixty years before the story takes place. 'The Birdcage', the bridge over the mainline where the real action happens, isn't built yet. It will be between the photographer and the signals, which is the whole point of it.
I had several to choose from. But while I was doing the reading and thinking, the children's poet Mick Gowar and I dreamed up between us a rather ambitious project. We would write a sort of family saga starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century and ending - well, there was no target in sight, so perhaps it would be when we were both fed up with the project. It would start with the Napoleonic Wars. I wrote the first story and Mick wrote the second and we presented them confidently and triumphantly to Joan Ward, then the Project editor. And she said, 'Thank you. They are very nice but I'm afraid we can't include them.' 'Why not,' we cried, horror-struck. 'Because,' she said, looking at me, 'you've chosen all the books for this slot and they're already in production.'
So it was entirely my own fault. I resolved never to have such an excess of zeal again. But the books I had recommended were all really good, so nobody suffered. Boney Will Get You has been locked up in a drawer since 1995. It's time it was dusted off and brought back into the light because I do rather like it.
In my two previous anthologies in Joslin Books, Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick and Out of the Deep, there has been a theme and the stories have had a connection with each other, either in genre or atmosphere. But, when I look dispassionately at the contents of the new collection, there is absolutely no connection in theme, genre or content at all. It's a bit of a mess. Oh, what the hell! Who cares? I like it anyway.
Now for the inspiring part. Sometimes, something comes your way which you know has special significance.. And this one arrived from Bulgaria via New Zealand.
Before Kay came to live in England, she had a great painting friend, a lady, now 92, who had lived in Christchurch since 1975 and had a real tale to tell. When we first met I encouraged her to tell me part of it. So she did, eloquently and movingly, but the effort cost her dear. She showed her distress as she spoke and I felt very guilty for having resurrected such bad memories.
But it seemed to me that there was a bigger story which needed to be told and when I said as much, she replied that yes, she had always wanted to write it all down, for the whole family to know what convulsions in the past had brought them to the other side of the world, but she was afraid she wouldn't be able to. So I said I would help - and now the task is well on the way to completion.
The story is one of imprisonment, oppression and escape. It enacts the consequences of living in a totalitarian country and one message it brings to me is that, though I spend a lot of my time condemning government, society and values in this country, and others in the western world, I am thankful I live in a place where I can be as critical as I like without ending up in prison
Memories of the Communist era in Sofia
The story, briefly, is this: the narrator's husband, known to be critical of the Communist regime, was declared 'an enemy of the people' and sent to a concentration camp - 'gulag', if we want to use the Soviet term - where he languished for three years. He came out emaciated and weak, but did not recant. Not very long after his release, however, he was killed in a car accident. You can make what you like of that.
The family realised that they would have somehow to get out of Bulgaria and go to the West or their lives would not be worth living. How they did it is a mixture of enterprise, ingenuity, blind fear and some incredible strokes of luck which suggest the toxic mix of stupidity and incompetence which seems to mark out many of the servants of totalitarian societies.
The escape was in two parts. The womenfolk of the family got out of the country one way - in fact, quite legally, helped by at least one quiet sympathiser with influence. Actually defecting from the official party was something else altogether and needed a lot of planning.
For the men - the narrator's two sons, then thirty-three and twenty-nine - the situation was very different. There was no way they would ever get on any official party so they had to find an illegal means of getting out of Bulgaria and then somehow passing through another communist country undetected and without papers until they reached a border with the West. They knew that if they were caught they would be sent straight back to Bulgaria to face prison or worse. And in January of this year, they told us the story, two men now in their seventies revisiting a past best forgotten.
This was one of the most riveting - and privileged - evenings we have ever spent. One son described an episode, then the other took over and this to-ing and fro-ing continued without pause or hesitation for nearly two hours. And, once again, I felt that they were reliving the experience with total recall, treating the danger, the privation, the narrow escapes, the desperate choices, the luck which held and the final release of tension and joy when they realised that against all the odds they had done it as if they were happening right then and right there. All this round a dining table in a comfortable room in a pleasant house which, because they built it themselves, has a strangely European look among the typical New Zealand bungalows.
Where the family has come to. Christchurch pre-earthquake - but earthquakes are nothing compared to what they've left behind.
But there is a downside. The revenge the regime took on members of the family who stayed behind was petty, spiteful and thoroughly nasty. It included a mother forced to disown her daughter and others forcibly removed from their home in Sofia and banished to a small village near the Turkish border. The product of small and malevolent minds.
I regularly receive new text, which I edit and rewrite with most (though not all, because I daren't lose the flavour of the original voice) usage which suggests English as a second language, and a real book is emerging. It's about two-thirds finished and when we are all satisfied with the text I shall turn it into a Createspace paperback and an ebook. I wondered if they would prefer it to remain a private publication, for the family only, but no, they want it in the public domain, which pleases me because I think it should be generally read - and also it means that I can now write about it was well as work on it.
So there we are. I haven't mentioned any names. That can only be done when the book is finished and in production. So when that happens I'll return to them, say more about their story and take off the cloak of anonymity I've thrown over them. We have no title yet, but the cover will be from one of the narrator's own paintings which, though not painted with any such thought in mind, is a perfect metaphor for the whole story.