3 English Writers Perused by Mike Smith
It seems to me it’s rare to find collections of, or essays about, English short story writers which are not stuffed with people who would be recognised, or indeed would self-identify with other countries. But three, who also might be seen and see themselves as citizens of a wider world and whose stories have elements of the universal, write from a specifically English perspective.
One was first published (but with ‘a shed load of stories already in the pot) in 1921 and two in the last decade of the nineteenth century. They are A.E.Coppard, Mary Mann and Arthur Morrison. The first two are associated with writing of the rural poor (though when Coppard’s story The Presser was cited by a commentator as an example of this, Coppard drily pointed out that it was the story of a boy working in a Whitechapel sweatshop!), and the third with the urban poor of London’s East End.
Here, three linked essays look at one story each by Coppard and Mann, and at the collection Tales of Mean Streets by Morrison.
A.E.Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton
Some of A.E.Coppard’s tales draw me back time and again for further contemplation and reappraisal.
Such a one is Weep Not My Wanton.The title is taken from the first line of a poem by Robert Greene, of which it was also the title. The second line reads ‘When thou art old there’s grief enough for thee.’ It could be seen as a summary of many a Coppard tale.
Unaccountably, Coppard left this little gem out of his self-chosen Collected Stories (Knopf,1951), but it was the title story of a recent selection (Turnpike, 2013).
It has an interesting structure, but one you will find in many stories of similar length. It involves placing a startling scene close to but not at the end of the story. Inevitably, reading as a writer, and perhaps as a reader, you will ask what, after such a powerful incident, the additional text brings to the story. In this case that addition is of an English rural landscape as the evening light fades and it takes us back, framing the story, to the scene at the very beginning.
The tale begins with the words ‘Air and light’, and opens out into a poetic description of the downs. Several commentators have pointed to the ‘poetic’ quality in Coppard, notably Ford Maddox Ford, writing in 1927: ‘almost the first English writer to get into English prose the peculiar quality of English poetry’.
Coppard’s poetic description takes up approximately the first 20% of the story, the opening long sentence creating a painting in words. But we have been told that it is ‘the notion’ that ‘some happy victim of romance’ might get, and as the description passes into harsher realities we are told of pigs ‘being gelded’. Coppard closes the section with another lush description, with ‘the fogs of June being born in the standing grass beyond.’ Into this Turner-esque landscape he introduces a family of itinerant farm labourers, who will walk across the down and on into the evening that the story ends upon.
They are worth considering individually. Least of all is the babbling toddler. She is carried first by the mother, later walks hand-in-hand with her slightly older brother, and is borne finally aloft by the father. In each role she shows us something of them, but in the case of the mother, perhaps deceives us.
That mother is barely mentioned until half-way through the story, and then she is described disparagingly: ‘a poor slip of a woman she was’. Behind the father and the son, the man unmercifully bullying the child, ‘she seemed to have no desire to protect the boy’. On a first reading we might not notice that ‘seemed’, unless we have noticed too that the whole story began with the false ‘notion’ of that ‘happy victim’.
There has also been a good deal of ‘seeming’ in Coppard’s earlier introduction of the boy, who is described as a ‘thin’, ‘spare’, ‘very shrunken boy of seven or eight years’. First mention of him, as being ‘upbraided’ by ‘the man’ has him as ‘his little son.’, but within a couple of lines he is diminished into ‘the tiny figure’. ‘..his white face was streaming with dirty tears.’, but more striking is the description of his clothing: ‘a man’s cap’, ‘sailor jacket’, woman’s button boots’ and knickerbockers that are too big for him. In their different ways none of these items belongs to a boy. It’s almost as if he were in disguise.
Until the woman is introduced we see him enduring that ‘upbraiding’, for having lost a sixpence. During the course of the story he is struck by his father, once ‘with shock enough to disturb a heifer.’ Yet he suffers in silence, making ‘no effort to avoid or resist’. After the description of the woman, we return to another prolonged bout of bullying. The baby seems merely amused by the father’s violence, but the mother’s continued inaction must seem unaccountable.
It’s at this point that she finally acts, asking her husband to look after the toddler, while she ‘disappeared behind a hedge.’ Her action saves the boy, for the toddler takes the hand of both father and son, and walking between them interrupts his abuse. Eventually the father picks her up, and we see a different side of his character.
And his character is to a large extent what this tale is about. When the figures enter Coppard’s landscape they are firstly ‘Four figures,’ and then ‘a labourer and his family’, and then, as we hear them approach, ‘the voice of the man’. This changes to ‘the voice of a man’, as Coppard generalises the particular. It is the father who diminishes the boy from ‘little’ to ‘tiny’ by ‘towering above him’. And we get to hear his complaints – ‘You’re a naughty, naughty-you’re a vurry, vurry naughty boy!’ – before we get a description of the man. In fact we get descriptions of the bullying, of the boy and of the woman before the physical description of the father.
That description is powerful: ‘the man of anger.’, ‘a great figure’, a bronzed face’, ‘trousers tied at the knee’, a wicker bag’. More significantly, ‘he was slightly drunk’, and then, almost unnoticeably, ‘two bright medals on the breast’, and the so subtle reference to what it says on the Victoria Cross, ‘presumably for valour;’
He has fallen, we are told, ‘from the heroic standard’, but Coppard’s choice of word is ‘decline’, which suggests a slower deterioration. It’s worth remembering, too, that you cannot have declined unless you have been better.
It is how the father treats the little toddler though, that really opens up our understanding of him: ‘“Carm on, my beauty!” cried the man, lifting the girl to his shoulder. “He’s a bad boy; you ‘ave a ride on your daddy.”’
The contrast between how he treats the boy, and the toddler is massive, and at least invites us to see him in a more positive light.
As he strides away, the boy, whom only now we learn is called Johnny, slips the missing sixpence to his mother. At a first reading it is a shocking moment, as the full extent of the boy’s heroism and stoicism is revealed. ‘“Here,” he whispered, “here’s the tanner.”’
Why not end the story there? It is powerful, and on first reading, totally unexpected. I’ve read this story aloud to groups and to individuals and know it quite well by now, but each time I find the emotion welling up as I reach that line. The power of it is not diminished by familiarity, because the power lies not in the act of revelation, but in nature of what has been revealed. Yet Coppard does not leave it there. He goes on, following the path of the family as they walk out of sight, leaving behind only that false impression of the landscape through which we have watched them pass.
The story isn’t about the boy’s heroism, nor about the tragedy of his situation. Those powerful truths are still part of the preparation, the contextualisation of the ending that Coppard is leading us to. The story is about the England in which such acts of self-sacrifice are necessary to keep such fathers out of the pub. It is about that England which is nothing more than ‘a notion’ in the ‘mind of some happy victim of romance’, and in which what is not noticed is the wrongs that ‘Air and light on Sack Down’ blind us to. Writing of Coppard’s stories, American commentator William Peden asserted that they were of an England ‘where accidents of heredity and the effects of environment are more instrumental than virtue or wisdom, or perseverance.’
Were it a novel, this story might be called a ‘state of the nation novel’: the state of the England that the closing lines of the story return us to, and in which ‘From the quiet hill, as the last skein of cocks was carted to the stack, you could hear dimly men’s voices and the rattle of their gear.’
Weep Not My Wanton, was among the stories in Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, Coppard’s first collection, published in 1921. Some historians in my childhood set the era between the Boer War and the Great War as the worst for poverty in, and neglect of rural England, and for me, the feel of the story is Edwardian, rather than post-World War One, but I have no evidence for that, other than my differing imaginings of historical periods that I have read about.
[In 2015, it seeming that no-one else had, I published a collection of essays on Coppard’s tales, English of the English, which is available on Amazon]
Mary Mann’s Little Brother
As with Coppard’s characters, commentators have noted the powerlessness of Mann’s. Ronald Blythe (author of Akenfield) quoted in Peter Tolhurst’s 1996 East Anglia, A Literary Pilgrimage, writes of Mann’s rural poor: ‘both the admirable and the feckless brought down by circumstances, that are entirely out of their control.’
One of her stories, set in the fictional village of Dulditch, is a first person account by a middle-class ‘do gooder’ who visits the still confined wife of a labouring man. He too is, like Coppard’s fallen hero, an itinerant labourer: ‘Not such a family as the Hodds do we often see in Dulditch’. That wife is bed-ridden because she has recently given still-birth to a baby boy. The visit is not entirely altruistic, for the babe is said to be exceptionally beautiful, and thus an object of interest. There is also the matter of it being the umpteenth child of the couple, and the visitor has it on her (I assume it to be a ‘her’, though that is not specified) mind to express an opinion on the connection between fecundity and poverty.
Mary Mann lived in rural Norfolk overlapping the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that Edwardian era, said by some historians to be the worst for rural poverty that England had ever known. Her stories might be compared with those of the Irish writer, George Moore, who first published in English in 1903, the same year as Mann’s, his collection The Untilled Field, stories of the hardships and limitations of the Irish peasantry. She too chronicles the bitter hardships of the labourers who worked for smallholders and tenant farmers like her husband, but in Little Brother she does something extra and remarkably different, for at the end of the story she puts into the mouth of the bed-ridden woman an assertive defence of the actions that have caused the self-righteous visitor to speak ‘a word to Mrs Hodd which she resented.’
Not only the unexpected rebuke, by a woman of the labouring class to the middle-class narrator, makes this a story worthy of attention, but also the also the delicate and devious techniques that Mary Mann has to employ to get her story told. It is another one of those stories, like Coppard’s among others, in which a striking and shocking incident proves not to be the point of the story, but only part of the contextualisation of the point that the ending – that rebuke – will make.
Hiding the significance of ‘the large battered doll’ with which two of the children are playing as her narrator enters the cottage, the author neatly distracts us with the fact that the children are seated on a sack! ‘-again a sack!-‘ We might wonder why the fuss, though sacks are, arguably, more unusual than dolls. And the author has made much of sacks earlier in the story, for Mr Hod, whom she has encountered slicing turnips in a cutting machine, is so poor that he is ‘habited in an outer garment composed of a dirty sack’. If the distraction has worked, it will be later in the story, when the narrator goes back downstairs from the bed-room to find the missing corpse of the newborn child, that we experience the jolt of realisation about that doll.
That it is the dead baby is hinted at, for the dolls arms are described as ‘rigid’, as the children try to dress it. There are several lines describing this play, during which we might begin to suspect, as the children cuddle and talk to the ‘doll’, but it is only after its true nature has been made explicit that we get the far more intimate detail of them pushing ‘their grubby fingers into the open mouth’ and ‘into the sunken eyes’. The potency of what we are told before the revelation is increased by what we don’t know, and after it, by what we do.
Another element of the writing that impresses is the lack of description of time and place. All stories are located in their places and in their times, be they as precise as a particular street corner at a particular time of day, or as vague as ‘there and then’, but in Mary Mann’s story only a few words give us clues to time or place. The opening line gives us the narrator, in the first two words ‘I met’, plus ‘cottage’ and ‘village’, and the ‘baby born’. The theme follows shortly after in an exchange that could really only have taken place between two people on foot (though perhaps we’d allow the parish nurse a bicycle), and tells us it is the thirteenth baby, and has been born dead. Significantly, the comment is made ‘What a mercy.’ This rather bleak reaction is repeated and expanded on to Mr Hodd at his turnip cutter. ‘Farm yard’, ‘turnip house’, and ‘chech-yard’ are mentioned, and must evoke the entire landscape of Norfolk, and perhaps the English countryside as a whole; a different approach to Coppard’s lush word-painting of Sack Down. In fact, Mary Mann gives us more description of the turnip cutting machine than of anything else, even than of the bed-room from which the dead babe has gone missing. Those cutters were common at one time. I know of two in Cumbria, one in a private garden, rusting gently, and the other, fiercely restored and painted black at a tourist destination. I suspect they would have been as recognisable to her contemporary readers as was Doctor Who’s police box when that character first appeared, and as an ATM still is, just, as I write, placing the story in its time.
There’s nothing wasted in this story, nothing in there that, to borrow from Hemingway, ‘is not the story’. Perhaps that’s why after more than a century it reads so freely, and without apparent circumlocution. Having engaged in chat with Mr Hodd about the problems of having more children than you can afford, and then, with Mrs Hodd, discussing whose responsibilities it is to see such children clothed: ‘If Parson’s folks want to see ‘em clothed they must do it themselves. My job’s their insides..’ the visitor turns to viewing the dead child. This is when its absence from the cot is noticed, and the visitor offers to go back downstairs and bring up the children, for Mrs Hod, though we don’t yet realise it, has jumped immediately to the right conclusion.
After she has retrieved the babe comes the simple reference to the visitor’s rebuke of Mrs Hodd: ‘I spoke a word to Mrs Hodd, which she resented.’
As Coppard’s tale ends with a description of the rural England in which his startling incident has taken place, so Mary Mann’s ends with the rebuke of what she might have thought would be the expected reaction of her middle-class readership to the finding of the babe being used as a doll in hers. Mrs Hodd makes a five line speech to close the tale. Not filtered through the reported speech of the narrator, but delivered in Mrs Hodd’s vernacular, it speaks directly to the reader. Not co-incidentally, I suspect, the last words pick up and re-energise the title of the story, and as in Coppard, a romantic notion is being swept aside.
‘…Other folkes’ child’en have a toy…..and I’ll lay a crown they han’t done no harm to their little brother.’
Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets
Arthur Morrison did not share that view we have seen in both Mann and Coppard of an underclass that had no handle on its own fate.
He produced a handful of short stories, published as Tales of Mean Streets, and they are every bit as poignant and as brutal as anything in his two contemporaries. Morrison was born and brought up in the East End of London, but through education and a job as a journalist he was able to disconnect himself, ending up as a trader in Oriental artwork. Like Rimbaud, he gave up and separated himself from his writing life as part of that transition.
The interest in his stories lies not only in the pungency of the events described, nor in the sparse and often quite modern seeming prose, but in the author’s particular viewpoint. He views his characters in a way that sits, I suspect, uneasily with current attitudes, for the palpable anger in the tales appears to be with the failures of his characters to make the successful transition that he might be thought, and must have thought himself, to have made from what most would agree were the unpleasant conditions in which they lived. It is not the system oppressing them that Morrison rails against, so much as the human foibles and failures that prevent them from improving their condition; prevent them from surviving the challenges that confront them.
There’s one joke in the Mean Streets that typifies for me Morrison’s approach to his characters. It is an aside, set in brackets that seem somehow to make it more of an authorial comment than part of the narration. It comes in the bleak tale Behind The Shade in which two women starve to death whilst maintaining an appearance of prosperity that brings them only the hostility of their neighbours. A step on that road is when one has an ‘accident’, being assaulted by a stranger who ‘vigorously punched her in the face and the breast, kicked her and jumped on her for five minutes..’ The parenthetical observation is that ‘it afterwards appeared, he had mistaken her for his mother.’ It’s shock that draws the laugh, and reminds us of that anthropological theory that all smiles and laughter are symptoms of fear.
The brutality in Morrison’s stories is visceral and pervasive, and kickings are meted out regularly to both men and women. Even the title of the first and longest story seems to hint at what will follow. Lizerunt, the title of the tale and name of the main, female character, suggests a lizard and a runt, yet she is the stronger of the couple about whose violent and abusive relationship this story is told. The authorial viewpoint is disguised here, for Morrison gives us a detached, cold-eyed narrative.
The language is sharp, simple, and direct. Here’s a description of the character Lizerunt has the misfortune to partner: ‘..between his meals he carried his hands in his breeches pockets; and he lived with his mother, who mangled.’ Their love story is told in the same sparse fashion:
‘(Billy)…..caught and twisted her arm, bumping her against the wall.
“Garn,” said Lizerunt, greatly pleased: “Le’ go!” For she knew this was love.’
That’s about as romantic as Morrison gets. The rest, for Lizerunt and Billy, is violence and the threat of violence.
In That Brute Simmons, the opposite contention is examined, for the eponymous hero is a hen pecked husband whose every penny is sequestered by his wife, whose clothes are (exceedingly badly) made by her and whose life is rigidly controlled. This he puts up with, timidly, humbly, and almost un-resentfully. Until, that is, the day Bob Ford turns up, claiming to be the lady’s first and wrongly assumed to be dead husband. This interloper first enjoys the rehearsal of all the sins that he correctly imagines the wife will have loaded onto Simmons, but then he tries to sell his prior rights to the woman. His timing though, is off, for Simmons has begun to tire of his subservience. The two men have a sort of Dutch auction, in which Simmons refuses to pay, first five pounds, eventually even a pound to continue in his marital home. As the controlling wife arrives home, Simmons makes a dash for it, leaving the unlucky Ford to exit via the upstairs window, ‘from the wash-house roof into the back yard.’
Both men escape, but no-one knowing of Ford’s return, Simmons is forever after blamed as the brute of the title for his unexplained desertion. This is the only ‘happy’ escape in the collection. Where others do escape their fates, it is only by grim chance, or temporarily. The story is by far the lightest and funniest in the collection and gives the hint of another side of Morrison, in which the humour is softer. There’s a Morrison story, not among the Mean Streets, but included in Hammerton’s twenty volume epic The World’s Thousand Best Short Stories. This is Charlwood With A Number, and offers a subtle, wry look at a more comfortable English life, and a contrast to his approach to the street of his roots.
As the collection progresses, the stories become more political than domestic, the violence less intimate and personal. We begin to see that Morrison is examining a series of scenarios in which people are given the opportunity to prosper, or at least ease their suffering, but chose instead a course of action that to him, and perhaps to us, must seem self-defeating. A mother refuses to buy medicine that will save her son’s life, preferring to keep the money so that she can afford to give him a proper East End funeral. Inheritance is squandered on drink. A small business is driven into bankruptcy and debt. A would be landlord finds that he has become a class enemy of his neighbours, friends and relatives, and is abused, robbed and finally beaten by them into the Workhouse and the Pauper’s Grave that he has aspired to avoid. It becomes almost a chorus to the stories that the community thwarts those who try to improve their situation, if their own folly has not done the job already. In The Red Cow Group, a band of would be revolutionaries fantasise ineffectively about changing the world, but cannot, of course, change themselves.
One of the most remarkable stories is The Introduction, subtitled A Street. This is more like an extended prose-poem, an ‘Illumination’ as Rimbaud had it, than a narrative. It describes a street ‘in the East End’, making the point that ‘the East End of what?’ need not be qualified further. It stretches, he tells us, ‘down through Cornhill and out beyond Leadenhall Street and Aldgate Pump’.
But it goes beyond that; beyond London itself. ‘This street of the square holes is hundreds of miles long.’ It is a street of Morrison’s vision, of what he must have seen himself as having come from, and he closes this introduction, which is as long as are several of the individual stories, and longer than a few, with this chilling description: ‘…there is no other way in the world that can more properly be called a single street, because of its dismal lack of accent, its sorbid uniformity, its utter remoteness from delight.’
That we should see this before we encounter the stories is an important element of the telling. All the narratives that follow are imbued with that vision of this street. None of the tales escapes from it. It tells us not only about the street, but explicitly that Morrison has an opinion about it, and one that will colour his story telling. We might be reminded by this partiality, that authors, whatever narrative voices they create, are out to show us something, and it is something that they want shown rather than something we might want to see.
With Coppard’s Weep Not My Wanton, that something is about the illusory nature of our view of rural England. With Mary Mann’s Little Brother, it is the unexpected rebuke of our middle-class sensibilities by Mrs Hodd. With Morrison it is his rage at what he sees as the failure of his East Enders to overcome their self-defeating culture.