Making It Plain

V.S. Pritchett asserted (and I quote from memory, so perhaps not word perfectly) that ‘stories make plain what reality only hints at’. It’s a contention I’ve thought about on and off since I first read it.

A friend from ‘elsewhere’ – to protect the innocent – passed on to me a Parish Newsletter a couple of years ago. In it was a letter, the very first letter to the newsletter of a very newly appointed Canon. He had already caused raised eyebrows in the C. of E. parish, apparently, by expressing the wish to be addressed as Father, John, shall we say, and had signed himself as such on the letter.

My friend thought I might ‘be able to make something out of it’, and he wasn’t thinking of a paper aeroplane. It was of course the wording that had attracted his attention, and had led him to think that it might engage mine as a short story writer. I’ve kept it on my desk since, and over the past couple of years must have read it a dozen and more times.

It has engaged me, and I could make something of it. The problem is how to do so without embarrassing, insulting, slandering or misrepresenting the original author; even to reveal him accidentally, would be an infringement of something, though the letter, by virtue of being published, is undoubtedly in the public domain and therefore eligible for public response.

The Father in question, and that word itself raises so many issues of definition, usurpation, analogy, metaphor and assumption, tells a story about resurrection. It was an Easter edition of the newsletter.

In it he recounts how a bar of soap, neglected in a second bathroom that falls into disuse (I typed disrepute there unintentionally – which, by Freudian slippage, no doubt reveals the way my thoughts are directed) is ‘resurrected’ by being transferred at need to the primary bathroom, where its cracked and dried out state is repaired by ‘doing everything that it obviously loved doing’, which turns out to be ‘to serve and to be spent by others.’

Leaving aside the idea that a bar of soap might have an attitude towards what is done with it, the choices of words throughout the piece seem to indicate a sub-text that surely must have been unintentional. I include the word ‘surely’ in the journalistic sense: i.e. to raise the doubt that it is not sure.

Listing the key words that raised this to my consciousness – as my friend, I suspect, knew they would – they are: Imperial Leather, ‘dominatingly’ (the Father’s parenthetical apostrophes), erect, lathering up, loved doing, spent by others.

It would be unfair to republish the letter whole, and pass it off as a fiction; unfair in a different way to re-write it, tweaked, ‘to make plain’ what its reality has only hinted at. But it does strike me as a good example of the sort of reality that Pritchett might have had in mind, and the sort of story it might have prompted.

It has often struck me that the hallmark of the English language is its ambiguities, nuances, and unexpected, often unintended double-entendres. It’s a language cobbled together out of many other languages, and learned initially as a foreign language by those who became its native speakers, and created by a subject people of many tribes and races whose people in the main until 1066 had little or no interest in communicating with each other save by the axe and the sword blade, and while under the duress of foreign occupation. Most English humour, even when it appears at surface to be sexist, ageist or racist, is usually based on the tone of voice that will indicate a change of meaning in a common word or phrase, and to one that would embarrass the speaker as often as not. High, serious literature depends on the same quality to make profound comments under cover of the stalking horse of the trite.

Had I attempted to ‘make something’ by way of a short story out of that letter, it might be sub-textually a revelation, confessional, assertive, or even unconscious, but as it is, I’ve made this instead.

About the contributor

Mike Smith writes poetry, plays and essays – mostly on the short story form, in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. He blogs at . He lives on the edge of England within sight of a sliver of Solway Firth.

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