shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, 2012
“The man in the kitchen garden was watering his beans. The water showed pure silver in the lowering sun. Plainly the job contented him, he took his time over it, so much time he had. Mr Carlton felt he had never before witnessed such leisurely and contenting work. Three times the man went to fill the can again. The sound of it filling, the changing tone of water filling a can, lifted like a memory of itself as far as Mr Carlton at the barrier.” (Mr Carlton)
‘I like being slant on to habitual lives, he says, I like walking through a town when people are going out to work, I like walking on their streets, and out. That pace of change is right, no faster than a man can walk, then truly the eyes and the mind and the heart will take things in. Why should you hurry even through ugliness? You should come among beauties very gradually. That is why I like climbing rivers at their vilest, to see where they began.’
The above quotation, from the story Romantic, the final piece in David Constantine’s resolutely excellent collection Tea at the Midland: and Other Stories, recalls the work of another famous Salfordian LS Lowry and his ‘slant-on’ views of the industrial north with its ‘matchstick men’ and ugly, primitive chimneys. Like Lowry, Constantine is an artist whose work is instantly, disarmingly accessible. On face value the stories in this collection – in which the stories hang so well together they might have been carefully selected by some master curator – are simple and engaging. The writing is stripped-back, the paragraphs economical. The sentences are sometimes stark. Not a word is wasted.
And yet, this is deceptive, for there are layers of meaning here, depths of emotion. Constantine is, quite clearly, a master draughtsman at work, and the short story is his ideal canvas. In the above quote, Constantine describes the ‘pace of change’ and in the stories in Tea at the Midland, this is, regularly, constantly, a slow, Shanks’-pony-paced change. But change does occur. Characters learn. They learn about themselves and the world about them. Constantine’s narrative style is rhythmic. It can lull you into a false sense of security. For there is a darkness here, underneath the poetry. And the changes that are wrought can often be unsettling.
It’s easy to see why the stories within this collection come so highly recommended. The titular Tea at the Midland was the winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize (in 2010), and was short-listed for the 2013 Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award. The collection as a whole was selected as one of the Books of the Year (2012) by the TLS and the London Evening Standard. For there’s not a single blot on the canvas here. Every single story deserves its place in what is the best selection of short fiction by a single author I have ever read. If an alien landed at the Lowry Centre on Salford Quays tomorrow and asked me what a short story was, I’d have no hesitation in handing over my (well-thumbed and already crumbling-spined) copy of this book as the ultimate example.
Constantine himself, in an interview on the Comma Press website, states: ‘There is little agreement as to what a short story is, but, most often, you recognize one when you meet one.’ And, from the very first page of the first story – Tea at the Midland – you know you’ve met one.
‘In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best. To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air. How clean and clever that was! You throw up something like a handkerchief, you tether it and by its headlong wish to fly away, you are towed along…’
Constantine’s immaculate prose tows the reader along, just like the kite-surfers whom the two protagonists of the story are watching through the panoramic windows of the freshly restored Midland Hotel in Morecambe. Some of the reliefs in this art deco palace were designed by the disgraced Eric Gill, and this story examines the subtle, understated conflict between a man and a woman as they debate the artistry of the reliefs. The woman, so taken with the kite-surfers, is able to divorce the beauty of the works from the abhorrence of the man who created them. Not so the man, who baldly states: ‘A paedophile is a paedophile. That’s all there is to it.’
These are stories that explore ways of seeing, ways of interpreting. Journeys take place, be they literal journeys – the Hajj in Asylum, Alphonse’s escape from old-age into the romance of France in Alphonse, a story which reads like a better version of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared: ‘Leg it while you can…’ – take your mobile phone and fling it ‘into the black waters of the Seine’ so you can’t be traced. There are mental journeys. All of the stories contain mental journeys, and these are very frequently brought about through the act of storytelling.
Wherever his characters may go, however, Constantine fully inhabits them. In Doubles, which is a neat metaphor for the act of writing (as flat-sitting) he describes this process: ‘And I listen to their music, she said. I read the books on their shelves, very slowly, a little at a time. Then I close my eyes, listen to the music, think about the lives in the book and the lives of the people whose house or flat I am in. That’s not nothing, is it? Surely in that way I know an awful lot of people.’
My favourite story was An Island, which is a story about geographical and mental loneliness. (No man is an island.) Here, Constantine’s island is an inhospitable place:
‘The island is used to people passing through – or people trying to settle and failing. There are the few families who rule the graveyard, that stock won’t leave and it will be many years before they die out or get diluted and lose their identity among the incomers who take root. (…) So some do settle, they blow in and root tenaciously. But the chief impression you get is of instability.’
It is here our protagonist ‘blows in’, like a ship off course, miserable and alone: ‘I’ve often thought no sane and happy person could bear my life for even an hour if suddenly translated into it. Only because my life has grown to be like this, because it has habituated me to it, is it bearable. If it is bearable.’ He is like the frog in the pan of water, with the temperature being incrementally raised…
On the island, he tries to reach an understanding of himself. He watches, and takes note of the changing sea: ‘I’ve noticed that for some days after rough weather the sea may continue to be very troubled. The wind has lessened almost to nothing, but great rollers ride in from somewhere far far out. There might be no wind at all but a sea arrives that looks worked up by a tempest. I had taken to calling it the phoenomenon of insufficient cause but that’s not quite accurate. It’s more a want of explanation. Such a sea and not a breath of wind. No apparent reason. That’s closer. Of course there’s an explanation, but far out, far deeper out, beyond my wits and senses.’
Which chimes with this: ‘In my notebooks I wrote all this – the mechanics of it. I did once think that if I could describe it very precisely I could fight it better. That was a mistake. I never understood why I was like I was, but I did see very clearly how I was, how it worked in me, the mechanism that sided with death against my life. I knew I didn’t understand why but I hoped that if I saw how it worked, I might escape. (…) Well, it wasn’t enough. The best I ever got from writing it all down was the bleak satisfaction of making clear sentences.’
His escape is to endeavour to find a connection with some of the other drifting, rootless inhabitants of the island. And, through stories, he does manage to achieve some measure of this.
In the story Avery Thinnesse, Constantine writes: ‘She could tell me a life story for everyone in the room and I’d believe it.’ Well, David Constantine could, with one artistic flick of his pen, give voice to anybody I’d care to mention, from the common-or-garden to the extraordinary, someone like Constantine the Great, and I’d believe it.
About the reviewer: AJ Kirby is the author of the novels Paint this Town Red, Bully and Sharkways, and the non-fiction book Fergie’s Finest. He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 recently shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for last year’s The Guardian Not the Booker prize. His short fiction is published regularly online and in magazines and anthologies. He blogs at http://paintthistownred.wordpress.com/