Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘flax

And now we hood our enemies
to blind them. Keep an eye on that irony.

[Michael Symmons Roberts, from ‘Hooded’, in The Half Healed (Cape Poetry, 2008)]

Within the Hermetic Spaces category, I’m developing the ideas around short fiction’s relationship with temporal and spatial confinement that have emerged from my Café Shorts musing and which I began to lay out in considering Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall a few weeks ago. And, although I’m dealing with a short story in this post, Hermetic Spaces will also take in the mechanisms of writing and just being that this blog likes to discuss. The invitation to draw up a seat and join in the conversation should be taken for granted.

Hassan Blasim‘s The Reality And The Record might also have made a lateral contribution to the Reel Time Short Stories series. Blasim has released films in his native Iraq as well as in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and since taking up residence in Finland. When I was writing that sentence, I thought twice and decided against describing Blasim as, first, a “respected” film-maker, and then a “successful” film-maker. Under dictatorship, to what does “respect” amount? In exile, what counts as “success”? The conditions Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, writes about in his 2009 Comma Press collection The Madman Of Freedom Square, force us to interrogate platitudes and to re-consider all manner of language:

What I’m saying has nothing to do with my asylum request. What matters to you is the horror. If the Professor was here, he would say that the horror lies in the simplest of puzzles which shine in a cold star in the sky over this city. In the end they came into the cow pen after midnight one night. One of the masked men spread one corner of the pen with fine carpets. Then his companion hung a black banner inscribed: The Islamic Jihad Group, Iraq Branch. Then the cameraman came in with his camera, and it struck me that he was the same cameraman as the one with the first group. His hand gestures were the same as those of the first cameraman. The only difference was that he was now communicating with the others through gestures alone. They asked me to put on a white dishdasha and sit in front of the black banner. They gave me a piece of paper and told me to read out what was written on it: that I belonged to the Mehdi Army and I was a famous killer, I had cut off the heads of hundreds of Sunni men, and I had support from Iran. Before I’d finished reading, one of the cows gave a loud moo so the cameraman asked me to read it again. One of the men took the three cows away so that we could finish off the cow pen scene.

The narrator here was a Baghdad ambulance driver and is now an asylum seeker who has made his way to Sweden from the war in post-Saddam Iraq. In his testimony, he gives a graphic illustration of what might constitute a form of Hermetic Space that extends beyond a moment in time in one specific location. Certainly, the claimant has experienced confinement: he has been kidnapped, bundled into his stolen ambulance, driven over Baghdad’s Martyrs Bridge and held hostage. Prior to the video detailed in the quote above, he has already been recorded for a hostage video on behalf of his original kidnappers, before being dumped, kidnapped again by someone else and then put through the same process. He continues to be passed back and forth across Martyrs Bridge and around the terrorist organisations of Iraq: recording videos spouting a panoply of scripted confessions, each of which are filmed by the same man, whom he suspects to be the “Professor”, the eccentic director of the hospital Emergency Department for which he drove his ambulance. The weary account of this horror story is told in tones of grim farce that bring to mind the character of Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The ambulance driver’s perpetual entrapment, at the hands and in the viewfinder of these feverish, amateur content providers for Al-Jazeera’s rolling news, articulates a locked-in state and it’s only escape and the chance of asylum that offers a resolution.

However, it’s not simply the condition of kidnap victim that indicates a narrative unfolding within a Hermetic Space. The claim, that the war is being conducted as a Mexican stand-off on YouTube with most hits wins, cannot be taken as the truth, can it? Who is to know what the truth is of the man’s account? A fantasy wrought from the dislocating experience of kidnap? An elaborate cover-up for atrocities of his own? The story he thought he would need to secure asylum? Or even just a truth too unpalatable to be admissable? In zeroing in on the way war renders reality an impossibility to gauge, Blasim’s story is a good accompaniment to Tim O’Brien’s 1990 insertion of a Vietnam War tale into a narrative hall of mirrors, How To Tell A True War Story. It also points to the way in which War itself can be a narrative sealant, within which short stories can show us not so much the fixtures and fittings of a given conflict but a portrait of the human condition caught in a rapture of inhumanity.

Still from the final part of Masaki Kobayashi's Japanese WW2 trilogy, "Ningen No Joken III" ("The Human Condition")

For further examples, we might look across Comma’s roster to the newly-published The War Tour by Zoe Lambert, which makes explicit the notion that it is War, not this war nor that war, whether here or there, then or now, that fastens us within particular narrative states. I might also point to my own consideration of the psychologies of wartime in my two Flax chapbook stories, The Prisoners and Overnight. Our proximity to conflict, or the blend of denial and unease – like the knowledge of the rat populations sharing our cities – that comes with ordinariness in times when conflict is ongoing but remote, makes a new story out of each of us on any given day, in any situation. But it has to be said: this is especially so when there is a hood covering our face, a gun to our head and a scripted confession on autocue.

We leave the last word to the Professor: ‘The world is just a bloody and hypothetical story. And we are all killers and heroes.’

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Attempts by writers of short fiction to break into the news cycle might seem to have the makings of the most genteel heist movie since Getaway Driving Miss Daisy but, since BBC Radio 4’s decision to reduce from three to one the amount of short story slots in its schedule, this real time narrative has developed.

As previously discussed here, a petition, launched by the organisers of National Short Story Week, was signed by writers, listeners and broadcasters. In what was seen as a partial U-turn, Radio 4 announced that, in the proposed shake-up, the Sunday evening short story slot – hitherto used for repeats – would feature new stories. Now, the Society of Authors, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and actors’ union Equity have come together to send letters to the Chair of the BBC Trust and the Director General to urge a further climbdown. The letters call into question whether the decision to cut back on the commissioning and broadcast of short fiction “[is] in breach of the BBC’s Charter and, in particular, its duty to stimulate creativity, cultural excellence and its duty to monitor the delivery of public services.”

Let’s consider the proposed change. At its root is a decision to expand The World At One, currently in the 1.00-1.30pm slot, by 15 minutes. This is, of course, a recognition of the broadcaster’s burgeoning impulse to deliver more and better news programming, allied to the world’s capacity to provide it and the audience’s appetite to consume and indeed participate in it. It’s a symptom and product of rolling news formats and the sleepless news buzz and spectacle from the Twittersphere. We know the news doesn’t stop, and the ways in which traditional media outlets have had to adapt their once eternal fixities is now itself an engine for yet more news; it’s the “epiphenomenal” shift Will Self discussed on a star-studded Newsnight broadcast on the day the News of the World’s closure was announced. Like that newspaper, the short story’s weekday afternoon interventions in the business of the world, as brought to us by the BBC, seem also to be falling into the tectonic fissures.

As many of the petition’s signatories pointed out, however, reducing short stories on Radio 4 is not just a denial of work to writers and actors – as disheartening and damaging as this is, it’s not the platform for a compelling case when there are Hell-in-a-Handbasket roadsigns popping up all over the country – but also a needless assault on what should be a perfect symbiosis of form and medium. Radio is considered an ideal medium for short stories: naturally, because the culture of spinning a tale derives from the same oral traditions that inform speech-based radio. Furthermore, radio is enhanced by the nature of the short fiction it broadcasts. Each story in the Afternoon Reading slot occupies twelve minutes of airtime, and that translates as roughly 2000 words. In units of short story measurement, this makes the broadcast story a vignette. Even this is too rigid a definition, though, because these are no decorative contemplations of the passing moment, as a vignette is often entitled to provide. Narrative and pace matter in a Radio short: when I wrote The Prisoners for its eventual broadcast in March 2008, I found it helpful to organise the story into two-minute movements, each taking the characters and listeners deeper into the story. The sense is of a journey of regular progressions, even if, as with an M.C. Escher staircase, that journey leads us nowhere in particular.

As a sidebar, The Prisoners has since been re-edited for my Flax online chapbook, a signal that short stories may be taking some of the tricks learned for the radio into the world of Kindle and the iBookstore, where beguiling but bite-sized may prove the order of the day. There is scope to think back to another epiphenomenal moment, this time contingent on the arrival of radio, when the three-minute pop song emerged towards mass consciousness.

What we’re dealing with, then, is a moment to reflect on the way creativity copes with formatting, and the socio-economic agendas that govern the formats. The modern novel, for instance, has been a fluid entity since what’s accepted as its first incarnation, Cervantes’ Adventures of Don Quixote, which appeared in two books. In between the publication of the two, an errant author had attempted to pass off his writings as the next instalment of the tales of the errant knight. Cervantes used the introduction to Part Two to articulate what can only be described as his “beef” with the imposter, trashing his efforts in a manner later adopted by Ice Cube to diss Eazy-E. So half of the first modern novel became an assertion of authorship over the other half. Just as the novel then developed through serial form, via pulp fiction and the impact of the paperback, to the charming, extended treatments for films already in the pipeline that we enjoy today, the short story has taken shape within a different folio, in which magazines, radio and now the e-book have helped align the creases. This means we can – and should – argue as to the value of a short story’s ability to put the handbrake on a busy day and take listeners out of the remorseless nowness of it all, but we can’t pretend this isn’t a call for licensed subversion. We can argue that the BBC’s Charter is, in these terms, a mandate to subvert the hegemonic imperatives of the market and that’s why it is routinely under attack, but we know we still approach it as part of The Establishment, hence the satisfaction when our words get to be heard on its airwaves.

It comes down, in terms of this particular spoke in the news cycle, to the impact of 15 minutes. Each minute is prized territory in a medium and on a station in which a few seconds of silence would create a vignette of panic, while a whole minute of silence would stir nuclear submarines from their berths. Maybe the outcome of this will be an acceptance that there are fewer minutes to spare but that short stories matter enough to make sure they keep filling them. So we look to the formats within this form of writing: Hemingway floated the idea of the six-word story; flash fiction formats of 50 and 100 words, not to mention the 140 characters of a single Tweet, may often be too flimsy to satisfy, but they offer challenges to writers; and could the broadcaster find new ways to make use of the short story’s capacity to surprise and subvert, rather than simply to pleasantly divert?

We don’t know how this will end, so we stay tuned in.


As listed here last month, my short stories The Prisoners & Overnight appear together as one of three titles published online by Flax/Lancaster Litfest as Flax Singles Nos. 023/024/025. The chapbooks are available to download for free HERE but the Kindle editions are also now ready and available from Amazon.

Click on tke blurb and it’ll take you to the relevant page on the Amazon UK site:

The Prisoners and Overnight Flax023 by Dinesh Allirajah
Two stories that deal with how war affects civilians in contemporary England. Within authentic and assured narratives, Dinesh Allirajah presents ordinary lives against a backdrop of world events spinning beyond our control, that still affect us in both miniscule and obsessive ways.

The Red Balloon Flax024 by Sarah Dobbs
Leah King is a woman who defends herself emotionally and physically against any potential threat. While we’re not told exactly why, small clues lead a quiet parallel path alongside her powerwalk, that is bound to cross her sooner rather than later.

Amore Mio Flax025 by Ian Seed
A deft, honest and sometime uncomfortable story of a relationship growing beyond its first blind flush. As Italy grows familiar to Englishman Martin, his girlfriend Silvana’s exoticness dulls. What attracted him initially no longer holds his heart, yet admitting this is not so easy.

I’m not a Kindle-fiddler myself so if anyone’s able to report back from the badlands of the new technology about getting hold of a copy (the price is 69p), I’d be interested to hear from you. Moreover, if anyone with a free or Amazon-bought copy of The Prisoners & Overnight would be willing to add a customer review of the chapbook on the Amazon site, the ‘my new best friend’ crown will pass to your safe keeping!

As Al (Mr Pacino to you) and I have often concurred – when we’ve found ourselves doing workshops in the same school, hovering around the edge of the staff room, waiting to be given our complimentary 20p pieces to use in the teachers’ coffee machine – textual analyses and theoretical discourses on the creative process are all very well, but the reason a writer starts a blog is to spread the word about his or her own work so that the kiddies don’t starve. So with apologies for the sweat-mizzled air of self-aggrandisement, here are a few links to discover more about my writing:

I’ll start with a note about the Flax#023 e-chapbook, The Prisoners & Overnight. A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a site, Word Power, offering this publication for sale, alongside the partner chapbooks from Sarah Dobbs and Ian Seed, published at the same time by Flax. This has not been authorised by Flax and indeed if you try and purchase the download, you’re charged £2.99 for postage and packing. Given that it can be downloaded for free from the Flax site, that’s not great value, unless they propose to send you the computer they’re using, in which case fill your boots.

So to find this latest publication, the only place to go at the moment is HERE where it’s free to download as a pdf and you can also download a reader. And while you’re there, take a look at my Flax author’s page. The Flax Singles chapbooks will be available via Amazon and iBooks in the coming weeks so watch this space.

YouTube (c/o Literature Northwest):

More profiles:

Comma Press

Windows Project

I’m a member (and Chair) of NBAA

And I also blog HERE as may1366

Lastly, my static website which I’ll be re-developing over time into a more streamlined portal for all you sci-fi buffs.

That’s it for now – more chat about cafes and stories next post…

The Prisoners & Overnight, the Flax023 chapbook launched last month, is now on sale in the Electronic text format at Word Power, the independent online bookshop. Follow the link below:

Word Power

EDIT: New information about this link in the May 4th post, That Self-Publicity Thing


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