Friday Fictioneers – Funfair of youth

PHOTO PROMPT © Brenda Cox

Smoke curls lazy into the sky. It’s beautiful, almost. Burn, baby, burn. That’s a thing they used to say, the wrinklies, when they were young. Oh, they were fierce and zealous then. What happened to them?

A shrill cry. And the sound of something big splintering. We’ll get what’s ours at last. Now is the best time to be young. An old lady flaps her arms as she falls from a fourth floor window, like some crazy bird. No more wrinklies to occupy the best houses, luxuriate in their fat pensions, and scoff up all the vaccines. Enough. Now is our turn. Now is our world.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Take my hand

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff

She takes my hand and leads me. In my day, it would have been the other way round. It is strange to be guided by your granddaughter, but the world has become strange. All the old certainties are vanishing. Like spring being the return of life, and autumn for the gathering-in. Now these seasons come with flood and fire. Nothing is as it was.

“We will have to show you what to do,” she says. “You should have done it, but you didn’t. Tomorrow is too late.”

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Never forgetting

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

I will never forget you, I swore: my first encounter with death. One day she was there, and the next, incomprehensibly absent—a silly fall from a mountain.

A memory of us lying together on the narrow single bed. She was propped on one elbow. “I don’t mind leading you down the garden path,” she said. I didn’t understand what she meant—she was two years older than me, and knew things I didn’t.

Yes, I can remember my adoration. But not the face, the shape, the smell. Those have vanished. Also, her name.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Lights

PHOTO PROMPT © Liz Young

Yes, of course I see them. Lights all around—how could I not notice? But that doesn’t mean gawping rudely like a village idiot. Etiquette dictates one pretends not to witness.

Why? You ask why? Well, the creatures lack a shred of clothing. Suppose it was your wife or mother—would you want folks to ogle?

We’ll take them gently aside, at the right moment, and explain. They tend to resist. But when you point out food and drink pass straight through, they begin to understand. Ghosts are only people who don’t realise they’re dead. With acceptance, they find peace.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – The Secret

PHOTO PROMPT © Krista Strutz

There is a part of me that is different. I am not like the rest of you. But you can’t see it—I can pass. The dogs can’t smell me—I smell like you. The men with callipers will find no difference in my skull, or the shape of the nose, or the thickness of the lips. They’ll never make me wear a star. So, I walk among you, and hear how you talk about us. I live twice: once as myself, and again as one of you.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

159. Ritzkreig

Eighty one years today, on 14 September 1940, the air raid shelter of the swanky Savoy hotel was taken over by working class families from east London.

The workers had a name for the wartime experience of the rich: the  Ritzkreig. During the London Blitz of 1940, the rich crowded into hotels where there was opulence to be enjoyed, and whose deep reinforced basements allowed luxurious shelters from the German bombs.

The east end of London was on fire. For the poor, conditions could not have been more different from those enjoyed by the patrons of the Savoy, the Ritz and other top class hotels. One of the few deep shelters available at Tilbury was built for 1,600 people and was holding 10,000. Stepney people started to line up at midday to get a place. There were an estimated 200,000 safe shelter places available in London, but most were closed at night.

The stations of  London’s underground railway system, the Tube, would have provided sanctuary. But they too were locked at night.

Phil Piratin, one of the organisers of the invasion of the Savoy describes what happened on 14 September.

We gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”

I’ve used this event in the novel I’m working on, Boundarising. The protagonist, Sol, and his companion, Greta, arrive at the Savoy hotel in late 1944, just after the D-day landings. The Germans are launching V1 rockets at London, so the pair take to the Savoy’s cellar:

“This is a paradise,” I said. “Not at all what I thought air-raid shelters were like.”

She laughed. “That’s what the good folk of east London thought four years ago, at the height of the Blitz, when they broke in here.”

“Why did they do that?”

She put her finger to her lips and glanced about her in a pantomime of secrecy. “To highlight the lack of shelters for the poor. The Communist Party declared that” and here she quoted “‘what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for the Stepney workers and their families.’”

The way she described it made me feel she was sympathetic to the trespassers.

She laughed, “ The management tried to get them out, but there was an air raid on, and they couldn’t very well turn children out into the streets under the bombs. The waiters were having the time of their lives, and gave them tea and buttered bread. The normal price was two shillings and sixpence. The raiders agreed to pay tuppence.” 

“Are you a Communist, Greta?”

“Heavens, no. But I do like fairness. A few days later, the government agreed to open the Tube stations at night as air raid shelters. So, that was fair.”

Friday Fictioneers – Cycle of Life

PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

It has always been thus. We sow the land and plant the seed. The sun shines, the rain falls, the crop grows. Nourished by the virtuous soil, our harvest finds a ready market. Bakeries fragrant with yeasty smells form it into bread. The brewer’s alchemy spins flax into gold. Coin changes hands, glasses clink, and the laughter of good neighbours warms and comforts. This is how life was.

Today, scorching sun parches the cracked soil, leached by winter deluges. How can we live now? All we can do is venture north in little boats and hope for refuge.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

158. Stories as feel-good therapy

What are stories for? According to a provocative book by Angus Fletcher, they are technologies invented (or discovered) to help us deal with life experience. They are psychotherapeutic tools.

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature reviews the blueprints for literary technologies that Fletcher claims can be scientifically  shown to alleviate grief. trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui, while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. He argues that they can be found throughout literature from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays.

His aim is to subvert centuries of literary scholarship, asking not “what is this story about” but rather “what are its effects on us”.  You might say, at the risk of anti-intellectualism, narrative are not to be studied but experienced.

He gives each of these technologies an annoying name. For example, the Hurt Delay (giving us distance on trauma), with which he explores Sophocles’ Oedipus; and the Almighty Heart (instilling courage), with which he explores Homer’s Iliad. He explores the neurobiology of fear and courage through the origins of fear in the amygdala, and the neuropharmacological response in the counterbalancing releases of adrenaline and oxytocin.

I have to first acknowledge that it is beautifully and engagingly written. And to applaud his sentiment that stories are there to be enjoyed. And then I have to confess to a strong distaste for its underlying framework.

The distaste isn’t that of a literary scholar. Granted, Fletcher takes immense liberties with the context of the works he cites and of their authors’ probable intents. He claims, for example, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet stages a play about a king murdered by his brother as a tribute to his dead father. Generations of literature students have known that the play’s purpose is so that Hamlet can observe his uncle’s reaction and gauge his guilt for the murder.

He may well also be accused of playing fast and loose with the chronology of literary creation. But these sins would be easily forgivable if they serve to expose a deeper reality.

Nor is my distaste for the neurobiological exploration of narrative. Any thing in the universe is a potential object for scientific investigation. Though I’m not always persuaded by Fletcher’s piecing together of the neuronal circuitry.

No, my distaste comes from elsewhere. It relates to an approach that is simultaneously totalizing and reductionist. The vogue for totalizing explanations of narrative passed in the 1950s. Northrop Frye https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomy_of_Criticism created a taxonomy of literature. Fraser https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Bough, and then later Joseph Campbell, claimed to find universal underlying stories across all times and all cultures—the hero with a thousand faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces, which then gave rise to mechanical “Hero’s Quest” template for story-writing.

These were ideas of their time, when the world, and consequently scholarship, were in the grip of totalizing systems. They were superceded by ideas of a later time, which emphasised context and cultural diversity. I make no claim that the earlier ideas were wrong and the modern fashion right. Merely that they are more to my taste. I’m not even sure it’s possible to prove literary criticism ideas right or wrong.

What concerns me about Fletcher’s reprise of an earlier era’s concerns is that it is forced to strip stories of their specificity. And that specificity is the source of their delight. The one-sentence summary “The spoiled Emma’s pride makes her prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, though they eventually realize they’re perfect for each other” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/one-sentence-guides-to-16_b_98480 tells the reader little about whether they’ll enjoy Pride and Prejudice. The specificity of the story-telling is everything.

Stories are produced by cultures, not neurons, as Laura Miller observes in a critical essay on the book https://slate.com/culture/2021/03/wonderworks-angus-fletcher-review.html.  She notes that culture determines “who in a society is permitted to read and write, who (if anyone) pays the author for her work, how the work is circulated, what its audience expects of it, etc.” She accuses Fletcher of a “calculating utilitarianism” which reduces literature and reading to a feel-good therapy. His enterprise rests on the totalising universalism that argues that human beings face relatively unchanging problems created by the way our brains work and that a set of enterprising literary entrepreneurs have been steadily inventing solutions to these problems.

He has ignored all the specificity and cultural diversity that created the epic poetry of the classical and pre-classical eras. These epics were about gods, about fate, about heroism. He has ignored all the factors that had to come into existence before stories could be about individual people and their feelings. Laura Ashe https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/invention-fiction, for example, argues that for fiction, as we know it today in the West, to come into existence, we had first to develop the notion that individuals and their feelings mattered. She writes:

“In Old English poetry, to be an individual, cut off from these collective bonds, is to be lost. More than this, there is no attention to an inner life that can be meaningfully distinguished from exterior action. Will the warrior make good on his boasts in the mead hall? Only in action is a man’s value known; intention is nothing.”

 What changed, she argues is a set of economic, political and theological conditions in twelfth century England that permitted a literature in which The Romance could flourish. “This,” she says “is the literary paradigm which gives us the novel: access to the unknowable inner lives of others, moving through a world in which their interior experience is as significant as their exterior action.”

This is not to ignore the fact that in other places and at other times, writers have explored the theme of love, its joys and its sadness. But let us not forget that literary forms are inventions that partake of their cultures. Many story traditions in Asia are still indifferent to the idea of a “protagonist” and the changes he or she undergoes. Rather, stories are about the unfolding of circumstances.

There are many other cultural variations in story-telling. For example, while the normal Western story is composed of three parts (beginning, middle or climax, end or resolution) some Asian cultures have a four-part form, known as Kishōtenketsu in Japanese. The structure here is beginning, middle, twist, end. All of this specificity and cultural detail is irrelevant to Fletcher’s project. And, the acid test is whether, as a writer, it equips me to write better stories or, as a reader, to gain more enjoyment. The answer to both is no

Friday Fictioneers – Cambridge Backs

PHOTO PROMPT © Penny Gadd

The river slips away languid beneath the punt. Clare College stands sentinel. Oh, I belong here where Bertrand Russell and Wordsworth once lazed.

“We never step in the same river twice,” I declare grandly.

She yawns and nods. “Heraclitus.” Then adds, “Trying not to step into the river is best.”

The pole sticks. In a moment I will have to choose: let go; or hang on, balancing atop while she and the boat drift away. But, with a heave, it pulls loose. I stagger, rocking the punt. She giggles.

This is not how it was supposed to be.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Anxiety

PHOTO PROMPT © Brenda Cox

I wake with a start. The dream fades. But not totally. I still remember its terror, the loss of an anchor for my identity.

I wake from sleep and am myself again. But how do I know I am myself? Sure, I can remember who I was yesterday; blowing out the candles on my fifth birthday cake; the wedding ceremony with Irene. But memory is not the reality. Maybe I was only born now, this instant, equipped with all the memories to make it seem I have lived before.

I will ask Irene. But she’s asleep. If I wake her, will she be the same Irene?

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here