‘Thomas, Terence and the Snow’ by The Rev. W. Awdry

Chosen by David Collard
The third of four stories making up Tank Engine Thomas Again by the Reverend W.  Awdry, it was originally published by Edmund Ward in 1949 as the fourth volume in the celebrated Railway Series. My 1963 copy (First UK Edition, Eighth Impression, January 1963. Oblong duodecimo. Publisher’s original pale blue with vignette and title to front cover in red) is the first book I owned that wasn’t made of flannel, and it’s been read to shreds. In the story Thomas meets a friendly red tractor named Terence who explains that his ‘ugly’ caterpillar tracks mean that he doesn’t need rails and can go anywhere. Thomas, both uppity and reactionary (like all the other engines in the Fat Controller’s fleet) replies ‘I don’t want to go “anywhere”. I like my rails, thank you!’
There’s a heavy snowfall and Thomas is fitted with a Snow Plough which is so uncomfortable that he loses his temper and damages it. Next morning an unsnowploughed Thomas sets off along the branch line with his coaches Annie and Clarabel and, emerging at speed from a tunnel, hits a snow drift – ‘Cinders and ashes! I’m stuck!’ Terence comes chugging to the rescue and a humbled Thomas promises his driver that he’ll be more sensible in the future.
The story has everything – conflict and resolution, mild peril, a friendship, hubris, understanding, resolution and closure. What more do you want?
But Awdry’s 26 canonical books are problematic. I’m reminded of the 1930s poet and film-maker Humphrey Jennings who once observed that, reading from front to back, a steam locomotive’s chimney, dome and cab (see any image of Thomas) clearly represent a Marxist class progression from the top hat of the ruling classes and the bowler of the bourgeoisie to the flat cap of the proletariat.
Awdry’s steam engines are exclusively blokeish – Gordon, James, Edward, Henry, Percy, Toby etc – and speak and behave like minor public school boys,  while the carriages (Annie, Clarabel, Henrietta etc.) are female and prone to sobbing and wailing when things go wrong; the trucks are scruffy, gruff, mutinous and plebeian. 
First published in Tank Engine Thomas AgainEdmund Ward, 1949See and hear the complete story, with lovely illustrations by C. Reginald Dalby here. * David Collard’s Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays About James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy is published by Sagging Meniscus Press. You can read his other contributions to A Personal Anthology here.

‘Holiday Memory’ by Dylan Thomas

* Picked by David Collard

In those always radiant, rainless, lazily rowdy and skyblue summers departed, I remember August Monday from the rising of the sun over the stained and royal town to the husky hushing of the roundabout music and the dowsing of the naphta jets in the seaside fair: from bubble-and-squeak to the last of the sandy sandwiches.

First published as part of the short story collection Quite Early One Morning (1954), ‘Holiday Memory’ was published separately by Dent in the early 1970s as one of an attractive series of booklets illustrated, quite beautifully, by Meg Stevens. They cost 30p and I bought my copy on holiday from a gift shop in Criccieth in 1972, when I was 13. I still have it. 

Dylan Thomas was the first author to snag my attention, by which I mean his life interested me just as much as his books did, and the first literary biography I read was Constantine FitzGibbon’s The Life of Dylan Thomas, borrowed from the local library. Before that I’d read only Under Milk Wood and Adventures in the Skin Trade and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (although I hadn’t yet heard of Joyce). I’d also read some of the poems but they baffled me, and still do. 

The prose, on the other hand, I loved. It seemed so natural and unforced, so casually  exuberant. 

During the war Thomas had worked as a documentary script writer for Strand Films, and the opening of ‘Holiday Memory’ resembles a brisk montage assembled from library footage that might form the opening to a short film with a title like The British at Play:

August Bank Holiday – a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.

The collective nouns (fanfare, wince, whinny and so on) offer a genial, uncritical take on a collective social occasion. It’s in the spirit of Mass Observation, and the socially-engaged documentary films of Humphrey Jennings.

There follow three paragraphs each opening with with ‘I remember’, and the same phrase is employed repeatedly later in the text, long before Joe Brainerd and Georges Perec developed the approach as a self-conscious literary exercise. But Thomas’s memories are not so much personal as generously generic, such that they have become – at least in my case – my own vicarious memories of holidays untaken, pleasures never experienced. I never enjoyed childhood holidays as much as I enjoyed Thomas’s intense evocation of them.

In his poem ‘To the Sea’ Philip Larkin describes trips to the seaside as “half an annual pleasure, half a rite”, and a destination essentially fit for families (and Larkin was no family man), a place of small pleasures where old and young can together enjoy ‘the miniature gaiety’ of sand and sea and funfair.

 And mothers loudly warned their proud pink daughters or sons to put that jellyfish down; and fathers spread newspapers over their faces; and sandfleas hopped on the picnic lettuce; and someone had forgotten the salt.

Thomas deftly captures the chaotic energies of childhood, of wild boys and their smart sisters, the hectic intimacy of large families. I’ve elsewhere compared his prose with the densely-populated cartoons of Giles, that matchless genius of The Daily Express, and in particular his affectionate portrayals of lower middle class family life – cosy, cluttered and chaotic.

As darkness falls the fun fair, threadbare by day, becomes a place of wonder. Thomas catches this transformation perfectly:

Girls in skulled and crossboned tunnels shrieked, and were comforted. Young men, heroic after pints, stood up on the flying chairaplanes, tousled, crimson, and against the rules. Jaunty girls gave sailors sauce.

“Jaunty girls gave sailors sauce”: there’s a whole lost world in that, a forgotten social order as innocent and silly and simple as an ice lolly. 

First published in Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1954. Also published by Dent, 1972. Available to read online here

David Collard is the author of About a Girl (CB Editions) and Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays about James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy (Sagging Meniscus). He curates and hosts the online salon The Glue Factory. You can read his individual Personal Anthology and other occasional contributions here.

‘A Bash in the Tunnel’ by Flann O’Brien

John Ryan (1925-1992) was a leading figure in mid-century literary Dublin as an artist, broadcaster, publisher, critic, editor, writer and – not least – publican. He was organiser of the first Bloomsday celebration, in 1954.
Two books by Ryan, both strongly recommended, are Remembering How We Stood (1975) and A Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce and the Irish (1970). The former is a brilliant gossipy memoir of Bohemian Dublin in the 1950s, a time when Ryan seemed to know everyone, and everyone else as well. 
 A Bash in the Tunnel, edited by Ryanis an anthology of Irish writers which includes eight pieces that had originally appeared in The Envoy, the literary magazine Ryan edited, to mark the tenth anniversary of Joyce’s death. Illustrious contributors included Samuel Beckett, Stanislaus Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, Edna O’Brien, Aidan Higgins, Benedict Kiely and Brian O’Nolan (aka Brian Ó Nualláin aka Myles na gCopaleen and aka, most famously, Flann O’Brien), whose brilliant shaggy dog story gives the collection its title. 
It’s about a Dublin man of O’Brien’s acquaintance who comes by a key to one of the Irish State Railway’s Pullman cars, and its well-stocked bar, and who occasionally takes advantage of the arrangement when it’s shunted onto a suburban siding at the weekend. If I choose this as a summer story it’s because I read it first in Dublin one August years ago and the light and heat of the day have stayed with me.
You can pick up a copy of A Bash in the Tunnel for less than the price of post and packing.
Chosen by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His latest book is About a Girl (CB editions) and he is currently working on a group biography of writers associated with Ian Hamilton’s New Review in the 1970s. Since March 2020 he has been running Carthorse Orchestra, a weekly online cultural gathering. You can read David’s previous selections for A Personal Anthology here.

First published in The Envoy, 1951. Collected in A Bash in the Tunnel, Clifton Books, 1970

‘The Winter Journey’ by Georges Perec

In ‘The Winter Journey’ the narrator (a young teacher of literature) is browsing in the well-appointed  library of a French country house when he comes across a volume called The Winter Journey (Le Voyage d’hiver) edited by one Hugo Venier. 
To his astonishment he realises that the book is not, as he at first assumes, an anthology of great French poetry, but rather an unknown and hitherto unidentified source. Published in 1864, it confirms beyond any doubt that the poetic giants of the Belle Époque –  Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Verlaine, Rimbaud and many others — all plagiarised their most celebrated lines from Vernier’s compendium. 
Everything he thinks he knows about French literature is challenged, and overturned. He decides to find out more about the mysterious Hugo Venier.
But it is September 1939, and the Occupation is about to interrupt his researches. Only after the Liberation is he able to revisit the library and continue his investigations, but  . . . but that would be to let the chat out of the sac.
This exhilarating jeu d’espirit is part Derridian, part Borgesian, and entirely Perecian (and if that combination doesn’t snag your immediate attention what are you doing here?) Perec has surprisingly never before featured in A Personal Anthology and I hope that his belated appearance will prompt more readers to enjoy his most frequently re-published work. 
‘Le Voyage d’hiver’ was written for inclusion in a publisher’s catalogue and published in 1979. The author died three years later. 
In 1992, there appeared the first in a series of twenty more Journeys, prompted by Perec’s original, in which other members of the Oulipo group expanded on the original. A highlight is Jacques Jouet’s ‘Hinterreise’, about a researcher who discovers an early 18th century composer named ‘Ugo Wernier’ who appears to have produced work subsequently plagiarised by  Mozart, Bach and Schubert, a story which itself could be said to plagiarise Perec’s. 
First published in 1979. Republished in Winter Journeys, Atlas Press, 2013 in a beautiful limited edition with translations by Harry Mathews, John Sturrock and (mainly) Ian Monk. ‘A Winter’s Journey’ was also published separately as a chapbook by Penguin Classics in 1996

Chose by David Collard. David organises Carthorse Orchestra, a weekly online gathering of writers, poets, musicians, performers and other creative types. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here

‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss was a key figure in the new wave of science fiction writing in Britain in in the 1960s and 70s, and immensely prolific (80 novels, more than 300 short stories). Fifty years on ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ is – no surprise – dated in many of its assumptions and entirely off-message for modern readers when it comes to female agency. The then-future technologies will seem quaint to today’s reader – “the photostat in her hand, still moist from the wall-receiver” – although Aldiss is bang on the money when it comes to the internet and retina scanning. He also anticipates the loneliness and boredom of modern life, the isolation (in particular) of women in a male hegemony.

In a starving world there’s also an obesity problem, mentioned in this clunky bit of exposition:

Though three-quarters of the overcrowded world are starving, we are lucky here to have more than enough, thanks to population control. Obesity’s our problem, not malnutrition. I guess there’s nobody round this table who doesn’t have a Crosswell working for him in the small intestine, a perfectly safe parasite tape-worm that enables its host to eat up to fifty percent more food and still keep his or her figure. Right?

Yeah, right.

I realise I’m not making a strong case for this. But I recall being spellbound as I read the story in our local library as an unhappy teenager, and brooding for days afterwards on what reality was, and how to figure out my place in my family and in the world. It triggered in me a disabling self-awareness and lack of ease. I’m still living with that.

The story was optioned by Stanley Kubrick and spent many years not being made before it was eventually released as A.I. Artificial Intelligencein 2001, directed by Steven Spielberg. I haven’t seen it.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1969, and collected in The Moment of Eclipse, Faber, 1970, and widely thereafter. It is available to read online here. Picked by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His latest book is About a Girl (CB editions) and he is currently working on a group biography of writers associated with Ian Hamilton’s New Review in the 1970s. His previous contributions to A Personal Anthology can be read here.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

As rich and filling as a thick slice of plum pudding, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ reminds me of all the Christmases I never had as a child (my parents had no time for that sort of thing), and of all the other Christmases I’ve missed as a grown-up through work or travel or simply being alone, by choice or necessity. I first read it as a teenager at a time when I had a particular passion for Thomas’s prose. Most of his poetry left me cold back then, and still does, but I loved Under Milk Wood, the short stories, the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade and the letters. Everyone should read the letters.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is hardly a story at all, more a shrewdly calculated exercise in nostalgia. A cynic may dislike the author’s ingratiating approach, but I’m no cynic and find it irresistible. There’s a boozy sentimentality underlying it all, and what could be more appropriate at this time of the year? Whenever I read it to myself, or read it to others (avoiding any attempt at a Welsh accent), I am always reminded of those densely-populated Giles cartoons in the Daily Express (once a great newspaper) showing a crowded family kitchen at Christmas time, full of steaming saucepans and bickering kiddywinks, with Mum serenely rolling pastry and Dad asleep with a newspaper spread over his face, the terrifying Grandma tippling sherry in her armchair, the dog chasing the cat under the table, the snow falling outside. An image of warm familial contentment – tolerant, cluttered, secure and chaotic. Christmases were never like this, but it’s a consolation to imagine that they could have been, at least for the Thomases of Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea.

The paragraphs are jam-packed with vividly-rendered upper-cased Presents: the Useful (home-knitted clothes mostly but including, in a favourite phrase, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why”) and the Useless (“Bags of moist and many-coloured jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult”). The house is likewise packed with significant upper-cased Uncles and Aunts (“Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush”). There’s plenty of Just William-style mischief as the young Dylan and his pals Jim and Dan and Jack roam the town and the beach with their sweet cigarettes and dog-whistles. A snow-covered Swansea plays host to a surreal menagerie of creatures: cats, dogs, reindeers, wolves, bears, sloths, camels, a zebra, hippos and a clock-work mouse (which frightens Aunt Bessie, twice). There are also trolls and ghosts and, in a terrifying moment, “a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door”.

Perhaps you have no appetite for plum pudding and I’ll admit that, for the rest of the year, my own tastes incline to the austere. But this, believe me, is a quarter of an hour well spent and a perfect accompaniment to egg-nog. I expect you’ll enjoy it.

PS I have a theory that when writing the dialogue in the story Thomas was influenced by the Robert Graves poem ‘Welsh Incident’ (1929). Here’s a recording of Thomas reading it very badly, and here’s Richard Burton reading it brilliantly. See what you make of them both.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, including material from a radio broadcast written for the BBC in 1945, and a 1947 essay for Picture Post. Currently published by Orion, 2006. Available online here

Chosen by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His most recent book is About a Girl (CB editions). He contributes to the forthcoming anthology We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books, March 2019) and is currently working on a group biography of London writers in the 1970s.

Read David’s previous contributions to A Personal Anthology here

‘An Encounter’ by James Joyce

The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break out of the weariness of school life for one day at least.

 The narrator is either a precociously literate schoolboy or an older man recalling an earlier time – it’s hard to tell. He describes “a day’s miching” with another boy, Mahoney, in which the pair bunk off together, walking along the quays, eating currant buns and enjoying “the spectacle of Dublin’s commerce”. They cross the Liffey by ferryboat and head for The Pigeon House (with it implications of flight), roaming around the impoverished backstreets of Ringsend.As the day grows sultry they feast on biscuits and chocolate and bottles of raspberry lemonade. Too tired to reach their destination they rest in a field where they are approached by an old man “shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black”, a Beckettian tramp-like figure with a good accent who embarks on a series of unsettling monologues, first and innocuously about literature, then about “girls”.

He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit.
Like a priest reciting the liturgy? After this eerie monologue he retreats to the end of the field. The narrator does not see what happens next, but his companion Mahoney does:
“I say! Look what he’s doing!”
As I neither answered nor raised my eyes, Mahony exclaimed again:
“I say . . . He’s a queer old josser!”
Most readers will assume the old man is masturbating, as Bloom does on Sandymount Strand in Ulysses, although on first reading the story I assumed he was either urinating or defecating. Surely, I thought, if he’d actually been wanking the boys would have fled, perhaps hurling insults and rocks. It’s left to the reader to imagine the scene. Perhaps he’s praying.(In his version of the real-life encounter, Joyce’s brother Stanislaus calls the man a ‘juggins’ (a simple-minded or gullible person, a simpleton; the equivalent American term might be ‘doofus). Many years ago an English professor told me that ‘josser’ was once a slang term for God, which raises not a few questions. It’s a claim I’ve never been able to verify but am happy to pass on for your consideration. If the episode offers any epiphany, or sudden spiritual illumination, it is a particularly downbeat one.)

Fourteen other short stories make up Dubliners – the greatest of all short story collections, each exploring themes of loss, inertia, indecision and flight. They were published when the author was still in his early twenties. You could read one a day for two weeks.

From Dubliners, first published 1914. Read it online here. Chosen by David Collard: read David’s Personal Anthology here

‘The New Accelerator’ by HG Wells

Faced with the challenge of selecting a dozen or so favourite short stories to share with you I have chosen just one. This is not simply because my choice happens to be the best short story ever written, but also because writing about it gives me (and you, my reader) the opportunity to collaborate in a modest literary experiment. This will take you about half an hour to complete, which will be half an hour well spent. Trust me. And thank you, in advance, for your time.

It’s just after 9pm on Friday January 12th 2018 (which we can, for a short period, think of as ‘last Friday’) and I’m sitting at my desk in front of my laptop, the screen of which is blank, apart from the sentence I am typing. Have just typed.

What time or day or month it is where you are I don’t know. But if you’re reading this then it must be for you as you read this, as it is for me as I type this, now. A reader and writer share a now, but it’s seldom the same now.

Earlier this evening I re-read ‘The New Accelerator’, a short story by H. G. Wells and it made me think, as it always makes me think, about time, and about literary time and how that works (when it works). Now I’m going to write – am writing – about that story and I want to do something both whimsical and serious that aligns with the spirit of the story. I want this to be an experiment in time with you, my reader. Are you ready?

Let’s go.

First of all, whether or not you’ve read ‘The New Accelerator’ please skip what follows – apart from this paragraph of course, which I (and you) have almost completed – and click on the link I’ve just given you. Then read or re-read the story, because otherwise much of what I’m about to write will amount to an extended spoiler. In any case I need you to be gainfully occupied elsewhere while I set about writing something for you to read when you rejoin me in – well, it’s a shade over 5,000 words in length, so shall we say . . . about twenty minutes?

I glance at my watch. It’s ten past nine. You’re still reading this.

Continue reading “‘The New Accelerator’ by HG Wells”