‘A Spot of Love’ by Giles Gordon

Chosen by Nicholas Royle
In this three-page story by the late experimental novelist, short story writer, anthologist and agent, who would have been 80 this May, baby comes first, sitting unclaimed in the middle of a room full of women, wearing a nappy. The story proceeds to look for the baby’s mother, allocating that role to a young woman, an unhappy and unmarried company director, who then needs to be found a man. It is 1978, after all. The story is included in Gordon’s third collection, published in that same year. My copy contains a handwritten set of notes. Referring to the present story, the reader writes, ‘Does the inability to have “a single decent relationship with anyone” prevent one from having an identity?’

Published in The Illusionist and other fictions, Harvester, 1978
Nicholas Royle is the author of seven novels and three volumes of short fiction. He has edited twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Met, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other selections here.

‘Snow’ by James Lasdun

I collect stories that share titles. Of those entitled ‘Snow’, my favourite, even better than those by Jayne Anne Philipps, Ted Hughes and Miles Tripp, is James Lasdun’s, which appeared in his collection The Silver Age (my copy of the film tie-in repackaged edition of this, Besieged, is signed by Lasdun to ‘Paul. Christmas 2007’, but I’d like my copy of The Silver Age back, please, whoever borrowed it). In ‘Snow’, the narrator’s great uncle has a wife 26 years his junior and when ghastly neighbour Mr Morpurgo comes calling at Christmas and makes eyes at her, she, it seems, cannot resist his leather shoulder patches. The story turns on an image of footprints in the snow that is one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever read: “The snow on the garden was pristine, except for a dotted line that ran across the centre from our house to the one opposite, like the perforations between two stamps seen from their white, shiny backs.”

First published in The Silver Age, Jonathan Cape, 1985, aka Derilium Eclipse, HarperCollins, 1986, and also in Besieged, Norton, 2000. Also published in The Paris Review, Fall 1987, and available to subscribers to read online here
Chosen by Nicholas Royle. Nicholas is the author of seven novels and three collections of short stories, most recently Ornithology (Confingo Publishing). He has edited twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Met, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. Read Nicholas’s full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.

‘Stage Fright’ by Lisa Natalie Pearson

One of my top-ten all-time favourite short stories, ‘Stage Fright’ was published in 1995 and I must have read it at least once a year every year since. In which case, why do I still find it so difficult to remember what happens in it? Beyond saying that it’s about a woman who on summer nights watches a couple in the apartment across the street, and that the perspective shifts from the watcher to a police photographer to the neutral gaze of a possibly imaginary screenplay, I’m always a bit stuck. Pearson – who latterly dropped the middle name – published a handful of excellent short stories (one or two of which I was lucky enough to help into print) before moving into publishing. Since 2008 she’s been running the outstanding Siglio Press.

First published in Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (FC2) edited by Cris Mazza & Jeffrey DeShell. Recommended by Nicholas Royle, who is the author of seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage) and three collections of short stories, most recently Ornithology (Configo Press). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Met, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. You can read Nicholas’s full Personal Anthology here.

Introduction to a ‘London Magazine’ Personal Anthology

When I moved to London in 1982, to study French and German at Queen Mary College, as it was then called, part of the University of London, I saw my first copies of London Magazine. The vice-warden of my hall of residence, a sophisticated and entertaining gentleman named David Brown, who occupied a flat towards the top of the 13-storey tower, was a subscriber to the publication. On a visit to his rooms, I picked up a copy. Surely this was a magazine about the capital, I thought, so, having just moved there, I should acquaint myself with it. But, no, what was this? A magazine filled with stories and poems and and reviews and photographs artistic rather than touristic. It was a literary magazine, something I had not previously known existed. Edited by poet Alan Ross, London Magazine had been around since 1732, although Ross had been its editor only since 1961. I say ‘only’ – he would remain in post until his death in 2001. Ross’s editorship was, perhaps, the magazine’s heyday, which is why I have chosen to refer to the magazine throughout this article as London Magazine, without the definite article, which was used by John Lehmann, before Ross, and has been used by various editors since.

Many of today’s best-known writers were first published in London Magazine or appeared there, alongside authors who were already familiar names and others who were not known then and have not become ‘names’ or ‘faces’ in the meantime. Novice short story writers, myself among them, would submit work to London Magazine (and Ambit and Stand, among other publications) over and over again, encouraged by polite rejection slips handwritten by Ross – ‘Not quite for us’, ‘Not quite there yet, we felt’ etc. We longed for acceptance. But what of those whose work was accepted? One imagined that fame and adultation were the inevitable consequences of an appearance in the magazine. Was that the case? Did its effects last? And what happened to the stories themselves, which for a couple of months were available on the newsstands, or in Dillons as it was then called, or wherever one bought one’s copy? If their authors were to have a collection published down the line, would their London Magazine stories make the grade? Several of Graham Swift’s early stories appeared in the magazine, and his debut collection, Learning to Swim & Other Stories, which indeed first appeared from London Magazine Editions, the magazine’s publishing arm, included four of them. But what of a good story that didn’t get reprinted and slid, therefore, into undeserved obscurity? What particular poignancy might attach to that phenomenon?

Jonathan Gibbs’s kind invitation to compile a Personal Anthology was an opportunity to have a bit of a root around in my London Magazine collection, incomplete but not inconsiderable, ranging from the mid-1950s to the early 2010s, and see what gems might come to light. In addition to the twelve I shall write about here, there are many more I could have chosen, by Hilary Mantel, William Sansom, Alan Beard, Edward Upward, Anne Spillard and Patrick Smith, among others.

‘Pillars of Ice’ by Charles Wilkinson

Charles Wilkinson has been a London Magazine regular, to the point where he, too, had a collection, The Pain Tree and Other Stories, published by London Magazine Editions in 2000. Something went awry with the timing of publication, however, and the collection was largely overlooked, so it gives me pleasure to highlight his work by including one of his stories in this fantasy anthology. In his London Magazine stories Wilkinson writes about unfulfilled teachers and failing marriages with a keen but sympathetic eye. ‘Pillars of Ice’ is a bit different, being the story of a grammar school boy visiting a resident in an old people’s home. Restriction of point of view appears – in this and other stories – to be something Wilkinson was not particularly interested in. (In a more recent story of his, ‘Fresh Water’, published in Unthology 5 in 2014 and reprinted in Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), his numerous switches of point of view achieve a fluidity that is clearly a deliberate strategy.) As a result, we enjoy the perspectives of schoolboy Peter and his visitee, Mrs Howell, who asks him to bring in the latest Agatha Christie. Wilkinson uses this prop to devise a poignant ending which gets me thinking about the many books I buy in charity shops and second hand bookshops that contain bookmarks, or often personal artefacts used as bookmarks, such as bus passes, concert tickets, exhibition flyers etc. While it may be safe to assume that many of those mark a point beyond which the reader did not proceed, it’s quite another matter to wonder about the reasons for not proceeding. Did they choose not to reach the end of the book or did they reach the end of their life?

(London Magazine, August/September 1982)

‘Happy Name’ by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan had three stories in London Magazine; ‘Happy Name’ was her first to appear there. Readers with any degree of familiarity with her work will not be surprised to learn that it’s a dark and nightmarish piece, despite what its title might suggest. Letitia, or Miss Letty, is a young girl dreaming of being an old woman, or an old woman dreaming of being a young girl. We’re never quite sure and maybe she isn’t either. The story features a powerful father figure, a shadow-strewn house around which it’s impossible to navigate and a series of wonderfully accurate and apposite images of birds. In the mirror across the hall Miss Letty sees a ‘tall pale girl’ with the look of ‘a solitary long-necked bird, wading and peering out warily from the shadows’. Miss Letty surveys another set of shadows ‘like a heron exploring a pool’. Later, when a development in the story has diverted it on to a similar track to the one taken in Wilkinson’s ‘Pillars of Ice’, the thought of having to search for a new home ‘made the bird of panic set up a disastrous flapping inside her’. ‘Happy Name’ was reprinted in the posthumous collection Julia and the Bazooka (Peter Owen) in 1970, an edition of which remains in print.

(London Magazine, December 1954)

‘Making it Happen’ by Ailsa Cox

What I love about this story, by the world’s first Professor of Short Fiction (at Edge Hill University), is its construction. Actually I love the characterisation as well, which is achieved through a skilful combination of description and dialogue, but the construction is what made me go ‘Aha!’ The thing is, if I tell you what it is about the construction that I like so much, it would spoil the story, or that element of the story, so I’ll just say that Cox’s narrative approach in this story is elliptical and fragmented and there are considerable rewards for the reader as things start to come together. I also really like the vicarious sense of being inside a Reliant Scimitar, a car I have always confused with the Jensen Interceptor. Come on, they’re virtually identical. The issue of the magazine in which the story appeared was the first following the death of Alan Ross. An editorial note announced, forlornly, ‘This issue of the magazine may be its last.’ Thankfully it wasn’t. If you want to read one of Cox’s stories online, there’s one here http://www.paraxis.org/pages/p03/renaissanceman.html with, weirdly, artwork by me. And if you want to read ‘Making it Happen’ it’s in Cox’s collection, The Real Louise and Other Stories (Headland Publications).

(London Magazine, April/May 2001)

‘A Father’s Sacrifice’ by Roland Topor

Back to 1968 now for this surreal little story from the pen of French short story writer, novelist and cartoonist Roland Topor, author of The Tenant, memorably filmed by Polanski. The issue also contains five pages of Topor’s drawings, which I have enjoyed so much over the years (not since 1968, I should point out, although this is possibly the first issue of the magazine I ever bought, second hand, for the Topor story) those pages are falling out. In fact, the glue has gone all hard and dry and the whole issue is falling apart, which is kind of appropriate considering the story, in which a young man’s father makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep him at medical school after the loss of his fortune. If you don’t know Topor, there’s a great edition of The Tenant from Millipede Press that also has some stories and drawings and an introduction by Thomas Ligotti.

(London Magazine, October 1968)

‘Short Days, Long Nights’ by Helen Dunmore

A brilliant little story by a 37-year-old Helen Dunmore, who at the time had published three books of poetry. All her novels, story collections, young adult novels, children’s books, later poetry collections and awards were ahead of her. It would make even the hardest-hearted reader sad to read this story now, three months after her death at the age of only 64. A young woman wakes up to find a strange man in her bed. There’s beauty and precision in the way Dunmore describes the woman’s actions. You believe in her right away and because you believe in her you care about her, you’re interested in what happens to her, you’re invested in her. You want to know who the man is and what happened between them and what will happen between them. That they’re in Finland is a detail that is dropped in and it might be neither here or there, but the snow-covered street outside the window comes alive in a couple of brushstrokes. Dunmore would use the title of the story again as the title of her fourth collection of poems published the following year.

(London Magazine, February/March 1990)

‘Fingers’ by Giles Gordon

I’m always slightly thrown by bi-monthly publications when it comes to year’s end. This issue – is it December 1974 or January 1974? And if it is January 1974, as seems most logical (it is confirmed on the contents page – ‘December 1973/January 1974’), doesn’t that make December/January 1974 inaccurate, or, at best, ungrammatical? This is the kind of conundrum about which you might imagine Giles Gordon having written a whole story. Gordon, a highly regarded literary agent and co-editor with David Hughes of ten volumes of Best Short Stories, was also a novelist and short story writer. Much – though not all – of his fiction was experimental. The short pieces that make up ‘Fingers’ – there are six of them here, though this number had increased to twenty when the ‘story’ was reprinted in Gordon’s second collection, Farewell, Fond Dreams (Hutchinson), in 1975 – would today be tagged ‘flash fiction’. In one, a man walks down the street wearing his new cufflinks, despite being, as it’s finally revealed, completely naked; in another, a man goes to the top of a hill to throw away some of his words, but they return to him ‘boomerang-like’. If you are curious, there doesn’t appear to be any of Gordon’s work online, but stories pop up in old anthologies, and copies of his own collections can still be acquired from online dealers, though in low numbers.

(London Magazine, December/January 1974)

‘The Patron’ by Jayne Anne Phillips

My copy of Jayne Anne Phillips’ 1980 short story collection Black Tickets, a beautiful King Penguin, a reprint from 1984, with a typically gorgeous cover by Russell Mills, has a bit of blurb on the back: ‘Jayne Anne Phillips’s outstanding debut has been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.’ Fine, except it wasn’t her debut, or at least not in the US. She had published two collections with small presses, Sweethearts (Truck Press) in 1976 and Counting (Vehicle Editions) two years later. Anyway, Black Tickets is superb and one of the stories from it, ‘The Patron’, was extracted in London Magazine just before the collection came out in the UK. James is a daytime carer for a wealthy, largely bed-ridden old man. His shift over, James heads down to Harry’s Peek-A-Boo, from where he might look up at the old man’s window to see him held there in the arms of Bruno, his night-time carer, but he’s more likely to be peering into one of a row of machines watching 1940s pornographic films. In just a few pages, James, Harry, the old man, even Bruno, all assume distinct, totally convincing existences. The old man is half-dead but couldn’t be more alive. (Some time in the 1990s Jayne Anne Phillips and I exchanged a look – I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but it was slightly more than a glance – across a hotel lobby in Amsterdam. Inspired by this near-encounter, I wrote a story entitled ‘Jayne Anne Phillips’, which was later published in London Magazine, in 2008, when the magazine was under the editorship of Sara-Mae Tuson. The piece was billed as a feature rather than as a short story, for some reason, but as its author I can confirm it was fiction.)

(London Magazine, October 1980)

‘Lovers’ by GE Armitage

I have known for a long time that GE Armitage and Robert Edric are the same person. I can’t remember if it was ever a secret, if I was ever supposed not to tell anyone, but given that Duncan McLaren, among others, has talked about it in his fascinating book Pen Pals (published online at penpals.org.uk), I think it’s probably fine. Gary – for that is his real name  – must be the only writer to have published two first novels in 1985 and two second novels in 1986. The way to do that is to publish under two different names – and to write very quickly, which he does. He has continued to be prolific, but only as Robert Edric, GE Armitage having been retired after two novels. Two novels and at least one short story, this one. It is another of those stories, like Cox’s, where you have to concentrate and pick up clues to work out what’s going on. I think it is probably simpler than I am making it sound. It has two threads; we switch from one to the other and back again throughout the story, a device that works extremely well for such a short piece. What I really like about it is even after concentrating, even after picking up clues, there are still some things we don’t know. Robert Edric has published some short fiction, and very good it has been too, but I wish GE Armitage would give the form another go.
(London Magazine, April/May 1986)

‘Conversion’ by Helen Harris

In the late 1980s I worked at Reader’s Digest. I had published a few stories, but no books, so I was in awe of a colleague, Helen Harris, who had been featured with three stories in Faber’s Introduction 8 and published two novels. She was a real writer. That was the dream. ‘Conversion’ is the story of Norah Crown of Achilles Street, widowed with a daughter living on the other side of London, and her battle against the developers. Up and down the street tenants are being edged out and their flats done up and sold to incomers. The grocer’s is closed and a delicatessen opens in its place. ‘But it didn’t sell anything that Norah wanted to buy. It was full of foreign food and fancy stuff, nothing plain and wholesome like fish paste or Rich Teas.’ Harris writes with humour, sympathy and understanding about a subject that, if it was an issue in 1984, is an even more urgent one thirty-three years later.

(London Magazine, April/May 1984)

‘Dealing in Fictions’ by Christopher Burns

Two of the stories in Christopher Burns’s excellent collection About the Body (Secker & Warburg, 1988) appeared first in London Magazine. ‘Dealing in Fictions’ was the first of them chronologically, although it comes last in the book, which makes sense, because of its extraordinary explosive power. There’s a jolting shift of point of view, which is totally justified, coming at a pivotal moment when, like in Burns’s recent Nightjar Press publication ‘The Numbers’, everything changes. I don’t understand why Burns is not winning the accolades and prizes that some of his contemporaries, like Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan or Graham Swift, have been enjoying. At the very least, there should be a second collection to gather up some of the excellent short fiction he has published since 1988 including, for instance, one of my all-time favourite stories, ‘Nitrate’, which appeared in Shorts: New Writing From Granta Books in 1998.

(London Magazine, August/September 1985)