UEA is situated in Norwich, which became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2012, and for the past several years the Creative Writing programme has appointed a Visiting Professor, named for the UNESCO accreditation. The incumbents have included well-known names such as Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Tim Parks and Ian Rankin. James Lasdun, a Visiting Professor in 2014, ought to be equally as well-known. A prize-winning poet, screenwriter, novelist, memoirist and short story writer, he is, as James Wood is quoted as saying on his book jackets, “one of the secret gardens of English writing”. He was a secret to me before he came to UEA, and now stands as a model for what might be achieved in any form, if only one were good enough. And really, any story in this collection might stand as my favourite, including the opener, ‘An Anxious Man’, which won the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award. In ‘Cleanness’, a man travelling to his father’s latest wedding is disturbed by incestuous thoughts of his dead mother, gets lost, seeks direction at an archetypally unwelcoming farmhouse, falls into a pool of rancid pig-shit, nonetheless carries on to the wedding, where his father’s new bride, dressed all in white and smelling of lilies-of-the-valley, willingly embraces him. It’s like a grown-up version of early McEwan.
First published in Ploughshares, Spring 2000 and collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt, Jonathan Cape, 2009
McEwan apart, I have looked for and found most of my short story gods in the United States, and it’s certainly the case that few English writers have specialized in the form. One English writer whose stories have obsessed me – to the degree that I had to stop reading him for fear of being fatally influenced – is James Lasdun. He shares with McEwan, I think, a little of the English gothic sense, a preoccupation with innocence and the sense of characters being drawn irrevocably to some compromising act. In ‘The Half-Sister’, Martin, an under-achieving musician is unhealthily fascinated by the wealthy family he visits as a guitar tutor. Among the children is an older, rather unwanted sister, and their father appears to be making Martin an offer he cannot refuse.
First published in It’s Beginning to Hurt (Cape, 2009)
The figure of the Bad Dad turns up pretty frequently in literature, though often in the form of an apologia: it’s hard, being a Bad Dad; Bad Dads are misunderstood. Or else their badness is somehow resolved into comedy. Sometimes, however, you come across a Bad Dad story that you can’t look away from, that you have to read through your fingers. This is one of those. There is no redemption for Craig when, out on a walk with his mopey son and increasingly uncertain new girlfriend, he takes umbrage at a group of people who aren’t playing by his personal Countryside Code, and sets a trap for them that backfires horribly. The horror and punishment is so subdued you might not think much of it if you hadn’t already seen the like of it at close hand. At very close hand, if you see what I’m saying.
(First read in Granta 104: Fathers. Also collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt. Granta subscribers can read it here)