‘Cranley Meadows’ by James Lasdun

In 2010, James Lasdun very kindly provided a fantastic cover quote for my first Nightjar Press story, and I read his new collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt. I still remember the impact of the two-page title story, but the one I’m including here is ‘Cranley Meadows’. Lev Rosenberg, a fifty-four-year-old physicist, has lost his college job and has been looking for work: “What will I do? Keep looking, I suppose.” He still frequents the college observatory. On “a chilly, glittering October night… Lev inched the telescope across the heavens”. He wants to show Saturn to his wife Bryony, who was once his student but whose interest in astronomy has waned. “You seem as if you have something you want to tell me,” he says. It’s a devastating story but it’s the gentle tone, Lev’s kindness and understanding, that makes it really heartbreaking.

First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 1999. Collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt, Jonathan Cape, 2009

‘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.

‘Cleanness’ by James Lasdun

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

‘The Half-Sister’ by James Lasdun

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)

‘Caterpillars’, by James Lasdun

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)