Pangolin Issue 56

To some of us this is a ginnel, to others a snicket, but given the state we’re in, we won’t argue about these finer nuances of the language. Had I shown you a picture of a scone, and asked you how to pronounce it, then we might have had issues, but we’ll not go there. This month we are going into the gaps.

A ginnel is a narrow passageway, a linear gap, usually between houses. I’ve been thinking a lot about gaps in the last lunar month – gummy gaps left by the loss of baby teeth in our grandchildren; my diary which used to abhor gaps but now has spaces so wide open that they yawn for days laid end to end; gaps the size of Gaping Gill in our national pandemic “strategy”.

As this is a writing bloglet, I will concentrate on the deliberate leaving of gaps in a narrative. I don’t mean those periods of time when, for whatever reason, a writer cannot write, I refer to the gaps we leave for the reader to join up the dots for themselves. It seems to me that the more skilled the writer, the bigger the gaps that she or he has the confidence to create. Poets are good at these hollowings-out.

‘So what actually happened between those two?’ asked my mindful soulmate after reading an early draft of my latest short story. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ I said. Apparently not. I would like to think that my writing engenders enough empathy for my characters that readers will know, simply know, exactly how the protagonists think and feel without me having to tell them. I enjoy sketching a bare outline and letting the reader colour in the rest.

My prose is often so spare it might be a rib-cage, stripped of all unnecessary flesh. I hope my readers can see the beating heart and breathing lungs between the lines. The pared-down style means that my stories are always at risk of forming no more than a hollow skeleton, dessicating in the harsh light. I’m fortunate not only to have someone who social media refers to as an ‘OH’ to read my stuff, but also to belong to Leeds Writers Circle whose members continue to be a tremendous source of constructive criticism and grounded inspiration.

On Monday night I enjoyed watching Goodbye Christopher Robin with my OH. She is deaf, and we couldn’t get the subtitles menu to work on the DVD. Fortunately there wasn’t a huge amount of dialogue, and I was able to fill in the crucial gaps for her when necessary. This story of the traumas of World War 1, the denial that followed and the healing engendered by Winnie the Pooh – both for the writer and a nation of readers rang true to me. A.A. Milne’s books are not long, and they don’t preach, but those sketches of the everyday foibles and wisdom of some bits of fluff somehow managed to salve the collective unconscious of millions.

Last week I finished reading Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books. This was a great read and I tweeted that it was #balmforthesoul. It’s shortlisted for a number of awards and is said to be “flying off the shelves”. On the surface, it’s a modest book about ordinary people being kind to each other, not the sort of thing that usually makes a bestseller. Between the lines, it taps into that sense of togetherness, common decency and humour which we crave, particularly during our global crisis. Rónán Hession has the best storyteller’s knack of leaving us to fill in some of the gaps for ourselves, while never leaving us stranded.

Back at the Cundallhouse, I am re-working the last few chapters of novel 2. The consensus of the novelists group of Leeds Writers Circle is that there are currently too many gaps (there’s a surprise!). Version 4.1 will, no doubt, be a thing of beauty, with just enough gaps to keep readers engaged.

Winnie the Pooh and his friends somehow managed to transform the particular into the universal. It’s always the specific features which make a description ring true, it’s something special if they also reveal a wider truth. I wonder what you noticed about our opening ginnel? You may have clocked the strange pointy bollards and wondered why – as I do every time I pass them. A Victorian disincentive to casual leap-froggers? Or you may be speculating as to why there is a red screen at the base of the street light further up – that’s because the stem of the light was painted recently. Perhaps the municipal barrier person has been furloughed so it hasn’t been removed yet? Did you spot the building on the far horizon – if not, look again and yes, that’s right, it is a School of Philosophy. Exactly what you might expect in our North Leeds “village” where you can find a bunch of paradigms at the florists and argue the toss with any passing poet.

This is my third pangolin to have emerged since the Covid-19 pandemic took off in Yorkshire. As is almost always the case in epidemics, the virus will probably turn out to have been lurking here earlier than we thought, as a story of local choirs suggests. This is one of the snippets from On the NHS Frontline led by Dr John Wright. It’s a series of excellent weekly podcasts from Bradford. A long time will pass until we can fully understand what is happening to our society, but first-hand accounts like John’s will help to fill in the gaps.

Pangolin 57, variety guaranteed, is due to be released on June 21st.

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