An appreciation of Lancashire Stories
You can take a book from some Lancashire libraries and never take it back with the full blessing of the management. Furthermore, it is a brand-new book published so that you can enjoy it for free.
Funding from Arts Council England allowed the library services of Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen to commission locally oriented authors to compile new stories inspired by the county. The publication has been managed by the undergraduates of the UCLan Publishing enterprise and the evocative lino-cut style illustrations are by Rachel Teresa Crawshaw. The result is a curiously varied yet geographically unified collection of twelve short stories. (The eBook version has additional stories not reviewed here.)
The stories were commissioned on the basis of submitted proposals rather than sample manuscripts. That was a brave decision, resulting in a disparate group of tales that stand alone better than they fit together. They are all tethered to the county, though some are much more tightly bound to it than others. It is a selection in which a range of readers will find something to their liking. The genre represented include crime, social history and literary fiction, plus some speculative, sci-fi and supernatural stories. The text is suitable for a general audience including teenagers.
Is it a good read?
Yes. The stories are robustly created and offer unique perspectives worth sampling. The language ranges from the traditional to the inventive, the stories vary in style and form and the characters depicted are from diverse backgrounds and span the arc of ageing. The resulting volume is more of a sampler than a hamper, but it is intellectually and aesthetically tasty.
The illustrations help to hold it all together due to their consistent style which provides an emblematic kick to each chapter and a visual lasso of unity. Rachel Teresa Crawshaw’s carvings also provide the tiled cover where the red of the Lancashire Rose gives extra lifeblood to the black and white imagery, making the book stand out on the shelf.
The book would benefit from a more alluring title. Lancashire Stories is really a subtitle being asked to work above its station. Yes, it’s accurate, as the contents are all stories that have come out of Lancashire, but I can’t help thinking that if the cover also contained a price tag, a publisher would consider the title too mundane to catch the eye or attract the impulse buy. Admittedly, finding a more attractive title is not easy bearing in mind the wide-ranging scope of the stories, but the cover heading undersells the creativity contained within. Those pre-disposed to grab a copy will still do so, but the opportunity to hook a wider readership may have been missed.
Hopefully, what follows may prod you to steal a bargain.
The author stated at the Preston launch of this volume that she felt her style was to add validity to the imagined past by illuminating detail. She is correct. It is the small, and sometimes minute, that give vivid confirmations to the reader’s imagination. The kinds of fleeting observations that demand complete attention – albeit only temporarily – provide a rich historical verisimilitude for this tightly bitter-sweet rendition of how the innocence of childhood play can sanitise and glorify the actions of adults. There’s a deft literary hand on the helm of this exposition, breathing a completely credible vigour into the characters and hence making the past instantly present. Such is the skill evident in this imaginary rendition that I was transported to my own childhood, and that of my father, who was old enough to be my grandfather. It is a fable, true in itself but resonant with a greater truth: the past may be played out around us, but we carry the weight of it within.
The Long Journey Home
This is a touching tale with universal themes. It successfully holds a two-way mirror up to the notion of the shifting sands that bridge age and place. In common with other narratives in this volume, it uses leaving as a means of pulling focus on what remains, and does so with great poignancy. It examines the magnetism and repulsion of location, the endurance of those conveyed in the hold of culture, and the contradictions that resilience can celebrate. There is a ton of truth in this telling.
New Preston, 2152
And here I must declare an interest, because I was present at the birth of the author, and at many other key events in his life including his procession, aged six, through the streets of his home town to commemorate the Preston Guild. I’m confident that, while parading in his best plimsols, he had no notion that one day he would suggest recreating the once-every-twenty-years civic celebration on the planet Mars, but that’s precisely what he does here.
It’s an ambitious chronicle anticipating the colonisation of the Red Planet, and the evolution of the vernacular. This presents challenges for readers who are wary of sci-fi or resistant to linguistic invention. Despite the distance in time and space, there are strong links to the here and now, and Prestonians in particular, will recognise references to the land of the Lamb. This is not the only story in the book that leaves Lancashire, but it goes the furthest by some thirty million miles. It’s a spectacular parade that ingeniously connects what was to what might be – but look out for the Orwellian eclipse. When language evolves, it changes more than itself.
The speculative is also at the heart of this story, though in a very different way. This time the twist comes from nature, and is the kind of altered reality in which I have spent many a happy season in recent times, so perhaps it is not surprising that this was one of my favourites from this collection. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but for those who like a delicately woven filigree fantasy this is a most delicious offering. There is a wonderful positivity to the story, which means that by the true magic of wise fiction, the story-telling does in reality what the story describes in the book.
Welcome back to Lancaster
This is a curious ghost story with an intriguing inversion of expectation. It cleverly tethers the fictionally speculative to the real-life imagined dangers that can prove to be genuinely unsafe. The plot strands tangle chillingly in this tale which is well suited to the after-sunset Georgian gloom of the city in which it is set. Regardless of the supernatural veneer, the characters are disturbingly real and the reader is teased and tantalised in delightfully worrying ways. The atmosphere is Gothic, the threat psychotic, the warning toxic. Take heed. You never know.
This is one of several stories in here that visit places of refreshment. In this case the narrative evokes the cracked gloss of 1970s Blackpool. It explores the foolishness that can ignite when shoestring living is assaulted by the potency of temptation plus opportunity. The description reeks in this tale recreating a period very much in the dregs of sham glam. The adventure is a cocktail of humour, pathos, naivety, arrogance and ineptitude. It brought spine-shuddering memories of a very similar escapade at the same time in a different place, but you need not have made that mistake to enjoy the rum-and-coke glow of this lovely jubbly job.
This entry is another that is firmly chained to its setting. The sight of the Belvedere on Avenham Park always transports me back to an evening in the early nineties when I was confronted by a most unexpected sight involving a beard, an apron, a thermos flask and some slippers, but for the protagonist of this story that architectural feature is a portal transporting him much further and much more precariously. He is blasted through time and deposited amid the events now commemorated by the dramatic sculpture on Lune Street. It is an entertaining jaunt with lots of local references that stitch the past to the present closing, but not healing, the wounds of a brutal confrontation. Back to the suture.
Last Tram to Fleetwood
This is one of the stories for which the Lancashire setting is incidental rather than fundamental, but I enjoyed the circumstantial and the ambience. Put me under pressure and I’d be forced to admit that crime is not my genre of preference. Rather like travelling on an old tram, while being conveyed by crime fiction I become too distracted by the reliability of the mechanics to enjoy the ride and for that reason this is not the kind of story to satisfy my predilection. Crime is, however, the most popular genre of all, so the chances are that many readers will rejoice in examining the evidence in this Fylde coast quandary.
Letter to Pope Pius VI
Inés G. Labarta
This is a noble story linked to the shameful profiteering of the county and in particular the city from which it takes its name. This entry extends the volume in a new way, giving a sense of the past via the formality and forced propriety of those who preceded us. It is a story that champions integrity over adversity on several levels, with characters making a pioneering stand way ahead of their times in an account steeped in history but resounding resonantly with the contemporary. Intelligent and eloquent in the telling, this tale has an historical cogency with a painful punch.
Want me want me want me want me
This one is a two-toned story that I doubly enjoyed. I never witnessed the legendary all-night dance worshipping at Wigan (formerly a Lancashire town) but I had several friends who did and who waxed endlessly from behind bleary but ecstatic eyes about its blessings. There’s much more than dancing in this epistle, it is a testament of coming of age, finding the light, forging self-esteem, living the glow; keeping the faith. This record is especially evocative for those who craved to Runaway from You for Love on a Mountain Top, Skiing in the Snow, and Groovin’ with Mr Bloe.
The Hands that Touched Cotton
A traditional Lancashire fiction compilation is rarely complete without some dialect-warped speech. Tha’ll find some ‘ere. This story reprises another painful historical period, but this time one that hit the whole of the county, as seen through the taut eyes of the mill-workers of Blackburn. It links our forebears with those of our comrades on the other end of the rope of shame that binds us. This is an endearing chapter, weaving hope and heartbreak into an unexpected finish.
The Call of the Sea
Antonia Charlesworth Stack
This aquatic excursion provides a wonderful conclusion to the collection. It is unconventional in structure mixing the monologue of a tour guide with an embellished memoir. It swims balletically at the high-water mark where the concretely secure is fused with the fantastically fluid. It is costumed in circus style revealing the apparently incredible via an entirely believable presentation. It’s a literary spectacle juggling the naturally astonishing, the attractively undesirable and the breathtakingly unique.
How short is a short story? Well, the guide set for these commissions was between 3000 and 5000 words, but short stories can be much shorter or considerably longer, so these are not especially short or long, but the nature of this species of fiction is such that individual examples can seem lanky, though not in necessarily in an ungainly sense. Due to the length constraints, there is little room for elaboration so the narrative tends to be slender and economical compared to that of a novel. Some of the shorts in this package stretch in ways that sometimes make them teeter, perhaps waving to elicit closer examination. Others simply stretch upright, secure in their stature in spite of their dimensions.
All of the stories ring true to their location, but while they are blatantly from Lancashire, they do not say so much about it. They are rooted heavily in the urban, but the built environment features much more as a backdrop than as a symbol, and the inspirational open countryside of the county is largely overlooked. Furthermore, while most of the characters reside in the region, they tend not to embody or be shaped by the unique character of the district. That elucidation is not the chief function of this collection, but the book is an excellent starting point for sampling valuable material mined from the literal seams of our precious corner of England. There are hidden depths to this enigmatic county, I’ll have you know.
So, go out and grab a copy while stocks last. It is worth far more than its purchase price, and when you have done with it, you can keep it without any sense of guilt, or do as is suggested on the back cover and pass it on.
For more information visit: https://www.lancashire.gov.uk/libraries-and-archives/libraries/lancashire-stories/