Protest edited by Ra Page
As with our weekly flash fiction challenges, it’s interesting to see how different writers respond to a particular prompt. Each was asked to fictionalise a well-known or lesser-known episode, ranging from the peasants’ revolt of 1381 to the 2003 demonstration against the war with Iraq, working in consultation with an academic or eyewitness consultant to avoid straying from the facts. With each story followed by an afterword from the associated expert, the collection affords a rare insight into the relative merits of fiction and non-fiction.
While I appreciated the latter for filling some of the gaps in my knowledge, and was interested in the pieces on crowd psychology, my allegiance lies with the story. I welcome the opportunity for historical and political education, but my heart is with the characters and their emotional journeys. A few stories, I felt, overdid the context, rendering the commentary almost redundant, while a few were so subtle, or tricksy in their structure, I dashed to the non-fiction essay to process what I’d read.
I also found a couple of stories too heavy in signposting the relevance of historical events to the 21st-century, hardly necessary when that’s the premise of the whole book. Yet one of my favourite stories – “Withen” by Martyn Bedford – connects the Battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike with a middle-aged man attending his father’s funeral thirty years later to great effect. (My own story “The Witch’s Funeral”, published in my collection, Becoming Someone, does something similar. You can hear me read the opening below.) This story’s surprise ending speaks volumes about the painful legacy of those years.
My two other favourite stories both showcase a relationship in crisis as a couple take part in a protest march about which one partner is decidedly ambivalent. Stuart Evers takes a risk that pays dividends in “The Blind Light” by presenting the Aldermaston marches (against nuclear weapons) from the point of view of a curmudgeonly and cowardly character, who nevertheless earns our sympathy. But the final story, “The Turd Tree” by Kate Clanchy, has to be the best of the lot, with the personal reverberations of an unanticipated ending perfectly echoing the political aftermath.
Other highlights include “Kick-Start” by Sandra Alland for opening my eyes (pun intended) to the infantilisation and exploitation of people with sight loss in 1920; “There Are Five Ways Out Of This Room” by Michelle Green for the visceral description of the force-feeding of suffragettes (as well as a fabulous title); and “Exterior Paint” by Kit de Waal in which a Caribbean immigrant finds the courage to fight for his white girlfriend from a surprise appearance of Malcom X. If you’re left-leaning, and look to literature to both educate and entertain this is for you.
The Best of Fiction on the Web edited by Charlie Fish
The stories are arranged alphabetically by title and there’s something for everyone among a smorgasbord of subjects and styles. It was a real treat for me to be able to read them in print rather than reading online. Let me tell you about some of my favourites from authors around the world.
In “A Planned Retirement” by Bill Monks, the former guardian of the safe deposit boxes in a bank vault manages an ingenious disappearing act with most of their contents, but you’ll have to read the story to find out if he gets away with it. There’s a similar premise in “Even Steven” by OD Hegre, this time involving unethical shenanigans in the pharmaceutical industry, where the main character gets his comeuppance in a surprising way.
A different kind of moral issue features in Eddie Bruce’s “Hearts and Darts”, where a young marriage is tested to the extreme by the perks of the husband’s job at a Scottish distillery. “The Bridge”, Jim Bartlett’s clever reverse-chronology piece about a suicide, the only one of the collection I recall having read online, was well worth another read.
The beautifully lyrical post-apocalyptic story, “East” by Cameron Suey, explores how far we’d go to secure our own survival. I also loved the voice of the Navajo character bitten by a snake in Sharon Frame Gay’s “Snake Bite”.
Although I didn’t love every story, there was only one I regretted giving my time to, which isn’t bad for a book of over 500 pages. So it’s not only because I’m in it that I recommend this book. If you’re considering buying it, there’s the added bonus of proceeds from the sales going to Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.
I was ready to protest at the prompt for this week’s 99-word story: how do you get your head around the concept of a carried wife? Should I speculate, as with many of the The Best of Fiction on the Web stories fitting the speculative fiction genre? Could I write a flash to honour both anthologies? Mm, I'm not sure I've honoured anyone with this silly piece:
Her mother called her big-boned. Her father called her fat. In fact, she was muscled, a world-champion weightlifter, or would be when certain legalities were fixed.
When the Religious Right were elected, she’d been too busy training to vote. Now she cursed the Compulsory Marriage Act: only a Mrs could represent Britain abroad.
A secretary arranged for the groom, along with cake, dress and flowers. An affable chap, if rather weedy, but no-one had read the small print. She had to be carried indoors for it to pass muster. They ordered an ambulance in case her new husband collapsed.