Quality stories with lots of layers

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
SELECTED STORIES. By Brian McCabe. pound;9.99. Argyll Publishing aimed at Standard grade English

Brian McCabe's new anthology, Selected Stories, is a welcome collection of his own choice of stories spanning his 25-year writing career and coincidentally including 25 titles.

This fresh packaging contains many texts which will be familiar to teachers. I always enjoy using McCabe's stories. The subject matter is readily accessible to a range of pupils and yet the writing has such depth that more perceptive ones are able to respond more comprehensively.

"The Hunter of Dryburn" is a case in point. Written in Scots, it is a story that demands to be read aloud to a class and, having done so innumerable times, I cannot remember even one occasion when its singular humour failed to provoke outright laughter. Further study, however, uncovers the layers of meaning within the text as the lonely hunter desperately struggles for a meaningful purpose to his life, and the narrative stance and language of the piece provide ample scope for analytical evaluation of technique.

It is a story I have often used at Standard grade but increasingly I have been tempted to study it with Intermediate 2 candidates, and on the whole I would suggest that the anthology is probably of most relevance to these year groups, although clearly individual stories could be used effectively with different groups.

"The Lipstick Circus" and "Anima", for example, would serve as good models for short story writing in S1-S3, using, as they do, a first person narrative stance to explore childhood confusion and misunderstanding. In "Shouting it Out", even the most challenging of pupils will find a character to whom they can relate, although they are unlikely to acknowledge their own suppressed emotions.

"The Face" also adopts the perspective of a confused youngster, who misunderstands the meaning of the word in a mining context and is haunted by the dread of some malevolent being in the pit.

I remember McCabe referring to this story during a talk to Higher students.

He was explaining how ideas came to him: in this case it was a half recalled memory from childhood in a mining community.

The book's introduction deals with the issue of inspiration and influences and although relatively brief, it is a useful essay on the genre of the short story, offering an insight to the creative process.

McCabe, in all his writing, is able to distil the smallest fragment of experience and then to expand its essence throughout a story, creating a work that is thought provoking and often haunting. He seems concerned with how we interpret, rationalise or try to come to terms with our immediate circumstance. His stories are tightly focused and the characters observed with detail. The Scottish perspective in his work is a useful context for pupils but the real value of the anthology lies in the sheer quality of the writing.

Larry Flanagan is principal teacher of English at Hillhead High, Glasgow

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