Dec 3 2023
SCABLANDS AND OTHER STORIES: John Lucas reviews a short story collection by Jonathan Taylor
Scablands and Other Stories Jonathan Taylor, Salt Modern Stories, 2023 ISBN 9781784632946 136pp £9. 99
The cover image of Jonathan Taylor’s new book shows a semi-derelict pot-bank chimney outlined against a lurid sunset. And though the first of the three epigraphs, taken from the opening lines of ‘Tithonus’, features what could be imagined as a glimpse of a pastoral world (in this instance the Lincolnshire Wolds’ ‘ever-silent spaces of the East,/Far-folded mists and gleaming halls of morn’) the third returns us to a post-industrial, apocalyptic wreckage centred on Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History storm-blown into the future, ‘to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.’
After this, the geographical Scablands referenced in the title story of Taylor’s collection may seem something of a let-down. Here, a past his sell-by-date teacher called Chandler (a name evocative of that superannuated trade of candle-maker), who clings in all senses to the cane and survives like a lost memory of a discredited past, the self-consumer of his woes and immured in the unvisited school library (who needs books nowadays), reads to a reluctant new boy, himself the victim of a new, feral lawlessness among his contemporaries, and in so doing provides his hearer with the information that the geographical term ‘scablands’ refers to
a barren plateau of approximately 2,000 square miles in Washington State, USA, marked by deep fissures. Some of these fissures, which are called coulees, are hundreds of feet deep and many miles in length. Geologists believe the coulees may have been formed by cataclysmic floods during the last ice age.
Chandler wants to disabuse the new boy – he has no name – of the lad’s glum, grey belief that he is some sort of representative from what other pupils call ‘scabland.’ The story itself, the last and longest in the collection, is devised to provide darkly comic implications, of parable, fable. The kind of moral conte reminiscent of 19th century French and American writers, though with a bleak edginess that is very much Taylor’s own.
The Five Towns as Scablands? In the 1970s, when I was writing a critical study of Arnold Bennett, a writer I much admired – as I still do – I made several visits to Burslem and Hanley, places where he grew up, as well as the other pottery towns – six of them in all – and although I am told that now, in the twenty-first century, times are harder than they were fifty years ago (most of the potbanks long closed down and work of any kind difficult to come by), to call the Potteries ‘scablands’ seems a bit hard. On the other hand, Jonathan Taylor’s excellent collection convincingly evokes some of the disenchantments, disengagements, dissonances and disturbances of urban experience that finds itself making do without much by way of a saving grace. Grace is indeed in short supply in a social world perhaps more accurately defined as one of hard knocks and bleak vistas. And writing about this world could easily invite, or degenerate into, what Auden called plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks.
That it doesn’t in Scablands is largely owing to Taylor’s writerly skills. A trained musician (music features at least tangentially in several of the stories in this collection) he is also an accomplished poet and novelist. No plain cook he, no drab recorder, no mere scab inspector. He is very good at salient detail and at packing a great deal into a small space without showing off. Attention is all on what’s being told, but even so his manner of telling compels attention. The story “Outside the Circle” is a good and entirely representative example. It begins with the otherwise invisible narrator telling us that ‘Rachel hovers just outside the circle. “My brother said … I mean says it’s the real shit.” She tries to sound convincing, authoritative. “And he knows his stuff.” She’s conscious of a wobble in her voice, but hopes the other girls won’t notice.’
So: a circle of teenage girls, friends who meet in a public park, prepared to try out drugs that Rachel, not in their circle but hoping to be given entrance to it, offers them as bargaining chip. I won’t say more about this deftly managed tale of teenage angst, rivalry, and then violence, except to commend its acuity, its registering of the emotional ache of social exclusion which is brought vividly to life in a very few pages. But to restrict myself even to this little is, I hope, sufficient to indicate that Scablands shouldn’t be classed as a work of naturalistic fiction. Though Taylor can be good at capturing the apparent inconsequentialities of daily existence, including sometimes dress and, more often, talk – the way he handles the routines of half-attentive dialogue in “Heat Death” is exemplary – he is far more interested in other matters, psychological and emotional, such as the questioning, hesitant nature of relationships between the men and women, adults and minors, who people his stories. Some of these stories – impressionistic glimpsings might be a better term – are short to the point of miniature, two pages at most. Moments of talk, of gesture, are lifted out and then dropped, with no tiresome or anxious efforts of explanation, no authorial nudge, nudge.
Other tales, including the fifty-page title-story, are substantial enough to qualify (almost) as novellas; and this variety is part of the collection’s strength, its refusal to conform to expectations. One of the most affecting, “Changelessness”, which clocks in at a page-and-a-half, is in some ways reminiscent of the kind of prose-poem associated with late-19th century French writers (the same could be said of others, including “Tell Me What You Know”, and “High Dependency”), but the subject-matter is thoroughly Anglicised and is, you could say, redolent of scablands; and throughout, Taylor not only provides evidence that as an endlessly variable, malleable form, the short story is alive and well. Indeed, he gives his readers every reason to rejoice in its continuing good health, and this, despite the fact that so many magazines and journals which used to print short stories have gone to dust. Arnold Bennett, that hospitable, generous champion of writers of all kinds, would have been delighted with Scablands, and so, for what it’s worth, am I.