Home » Looking for Leonard (L.A.G. Strong) by Matthew G. Rees

THE NEGLECTED (Article, February 2019)

 

LOOKING FOR LEONARD

The Writer Who Disappeared

MATTHEW G. REES goes in search of L.A.G. STRONG

‘THE near-total decline of his reputation after his death is something of a puzzle given his writing’s consistent quality and penetration.’

So reads the entry for L.A.G. (Leonard) Strong in notes to the Penguin Book of the British Short Story (Volume 2).

This writer of ‘odd and genuinely chilling’ stories (Ian McMillan) earns a place among the pantheon of just over fifty authors in the 700-page Penguin, part of its Modern Classics imprint, despite having virtually vanished from the literary landscape.

The story that has put him there is ‘The Rook’, a piece of short fiction first published in 1931. And – as if to underscore the strangeness of Strong’s abandonment – it is surely one of the anthology’s most intriguing.

In his lifetime, Strong – in some respects a figure as curious as some of his stories – wrote more than a hundred works. Yet, today, he is almost unknown. Even among bookish types and academics, his name draws blank looks.

Raised in England’s West Country to a family of Irish heritage, Strong (1896-1958) had an output that as well as being prolific was immensely varied: novels, story collections, poetry, history, criticism and curios such as The Story of Sugar, The Psychic Sense and The Rolling Road (an account of the development of public transport) to name but three.

In terms of breadth and volume he might be likened to Arthur Machen. British writer and academic Philip Hensher, editor of the Penguin volume, describes him as a popular novelist and writer of short fiction of ‘unusual subtlety’.

Yet, as I have said, he’s someone who seems to have fallen – almost fully– from the page. Unless I’m mistaken, only the slightest fraction of his work is in print.

The major library to which I have access has (perhaps like similar libraries) no more than three or four (elderly)  books of non-fiction  by Strong. A branch has one collection of his stories (for reference use only).

I’ll return later to possible reasons as to why this situation has come about. For the moment, let us continue the comparison with Machen, a writer himself substantially forgotten until relatively recently.

Like Machen, the supernatural was a recurring theme for Strong, looming in several of his story collections, from Doyle’s Rock (1925) to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Second and Third Ghost Books (1952 and 1955).

Again like Machen, Strong was deeply interested in the forces and mysteries of which he wrote.

He participated in experiments exploring telepathy and (as with Graham Greene) was interested in the subject of precognition (foreknowledge of an event via extra sensory perception).

Strong stated: ‘I believe that each human being is an immortal spirit and that death is the gateway to a new life. I believe that the dead can and do communicate with us.’ (From his essay ‘Psychic Research’, which, as if to illustrate the Machenesque diversity of his writing, can be found cheek-by-jowl with a piece titled ‘Pantomime’ in the 1953 collection Personal Remarks.)

Born to a professional family in Devon, Strong was an Oxford scholar before entering teaching and turning to writing full-time.

His short story ‘The Rook’ first appeared in the English magazine The Fortnightly Review.

It sits a little oddly in Professor Hensher’s Penguin collection (which includes stories by the likes of Wodehouse, McEwan, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Tessa Hadley, Ali and Zadie Smith).

First, there’s its scrap-like brevity (little more than six pages), not unique in this volume (Jon McGregor contributes the two-page ‘The Remains, Friskney’, itself so brief that the second side mistakenly carries the name of the author of the previous story). Yet Strong’s is significantly shorter than the norm here.

Its greatest distinction though is the arrestingly different nature of the story, which concerns the shooting and burial of a rook.

To state that the short story is a difficult literary form to define is to say nothing new. But it seems to me that, in ‘The Rook’, Strong captures, convincingly, the essence of what is surely a major concern: the significance of a moment, the insight gained from a glimpse. Not of something ordinary, but of something odd, awry, strange, that in some way goes against the natural or expected grain of things (which is precisely why it catches our attention in the first place).

‘The Rook’, I believe, offers other satisfactions. Not least our sense of transport away from the mainstream and, with it, our immersion into what Frank O’Connor called a ‘submerged population’ (The Lonely Voice).

Why, we find ourselves asking, as – intrigued – we’re drawn in, has the author chosen to write about this?

Finally, there’s – it registers this way with me, at least – Strong’s avoidance of the story-writer’s bear-trap: sentimentality.

Going back to Ian McMillan’s comment (given in a review of Strong’s work some years ago), ‘The Rook’ really is an odd little story.

It divides into two very distinct halves. In the first we meet an ‘unlovely old man’ set upon killing the rooks that gather over his garden. He is egged on by his daughter who speaks of making rook pie.

Our location is Ireland and there is some lively and effective dialogue between the two of a bickering kind.

‘Did I get them! Oh, bedad, I did. Wan of them, anyway. A quare dart, I gev him! A quare dart! The dirty, thievin’ devils.’

Strong tells us the old man is ‘malevolent’ and ‘vengeful’ towards the birds. Curiously, there seems something vaguely corvid about him: ‘… he began to hobble stiffly up the path…’

A bird Strong describes as ‘the ringleader rook’ is wounded by a shot from the old man’s gun and, in the second half of the story, comes down in a field that is part of a priest-run boys’ school whose pupils are being supervised in an exam hall.

The struggling bird, bewildered by its injuries, is noticed by two priests looking out from the building.

Maybe it’s coincidence, but Strong portrays one of the priests in a rather rook-like way: ‘dark and sturdy’, ‘blue jowl’, ‘his eyebrows met in a dark bunch’, ‘black nostrils’.

The other birds from the rook’s flock look on communally, a ‘concourse’ of them in a tree: silent and without movement, above the shot bird stranded on the grass.

Again, one can’t help but draw comparison between these avian watchers and a monastic community, its members robed in black.

The younger of the two priests walks out onto the field and – as an act of mercy – despatches the wounded bird ( ‘… he saw with compassion that its beak was full with blood’) while offering a prayer. Having ‘set down his burden’ (the rook), he buries it.

Switching to the second priest, who’s been observing this while supervising the boys in the hall, Strong writes, ‘Somehow he knew that what had happened was going to affect him all his life; that it had a meaning for him; that he would never be able to forget it.’

(Cont. next column)

The story concludes: ‘Twenty minutes after the rook flew into the old man’s garden, it lay, still warm, under two feet of dark, wet earth.’

For me at least, the story is one that lingers, its sparse, factual end heightening what the novelist and critic Frank Swinnerton, in an introduction to one of Strong’s collections, called the reader’s ‘emotional response’ (possibly enhanced in my case through my secondary education at an abbey school).

Robert Aickman, a noted English editor and writer of supernatural stories, advised readers to scratch the surface of his own fiction to find the content that he considered lay beneath.

With ‘The Rook’, I find myself wondering what else – beyond the surface narrative – might be ‘going on’ in this story.

Is it a metaphor for / portrayal of anti-clerical, anti-establishment feeling: a pot-shot, if you will, at the priesthood from the perspective of a bitter, scoundrelly neighbour? The ordered world of the story’s second half, where one of the priests is engaged in ‘correcting’ the boys’ papers, seems very much in conflict with the random, trigger-happy, even anarchical world, of the first.

Here, Strong seems to be telling us, lie uneasy neighbours – tensions, I suggest, that are part of why this scrap of a story satisfies in the way that it does.  

One of its most striking qualities is its modernity.

Further on in the anthology is a story by Aickman, ‘Bind Your Hair’, first published in 1964. Compared with Strong’s tight little tale, Aickman’s (faintly in the vein of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby) is weak and windy, and, despite some pleasing passages of vivid description, ultimately goes nowhere. Ian McEwan’s ‘Pornography’ (1976) and Martin Amis’s ‘Career Move’ (1992), also included here (presumably as historical snapshots rather than on grounds of quality: neither is particularly good) compare unfavourably with Strong’s story for freshness, each now seeming to me to be museum pieces – a fate ‘The Rook’ determinedly resists.

As with, say, the writing of Raymond Carver or Rudyard Kipling in a story such as ‘Mary Postgate’ (1915), its achievement in many respects lies in what is not said, but in what is suggested or ambiguous. Thought is encouraged on the part of the reader.

For those who can locate a copy, ‘The Rook’ can be found in Strong’s story collection Travellers. This also contains ‘The Seal’, a fragment with a distinctly Carver-like feel. A woman on a Scottish isle watches a seal in a bay, relishing the moment. The magic is broken by the arrival of her partner, who wrecks the scene with his clumsy, obvious words.

It would be wrong to characterise Strong as a writer preoccupied with the supernatural. The title story of Travellers is, for example, a coming-of-age about two cousins who attend a performance by a fading opera singer in a small town in rural Ireland: an undemanding, anecdotal piece, very different from the glancing quality of ‘The Rook’.

In the library where I found, in its English literature section, a solitary volume by Strong, I noticed below it a shelf well stocked with work by Elizabeth Taylor, who also has a story in the Penguin collection. Taylor (1912-1973) is a writer now in fashion, so it seems.

In his notes in the Penguin, Hensher writes that Taylor (settling after ‘a passionate affair with a fellow communist’ to ‘a respectable upper-middle class life’ in the county of Buckinghamshire) was – unlike Strong – often dismissed as a writer during her lifetime, but that her reputation has grown significantly since.

The fortunes of Strong, ‘successful and popular’ in his day, seem to have headed the other way.

How do situations like this come about? Who, I wonder, are the arbiters (of what is fashionable and good) and, more to the point, is their judgment right? 

Hensher suggests that the short story – when it comes to more recent and garlanded specimens at least – has lost its way. The chief curse, as he sees it, has been the era of the competition.

In his introduction to the Penguin he states:

‘Not until the rise of literary competitions in the second half of the twentieth century… did the British hit upon a method ingeniously devised to suppress everything that had previously been good about a literary form.

‘The system of competitions replacing a system of commissions, payments, circulation and readers looks tempting as a guarantee of literary quality; no one, however, ever invited, or required Conan Doyle or V.S. Pritchett or Kipling or P.G. Wodehouse to put on a dinner jacket and shake the hand of a retired academic before they could receive a cheque for a short story. They might even have considered the idea somewhat humiliating. Moreover, no competition will ever produce or reward a ‘Silver Blaze’ (Conan Doyle), a ‘When My Girl Comes Home’ (Pritchett), a ‘Wireless’ (Kipling), or a ‘Fiery Wooing of Mordred’ (Wodehouse). It is perhaps no accident that the dullest short stories I read from the last fifteen years were winners of competitions: a lot of the most exciting and interesting short stories, on the other hand, were science fiction, fantasy and horror.’

I don’t think competitions are or have been entirely malign. For one, they give the form publicity and create interest. And well done those who win them. But I think it’s fair to say that some honoured material has seemed a little predictable, even ordinary and that some pieces of writing haven’t really seemed to be short stories at all (even allowing for the elasticity of definitions). We can though, I suggest, also manage without the ‘shock for shock’s sake’ stuff.

Strong’s inclusion in the Penguin collection is, I suppose, a toe hold.

Walter de la Mare (‘All Hallows’, ‘Crewe’, ‘A Recluse’ and more) has nothing in the anthology. While noting the form’s long association with the macabre, Hensher declares himself doubtful of de la Mare’s quality. This seems to me a rather large mistake. The superb short story ‘Wat Pantathro’ by the Welshman Glyn Jones surely ought also to have been here.

To be fair though, a collection such as this is perhaps doomed to disappoint through the exclusion of someone.

During his lifetime and up to (so it seems) the 1970s many of Leonard Strong’s works underwent multiple re-prints. Brothers, a novel, appearing in forty-three.

Thankfully, the likes of independent publisher Tartarus, have taken an interest in Strong, publishing in 2009 and still in print, The Buckross Ring and Other Stories of the Strange and Supernatural.

But the wider decline of Strong’s name seems to me a loss, and a sad one.

Strong was, wrote Frank Swinnerton in his introduction to Travellers in 1947, ‘one of the outstanding story writers of our day… unrestricted in his zest for and familiarity with the seizable hour in every life, every experience, to whatever class and type such life and experience belong.’

The seizable hour.

Yes, that sums it, doesn’t it? That moment that’s at the heart of perhaps the very best short stories. 

It’s there, I think, in ‘The Rook’. A story worth reading – if you can find it.

Bibliography

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith, selected and introduced by Philip Hensher, Penguin, 2017

Personal Remarks by L.A.G. Strong, Peter Nevill Ltd, London, 1953

Travellers by L.A.G. Strong, Readers Union / Methuen, London, 1947

The Buckross Ring and Other Stories of the Strange and Supernatural by L.A.G. Strong, edited and with an introduction by Richard Dalby, Tartarus Press, Leyburn

The Lonely Voice by Frank O’Connor, Macmillan, London, 1963

In recent times Matthew G. Rees has been undertaking a PhD at Swansea University, Wales, exploring the influence of mentally-held imagery on the writing of short stories. Previously he lived in Moscow where he taught English. His early career was in journalism. He’s worked a number of jobs including time as a night-shift cab driver.

His fiction has been published by, among others, Belle Ombre, The Lonely Crowd, The Short Story, Three Impostors and Oddville Press. He is editor of Horla. 

Keyhole a collection of stories by him, drawing on the supernatural, is now available from  Three Impostors press.

‘Tales shot through with the shudder of the unexpected and magical transformations…’ Jon Gower

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