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GOING THE DISTANCE

An anthology celebrating twenty years of Tindal Street Fiction Group came out in 2003, which I edited. I think the introduction explains the raison d'etre of the book, see below. On the next page you can see a picture from the launch and read reviews of the book.

Going The Distance Introduction

Going the Distance celebrates twenty years of Tindal Street Fiction Group, a remarkably successful collective of writers that meets fortnightly in Balsall Heath, Birmingham.

 

Many of these stories, then, are set in the West Midlands, but the reader can also expect to visit places such as Trinidad, Colombia, Canada, Wales, Essex, Liverpool and even somewhere called London. There are stories set in offices, pubs, bus shelters, tower blocks, bedsits, antique shops, swimming pools and strip clubs. The characters range from teenagers taking their first frightening steps in the adult world to the middle-aged embarking on new and tricky relationships. In these stories an alcoholic drinks himself into a new country; in another a man finds himself the only guest at a bizarre party. In Colombia a woman’s stolen car is stuffed with flowers and she decides to leave the country; in Trinidad parents fear their teenage daughters being corrupted by glumbo glisaes, young men in league with the devil. A grandmother sails out for her final journey, while a semi-literate father mourns the death of his daughter. Ghosts, torture, violence and drugs feature in some; in others, a child worries about having her tonsils removed, a pub quiz team try to work out a winning strategy. Variety, not only of subject matter and setting but also of style and approach, is assured from Tindal Street Fiction Group writers, reflecting the diversity of their backgrounds and experience. The youngest here is twenty-six, the oldest seventy-three: all are accomplished. Their stories are as strong and sharp as any you’ll find, and properly celebrate twenty years of quiet achievement for TSFG.

 

The commitment and respect shown to the short story by these writers is not, however, reflected in English literary culture as a whole: the short story appears to be in crisis in England. Story collections are seen as hard to sell and writers are often discouraged from practising the art. This is in sharp contrast to, say, the USA, Canada and Ireland where short stories are not only considered worthwhile but are rewarded: published, discussed, read. Competitions, magazines, ‘best of’ compilations abound. Jhumpa Lahiri, on the strength of one collection, is not only recognized but mobbed by adoring crowds when she returns to Bengal. In Russia, story collections regularly sell out; in the USA prestigious journals such as the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly have stories at their heart, while innumerable others carry fine examples and sell widely. In the UK, space disappears as magazines fold and good collections are neglected. Mainstream publishers produced just thirteen collections by UK writers in this country last year. (See Debbie Taylor’s article, ‘Endangered Species’, in Mslexia, issue 16, Jan–March 2003.)

 

Last year an Emergency Summit was called at the University of Northumberland to tackle this perceived discrimination against the form by agents, publishers and booksellers. And as a result the Save Our Short Story Campaign has been set up to revive the story’s fortunes, to increase the number of outlets, events and competitions for short fiction. A new research fellowship has been established; a website created; annual anthologies planned. Let’s hope these initiatives lead to a growing, sophisticated readership eagerly awaiting new collections and anthologies, valuing stories for themselves and not just as tasters for forthcoming novels.

 

So, in this context, it seems appropriate to celebrate by publishing an anthology of stories from TSFG because, although some are novelists and poets too, all group members are storywriters, intensely interested in and excited by the (good) short story. The story’s possibilities tantalize and we all chase the elusive perfection a story seems to want and mustn’t quite achieve. We are drawn to the form’s intensity and focus and the variety of its effects, which can be as subtle and long lasting as a novel, but also have an immediacy and an enchantment difficult to sustain over the course of longer material. At TSFG meetings there are no rules or manifesto to conform to – we all look for the story that delights or grips or stuns with its beauty, economy or vitality; the one that sticks with us; is more than the sum of its pages. Attending meetings is like subscribing to a good literary magazine, two stories a month, and it is a privilege to be in on the first readings of so many fine examples of the form. OK, not every piece works. Some come back again and again for further comments and adjustments, some never quite make it, but many do, going on to be published or broadcast, a feat cheered and discussed – and the whole group gains confidence and learns from that individual’s success.

 

Tindal writers got the exposure they deserved, slowly at first. In the 1980s stories appeared in London Magazine, Iron, Panurge and Sunk Island Review. Then in the 1990s Critical Quarterly, Bete Noire, Malahat Review, the European, Main Street Journal, Metropolitan, Ambit and Fantasy Tales among many others were added to the list. Stories were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and appeared in anthologies such as Best Short Stories, Telling Stories, Heinemann New Writing, Signals: London Magazine Stories, Darklands and The Mammoth Book of Dracula. They were winning prizes such as the Tom-Gallon, and She/Good Morning awards. Collections came out from Alan Beard (Taking Doreen out of the Sky) and Joel Lane (Earth Wire), along with novels from Alan Mahar (Flight Patterns), Lane (From Blue to Black), Jackie Gay (Scapegrace) and Gul Davis (A Lone Walk) – which also won the JB Priestley Fiction Award, and Annie Murray began a series of novels with Birmingham Rose, followed by Birmingham Friends.

 

The ‘noughties’ – so far – continue in the same vein: appearances in anthologies and magazines such as Pretext, Neonlit, The Ex-Files and Groundswell, second novels from Mahar (After the Man Before), Lane (The Blue Mask) and Gay (Wist), and more from Murray (including Poppy Day and Chocolate Girls). Julia Bell joined the ranks of novelists with Massive and will follow it up with Out There. TSFG members have also been editing short-story anthologies, among them Hard Shoulder (another award-winner), England Calling and Birmingham Noir.

The 1983–2003 anniversary seems a natural point to mark this long-term success. Members suggested stories they’d like to see in an anthology representing the group’s staying power. We certainly wanted to acknowledge past landmarks; for example, Godfrey Featherstone’s innovative and moving piece had to be included in any celebration of TSFG. However, we also wanted to show that the group is still going strong – indeed in its most productive phase yet.

 

The reader will find, therefore, highlights from the first three TSFG self-published anthologies: Tindal Street Fiction (1984), The View from Tindal Street (1986) and Mouth (1996), along with other stories published in magazines from 1980s and 1990s, but the majority here date from the last five years and show the group flourishing. Seven are published for the first time.

 

We can confidently say that here in Birmingham the short story is valued. Loved even. The critical success of the Tindal Street Fiction Group anthologies contributed to the setting up of a separate organization – Tindal Street Press. Since its inception, the Press has shown a dedication to raising the profile of the short story. Going the Distance is the sixth anthology that it has published. Anthologies by black and Asian writers, women and young people, for example, demonstrate the talents of authors who deserve space, recognition – and a readership. A third of the Press’s output has been devoted to airing 117 new stories by a hundred different writers, two-thirds of whom are new to publication. Proof indeed of a commitment to the form in the face of increasing indifference elsewhere.