One of the best short stories ever told is that of the Good Samaritan. It has many layers, but for me, it’s about a chance meeting that produces a profoundly moving moment of human connection.
Beautifully concise, dramatic and even shocking (to its original audience) it is, of course, the tale of a man who is mugged, beaten up and left ‘half dead’. Passers-by from his own society ignore him, but he’s spotted by another – an outsider – who scoops him up and selflessly cares for him.
Such stories – about lives connecting, lives colliding – excite me the most. There’s another in a book called 20 Grand: Great American Short Stories, which my father gave me when I was 15. In the front he wrote: ‘Try William Saroyan for a start.’
Saroyan’s story in this collection, Romance, is about two encounters: between a dreamy young man and a railway porter, and between the dreamy young man and a young woman. Not much happens. But it’s infused with a fragile optimism and heavy with a sense of human potential.
I treasure this book, now falling apart and propped up in my bookcase by later prized acquisitions, such as The Oxford Book of English Short Stories.
Short fiction is ideal for portraying transformative, revelatory moments in human life. Often these come when people are brought together by chance or a shared experience. Within its tight focus, a short story can concentrate on those small episodes in peoples’ lives in which, through their dealings with others, they show who they really are – or who they will be from now on.
When I started at Hertford College I was 23, a journalist, and the first person in my family to go to university. Through immense good fortune, I had the opportunity to read all the great works I wanted to read, without the mundanities of everyday life crowding in. This gave me a reservoir of reading to draw upon – a deep well of memory, full of all those rich texts I’d had the privilege of studying.
Back in the outside world, there was little time to write for myself. But urged on by my dad, I did attempt the odd short story.
A chance connection with a small independent publisher (with roots across the way in Brasenose, I confess) led to a commission to add to my meagre stock of stories. The brief was: keep writing until you have a book’s worth. And thanks to the pandemic, and an absence of distractions, that’s what I managed to do.
Some of the stories are dark, others funny. A few are probably a bit odd. But life is odd. If people enjoy reading them, I’ll be more than satisfied. But my hope is that the best of them show some human truth in moments of connection.
They would not have happened without Hertford.
My dad Brian, by the way, beat me to it. Aged 83, he published a short story collection of his own, a few weeks before I did.