The short story is the watercolour of the literary world, a form demanding huge skill yet subtly undervalued. Thank God for small presses such as Salt and Tindal Street, which publish excellent collections from writers sidelined by the mainstream. Alan Beard is one of the best. He's not prolific, nor does he fit neatly into one of the boxes the media recognises.
Miserabilism is the word sometimes used for this kind of writing: a patronising view lazily applied to anything dealing with a great swathe of society usually portrayed as gross or comical, vile or stupid; or worse, plucky and endearing. Publishers prefer this milieu served up with the violence and anarchic coolness of writers such as Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Alan Beard's characters aren't cool, but they are real.
Not all of these stories are excellent, but a majority clearly are: simple, unpretentious, sparsely written with occasional bursts of rough poetry. Beard never stereotypes. In "Hot Little Danny", a teenage thug has an affair with his middle-aged teacher. Their relationship is perfectly credible. She has smoked a few spliffs in her time; he likes the way she appreciates him. "She says I'm articulate and observant," he observes with a detatchment, which serves him well when burning a kid with a cigarette or mugging some random stranger. When retribution strikes in this moral tale, Danny observes his own downfall in the same way. "Wouldn't she like me like this?" he asks hazily, "couldn't she tend to my wounds in her house above the city?"
A heart beats fearfully beneath the detachment. It's a world of unexpected beauty, where a 15-year-old can delight in the "acres of blue sky", and sunsets of his tower-block home; where tragedy, like evil, is banal. A man in "the kind of job where they meet to plan to have planning meetings" struggles with computer problems in "Backing Up". At the same time, a loser called Dave Dodd, with spots and a beer belly, threatens to jump from the roof, while an interested crowd gathers to watch. "I can't put the telly on," says a girl who has drifted way out of her depth, in "Background Noise", "because the news seems to be my fault."
It's rare to find characters like these realistically portrayed in a humane and intelligent way, and it's not easy giving a voice to the inarticulate. Alan Beard succeeds.
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