You Don't Have to Say
 by Alan Beard

Tindal Stree Press
2010
Second Collection







"I went round my mother's house and told her my marriage was breaking up. I was looking for some kindness. I told her the story, how things were ending, my feelings for him, his feelings for me. She winced at the word 'feelings'. I felt alone, sideways on to the world somehow. I didn't put it like that. "


Reviewed by Mark Staniforth

Alan Beard's You Don't Have To Say presents a throbbing, unforgiving soundtrack to broken Britain: a bleak, concrete world of tower blocks and Little Chefs; sexless sex and men with new tattoos "of flames and women and knives".

It is a world which offers little chance of escape, and almost every character who inhabits Beard's Birmingham sprawl is trapped: by love or fear or all all-pervading sense of hopelessness.

These are not stories for frolicsome summer days at the beach. In Background Noise, a girl is sent to the shops after helping her drug-dealer boyfriend stuff the body of a door-to-door salesman in a cupboard under the stairs.
"I should just walk the other way, down the side street to the junction where I can get a bus to the centre and catch a train, a train anywhere, not back home, and start again and be happy ever after without him. Get a cat or something, give up men altogether, sit at home and sing to myself."
She doesn't, of course. They don't. Even those characters in Beard's razor-sharp collection of 14 stories who do escape the sprawl do so only in search of the brief relief of illicit affairs.

Beard describes his characters in a manner which is compassionate but never judgemental. They do not inspire sympathy, but Beard's prose gives them a fair chance. Almost without exception, it is one they fail to take.

In The Party, a paint shop salesman watches a familiar flame clop by as drinking hour approaches: "her liquorice-dark eyes look as if the colour will leak. He watches her pass the specialist butcher's, game dangles above her."

It is just the kind of descriptive passage which has earned Beard comparisons with Raymond Carver - comparisons the author himself has apologised for, and yet which are entirely legitimate: the same eye for everyday mundanities; the flickers of body language which reveal so much in so few words.

Like Carver, Beard is a true master of the form. He is a brilliant story teller, capable of wrenching beauty from the unlikeliest of circumstances: in At The Back Of Everything, a stabbing victim lies dying on his doormat while his mind ebbs back to old liaisons and French bicycling holidays.

Failings are few: where Beard's stories are less successful, there is perhaps a sense that some of the less well-conceived characters are assuming roles designed to exhibit the art of the form itself over their own motivations.

There are occasional inner-city cliches. In the opener, Hot Little Danny revenge for a drug debt is perpetrated in that well-worn setting "on an arc of wasteland, rubble and brick and [the obligatory] waist-high nettles down the railway line".

But these criticisms are picky. This is an excellent collection; an observational masterpiece which, just like those tough tattoos, will survive as a testament to the farce of government dreams of the so-called "Big Society".

Read a story from this collection on Pulp.net


Mark Staniforth lives in a small village in North Yorkshire. His work has appeared in a number of literary magazines, and been shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize. His first collection of short stories, Fryupdale, is available free on Smashwords.

Mark's other Short Reviews: Lindsay Hunter "Daddy's"
                     
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Alan Beard has lived in Birmingham for twenty-five years. His stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and in many literary magazines and anthologies in England and the USA. His previous collection Taking Doreen Out Of The Sky (Picador) was widely praised.

Read an interview with Alan Beard