Seven inventive plots

Jan Mark 1943—2006

A Can of Worms and other stories
by Jan Mark.
Red Fox, 1992 (1990).

“Once I’ve finished a book that’s all I wanted to say about those people in that situation, I might, I very often do wish I’d written it differently, but I never want to write more.”

In this septet of tales by the late Jan Mark she explores the world as experienced by seven British teens still of school age: in the narratives the youngsters reveal their hopes and fears, their obsessions and yearnings, how they might occupy their free time and cope with family situations. School and homework may demand their attention but it’s their imaginative endeavours that we observe.

And each and every one is a standalone tale. Book or short story, her well-delineated individuals appear once and once only because she’ll have said all she wants to say about them and the particular situation they find themselves in.

But, for us readers, it’s enough that – however briefly – we share those aspirations or disappointments, and sympathise or even empathise with each youngster, be we of the same age or somewhat older, perhaps with more jaded personalities or a more jaundiced view of life: it’s salutary then to remind oneself of the feelings we may once have had on the threshold of our adult lives.

‘Ella on the stairs’ by Peter Brown.

In ‘The Travelling Settee’ the narrator, the bookish Bridget, has decided to interview a local author, James Rudd, for a homework assignment. He’d written three books – Just Down the Road, Over the Wall, and Off the Map – and then, inexplicably, stopped. In her quest to find out why the inspiration had seemingly dried up we eavesdrop on the curious story of the settee which mysteriously moves from place to place. “You have to know when to let go” is the parting sentence: in view of the fact that Jan was averse to revisiting or rehashing a tale or its characters this quote illustrates her tenet exceedingly well, making the story rather metafictional.

‘Too Old to Rock and Roll’ is the story of Greg, an aspiring cook whose mother has recently died and whose father has sunk into the doldrums. In an effort to cheer up his father he tries to engineer a new relationship for him, using his culinary skills. We’re egging him on to succeed, aren’t we? ‘Front’ changes the mood slightly with the schoolgirl narrator being impressed by the grand but overgrown façades of a terrace called The Crescent, a few streets away up the hill from her home. When her friend Patricia invites her to tea she is in danger of having some of her preconceptions upended.

The title story, ‘A Can of Worms’, not only characterises the essence of this collection but also describes the dilemma faced by young Dora after she begins volunteering at a charity bookshop. Like most shops it’s prey to petty thievery – so how will she deal with it if her loyalties are called into question? ‘Crocodile Time’ represents another change of direction. Most of the other settings appear to be in the southeast of England where the author grew up and then taught, but this tale is located in Oxford where Jan eventually settled. A tourist trap most of the year, its central area is plagued with hordes of visitors embarked on guided tours:

“We call them crocodiles because they walk round the town in long lines with many lengths. That’s one of the drawbacks to Oxford, that it is so small and there are so many tourists in it. And sometimes when you see them walking round on a hot day in town you wonder if they’re really having a good time. Why didn’t they stay at home where they could keep cool. We get them 200 people long sometimes.”

The narrator and his friend George see the crocodiles as fair game for pranks, either with them dressed as masked and caped superheroes or infiltrating the lines and causing confusion with a made-up language. The language they – or rather Jan – concocted is a real tour de force but the dénouement really concerns the narrator’s infatuation with an attractive female.

‘Party Wall’ also concerns a schoolboy crush. Daniel’s family lives next door to a student let, and this year his bedroom is on the other side of Jenny’s room. He is able to eavesdrop on and observe comings and goings of the four tenants and to speculate on their relationships, but will he ever get to meet his muse? Is she even aware of him? And is he the only admirer?

The title of final of the seven tales, ‘Resurgam’, is perhaps deliberately reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which this Latin tag is engraved on Jane’s Lowood School friend Helen’s gravestone. Bearing a religious connotation, resurgam – “I shall rise again” – in this short story is used in a different way to that in the Brontë novel: here a modern Charlotte decides to tidy up the churchyard so that daffodils can be laid on two hundred or so graves, a tradition begun by the recently deceased vicar. But she’s not the only one with the same idea, meaning confusion and antagonism arise; but it’s all cut short by the discovery that resurgam, somehow, may have come to pass.

Jan Mark wrote tales as well as novels that from the first draw you in with strong, credible lead characters, almost before you realise where the plot is heading. She was also able to see the world through young eyes, regardless of their gender. She really was a doyenne of well-paced short stories, Goldilocks in character in that they’re not too long, not too brief, and like the fairytale porridge somehow come out just right.

Library of Brief Narratives 2020+

Read for the Twitter tag #JanMARKuary run by @one_to_read, and for my own Library of Brief Narratives

21 thoughts on “Seven inventive plots

    1. Yes, not for her the endless Famous Five, Secret Seven or Malory Towers stories, or Nancy Drew or Percy Jackson titles!

      It’s a different approach, whether for children’s or adult books, and both are equally valid; but recurring characters – Miss Marple, Maigret and Hercule Poirot spring to mind – I find daunting for their multiple appearances. What may work better for me are series chronicling lives in a set area, perhaps somewhere like Barsetshire (for which I’ve two titles waiting).


    1. Some writers of children’s fiction are capable of surprising the reader, neither talking down to them nor neglecting their real concerns, and Mark is one of them, I think. I’m glad to have been introduced to her work and am happy to recommend her!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You’ve piqued my curiosity, Chris. I haven’t encountered Jan Mark before, but I like the sound of her approach to literature. I enjoy characters who preside over multiple tales (you mention Marple and Poirot in an earlier comment, and these are two of my favourites) but I like Mark’s boldness in choosing to write a character once and no more.

    This collection of stories also sounds like a satisfying read. I’ve made a note!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear, Jan! Her novels are relatively short: by and large they say what they need to say and then stop, scorning unnecessary padding (and that includes continuing characters’ stories into another novel).

      As well as a couple of other short story collections I’ve reviewed a handful of her novels
      ( and would be happy to recommend any of them!


    1. It may well be – there are, as you know, many contemporary or near contemporary authors who are underrated or even overlooked merely because they write for a younger age group, and Mark is one of them. I’m so grateful for the tweeters and bloggers who’ve recommended her and so introduced me to her way of looking at the world and, especially, people.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know I had meant to pick up her work after reading one of your reviews earlier, but sadly still haven’t gotten down to doing it. This does sound an intriguing and varied collection as well–The Travelling Settee, Crocodile Time and Resurgam particularly appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are all great pieces, Mallika, but really I’d be hard pushed to say which was my favourite. 🙂

      Sadly most if not all of her books are out of print, though most are available secondhand. However her literary executor has reissued many of her short stories in a collection The One That Got Away which you can order from here: It’s a good place to sample her wares – it’s where I first started appreciating her!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The One That Got Away collection of short stories was an unexpected delight for me and this sounds similar and I’m extremely tempted. I’m a late convert to Jan Mark’s work and really enjoyed the online read of Thunder and Lightnings too. She’s a fascinating writer isn’t she. I think I may have to search for a second hand copy of this now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a late convert too, but thanks to Ben and Jon on Twitter I’m happy to extol her praises! This is definitely worth seeking out, especially as Jon places this collection among her best work.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you to have come across her work so much earlier than me! I don’t know how I missed her novels when they were published – perhaps it was that in-between time betwixt me enjoying fiction as a teen and rediscovering quality writing for young readers in later life when I had the leisure!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Friday Five: Find New Highways Edition – Peat Long's Blog

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