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Feather's Miscellany: John Waddinton-Feather: An Appreciation

William Ruleman, Professor of English at Tennessee Wesleyan College, brings a personal appreciation of the stories of John Waddington-Feather. Many of John's stories have appeared, and will continue to appear, in Open Writing.

In the course of a highly-prolific literary career, England-based writer John Waddington-Feather has offered the world an amazing outpouring of work that includes novels, plays, children’s books, sermons, essays, poems, translations, and hymns. However, it is chiefly his prowess as a teller of tales that I would like to discuss here.

In the genre of storytelling, Waddington-Feather works within a long-standing tradition. Early on, I made the mistake of reading his tales (indeed, all of his fiction) as if the voice were the impersonal, self-consciously sedulous one of an ostensibly objective contemporary author. By and by I realized that I should instead read his fiction as if I were listening to someone tell a story.

This someone is not an author, intellectual, or academic; he is an everyday fellow who calls to mind some of the narrators of American authors Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, and William Faulkner. However, Waddington-Feather positions himself, as we in the American South would say, “smack dab” in the heart of modern Yorkshire, especially the area in and around Bradford, and specifically the fictional town of Keighworth, which is modeled upon his own native Keighley. This area, like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, is Waddington-Feather’s own little “postage stamp of soil,” and he knows its inhabitants through and through.

The narrator, a citizen of this region, is one who might strike up a conversation with us in a pub thereabouts. And he is so unpretentious and affable that, even as he holds our attention via the clarity and ease with which he guides us through his narrative, he is apt to cause us to let down our guard; hence we are unprepared when the surprise comes. And come it invariably does. At times it is in the form of a punch line, as in the Ira Fothergill stories, in which the rascally main character (modeled after the author’s own father) humbles more prominent (and pompous) citizens with a wisecrack, or in the masterful “Sam Baxter,” which quietly, solemnly sets up a mood that is, to our delight, completely demolished by the title character’s closing remark.

In at least one case (“Sam Taylor’s Demise”), I found myself guffawing helplessly at a brutally insensitive comment by the title character’s wife well before the story ended, so that the tale’s conclusion proved anti-climactic for me, although this did not in any way diminish my enjoyment of the tale, for I was still stifling chuckles at the end. Such unexpected, magical moments are key ingredients of these tales, which do create that “certain unique or single effect” which Edgar Allan Poe considered essential to any good story.

At times this effect is boisterously Dickensian: the landlady’s face in “A Keighworth Tale” resembles a “rusty bag of nails” and so recalls Mrs. Joe’s of Great Expectations, which seems, at times, to have been washed with “a nutmeg-grater instead of soap.” Elsewhere, with its evocations of tug-of-wars and bicycle races in the lovely English countryside, the humor is gently reminiscent of Somerville and Ross’s The Irish R. M. or the novels of Waddington-Feather’s fellow Yorkshireman James Herriot.

This is not to say that Waddington-Feather shies away from the harsh realities of the modern world. In “A Hunting Tale” and “A Keighworth Story,” in particular, he bluntly faces two of the twentieth century’s darkest events. The finale of the former, for which I was totally unprepared, moved me tremendously; and the outcome of the latter is as grim as to be expected for the unrepentant villain of that piece.

If I have not described Waddington-Feather’s stories in enough detail, it is because I have wished not to give away plot elements that would spoil the pleasure for other readers. My intent has been to introduce these stories and indicate ways in which they can be read. With these considerations in mind, I hope that others will experience the same delight in John Waddington-Feather’s stories that I have.


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