Reviewed by Rod McLary
Short stories have a long history in the world of literature – in fact, they pre-date the novel. As the novelist William Boyd – himself no mean short story writer – has said ‘short stories seem to answer something very deep in our nature as if … something special has been created’. The origins of the short story are rooted in the history of oral storytelling dating back to the 14th century – a classic example is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which is essentially a collection of short stories within a larger frame. Even at that time, the short story could be humorous or light-hearted but still well-crafted. Short stories were always – and continue to be now – immensely popular. In Britain, over 600,000 collections of short stories were sold in 2017.
These preliminary comments bring me now to A Ragbag of Tales and Verses. In his foreword, the author Ian Lipke informs the reader that his collection of short stories and poems is the work of almost twenty years from when he was a member of an online short story group. The stories are meant to be enjoyed. While they can all certainly be enjoyed, some are serious with sad or – in a few stories – shocking or surprising endings. Others are humorous and light-hearted. Of course, in such a collection, developed over a period of time, some of the stories work better than others.
But, before looking at particular stories, it is worth noting that they are very Australian – in the best possible meaning of that expression. They have a laconic and easy-going style which belies the challenges of crafting a story with engaging characters, a believable plot and a conclusion which in some way will bring the reader up short. All this within a format significantly confined by its length. The author has largely achieved this in his collection of stories which can be dipped into and read at leisure.
The first story – Charlie – sets the tone for what follows as the reader progresses through the book. The protagonist in the story is Bill – a tired and petulant traveller who is very fond of big-noting himself to anyone within earshot. His long-suffering wife – Sheila [even her name is quintessentially Australian] – barely contains herself as she struggles to calm him and maintain the peace. Inevitably, Bill is one of those people who believes he knows more than the locals. Consequently, he meets Charlie. The ending is one the reader can discover for her/himself. Like all the best stories, tension is built progressively and, while the reader may guess at the ending, when it does come, it comes with a jolt!
One of the best stories is actually an extract from a longer work. A Matter of Matrimony is taken from a novel by the author – Nargun. It tells the story of two Indigenous people – Mangana and Nemale – from different mobs who meet by chance during tribal conflict. There is an ease in the pacing of the story which admirably suits the context in which the story is set. The cadence of the sentences is beautifully measured as this example demonstrates:
Soon, through the darkness, the massive slopes of Tibrogargan appeared illuminated against the evening sky, as steady as they had been for thousands of years, and Mangan knew that he and his fellow fugitive were almost home. 
In keeping with the theme of the story, the reference to Tibrogargan – well-known to all South East Queenslanders – adds a frisson of recognition of country.
A second very good story is They’re only animals. From the first sentences – Bernie O’Hare’s a decent bloke – for a cop. Alright, I’m under arrest, but he had no choice – you know you are in for a treat. The laconic Aussie humour of the writing sets the reader up for a shock conclusion. It really is a destination well worth the journey.
The stories are not without the occasional ‘in house’ reference. One character is named Miles Franklin – the reader can discover for her/himself in which story this character can be found.
Perhaps, there is only one story which does not quite come off. Beryl strives a little too hard to achieve a surprise ending and ultimately disappoints.
But, as well as the short stories, there are a number of poems – poems which are written to be read aloud ‘with rhythm and rhyme very much present’. To this reader, the poems appear to be much more personal than the stories and a number seem to have their origins in personal experience. Others are humorous observations of life such as A Queensland summer –
Three o’clock, get the kids,
Feed the offspring, sweaty lids,
Homework out, aaww, Mum!
Thermometer deceased at 4.01. .
Some are tinged with sadness and loss as in I remember –
I will look for you as the days grow mild
searching all the while
I will hear your voice in the laugh of a child 
A particularly moving poem is Myall Creek and other massacres which begins with the sentence ‘When settlers stole the earth from our side’ . In one sense, nothing more needs to be said about the experience of the First People.
Overall, A Ragbag of Tales and Verses [incidentally ‘ragbag’ is defined as ‘a motley assortment of things’] comfortably achieves what is meant to do. That is, it brings together a collection of stories and poems which can be read independently of each other. But, it is also a collection which can bring a smile to your face, ‘tears to your eyes’, and a sense of having spent well an afternoon or evening reading stories and poems which are each a snapshot in time.
Ending as we began, William Boyd said about the short story – and he could well have said it about these poems too – ‘for the duration of its telling, some temporary sense has been made’.
by Ian Lipke
ISBN 978 1 925732 72 4