Category Archives: Hensher Philip

2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Chekhov, De Feo Ronald, Dean Louise, Dostoevsky, du Maurier Daphne, Fiction, Hardy, Thomas, Hensher Philip, Homes Geoffrey, Lambert Charles, Olafsson Bragi, Sallis James, Simenon, Sutton Henry, Thompson Jim, Williams Charles, Williams Tennessee

King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

Last year, one of my favourite reads: The Northern Clemency, came from the mind of British author, Philip Hensher, so naturally I was delighted by the news that he’d written another book. While The Northern Clemency, as the title suggests, is set in the north of England and spans several decades in the lives of various characters, King of the Badgers, yet another marvellous novel from Hensher, is set in Devon.  

Now before you start thinking ‘Devon, how quaint’ and memories of picturesque coves, pretty postcards, donkeys and cobbled streets start bouncing in your brain… STOP! Think again. This is a Hensher novel, and that means a study of the pettiness and quirks of human nature, a dissection of human relationship fraught with barbed humour. I loved every page of it. I read one blurb which compared King of the Badgers to Thackeray; another offered a comparison to Eliot. For this reader, King of The Badgers is a 21st century Trollope. Those who’ve read Trollope’s Barchester Towers will remember that the drama begins when the position of Bishop becomes vacant. This sparks a fallout of petty rivalry and politics as the claws appear and various people vie for the job. In a similar fashion, Hensher also puts his characters in a social petri dish and watches the action, but in King of the Badgers, the action is initiated by the disappearance of China, an eight-year old girl.

King of the Badgers is set in the small fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. To visitors, Hanmouth is an incredibly picturesque town set on the Hain estuary. Hanmouth seems to offer the sort of idyllic quaint life that no longer exists elsewhere in Britain, and the local shops reflect an almost-Disney-like facade of a bygone world. There are “three historic pubs,” one of the few butcher shops left in Britain, “knick-knack shops, “amateur jewellers making a go if it,” an  “Oriental emporium,” a dozen antique shops, a junk market, a fishmongers, a used book shop, and a “specialist cheese shop” which boasts such delicacies as “lesbian bleu d’ Auvergne.”  Hanmouth may sound the ideal place to live– indeed it does attract newcomers, disparagingly called “Grockles” by the locals, but as the novel plays out, Hanmouth, a veritable Peyton Place of over-mortgaged homes and nasty, snobby people, is revealed to be a seething hotbed of gossip, rabid class divisions, adultery, dogging dates, orgies, and relentless social preening.

One of Hanmouth’s leaders of society is university lecturer, Miranda–a powerhouse of a woman whose innate snobbery hides behind her “post colonial” theories and the “collecting box for an African cause” located prominently near the front door. Miranda, who specializes in Regency woman poets, leads and dominates the local book group, and directs the Hanmouth Players in productions of such atrocities as The Bacchae or Woyzeck:

She was aware of the dangers to a woman of her size and age of flowing red and purple velvet, of ethnic beads  and the worst that Hampstead Bazaar could do. She would not, like most of Hanmouth’s women, be inspired by Dame Judi Dench on an Oscar night, and she dressed , as far as possible, in the black and white lines and corners of the fat wife of a Weimar architect.

Just who you are in Hanmouth is dictated by your address, and the streets are sharply delineated by geography. With just four main streets, the most expensive homes are located at the town centre and afford  “at its most expensive, unfettered views of the estuary and the hills beyond, crested with a remote and ducal folly-tower.”  The highly desirable Dutch-gable houses are the homes of the nouveaux riches, while the second street harbours the throughly affluent, solid and conservative middle-class. The third street is the niche for the local “bohemians,” and things go downhill from there until you hit one of the seedier suburbs that are not “Hanmouth proper.” This is the section for the riff-raff, and it’s not considered part of Hanmouth at all–a handy division as it turns out. Nothing much happens in Hanmouth–well at least nothing much appears to happen in Hanmouth until the small town makes the headlines with the disappearance of China, the daughter of slatternly hairdresser, Heidi O’Connor, a resident of one of Hanmouth’s scummier suburbs. China, left at home with her siblings, slipped down to the shops and never returned:

“In any case,” Heidi said to the police later, quite calmly, “I knew China hadn’t gone to visit her friends for one straight and simple reason. She doesn’t have any friends. She’s not been a popular girl, ever. They bully her, I expect, because they say she’s fat and she smells. I don’t think she smells, but at that age, it’s always some reason they’ve got to pick on her, isn’t it? I knew she hadn’t gone to visit a friend. To tell the truth, I thought at first, China, she’s playing some trick on her brother and sister. I’ll tan her hide, I thought at first.”

When the book begins, Heidi and her gormless live-in lover “a moon faced reprobate” named Mickey, the epicentre of a media storm, are having the times of their lives. Meanwhile, the unbalanced zealot John Calvin, the chairman of the Hanmouth Strand Neighbourhood Watch Committee, and the self-appointed, self-righteous  liaison, agent and spokesperson for Heidi O’Connor takes the disappearance of China as the excuse to crackdown on the local population, and he demands the installation of even more CCTV cameras. As the case of the missing child grows bigger, most of Hanmouth’s residents are more concerned with the image Heidi O’Connor gives of Hanmouth than the implications that they may have a child abductor in their midst. The greatest critics of the case are snobby Miranda and her book club crowd. The topic is up for discussion at the book club meeting:

“The thing I truly object to, Kitty said, “and I know this sounds trivial and I don’t care if it sounds a bit snobbish, but I do care about this. It’s that the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Heidi and Mickey people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth, and frankly, they don’t. They live on the Ruskin estate, where I’ve never been and I hope never to go anywhere near.” 

While most of the characters are an unpleasant lot, by far the most sympathetic characters are two outsiders, middle-aged Catherine and her retired husband Alec who, lured by the promise of picture-postcard-perfect vistas, make the mistake of moving to Hanmouth from St Albans. The book notes their forays into the real estate market and their diminishing expectations which end with the purchase of a flat–built, it seems, to deliberately ruin Miranda’s view from her million-pound plus Dutch gable home.

The book, which is divided into more-or-less into three sections, also follows the glum efforts of Catherine and Alec’s overweight, social reject gay son, David, to get the semblance of a social life. David can’t acknowledge his distress or sense of abandonment when his parents take off for Hanmouth. One subplot concerns David’s visit to Hanmouth with the very attractive Italian waiter, Mauro in tow. Mauro, under financial obligation to David,  agrees to pose as David’s lover with mixed results. David and Mauro spend an awkward weekend attending Catherine and Alec’s flatwarming party only to leave in order to attend an orgy.

In King of the Badgers, author Philip Hensher appears to be fascinated by the dichotomy between personal and private lives, and the sensitive distance between the two which is vulnerable and in increasing danger of being trespassed. It’s interesting to note that in spite of the plethora of CCTV cameras in Hanmouth, no visual record exists of China’s disappearance, yet this doesn’t stop the rabid puritanical John Calvin (is his name any coincidence?) from demanding even more CCTV cameras, eventually violating the ‘sacred’ idea of   “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”

The issues of personal and public life is prominent throughout the novel and goes far beyond the installation of CCTV cameras. There’s Miranda–a woman who lives very much in the public eye who’s guilty, as Dickens would say, of “telescopic philanthropy” saving coins for Africa while her husband leads a double life, and their daughter Hettie, disliked and mostly ignored, silently and sulkily tortures her dolls:  “Child Pornography,” “Slightly Jewish,” “Dead in Childbirth” and “Shitface.”

The book has no shortage of well-drawn characters–including Sam, the owner of the artisanal cheese shop and his gay lover Harry, whose looks, money and peerage leads the locals to punctuate his name with the well-worn phrase “what-a-waste.”  Sam, a member of Miranda’s book club, seems to attend just to stir the pot and replenish his wickedly funny observations of the local haute-ton. He  “relished [these] moments of embarrassing social disposition.” Here’s a scene from the book club meeting in which Sam stokes the disdain towards the family of the missing girl:

“I saw a newspaper photographer in a boat in the middle of the estuary, taking photographs,” Sam said eagerly. “Out there in Brian Miller’s ferryboat. Taking a photograph of the church and the strand and the quay. That’ll turn up in the Sun as a photograph of Heidi’s home town, I promise you.”

“As if that family could live somewhere like this.”

“Or, really, more to the point, as if they would ever contrive a story like this if they did live on the Strand,” Miranda said. “One may be cynical, but one does think that moral attitudes and truthfulness and not having your children kidnapped for the sake of the exposure don’t go with deprivation. It’s material deprivation that starts all this off.”

“They’ve got dishwashers, Miranda,” Bill said. “They’re not examples of material deprivation . But you’re right. You don’t hear about children disappearing from Hanmouth proper, do you? It’s just bad education, ignorance, idleness and avarice.’

“And drugs,” put in Sam. Don’t forget the drugs.”

As the novel continues, its characters forget the disappearance of China and dreams up fantasies that she’s off having a grand time in Butlin’s, and so as readers we are taken along for the ride and we too become mired in the petty dramas of life in Hanmouth. Some characters get their comeuppance, but for most, life carries on…

That should give you a taste of what you have in store in King of The Badgers. This a novel that seethes with gossip, hypocrisy, snobbery, false lives, and sheer pettiness, and I loved every bitchy minute.

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The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

Connecting the dots….George Eliot, Philip Hensher and the multiplot novel.

I don’t know what it is about 2010 and 700 page novels, but so far this year, I’ve managed to read two: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a fictional 40 year view of the music biz from the manager of a rock band, and now The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. Both are reviewed over at MostlyFiction but I commented on Evening’s Empire here, so I decided to blog a bit about The Northern Clemency while I am at it.

I noted The Northern Clemency from Philip Hensher was shortlisted for the Booker prize–after all that was blazoned across the cover, but since I am generally oblivious to these things, I thought the book was up for this year–2010.

I started the book and thought to myself that if I liked it, I would probably be placing a curse on the chances of it winning as I typically seem to have better luck with the books that don’t win. It’s not that I read all the nominees and then am upset when my pony doesn’t win. Instead it’s a case of me looking at old lists and realising that I preferred the losers over the winners–hence my blog category: Booker Prize Losers.

I was only a few pages into the book when I realised that I was really enjoying it. This was, I thought, a nail in the coffin as far as the prize went for the author, Philip Hensher, so it was with a sense of relief that I discovered (after looking at the Booker prize archive) that the book already lost a few years back–2008, in fact. 

This just goes to show–again, as if I needed the reinforcement–that the books I like lose.

I liked it so much, I tracked down the author and asked for an interview. The Northern Clemency really was a terrific read–the closest thing I’ve read to a modern version of theVictorian multiplot novel in a while.  So what’s it about? In a nutshell, it’s the story of two families in Sheffield from the years 1974-1994.

I’m not going to re-review the book, but I do want to address some of the criticisms I came across. Some people thought it was rather like a soap opera, and (horror of horrors) Coronation Street was even mentioned at one point. I didn’t think the book was like a soap opera at all. If I went back over the last twenty years of my life, well, I’ve lost count of the deaths, the diseases, divorces, scandals and suicides that have taken their toll. But enough of the hankies and the sympathy cards. Bottom line, I don’t think that The Northern Clemency is over-the-top when it came to the scenarios it presented. 

Another criticism of the book is that it largely ignores the political events taking place in the country. I saw the politics in the book as background noise, and whether we like it or not, that’s how it is for most people. Take the current debacle in Iraq for example. It’s been going on now for 7 years, and yet most Americans are largely untouched by what has become a sideshow–a war that doesn’t even make the headlines. Rubbishy stories detailing the latest salacious sex scandal of sports celebs and hollywood stars take a front seat to ho-hum stuff like wars.

Makes me think of one of my favourite Auden poems: Musee des Beaux Arts…but I digress.

Back to The Northern Clemency and why I think it is a throwback to the Victorian multiplot novel. 

George Eliot, by gum,  knew how to write a Victorian multiplot that showed the fabric of British society through the interconnected lives of her characters, and we see this sort of thing in The Northern Clemency, a novel in which lives and lifestyles intersect.  Here are two quotes from one of my TOP TEN novels of all time,  Middlemarch, and both of these quotes get at the interconnectedness of roles in society.

“But anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen state with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour.” 

And then:

“I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

While Hensher’s characters  remain firmly products of their class, nonetheless, the plot shows this interconnectedness in the social fabric Thatcher’s Britain. For example, Malcolm Glover works for a building society which later sells council houses, and this fuels Malcolm’s repetitive arguments with his emotionally stunted Marxist son.  Bernie Sellers works for the power company that helps break the Miners’ Strike. Years later, the power company is privatized and Bernie is forced to retire and handed a “gold plated vent, or valve, or tap, or something” for his trouble. Also we see middle class housewife Katherine Glover venturing out to seek employment. She happens to find herself unexpectedly wound up in the fate of a large-scale drug dealer, and while she is too naive to understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the finances of the business she works for, nonetheless, the reader sees the connection between middle-class suburbia and the excesses of a drug dealer who cannot spend his money fast enough. Another example can be found almost at the end of the novel. One of my favourite scenes involves those roused from a coma or a suffering from a brain problem who are given a  key question: “who is the Prime Minister of Britain?”  The answer should be John Major: but if patients reply ‘Margaret Thatcher’ this is not seen as incorrect:

“We found that however badly damaged a patient’s mind was –even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s–they always seemed to know it was Mrs. Thatcher. And until quite recently you couldn’t base much on them not remembering immediately that it was John Major. People with nothing wrong with them went on saying Mrs. Thatcher before remembering and correcting themselves, for a year, eighteen months.”

 And we readers can take that any way we want, I suppose. For me, the passage lends itself to the idea that Thatcher’s rule PM years are more than just a memory that remains behind–these years left permanent changes or damage depending on how you look at it–a bit like a stain. Or one of those ring-around-the-bath thingies.

The Northern Clemency may not be overtly political but some of the most poignant parts of the novel describe the desperation and pride of the Miners’ wives,and at the same time the author makes it perfectly clear that British society remains divided along class lines. People move, accents shift and alter, but unfortunately we remain divided and separate from those whose lots in life we cannot understand. One of the main characters, Daniel, although a native of Sheffield remains a ‘foreigner’ to the miners’ section of town, and when he visits the mining town of Tinstone, it’s as if he’s stepped onto another planet. Hensher makes the point, and I think he makes the point well, that we may not think our lives are connected but they are. Connect the dots and what do you see….Miners…British Rail…and a few dots later…?

If anyone out there is interested in the events that took place at Orgreave (there’s a section of The Northern Clemency that takes place at Orgreave), I reviewed Dave Douglass’s Come Wet This Truncheon elsewhere on this blog.

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