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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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Filed under Fiction, Hensher Philip