There used to be a common complaint that the subject of the typical middle-class English novel was adultery in Hampstead or, perhaps, Islington. The charge was exaggerated of course; there was more variety in the English novel, even 40 years ago.
Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy
Picador, 310pp, £16.99
Nevertheless there were a lot of such novels then, and there are fewer today. To this extent Kate Clanchy’s new, mildly comic, novel seems a bit old-fashioned, all the more so perhaps because it is set in Hampstead in 1989, a year of change in the world, as we are told, and when “Hardly anyone carried phones, and the phones that were carried were ridiculous, and their owners, figures of fun,” and “there were just crazy amounts of news” and “also so very many papers, then, and the papers were so fat.” It should be said that all this scene-setting is perfunctory and not very important to what happens in the novel itself.
The title – Meeting the English – is more to the point. Struan Robertson is a bright, serious, unsophisticated boy from the former mining village of Cuik in the Central Belt. He has just taken his Highers and intends to go to university to study dentistry. Struan works part-time in an old folks’ home, and has previously cared for his late father when he contracted MS. Now his English teacher, Mr Fox, who thinks he should broaden his horizons, directs him to an advertisement – “Carer wanted for famous novelist/playwright in Hampstead”. Phillip Prys has suffered a stroke; Struan has studied his most famous play (about a mining community) in school. Just the thing, says Mr Fox, who will turn up in Hampstead himself, asking to be addressed as “Ron”.
Struan gets the job, and finds himself in an unknown land. The somewhat Bohemian Hampstead household is predictably dysfunctional. There is Phillip, confined to a silent uncommunicative life in his wheelchair; his present wife, Shirin, a tiny Iranian beauty and talented painter of miniatures; his predecessor, Myfanwy, once a beauty, now fat and obsessed with property dealing; her two offspring, Jake, a would-be actor, rusticated from Oxford, and dabbling in drugs, and Juliet, 16, sharp-witted but bad at school, and unhappily fat, unlike her anorexic best friend Celia, who is having an affair with a secret lover.
Meeting the English is a strange experience for the shy but capable Struan. Will they change him, or will he influence them? Clanchy seems to subscribe to the view expressed by the late John Smith, when leader of the Labour Party, that the Scots are a more moral people than the English. Struan certainly believes in duty and knows what it is; the Prys family, scrapping among themselves, seem to him to have little conception of this. He is shocked to find that he seems to take caring for Phillip and trying to coax him back to life more seriously than they do. But then, as is pointed out to him, he knows Phillip only in his present impotence; he doesn’t know what a bastard he could be. All his family have resentments which Struan is happily free of.
Struan and Juliet move towards an understanding. He brings her closer to her father; she gradually shows him that there may not be only one right way of doing things. She becomes happier and slimmer; he begins to loosen up. Her understanding of life is deepened; his is broadened.
Meeting the English is a comedy of manners and a comedy of morals. It is full of neat and precise observation. There are weaknesses. Some scenes are too prolonged. The novels veers between the realistic and whimsical. The scenes re-creating what may be Phillip’s dreaming in his uncommunicative state are more audacious than successful. Clanchy has chosen to represent some of Struan’s speech phonetically, as an easy way of marking out his difference, a difference which, despite the novel’s title, may indeed be as much one of class as of nationality; a boy from a former mining community in Yorkshire might, one assumes, find Hampstead every bit as foreign to his experience as Struan. The happy ending might be arrived at too easily.
Nevertheless, such an ending, with its suggestion of all’s well that ends well, is traditional in comedy when the puppets are but neatly back in the box. One shouldn’t complain. There is much to be said for a novel that is light in texture, doesn’t give the impression of taking itself too seriously, and has a frothy charm. Moreover, in the rather appalling Myfanwy, Clanchy presents us with a character whom it is a pleasure to meet in a novel, though one would fly from her in real life. She is Hampstead woman at her least tolerable.