Discovering Rose Tremain
I remember exactly when I first discovered Rose Tremain. I had very recently joined Dillons (destined to merge with Waterstones within a year, though none of us knew that then) and had been invited to attend a party at Hatchard’s (a fine old bookselling business that had been acquired by Dillons some years previously) to celebrate its 200th birthday. Along with many colleagues, I accepted. As Dillons HQ was in Solihull, Teresa, one of our administrative assistants, was asked to find hotel accommodation in London overnight for those of us who requested it. Teresa had been supplied with a directory of hotels ‘approved’ by the company for use by its staff and, as I was to discover, had an unerring knack for picking out those that were most dismal and unwelcoming. Most of my colleagues made alternative arrangements. New to the company, I put my trust in Teresa’s mercy.
The party was the most glittering book trade bash I’ve ever attended. Princess Margaret was there, resplendent in elbow-length gloves and drinking something from a tall glass wrapped around with a linen napkin. Salman Rushdie had dared to attend, even though it was only a year or so after the fatwa against him had been issued. The other guests included dozens of well-known writers and publishers. As you can imagine, security was very tight.
The evening was ‘elegant’. I use the term in a way that was new to me then, but in which I’ve had other occasion to use it since. As I’ve previously mentioned, the first bookselling company that I worked for was in Yorkshire and the second in Scotland. Both hosted many literary events and all of these shared a single prominent common feature: we ensured that our guests were served a plentiful repast of excellent food. We believed in feeding the body just as much as the mind. In Yorkshire, we favoured sides of salmon, roast hams, salads, pizzas and quiches and generally included a selection of gooey puddings; in Scotland the food was usually hot and hearty: soups, pies, lasagnes, stews and curries. But always food, ‘proper’ food, and plenty of it. And drinks, too, of course, though the food was paramount.
At the party at Hatchard’s, on the other hand, the wine flowed but the food was sparse. Exquisite, but sparse. It consisted of tiny canapés that were delivered individually at long intervals by uniformed waiters and waitresses who bore them aloft on circular trays. There were miniature salmon rolls, morsels of pastry stuffed with even smaller slivers of meat and cheese, the babiest of baby sausages skewered with eighths of tomato and Lilliputian biscuits bearing deftly-placed dots of pâté, each one garnished with a parsley feather. The waiting staff weren’t particularly keen to distribute these fairy victuals, either: sometimes it was impossible to snatch one before it continued on its airborne journey through the crowd.
The upshot of this was that, when eventually I arrived by taxi at my hotel, which belatedly I had discovered was situated in the further reaches of Camden, at around 10 p.m., slightly tipsy and completely famished, I found that not only did the establishment serve no food (it would not even be providing breakfast on the following day), but that there was no restaurant or even a takeaway within a radius of at least a mile. I took one look at the dark and dingy street beyond its none-too-hospitable doors, and decided that I would be foolish to risk venturing forth in quest of sustenance now. I therefore toiled up the three flights of stairs to my room (it wasn’t the sort of hotel that offered to help with luggage) where I found a narrow single bed in a cheerless room with no bedside lamp and an ‘en suite’ shower behind a plastic curtain in an alcove. The lavatory was outside, shared with the occupants of the other rooms on the same floor.
Mercifully, my room did contain a kettle and some sachets of coffee and tea (the brand-names of both were unfamiliar) and two or three of those little bucket-shaped plastic containers of UHT milk. Too cold and hungry to go straight to bed, I made myself a cup of indifferent but scalding coffee, groped in my bag in the hope that I hadn’t absent-mindedly eaten the cereal bar that I’d placed there some weeks before (I hadn’t) and fished in it again for the book that I’d snatched from a stash at Dillons HQ for staff to help themselves to before I’d caught the train to London many hours earlier. It was Restoration, by Rose Tremain. Immediately, I was enthralled. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal bar and read. And read. I went to bed some hours later, my hunger forgotten, and slept soundly until the following morning, when I rose early in order to find breakfast and get another quick fix of Restoration before the day’s work started. I had become a Rose Tremain addict.
I had intended this post to be a review of Merivel: a man of his time, by Rose Tremain, which I have just completed, but I’ve probably written as much as you want to read for now, so will save that for another day.
I’m not usually a big drum banger, but the announcement yesterday of a new version of Life in the United Kingdom, the handbook for would-be British citizens, has got under my skin. I’m familiar with the previous version of this publication, because my daughter-in-law bought it last year to prepare herself for her (successful) bid to become a British national. In the process, she learnt and understood much more about British law and customs (according to the handbook, that is) than any of the born-British members of the family and we were amused and slightly alarmed by the number of hoops through which we should have been unable to jump if we’d had to renew our own citizenship. The sports questions would have been a particular nightmare for me, who eschews ball games and much appreciates walking in deserted local woods and parks on Saturday afternoons when there is a ‘big match’ on. Love of the countryside would seem not to qualify me for being a fine, upstanding Briton.
However, as I’ve said, all that was quite funny. What is not funny is the selection of British authors that, according to Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, aspiring British citizens are supposed to familiarise themselves with. Prominent among these are Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K. Rowling. I have no quibble with the inclusion of J.K. Rowling, but it doesn’t escape my notice that the two male authors have together been dead for a total of almost 100 years. Conan Doyle died in 1930, which was seventeen years before the British handed India back to the Indians; Kingsley Amis in 1995, the year in which this year’s first-time voters were born. I’m not sure what they have to teach newcomers to the UK about being British today. Conan Doyle is famous for Sherlock Holmes and a dogged belief in the existence of fairies; Kingsley Amis for an admittedly well-crafted series of novels which proclaim the benefits of casual sex, adultery and the flippant flouting of the institution of marriage.
But even this is not what makes me want to bang my drum. What I find really indefensible is that these literary choices take no account of the wonderfully-rich range of cultures and social backgrounds that British authors have come from and drawn upon in the past fifty years. I’m thinking of Monica Ali and Brick Lane; Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day; Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children: all books by British writers from different ethnic origins. Surely novels like these are more relevant to the aspirations of today’s immigrants and offer more to admire in our ethnically-diverse British culture and literature than fairies and infidelity? Besides, in the view of this reader at least, they are much finer works of art.