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Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Many years ago I read Lady Audley’s Secret , a ‘sensation’ novel of 1862 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It was a huge best-seller, made the author rich and enabled the publisher to build a villa in Barnes he was proud to call Audley Lodge.

Years on, not a lot of the book has stayed with me – but some of the ‘sensations’ have, particularly the very heightened rendering of a train journey in which the discomfort of the passenger is not due to the unusual speed of transport, but in going from city to city surrounded by anonymous people. She cannot begin to know if the people are who they look to represent. The taxonomy of village life has been swept away. She is lost in a world without markers. Her feelings are particularly acute because she is a ruthless social climber herself and is travelling to make sure a secret remains secret.

Lady Audley does not want fame. She wants high rank as a kind of worldly cloak to keep her safe in her, at the very least, sociopathic pretensions.

As I’ve said before, part of my Sunday morning routine is reading Javier Marías’ weekly column in El Pais.

A couple of weeks ago he dealt with anonymity of another kind. As a twelve year old, Marías became aware that his father, the philosopher Julian, received anonymous mail. Marías senior had left Spain with his family after Franco took power. No choice really, he was declared unfit to be a university professor and thus deprived of his livelihood. When he managed to return to Spain from the USA, he was welcomed by a barrage of anonymous mail.

Marías senior explained to his son that people who sent mail anonymously were of course cowards. There was also very little point in reading what they wrote since there was no address to reply to.

The point here, of course, is that the anonymous mail was also hate mail with no right of reply.

Javier Marías writes that he has had his own share. Some of this has been political. Some of this has been literary.

Of course, anonymous hate mail has a very long, very repetitive history. (The insults are rarely inventive) But it’s deeply unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

Marías, however, notes a change since the development of social media. In Spain – and elsewhere in Europe – the argument over copyright law in the internet age has led to attacks by those in favour of what they call ‘democracy’ – see arguments over pricing all the way to free downloads – on those who want to be paid royalties for their work. The tactics used, from publishing photos of where an author lives, to details of his or her family, carry a marginally bigger threat than a letter hoping the author rots in hell. In other words, behind the freedom of information or right to know comes the threat of ‘we know where you live’.

What’s interesting is that this type of anonymity is collective. While Javier Marías’s father knew pretty well the groups behind the mail he received, he also knew they would deny sending the stuff and were protected by the Franco regime.

The new internet anonymity is a lot more public – the attacks on Marías Sr. were private, were attempts to wound him. Publishing however that a writer’s twelve year old daughter goes to such and such a school and lives in this building, widens the threat to someone merely related to a person who ‘overcharges’ for his or her work.

Quite apart from the reality – the writer does not get much of a say in the price set by the publisher – the tactic seems to me near trolling, and akin to the bully-boy stuff employed by Franco’s hacks.

Who does it remind me of? Lady Audley actually. However cloaked, the anonymous attacks are self-righteous to the point of craziness.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Circumlocutions of History.

Henry James is famously on record as saying that historical fiction is impossible. He always did have great respect for the dead and thought, probably accurately, that it was not possible to do justice to the motives and feelings of people quite as intelligent and limited as we are.

I thought I had solved some of the problem for my books by sticking to the edges of living memory. Now I’m not so sure. Recently, by accident, I came across a documentary film called Without Gorky. I needed a moment to work out that the film was not about Maxim Gorky, the writer. This was more recent. It involved the artist Ashile Gorky who hanged himself in 1948. The documentary was made by Cosima Spender, the artist’s grand-daughter. Her other grandfather was Sir Stephen Spender, the poet.

The star of the piece was Gorky’s widow, born Agnes Magruder in 1921. Gorky called her Mougouch and she is now known as Mougouch Fielding, having had, as third husband, the late Xan Fielding, friend of Patrick Leigh-Fermor from their days in Crete during WW2.

At age ninety, Mougouch rolled her own cigarettes and talked of the last terrible weeks of Gorky’s life. He had had colon cancer, the barn where he worked had been burnt down, he had been in a car accident that temporarily disabled his painting arm, he was drinking and violent and Mougouch had, for two days, sought solace with the Chilean painter Roberto Matta.

I certainly don’t feel able to make any judgement whatsoever on a painful story that caused long-term distress. But I do feel able to talk about something else. I’ll call it fiction. In the documentary it became clear that the painter’s name was not actually Gorky. He was probably an Armenian called Ardoyan and he had spent his life in America making up an entirely fictional person who painted what he did. His wife did not know this until long after he died, had no idea that his accounts of his past were, possibly, an effort to enable the painter he became.

It’s a good, curiously old-fashioned documentary. I don’t mean that the technique is old-fashioned, but the people who appear in it. The maker’s parents, Matt Spender and one of Gorky’s two daughters with Mougouch, have lived in Tuscany for many years and apparently provided some inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 film called Stealing Beauty. Matt Spender provided the terracotta sculptures shown in the film.

I mean that it is perfectly easy for the past not so much to take on the air of fiction but to provoke disbelief in the viewer. You don’t actually need a powerful story or an unlikely one, you just need to be aware of the time elapsed.

I have also recently seen TV interviews from the fifties. Nancy Astor was asked if women had the mental capacity to be MPs. She had been one, but replied with considerable forbearance. Edith Sitwell spoke in praise of Marilyn Monroe, saying that her nude calendar was no moral stain. Had her critics ever really been hungry? As it happens I agree, but Miss Sitwell was also most dismissive of people she considered her social and moral inferiors.

I could go on, but in interview after interview long forgotten people spoke with invincible aplomb and self-importance.
There were two things of interest. The interviewers behaved with enormous pomposity and deference. And the most unsuitable people made pronouncements on what they wished. Nowadays Gilbert Harding’s views on women – he liked ‘unassertive’ flowers – might elicit the question ‘why do you lump all women together?’ or just get booed.

The problem with fiction, however, is that if you use direct quotes from the 1940s say, the reader now may find them incredible. History, even still living history, has to take second place to fiction – or a version of history.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Private and Public

Last Monday I went to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. It is a lengthy stretch of medium sized buildings, includes a teaching hospital, and combines the appearance of a campus and an out-of-town shopping mall, but without all the adverts. It is preceded by something of a hymn to the motor car - vast (full) car parks. Despite an arch or two and a dome (the mall), the Infirmary gives a sense of office building techniques adapted to health care. My husband tells me the mall itself reminded him of a real mall in Inverness circa 2001, except for the lengthy section given over to RBS, Britain’s favourite bankers. The Infirmary was opened in 2003. The trees haven’t fared very well.

I was there for an angiogram. This was not, as my sweet editor Kate Parkin enquired, due to the pressures of authorship, but to paternal genes. I now have a right arm the colour of a David Hockney winter tree in Yorkshire, colour-coded by his ipad - despite the attentions of Debora McGill, student nurse at Napier University. Her shifts are thirteen hours for three or four days – and then she gets to study. The other nurse, Elaine Esteban Aguilar, equally attentive, was also on long shifts. Both – Debora too despite her married surname - were originally from other countries. Both were excellent and very sweet.

In medical terms I found things out. My condition is treatable with medication. Otherwise I had to wait a lot to stop bleeding from the radial artery. This is the artery favoured by suicidal Romans in warm baths. After the procedure, protocol dictated I had to drink a lot of iced water and I had to have lunch – basically a sandwich also available in the mall already mentioned. And a banana. I also got what I will call a cubelet of apple juice.

With me in the ward were Leanne R, there for a pacemaker. Leanne is 27 and has Down’s syndrome. She was back in the ward cheerfully listening to music within an hour and a half. Sarah L had less good news. She needed a by-pass. Having already been through treatment for lymphoma Sarah was remarkably cheerful and gave us all a wave as she was wheeled off to an inpatients ward. Also there were two other angiograms and a kidney biopsy.

I had a wheely bed, a chair cum throne of Scandinavian-type wood frame and red seat and back, a gown that somehow reminded me of the defunct airline British Caledonian, and paper knickers. My husband got a stackable chair, also red, that stayed with him in the lumbar region until Tuesday.

During the procedure he was sent off for a walk. He met an elderly gentleman saying he had had quite enough. His new heart valve was clicking and wouldn’t let him sleep. He also met a young father of three whose blood clot in his left foot had turned into a biopsy on his hip. And he met two ladies, one there for an endoscopy and the other, as she put it, there as translator.

I suppose hospitals are always interesting. There is the personal element, and hospital routines and protocol. You certainly see how things work in the NHS. On the whole, at least in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, pretty well.