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Writing a relationship

February 12, 2016


Wogan, Bowie, Rickman: all caused a stir in their passing; they had been major figures in mainstream culture for many years, they were familiar to nearly all, and considered part of the national consciousness, I suppose.

However, personal reactions to the deaths of these people have been, naturally, varied, depending on whether they had been major figures in one’s world of culture and entertainment, or merely part of a constant backdrop. That state of affairs is consequent to an age in which fame and celebrity has taken the place of many older certainties.

Looking back over my more recent blogs, I find that many, if not the majority, are tributes to those we have lost who have impacted upon me, sometimes famous, sometimes not. I’m at the stage of my life when any heroes I may have had have walked beside me for many decades; their loss is obviously going to be a blow.

And so, when I read this week of the death of Margaret Forster, I have to admit that I was upset – and the reasons why reflect the relationship between writer and reader: a relationship which seems to me is much more personal than that forged between performers and audiences in music or theatre.

Forster’s husband, Hunter Davies, first attracted my attention with his novel in 1967 “Here we go round the mulberry bush”. Based on life in Carlisle for a grammar school boy, desperate to find a “nice girl”, it rang bells for me. Why wouldn’t it? I was 15, living in the north west of England, at a boys’ grammar school, and familiar with every social tick in the book. To understand the feeling of “provincial” in those days, you would have to have lived through them. “London”: – which was code for “where everything is happening” – could have been in Australia it seemed so distant, and the lives people led there so unattainable. If this seems improbable, examine the quotes from the time from Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein. His delight and amazement is less centred on his “boys’” music, or their fame in the States, or the records sold, as in the fact this success has come to a band from “the provinces” – an almost unprecedented event – forbye the “regional” schlock of Gracie Fields or George Formby.

In a sense, “Mulberry Bush” made a good companion to Forster’s third novel: “Georgy Girl” – boy and girl views of the challenges wrought by the so called “Swinging Sixties.” Both novels were less than well served by the films made of them – Davies’s story suffering more than the hugely successful film of “Georgy Girl” which, partly because of the catchy hit theme tune, has become a kind of icon for “good times” – when, in reality, neither film nor book made that claim for the era, focusing more on the challenges of “liberation” than the joys of “freedom”..

At the core of both books were voices seldom heard in literature at that time – less “stagey” than the grime of their antecedents, Barstow and Braine’s ‘kitchen sink’ genre, somehow more related to every day reality.

What Forster and Davies wrote about seemed connected to social realities which were recognisable to their readers. It’s no coincidence that, especially in Forster’s case, there was often some confusion as to whether she had written a novel or a documentary account – a huge tribute to her writing skills, though she was never sure how to take such a compliment.

As their careers developed alongside our own lives, so their subject matter kept up with the changes. Forster’s “Mother can you hear me?” insightfully portrayed family and generational tensions; “Have the men had enough?” captured dementia in the family perfectly, and with compassion as well as anger, while “Mothers’ Boys” tells us more about the reality of youth violence than a stack of official reports. In these books and many others, she scored by highlighting “issues” through individuals and the impact on their lives.

Davies continued his parallel development: an authorized biography of The Beatles, a seminal book on football about Tottenham Hotspur: “The Glory Game”, a human guide to Hadrian’s Wall in “A Walk along the Wall”, a superb biography of Wordsworth – written with Cumbrian appreciation, and a similar tribute to iconic fell walker, Alfred Wainwright.

In my first years as a teacher, he wrote “The Creighton Report” – about a year in a north London comprehensive school. It remains the best writing about education I have ever come across. He “got it”!

In his journalistic work as well, it felt like he was shadowing me, and I wrote a piece in the Times Education Supplement acclaiming his recognition of the major concerns of middle age: is it ever ok to wear a cream linen suit? To what age can you play football with your mates on a Sunday morning before you look like a complete idiot? Why do women not understand men’s urge to “collect” things.

When I sent him a copy of my piece in appreciation of his writings, he was graceful enough to send back a handwritten postcard saying thanks, with a picture of his Lake District house on the front, and signed: “Your chum, Hunter.” Exactly what I would have wanted, and a reflection of that writer/reader relationship.

And now I’ve retired, and published a couple of books, like Hunter and Margaret, we tend to write in the morning and go on walks in the afternoon – keeping pace with literary heroes.

So when I heard of Margaret’s death, I felt for “Hunt” – almost as if he were really a mate. It’s a hard loss for Caitlin, Jake and Flora – to lose a mother of such strength, and, as Hunter reports, such “emotional intelligence”, but for my writing hero, it’s the loss of a life mate, the ying to his yang.

Forster famously detested the publicity and fame which comes with a successful writing career – while Davies’ is not averse to indulging his sociable tendencies now and then. I enjoyed how she said, after he had accepted an OBE: “Had it been a knighthood, I would have divorced him!”. Therefore, there must have been some interesting discussions before Hunter, as a patron of the Edinburgh Book Festival, convinced her that she should be interviewed, by him,

I looked forward to the event with great anticipation – and was not disappointed. The interview began a little nervously, then the authors’ familiarity with each other took over. Questions Margaret considered ’daft” were batted away, questions left unasked were brought up, Hunter took his punishment and Margaret, perhaps with a twinkle, seemed to prove that, though she disliked such events, she was well able to control them. It was another moment of connection –as two people so obviously in love indulged in the banter of affection. I loved it.

Whenever I saw Hunter at the Book Festival I was always too shy to approach him, a fact I’ve always regretted, but, to be honest, I’d like to give him a hug right now – an act, I’m sure, which would alarm him greatly.

I feel I have lost an acquaintance, and a writer of unique insight, and I grieve for three children who have lost a mother of whom they must be so proud, but mostly, my thoughts are for the man whose writing has kept me company since my teenage years, my “chum” – Hunter Davies.

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