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A different kind of Eden

November 20, 2017

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Around twenty years ago, I wrote a piece in the Times Educational Supplement  about Hunter Davies – long one of my favourite writers. He had coaxed his wife, the late novelist and biographer, Margaret Forster, into  being interviewed, by him, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I loved her writing almost as much as his, and that, added to the novelty of a husband interviewing a famously fiesty wife, made for much anticipation.

It was a glorious event, Margaret never missing an opportunity to put Hunter affectionately in his place, and both handled it well. In my TES review, I mentioned  that Hunter, with his Scottish/North of England background, although he was older, had always seemed very accessible and recognisable to me. His first novel,  set in Carlisle, “Here we go round the Mulberry Bush” has long been the only realistic account of “my” “Swinging Sixties” that I’d ever read, and his “boyish” love of football – like me he continued playing well into his fifties – cemented the attraction. His account of a year in a comprehensive school: “The Creighton Report” was published at the end of my first year as a teacher –  in a comprehensive school.

However, in my piece, I did comment that his appearance at the Book Festival in a white suit, was possibly stretching our connection a little too far. I’d tried such attire briefly myself, and it doesn’t work!

He was kind enough to reply to the article – sending a postcard of his lovely Loweswater house, now sadly sold in the wake of Margaret’s death, with a note of thanks and signing it, exactly as I would have wanted: “your chum, Hunter.” Because, without a doubt, that is how I think of him. Something to do with background, style, subject matter. While other favourites like John McGahern, Brian Moore, Blake Morrison felt like “writers”, Hunter felt like a “chum”.

It was only when reading the second episode of his autobiography: “A Life in the Day”, I realised how blessed I had been. Hunter plays up to being famously careful with money, and in the memoir he deprecates his wife’s habit of sending those “expensive postcards” to fans “with first class stamps”! So I guess I was honoured!

I read “A Life in the Day” – which commences at the start of the sixties – straight after the first volume of his memoir “The Co-op’s got bananas” which tells his story from childhood, he was born in 1936 – till the end of the fifties. In that way, as he intended, I not only read of his life, but gained a kind of social history of the post war years. Hunter is fifteen years my senior, but change came pretty slowly between 1945 and 1960, and so much of his childhood rang true, as did his childhood move from Scotland to England which I experienced in 1958.

The “grammar school” education system, small numbers gaining university entrance on a full grant, the feeling of isolation from “the world” in small town north west of England – I shared all of that too.

And there is the additional friendliness of familiarity throughout the books, almost as if I’d been there with him. This effect was gained through Hunter’s freely admitted habit of recycling stories from previous books and columns. Some of his revelations were not new to me, but all  the more enjoyable for being recognised and placed within the context of his life.

I realised as well that I had been closer to him than I thought in the late 70’s when a university pal of mine had moved south to work for the Times and rented a flat in the Dartmouth Park area where the Davies’s already were living – so the walks to the pub in Highgate were there in my memory.

Coincidentally, I had just read Claire Tomalin’s autobiography “A Life of my Own”. I  finished it with a distinct understanding of the differences between life in Scotland, or even the north of England, and Ms Tomalin’s experiences.  The widow of war correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, now married to playwright, Michael Frayn, she had been to Cambridge University, and fallen into a lifestyle where every house guest and dinner companion seems to have been a student  mate or part of the highest level of English literati, and frequently both.  It was a world of shining achievement and influence which is far away from the experience of the majority of citizens, and seemed very particular to London, and, indeed, a  definite part of London, socially and geographically speaking. It was as if her whole life had been a preparation for the excesses of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia”!

So I was surprised when she made a brief appearance in Hunter’s memoir. Apparently, she was a near neighbour and there was   mention of one dinner party chez Tomalin. Furthermore, her husband, Nicholas,  had originally edited the Sunday Times “Atticus” column with Hunter as his assistant, and she herself had also worked at the paper.

There is only a brief  mention that I can recall of Hunter in her book, when he helps with the children after the news of Nick’s death cam through, and, generally,  the contrast between the two memoirs is illuminating.

Hunter affects to downplay his own successes and to promote his amazement and enjoyment at finding himself in the company of the famous. His cover photo really could have been a picture of him standing with his arms stretched wide saying “Why me?” It’s an appealing approach, though most of us who have followed his career know that he works bloody hard and has a deceptively “easy to  read” style which belies the craft that lies behind it.

Luckily for him, for fifty five years until 2016, in Margaret, he had a wife who was so opposed to the whole “literary darling” lifestyle that, not only did she refuse to do book signings and promotions, but she steadfastly avoided the kind of showbusiness junkets that Hunter lapped up, and was even absent from  his OBE investiture on principle. They appear to have come to an arrangement over their differing approaches, but there can be no doubt that she kept his boyish enthusiasms in check and ensured he remained on the palatable side of star gazing.

And that, really, is the joy of both these books of his autobiography.

From the moment Margaret is first mentioned (as a schoolgirl, she organised a protest when the city’s schools were given an afternoon off to watch a cup tie between Hunter’s beloved Carlisle United and  Arsenal) it is clear that she is the love of his life. Being Hunter, there is much bloke-ish reference to this: “I married the cleverest woman on earth”, and the repetitions of her  many disapproving comments, when  he overegged his enthusiasms, but he fools nobody. If ever there was a confirmation needed that opposites attract, their more than half a century of  marriage proves the point conclusively.

Of course, having followed Hunter (and Margaret) so avidly through the years, I’m not quite sure that Hunter is as different to Margaret as he claims. He certainly played a particular role convincingly: interviewing the stars, holidays with the McCartneys, January birthdays in the Caribbean – but it’s hard not to believe that his happiest times were at their beloved house in Loweswater with Margaret and family, far away from the north London celebrity frenzy. Even in Dartmouth Park, it’s clear he recreated some of the homeliness of Carlisle and Dumfries and his earliest years, and strenuously promoted a real community spirit, as opposed to courting the trappings of fame.

That these two volumes of memoirs are actually an unassuming tribute to his dearly loved wife, is not, of course, an accident. It’s a very “Hunterish” way of doing it. Had he said to Margaret: “I’m going to write about our love”, there is little doubt there would have been a rolling of eyes and quite possibly a throwing of objects. When he said he was going to write his autobiography, the response would have been: “Well, that’s all you’ve ever done!”

So he manages to get the last laugh, disguising the story of their love as the story of his life.

Which, of course, it is.

I think the best summary of these two books about two special people, and one I believe they would have appreciated,  is that both of them are a huge credit to their upbringing and their home place: the city of Carlisle, fortuitously situated on the River Eden.

Hunter and Margaret were always great walkers. It was yet another facet of their life which Hunter turned into writing: “A Walk along the Wall”, “A Walk around the Lakes”, “A Walk along the Tracks”, and others, are classics of their type.  I understand Hunter still walks, especially on Hampstead Heath. I hope he doesn’t feel alone on these walks now, because, like countless others, through his books and columns, for almost fifty years, I have enjoyed walking beside him.

Like Margaret, in spirit, we are all with him still.

He’s a very good companion.

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