Serious embarrassment

All of us – I hope it’s all of us, and not just me – have recollections of moments when we said or did something which we flush, freeze or blush to remember. I have a stack of them, although the moment when, aged five, I told a chiropodist that my mum had only taken me to him because ‘the good one was away’, cannot really be counted. I can still recall the squeeze of her sharpened nails in my palm, though.

In the early 1980s, I wrote reviews for a great magazine called The Fiction Magazine, a monthly edited by Judy Cooke – callow reviews, really, which concentrated a bit too much on being witty, and not enough on the books. The Fiction Magazine coincided with the first ‘Best of British’  list of young novelists which also gave Granta a leg up.  (Both of them were thriving in the aftermath of the TLS having been shut down by Murdoch for a year. Granta survives, but, alas, The Fiction Magazine didn’t.)

The Fiction Magazine had a fifth birthday party, at which a fair few of the twenty best of British YNs were in evidence. I was just over thirty, and just a little bit starstruck for my own good. There were plenty of stars in the room (for some reason, they included Robin Day, who, like many people on the TV, was smaller than expected – like Ant and Dec, who are actually only three and two inches high respectively …). In a corridor, looking private and moody, was the novelist Graham Swift. To the left were Ian Hislop (then very newly appointed editor of Private Eye), together with Christopher Logue. Near them, the poet George MacBeth, and his then wife, Lisa St Aubin de Teran (with whose sister I taught, years later). I didn’t actually do too well with her either, riskily asking her if her novels were to be found under S, A, D or T. I cringe a bit at that, though I promise you worse is to come.

Before treading back where I don’t want to go, there was one amazing, to-be-treasured moment. I had recently reviewed a re-issue of a James Hanley novel from the early fifties – his was not a name I knew, and I discovered and read about fifteen of his novels on the strength of the re-issue (Against the Stream, originally published under a pseudonym). I urge you to look him up in a local library. They’ll all be hidden in the stack: you will be amazed.

Painting of James Hanley

 Hanley was himself at the party, in his eighties (there is a dispute over his year of birth, thought to be 1897 and not 1901 as often cited, but I see that we have the same birthday, as does Caryl Churchill), and he said he was pleased with my review. So I can’t have been all bad.

However, at this point, I met two more of the twenty Best Ofs, Clive Sinclair and Kazuo Ishiguro. I had recently reviewed a collection of short stories by Sinclair, and compared them unfavourably with Ian McEwan, which he said was a shameless thing to have done (and he was right). Once he had bitten the biter, he was very charming, luckily. So too was Ishiguro (I think he’d only published his first novel at that stage).

Here we go … “So,” I said, the drink overcoming all my sense, “how does it feel to be the Great White Hope of The Novel?”

Kazuo Ishiguro fixed me with an impish glee. “Yellow, I think you mean,” he said.


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