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King of the Badgers and Untold Story

The “condition of England” novel.

Philip Hensher's greatest attribute, after his energy and fluency, is his steady head; he may be audacious, but he is judicious as well. The greatest risk he has taken - and pulled off - in his new novel is with the narrative voice, the only constant in a work characterised by its busy variety and steady flow of human traffic. It is a voice that gives voice to its characters, in moments of vernacular modesty ("to give him his due", "He had a point"), but it also provides a channel for mischievous allocutions, as when a series of metaphors is preceded by "There might be a metaphor here". Detached from a broader purpose, these tendencies might seem arch, and their coexistence baffling, but Hensher has a purpose - to portray his characters as worthy of ridicule but not contempt, and to create sympathetic satire.

So, while it may seem that Hensher is always joking, he is never only joking. His use of the word "everyone", a trusted tool, provides a case in point. Like Jane Austen writing about a truth being "universally" acknowledged, Hensher is making a joke at the expense of a community's narrowness and self-involvement when he writes that everyone knew or did or said something, but at the same time defers to a community's way of seeing and speaking about itself. For "everyone" refers to the relevant inhabitants of the genteel Devon town of Hanmouth (population: 4,000), whose comings and goings over the long summer of 2008 ("an Indian summer, everyone said") are seen from the perspective of 2009.

The opening chapters introduce a sprawling (and ever-growing) cast of characters, all of them residents of Hanmouth, or of "that postwar estate" considered part of Hanmouth by everyone except the inhabitants of "Hanmouth proper" or "Old Hanmouth" - that is to say, by everyone except "everyone". Here goes: Kenyon, who used to work at the Treasury but was "donated" to an NGO, is married to Miranda, a leading figure in the Hanmouth Book Club and a lecturer at Barnstaple University, where she teaches Faisal Khalil, whose father, Ahmed, a teacher at the local sixth-form college, is having an affair with Kenyon - an affair that the narrator and the reader know about, though nobody else does. Over on the Ruskin estate, a young girl called China, daughter of a local hairdresser and negligent mother called Heidi O'Connor, goes missing, much to the fascination and disgust of the true Hanmouth­ites, especially the Brigadier and his wife Billa and Billa's friend Sam, who runs the cheese shop and organises hedonistic orgies with his husband, the aristocratic lawyer Harry.

Among the newer residents of Hanmouth proper are John Calvin, who has formed a neighbourhood watch ("the sort of initiative only newcomers were likely to take"), and Alec and Catherine Butterworth, a retired couple whose dependent son David comes to stay with a young Italian called Mauro, who is pretending to be David's boyfriend because he owes him £1,600.

It is the happiness of the central couples - Kenyon and Miranda, Sam and Harry, Alec and Catherine - which increasingly consumes the novel, though most of the long central section, entitled "King of the Badgers", is devoted to David and his depression, self-loathing and body fat. The catalytic kidnapping plot, with its echoes of the Madeleine McCann case, is introduced feverishly through the gossip of the salivating yet finger-wagging Hanmouthites, but then gently developed; it is through David, talking to Mauro, that we find out "they've arrested the girl's mother", and it is a walk-on character, a family man with a dogging habit, who finds a crucial corpse. Getting the plot to behave is a team effort; Hensher, by giving each of his characters something to do, ensures that it thickens but does not coagulate.

This approach enables Hensher to indulge his appetite for cultural detritus (one of Peter Shaffer's plays is name-checked on page ten, another on page 361) and to concentrate on such problems of human interaction as snubbing (considered on page 71 and again on page 357). At one point, a character reflects that her husband, being male, is "not very interested in the smaller details of social life" - an acknowledgement that Hensher is working in a female tradition. There is plenty of Martin Amis in his make-up, but even more of Austen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch. Hensher's last novel, The Northern Clemency, borrowed a closing metafictional flourish from Drabble's The Radiant Way. This time he slips in a small allusion to Murdoch when Miranda reflects that, in Kenyon's days at the Treasury, she at least knew, "in an abstract and uncomprehending way", that he did something "very important . . . something to do with the balance of payments". In Murdoch's novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Simon thinks about how "flimsy" he is, "how hopelessly ignorant about important things such as Mozart and truth functions and the balance of payments" - which is a phrase associated with his boyfriend Axel's job. This is what Hensher calls a "tortuous joke"; it should be said that most of the book's many jokes are less opaque, and funnier.

King of the Badgers is Hensher's third exercise in social portraiture on a grand scale, after The Mulberry Empire, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2002, and The Northern Clemency, which made the 2008 shortlist. It would be gratifying to see the new novel go one better, not least because the prize has never been given to a large, energetic and capacious novel about English life.

Twenty years ago, one of Don DeLillo's characters claimed that it is now the terrorist, rather than the novelist, who affects "the inner life of the culture", but when it comes to pronouncing on the condition of England, the novelist has given way to the newspaper columnist, though this figure rarely possesses the requisite breadth of compassion. (Oliver Twist would be just another "Asbo yob", Tom Jones a "love rat".) Hensher writes a column for the Independent, and the new novel dramatises a worry expressed there about the erosion of privacy by the government and media.

But it also airs an older concern. Of the three divisions identified by Victorian novelists - rich/poor, north/south, country/city - Hensher is concerned most of all with the third. The second sentence of the novel describes cities as places "where the guilty huddle", and soon after that a paparazzo visiting Hanmouth gives the boatman "a brief, city, impatient look"; down the A-road from Hanmouth, "feral" children roam, their misadventures fuelled by "glowing orangeades", while at a motorway service station the reader witnesses "the burger bar's sugary, vinegary, salt-imbued contraptions glowing in the illustrations above the servers".

Typically Hensher brings to life the fear of urban encroachment, of pastoral purity being invaded by artificial colouring, in a virtuoso comic set piece, a long sentence about the guests heading for Sam and Harry's coke-and-bondage night which manages to combine mock-epic parody (of the Homeric simile and catalogue of ships) and satire (on modern tastes) without collapsing into Luddite gloom or Scrutonish bile, and without smothering under the weight of knowingness the possibility for sincerity and beauty:

Like timber dislodged by spring floods; like unmoored boats swept into the stream; like cast-off objects driven before the force of a renewed river, taking possession of a dried-up channel at the end of a hot Devon August; like the return of beasts to their place of spawning at the close of their season of youth; like all of that, the Bears turned and followed the scent back to the house in Hanmouth . . . speeding up, shedding their concerns as they went, flying in their Toyota Civics, their Ford Primeras, their VW Golf GTIs, their Peugeots, their Fiats, their Ford Kas, their Jaguars, their Bentleys, in shades of royal blue and silver, and silver and white, and red and silver, and silver, silver, blue and silver, catching the evening light like trout turning in a stream.

Monica Ali's new novel also touches on English images and archetypes, but where Hensher presents competing versions of England - one of them marked by American influences - Ali erects a "stuffy England", a monarchical monolith defined by stiff upper lips in opposition to easygoing, republican America, where you are permitted a fresh start. Ali has also drawn on a tragic tale from recent English history, but where King of the Badgers serves as a corrective to the tabloid mentality, Untold Story exhibits an all-too-familiar fascination with celebrity.

Having established herself as a novelist of the people in Brick Lane, Ali now turns her attention to "the people's princess", who, in this retelling, faked a drowning in 1997, underwent plastic surgery in Brazil and relocated to Kensington, North Carolina, where she calls herself Lydia Snaresbrook and keeps quiet about her past. When we aren't with Lydia - working at a dogs' home or getting better acquainted with her new boyfriend or playing Carrie Bradshaw to her three American sidekicks - we are given exclusive access to the 1997 diary of her former private secretary, Lawrence Standing, the one (terminally ill) man who knows the whole truth. The other character given his own chapters is the Catholic paparazzo Grabowski, who stumbles upon the retired princess shortly before the tenth anniversary of her "death".

Hensher, as well as relishing the minutiae of his voluptuously imagined fictional town and of the world as he remembers it in 2008, tickles the reader with details that could be true but aren't, such as "a girl out of Friends starring in John Gabriel Borkman"; and he draws on the McCann case, though not so much that China displaces, or stands in for, Madeleine, who also exists in his world.

Ali offers her heroine as a "fictional princess", but she is a fictional princess who conducted a "campaign against landmines", who "covertly co-operated" on a revelatory biography, and so on. The relationship between recorded fact, outright fabrication and plausible invention is central to the book's identity and scrutability, and its mishandling has consequences for both. The reliance on Diana's facts prevents Untold Story from engaging as an autonomous account of a runaway princess trying to forge a civilian existence, but the recourse to invention prevents it from functioning as a work of speculative history like Muriel Spark's novel about Lord Lucan, Aiding and Abetting, or Gordon Burn's Alma Cogan.

Diana's cleverness is well documented, but there is some debate about her intelligence - a debate that Ali does not complicate so much as blow out of the water by portraying Lydia reading Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is hard to imagine the real Diana, whom Christopher Hitchens more or less factually described as a "disco-loving airhead", reading this challenging (if short) novel. Clive James, having railed against journalists who themselves read only "three books a year" but called Diana "stupid", later wrote that "she had never read a book", though Tina Brown, in The Diana Chronicles, reminds us that the princess had a "teenage devotion" to Barbara Cartland - a devotion that, according to Cartland, hadn't been "awfully good for her".

Ali's novel won't do anyone any harm, but nor does it do for Diana's suffering what Solzhenitsyn did for Ivan's. Much of the straight comment is delegated to Lawrence Standing ("who understood everything"), yet his observations are rarely trenchant: "The deeper the darkness, the brighter she shone." Of her fame, he says: "Nobody lived it at her level, with her constraints, in the non-stop multimedia age." At least when Standing writes that the princess had "flirted for England", he gives a more sober impression of Diana's contribution to national life (not England's rose, but England's tease), in contrast to the publication, nearly 15 years after her death, of this bewil­dering novel, which even Diana-worshippers will surely find crass. l

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

King of the Badgers
Philip Hensher
Fourth Estate, 436pp, £18.99
Untold Story

Monica Ali
Doubleday, 345pp, £16.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.