Lucy Wadham: "Class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone"

The Books Interview.

Your book Heads and Straights is part of the “Penguin Lines” series, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. Why did you choose the Circle Line?
I was floored when Penguin asked me to write about the Tube but I knew I had to do it. When I thought about the various lines, I realised the only one I knew anything about was the Circle Line, because I’d been brought up near it. I also liked the metaphor, the paradox, of the circle and the line.

There were a number of key events in the life of my family, in my grandmother’s life in particular, that had happened near Circle Line stops. One of my sisters, when she found out about the project, said: “Of course, that’s the posh line.” And immediately there were alarm bells going off in my head, because I’d very carefully managed to elude questions of class in my writing.

You’ve lived in France for over 25 years. Is class handled differently there?
It still feels to me, every time I come back to Britain, that class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone – and, in a way, that it isn’t in France. In this country, class provides endless fodder for television programmes and newspaper articles; you don’t get that in France.

You write about returning to the King’s Road, where you grew up, and finding it terribly homogeneous. The French like to congratulate themselves for avoiding the worst of globalisation, don’t they?
They do. Though Paris hasn’t avoided becoming a museum. And Paris has a homogeneity of its own, doesn’t it? It has done since [the renovation of the city by Georges-Eugène] Haussmann in the mid-19th century. But yes, France has definitely avoided the homogeneity of unbridled capitalism.

How would you describe your relationship with London now?
There were two opportunities that were offered to me by this book: one was to look back at my relationship with Britain and London in particular; the other was to look at my relationship with family. In both cases, it became clear to me that I’d been running away from them for a long time.

Your grandmother sounds remarkable – she met Virginia Woolf when she was a child.
I’ve searched high and low in Woolf’s letters for any mention of Gran! The thing you have to remember about my grandmother is that she had a very loose relationship with the truth. So she could have made it up. I like to think she didn’t but she may well have.

My mother always warned my sisters and I to be careful in our understanding of what Gran told us about her life. I think the gap between my grandmother’s loquacity about her life and the restraint and silence of my mother is partly what made me – as a child and an adolescent – very eager to know the truth, to dig for psychological explanations.

It made you a writer, in other words?
Yes.

You organise the book around the distinction between “heads” and “straights”. The interesting thing about this distinction is that it’s not generational.
Not only does it slice across generations, it slices across class. I think that was the usefulness of it as a label for my rebellious sisters in the early 1970s – they could elude the distinctions of class by categorising people in that way.

Your parents, by contrast, were straights, weren’t they?
They were. They were definitely straights. My father liked to live dangerously but I think it was very important for us to believe he was a straight – but actually, with hindsight, I’m not sure he was.

A lot of people of their generation woke up to the excitement of the 1960s, belatedly, in the 1970s. They were clawing to recapture a touch of experimentation and excess. My parents were definitely in that category. But then, suddenly, it was too late – suddenly, you were looking at Thatcher and the party was over.

Lucy Wadham’s “Heads and Straights” is published by Particular Books (£4.99)

Lucy Wadham.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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