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Tracey Thorn: Every angle, every light

Elizabeth Taylor is an unfairly underrated writer. Her novels of middle-class manners are much more complex than they look.

It was Virago Modern Classics that introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor, just as Virago had introduced me to so many other women writers years earlier. At Hull University in the early 1980s, I’d had a shelf-ful of green-spined books and they marked me out as a “rad fem” student just as surely as did my side-shaved haircut and big, clumpy boots. My education up to that point hadn’t fully alerted me to the existence of something called “the canon”, but a year or so in to my degree course, I was happily challenging it at every turn, thumbing my nose and waving my Virago paperbacks in the face of the literary patriarchy.

It would be another 30 years before I discovered Taylor when Virago reissued her novels in a set of chic new covers resembling 1960s film posters. On each was a black-and-white photo, full-face, extreme close-up, with a band of bold colour below. They looked simple and modern, with a vintage twist. In 2010 I bought one to take on holiday and within a day I was hooked.

She wasn’t necessarily the kind of writer I would have liked all those years ago in Hull. Back then my taste veered more towards the “madwoman in the attic”; I was fiercely feminist and wanted my reading to reflect this. Subtlety was not always top of my list of requirements. But by the time I read Taylor for the first time I was in my mid-forties, no less feminist, but perhaps differently feminist, and more receptive to the kind of wit and wisdom her novels offered. Her voice seemed to be a voice of experience, the insights those of a woman who had lived a few years, watching and listening, taking notes. I felt I was ready for her.

I started with A Game of Hide and Seek, her fifth novel, first published in 1951, which traces the arc of an intense but thwarted love affair. It is a finely detailed and perceptive book, constructed with a discreet skill that you hardly notice. As part one ends, the young lovers, Harriet and Vesey, seem doomed to be parted for ever, their love for each other undermined by his indolent flippancy, her timidity. Yet you turn the page and begin part two with something of a jolt – Harriet is in Vesey’s arms at a dance. “Has it all come right after all?” you think. But no. Twenty years have passed in the blink of an eye. Harriet is married to someone else and has a teenage daughter and Vesey has returned like a spectre from the past to threaten all the calm and respectability of Harriet’s adult life. What follows is a kind of tortuous non-affair, a not-quite-above-board friendship that can’t fail to be slightly sordid, while never being properly illicit.

They make a funny pair of romantic leads – he is half-hearted and she, frankly, is a bit of a drip, forever blushing and bursting into tears – but their plight is moving for all that. Nothing much happens; there’s a walk in an icy park, a Brief Encounter-style meeting on a foggy station platform, passion that goes mostly unexpressed. Yet Taylor has you believe in them as lovers, by first making you believe in them as people. As in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation, the eye for detail. Taylor writes of Harriet that “In her diary, she walked right round Vesey and viewed him from every angle and in every light” and in just such a way does Taylor scrutinise her characters. Hers is an unflinching eye that does not glance away from an insight just because it seems cruel – “He knew that she was a good wife, though a bore.” Relatively narrow in focus, she homes in on the middle classes in a domestic setting, but though she writes about “nice” people, she is not particularly nice about them.

After A Game of Hide and Seek I went on to devour her other novels. I found out that she had shied away from publicity during her career, keeping her writing and her family life in a perfect and fiercely guarded balance. Elizabeth Jane Howard, in her introduction to A Game of Hide and Seek, writes of interviewing her on a television book programme, during which she answered monosyllabically and looked “like a trapped and rather beautiful owl”. I realised she was a woman after my own heart. She was shy, and she understood the shy. In The Soul of Kindness (1964) two of her characters agree: “ ‘I could never tell anyone how terrible it is. The dreadful awkwardness and embarrassment.’

‘They are under-rated forms of suffering.’” This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtlety, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise, capturing moments when characters believe they are unobserved; as if she were eavesdropping on private conversations.

In A Game of Hide and Seek, for instance, she pinpoints the way shopgirls talk when men are out of earshot, a wonderful mixture of the genteel and the bawdy – “Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly enquiring after it, as if it were a sick relative.” She is the kind of writer you long to have had as a friend. How witty she would have been to talk to, with that sharpness that misses nothing, that wry acceptance of the way things are.

This acceptance extends to all her characters. Despite the acuity of her observations, she is never cold towards them, seeming rather to understand and forgive her most monstrous creations. And some of them are outright monsters – Flora in The Soul of Kindness is a manipulative, passive-aggressive nightmare (“she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine”), while Angelica Deverell, the heroine of Angel (1957), is a hilarious personi - fication of self-delusion (“she saw nothing as it was, everything as it should be”). I think “Angel” is my favourite of all Taylor’s characters. Proud, arrogant, ambitious, mad and lonely, she is every fictional artist rolled into one, the twist being that she is completely talentless. Hers is an  archetypal struggle – the portrait of the artist as a young woman – rewritten as comedy, even farce. It’s like reading the early-years story of Jeanette Winterson only for her to end up writing the novels of Barbara Cartland. It’s terribly funny, and terribly sad.

I think when I was younger I liked my books to have heroes, or, even better, heroines. One of the great things about getting older is you don’t need that so much; you don’t look to every book for self-verification, or confirmation of your identity. I find I don’t care so much whether or not I like the characters in a book. I just want them to seem true, and for a writer to show me things that seem real. Elizabeth Taylor does exactly this; she finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details to us so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.

Tracey Thorn’s memoir, “Bedsit Disco Queen”, will be published by Virago in February “Complete Short Stories” by Elizabeth Taylor is published by Virago (£14.99).

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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