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11 March 2016

Margaret Forster: A northern lass in NW5

Antisocial and curious, rude and generous, a literary EastEnders fan – my friend was full of contradictions.

By valerie Grove

My 40-year friendship with Margaret Forster began on Hampstead Heath on Maundy Thursday in 1976. I was wheeling a pram containing my firstborn, Lucy, when I met Hunter Davies, walking with his wife, as they did every day. Hunter, who had once offered me a job on the Look! pages of the Sunday Times in 1970, which I had foolishly turned down, made admiring noises over the sleeping infant. Margaret, his wife, looked pointedly the other way and said: “Babies don’t interest me, not until they can talk.” (Cumbrians do not show false sentiment, or welcome new friends; Margaret’s dad would cross the street rather than engage in idle chat.)

But what did interest her were families in her neighbourhood. Ten days later, we met again by chance at the shops on Swains Lane and I was invited back to tea. Her curiosity about me and my eventual four children (and mine about her and her three) forged a link. We talked fast and furiously, often across each other, shrieking with derisive laughter, demolishing pompous reputations. We were both reconstituted northerners, both mothers who wrote for a living; but it was the contrasts that intrigued her. Hunter did nothing to help at home, whereas my husband took command of the cooking and shopping, even when he edited a newspaper. I still went out to a Fleet Street office – “How can you stand it?” she wondered – leaving our nanny at home. Sometimes Margaret would look after a child or two for me, at weekends. She never forgot their birthdays – or anyone’s birthday. She sent cheering postcards, consolation letters, replies to readers, all handwritten.

Shortly after we met, she was back in hospital having a second mastectomy at the age of 37. I sent a basket of strawberries and remember her parodic postcard: “Divine strawberries, darling.” Soon she postponed her plan to embark on a novel about a woman who was the rock of her family (like her) being destabilised by cancer. She never wrote it. “I don’t want to become known chiefly as a cancer survivor,” she said. She died on 8 February, aged 77. Her 40-year survival was indeed remarkable.

Enduring tests, biopsies and scans, she was stoicism personified. (Forsters don’t cry: the family mantra.) There were family catastrophes and chronic illnesses, including cancer, dementia, motor neurone disease, assault, some translated into the plots of her novels. Of course Lady’s Maid must be my favourite novel, as it was dedicated: “For Valerie Grove, another hard-working lass from the north-east.” (It was the story of Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid, a girl from Gateshead who accompanied the Brownings in their elopement and flight to Italy.) In return, I dedicated my first biography – of Dodie Smith, the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle – to Margaret, even though when I first mentioned the subject she had dismissed it: “Not interested.”

We remained the best of friends, not best friends. Margaret did not do best friends. Hunter was her best friend and she needed no other, because he is the world’s most gregarious person and would breeze in every day from whatever lunch or meeting he had been at, usually at the Groucho Club, where he got a discount as a founder member, full of stories and discoveries. He would go to any party, collecting information with a magpie determination. He was her window on the world outside and I, an incorrigible partygoer, became another. But she was avidly interested in neighbours’ lives. Knowing this, people knocked on her door if they had anything to confide.

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One night, the doorbell rang and there on the doorstep was Fay Weldon, hand on heaving bosom, beseeching her in a breathless whisper, “Margaret, can I come in and watch your television?” The serialisation of Fay’s novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was on that night; following some kind of row, her husband, Ron, would not let her watch it. No wonder Margaret did not need to socialise in any formal sense. For the past 35 years, she never invited anyone to her ­table other than family, refused invitations to dinners and parties (except once or twice, to ours, with the barrel of a gun at her head), would not allow launch parties for her books, never mingled in literary coteries.

“I am antisocial. I am not gregarious. I do like to be on my own. But at the same time I have no illusions, I need people to watch and to listen to, and I’m intensely curious. I sit in buses and speculate,” she told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 1994. It was ludicrous for her to be a castaway at all. She had no ear, could not sing, loathed music of any kind. “However beautiful, I’m always glad when it ends,” she said. If stuck on a desert island with eight discs, she would fling them into the sea and welcome the solitude and silence. (Laboriously she assembled eight records, including Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” for her children, Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” because Hunter liked it; the Beatles, for Hunter again; and Ethel Smyth’s suffragette anthem “The March of the Women”, my suggestion.) Her chosen luxury was white A4 paper “and cartridges for my Waterman fountain pen”. She had used the same pen since her schooldays and only in 2007 did she have to get a replacement.

Her role as a white-witch confidante to women inside and outside her family gave her information to furnish a dozen novels. You could call any afternoon (mornings were for writing) and find her there, never surprised to be interrupted or alarmed by what you had to tell her. She followed childbirth dramas – infertility, breech birth, termination – with an obsessive intensity. One day, I arrived to find her sitting with a friend’s sister, unmarried at 40, who had come to tell her that she was having a baby. Others came to say that they were leaving their husbands, or had taken a lesbian lover, or were having an abortion, or wanted to kill someone.

When newspaper interviewers – always women – arrived, as they did whenever she had a new book out, they went away thoughtful, impressed; not charmed, because she did not do charm. They went away thinking, “What a remarkable woman. How resolute and controlled, what a mistress of her routines.” Maureen Cleave wrote, in the Observer Magazine, that Margaret’s price was “far above rubies”. She also remarked that her singular devotion to her husband, having never had any other lover, was a record equalled only by the Queen.

Margaret needed order, so her house (light, bright with artistic colour) was orderly. She never employed a cleaner. She found domestic chores “soothing”, so the house was neat without being painfully pristine. She had to have time to read – several books a week, she boasted – curled up on a sofa. She had to have sleep: bedtime was 9pm. She drank a single cup of coffee at 11am. She hated tea. Needing solitude, she walked briskly on Hampstead Heath every day after lunch, for two hours, rain or shine. Sometimes I was permitted to join her, with a dog, talking as fast as we walked. She knew the history of every bench: one commemorated her silver wedding anniversary in 1985.

She watched little television (too ­easily bored and irritated) but followed East­Enders. She went to films and plays – alone, to matinees, when Hunter was at football – preferably to work by new playwrights: never revivals, musicals, Shakespeare (she loathed Shakespeare), comedies, farces or classics. Saturday was her away day. She set off early, on foot, to combine the theatre with an art gallery. Only twice, we arranged to go to a matinee in tandem: to Lynn Redgrave’s solo show at the Haymarket Theatre and to David Benson’s Kenneth Williams show, in Edinburgh during the festival. We sat separately, meeting briefly afterwards to agree on their brilliance.

When Lynn Redgrave died, I reminded Margaret of how I had urged her that day to come with me backstage to congratulate Lynn, who would have been delighted to see Margaret. Lynn’s career had taken off when she played Georgy Girl in the film of her 1965 novel. Margaret refused to do such a pushy, gushing thing. It was the sort of “simpering” thing that Hunter would do. (And Georgy Girl was “an albatross round my neck”, she later said. It was a flippant novel; it had sent her off “on the wrong track”.)

She never fussed over her hair or spent money on her wardrobe, never wore make-up. She had long ago defined her style – interesting shirts, waistcoats and longish skirts that suited her slender, elongated frame. Her legs were bare and tanned, her shoes and sandals flat, for walking. Certain combinations of colours, russets and ambers and blues, were hers. She was an ideal person to buy presents for. Her own Christmas present rule was £10 max. She loathed showy trappings of wealth, never bought a jewel or a fur or any luxury item. If she liked a painter (Gwen John, for example) she bought their work before it became pricey. She never kept pets, was mystified by my devotion to my cat and gagged if I kissed my dog. The only acceptable creature was Torty, a female tortoise now aged 50, who obligingly reappeared in their garden every summer and lumbered away each winter.

She swam whenever possible, preferably in an English lake or a Caribbean sea, but had nil interest in competitive sports, could not comprehend Hunter’s passion for football, nor my fondness for tennis. She never smoked, rarely drank more than a single glass of wine (and gave up even that long ago) and scorned to taste a morsel in between the fastidiously simple meals she prepared. She never used a typewriter, never got a computer or a mobile phone. She drove no car: she did reluctantly pass her test, late in life when Hunter became temporarily lame, but never took to the wheel. She never danced. She disliked frivolity, comics, cartoons – though she did approve of quizzes. There was one for her 70th birthday in Cumbria.

All social gatherings and encounters, though rare, were thrillingly dramatised and recounted. “What joy!” and “How we roared!” were the refrains in her letters – “like the Mitfords”, as she herself said.

Margaret looked for no glory or honour, no damehood, held no public office apart from a few years on the Arts Council’s literature panel, which she took extremely seriously. Despite her unwavering devotion to Labour, she turned down the Blairs’ invitation to Downing Street for that notorious party after the 1997 election. As for the Booker Prize, she turned down a seat on the judging panel in the year she published Have the Men Had Enough? (inspired by her mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s disease) because she hoped that it would be a contender – it was the only piece of her fiction that she thought was worthwhile – but it wasn’t. She had been on the panel in the year William Golding won. The judging sessions were “exhilarating”. Whenever she emerged from her hermitage to take part in the world at large, her commitment was all-consuming.

When she was professionally obliged to talk to people – researching the life of Daphne du Maurier, for instance, which required her to visit du Maurier’s enthralling children and friends in far-flung places – she would marvel that anyone (such as me) who interviewed for a living could endure this galloping consumption of intimate but short-lived encounters.

Once, decades ago, she had undertaken to write four profiles of other writers, Margaret Drabble included, for a newspaper. She applied enormous industry to this. Drabble fascinated her because they had published their first novels within a year of each other and were almost exact contemporaries: she at Oxford, Drabble at Cambridge. They first met when queueing (Caryl Churchill was another in the queue) outside an Oxford interview. Although they never became friends, she would say she always knew that if a newspaper rang her for her views on writing with small children underfoot, “They had just rung, or were about to ring, Margaret Drabble.”

She took to grandmothering with enthusiasm. Her own babies’ dependence had been “terrifying” but she could look at her four granddaughters for hours. Her novel Isa and May, published in 2010, was about two grandmothers and contained a vivid hospital ward scene, in which a female patient swears and rants dementedly, taken directly from an experience she’d had at the Royal Free Hospital. Once a novel was finished, she never wanted to read it again – “It would be my nightmare to have to reread any of them. They’re gone, they’re finished” – or talk about it. The first time I ever set eyes on her was in 1970, after I reviewed one of her light early novels, Fenella Phizackerley or Mr Bone’s Retreat. I told her I’d loved it. “Did you?” she said, in a tone of disbelief. “It was rubbish.”

Biography, which she started writing in the early 1970s, was more satisfying, like a doctoral thesis, requiring thorough scholarship and three or four years of hard labour for each book. She started her Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier research by reading every book that her subject was known to have read. By their reading habits, she would know them. Her thoughts on books were recorded in a fine vellum notebook I gave her called The Reading Woman, illustrated with paintings of women reading. (“Forty-four books so far this year,” she reported, by midsummer.) She would review only first novels by new writers, so publishers sent her proof copies and emblazoned her encomia across many dust jackets. If she had constructive criticism to offer, she would send it to the author. She would not sit in judgement on established novelists but in private she was candid about them, often damning and dismissive.

For two years she reviewed for me (non-fiction only) when I was the Evening Standard’s books page editor. Her boldly legible, handwritten reviews, collected by me at her gate, contained no crossing out or revision. By contrast, Auberon Waugh’s handwritten fiction reviews arrived in the post, spidery and much revised, with many blots. I had to type up both, every Monday morning, in a rage. Was it for this that I’d got my Eng lit degree – to be a stenographer to two writers who, in 1980, couldn’t master a typewriter? But 35 years on, I feel only a fond nostalgia for what will never happen again.

When she started to spend half of each year in the Lakes, we became penfriends. I have several box files of her letters. She was horrified to hear that I had kept them. She destroyed mine. She confided in me, sometimes; she was always my primary confidante. (The day after her death, I had something really important I needed to tell her and felt bereft of her response.) I could rely on her to speak her mind without platitude or blandishment. My mother-in-law gave me an emerald ring. “I’ve never seen anything uglier,” said Margaret. (I soon lost that ring.) She astonished Professor Richard Hoggart, sitting next to her at the Arts Council, when he told her that he was embarking on his memoirs. “Why?” she asked. She gave me the same reaction to every biography I embarked upon: neither Laurie Lee nor John Mortimer interested her. Nevertheless I sent her the manuscript of each book. She would return it at speed, along with sensible annotations and queries. I felt that if I could satisfy Margaret as a reader, I could please anyone.

At 69, when secondary “inoperable” cancer struck, she was briefly bedridden but then sprang back to life and was walking on the heath, only more slowly, for eight more years. On one of my last visits to her home, she sat, as always, on the sofa by the window, with a book. (She had started rereading all the old novels on her shelves.) “I’d quite forgotten how good Penelope Lively is,” she said. “There used to be so many of these women, writing in the old-fashioned way, good, well-constructed novels with rounded characters and good dialogue. What’s happened to them all?”

In January this year, she moved into the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, which she soon realised was the perfect place to die. “I’d always thought I would want to be at home,” she said. “But it would be so awful for Hunter. He could never cope.” Her room was filled with flowers and the sun streamed in. Though she was immobile from the waist down and had lost the use of her right hand, she was out of pain. She could still read and, as she said, that was the most important thing in her life, without which there was nothing to live for. I inflicted one last task on her: to read a book of essays by J B Priestley, for a collection I am editing. Could she select favourites?

Two days later, Hunter emailed to say that he had some books for me to collect. One was Margaret’s new novel, How to Measure a Cow, which has just been published. “No dedication – no handwriting,” said Hunter’s note. The other was the Priestley essays. Within the book was a sheet of A4 paper with her list, in a heartbreakingly shaky left-handed script, like a five-year-old’s, of her choices. The subjects included “old age” and “happiness”.

Along with the posthumous novel, her publisher is issuing the paperback edition of her final memoir, My Life in Houses. She only ever had five addresses, of which just the last two – Grasmoor House in Lowes­water and Boscastle Road in London NW5 – reflected the essential her. The last thing she said as I left, three days before she died, was: “Whatever happens here, I will never go home again. I can never go home. Hunter has bought a MICROWAVE. A microwave, in MY kitchen!” Luckily, she never had to see it. l

Valerie Grove is a journalist and author. Her books include “The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee” (Robson Press)

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho