Just before my fourth birthday my family (my mum, the Tinker, my brother and me) moved from Exeter, city of my birth, to Mitcham in Surrey. It would have been 1957, post war employment was scarce down in the West Country, and the Tinker, now out of the Royal Marines, went to work as a chemical engineer for a company that would eventually become a part of British Petroleum, and for which he worked until his retirement.
I suppose it is safe to say we were one of those post-war working class families who were going to seize any opportunities that came our way, perhaps take a few risks, and so instead of opting for a council house, my mum and the Tinker took out a mortgage and bought a house.
A huge undertaking in the 1950s and isn't Google Street Maps amazing. I typed in the address and there it was, the house in the middle with the gable roof, and there's my little bedroom window next to it, and that room with my highly covetable ice skater wallpaper, and there is the very door step whereupon I stood while Brown Owl took that picture of me in my Brownie uniform.
But what is even more amazing is the house next door, the one to the right as you are looking at it, because apart from new windows it still has the very same front door I remember, and even the same name hanging up outside. It was always a joke that we lived between Nuns and Vicars, because the Vickers family lived on the far side, but of much more interest to us as children was the elderly and seemingly very eccentric Mrs Nunn and her grown-up and equally unusual daughter Rene (pronounced Reeny by us anyway) living on this side.
We would speculate endlessly about what went on in the house next door, or what may have happened to Mr Nunn, and the Tinker had all sorts of theories none of which I could possibly repeat here, but sadly I have to confess I also spent a great deal of time watching Mrs Nunn from behind the net curtains of my bedroom window. She had an inordinate fear of burglars (based on who knows what experiences) coupled with what we would now recognise as a very serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder, which made leaving the house to go shopping a lengthy and tortuous ordeal. Poor Mrs Nunn would pace to the gate and back and then count the plants along the pathway, pace back a few steps towards the door, back to the gate, count again, pace a bit nearer the door, count again, back to the gate, back to the door, unlock the door, lock the door again, and so it would go on...and on... and on, by which time the shops were probably closed, and there would be my brother and I shamelessly watching all this from behind the net curtains of that little window.
I feel a bit bad about that now, and a bit sad for Mrs Nunn and Rene. I mean Mr Nunn was probably killed on active service in the war wasn't he... not buried under the vegetable patch, or embalmed in the air raid shelter that still stood in the garden.
Oh sorry, forget I said that, blame the Tinker coupled with the vivid imagination of an eight-year old me.
As usual you might be wondering where this convuluted path is leading, and what all this has to do with my chronological read of the writing of Hilary Mantel, or a post about her first novel Every Day is Mother's Day.
Well when I started to read about Eveyn Axon and her daughter Muriel, I was soon thinking of Mrs Nunn and Rene.
'Miss Axon was visited at home by this department on 3.3.73...Client lives with her widowed mother... her father died in 1946...Mrs Axon states that client is not able to go out alone because of various incidents that have occurred in the past...Mrs Axon is extremely uncommunicative in herself and this is seen as a problem in assessement...'
Using skills gained through her work as a social work assistant in a geriatric hospital (as they were then called) and much time spent reading fascinating casenotes,(surely a novelist's gift) it is via a social services assessment report that Hilary Mantel imparts much of the information about Muriel and her mother. Muriel, neath the suffocating wings of her mother's bullying protection has lost interest in life...
'Muriel was enjoying one of her strange holidays from the world. There was nothing she could do until the girl repacked the tattered baggage of her personality and came home.'
This is the era when
'..social workers had become 'generic.' It was a new dispensation, for everybody to know everything about everything: and how to heal it,'
Oh yes, I was there, cradle to grave and everything in between. I'll bet some of you remember it too, and I well remember thinking this, because there is reality in this novel too..
'That's the trouble with social work, no on has fixed on what to expect of it. You can't be with people twenty-four hours a day. If they're really going to beat their children to death, they'll find time to do it...and you can't improve people's thoughts. You can't stop them creating private hells for themselves, if that's what they want to do.'
Oh Hilary, of what fundamental truths you speak.
A luxuriously tangled web is then spun between Isabel, the Axon's social worker, nursing her own 'corroded spirit' as she cares for her ailing and ageing but rather lecherous father, the school teacher Colin, with whom Isabel is having an affair, Colin's wife Sylvia and their children living in a house they 'keep as warm as they can afford', and Colin's sister Florence who happens to live next door to Evelyn and Muriel Axon.
Colin and Isabel meet at a creative writing class where Colin would like to do the sort of writing that will force him to become a tax-exile, and what flows effortlessly from Hilary Mantel's pen is the sort of writing that you can see will eventually earn her enough to become one should she choose. Colin is not hopeful for himself..
'I will never be a writer he thought, I will never learn it, just as last year I did not learn Russian, I will never do it, my mind runs to cliches like abandoned plots to seed.'
Everything is there, in place, much as I hoped it would be. The descriptions that cleverly furnish a scene whilst leaving some work for the reader's imagination to do. The attention to those details about clothes that were such a rich ingredient in the Wolf Hall mix, and the humour, oh yes it's deliciously wicked and clever, and our 'ilary was flexing her descriptive muscles in that direction from the off.
It is Christmas and Sylvia has been shopping for gifts for Colin's sister. Poor, put-upon Florence the jilted forty-year old, the victim of an unrequited and rather embarrassing fling (as in Florence flinging herself ) who works in the benefits office, begrudging every penny she is forced to hand out and now living alone since the removal of their mother to a nursing home..
'Sylvia had been extravagent. She has bought Florence a cookery book, lavishly illustrated called Entertaining for Two : Menus for Candlelit Evenings. Her second present showed how long she thought these evenings were likely to last, for it was a candlewick dressing-gown, of a spinach shade and a formidable stiffness.'
...a spinach-green candlewick dressing gown. I had quite forgotten that candlewick even existed but instantly saw the said garment before my eyes and with it all the unmentioned baggage and implications that are inferred.
When it becomes clear that Muriel Axon's increasing girth may mean that her trips to the Day Centre have involved what one of the receptionists at a surgery I once worked in would call some 'extra-friendly', it's hard to know just where Hilary Mantel will take this...I won't say more but I wasn't disappointed. It's sad, clever and funny by turns, paving the way for the sequel Vacant Possession that apparently even Hilary Mantel didn't know she would want to write next.
My return to the writing of Hilary Mantel couldn't be more timely given that she is in the news almost as much as ...well.. you-know-who, and more congratulations are due. Our 'ilary has been announced as the winner of the £40,000 David Cohen Award and my thrillingness at this success continues unabated. I am full of admiration too for Chair of Judges Mark Lawson's announcement speech...
"It seems paradoxical that giving a major literary prize – the British Nobel prize, as I think of it – to one of the most generally-admired and well-liked people in the literary world will be, for some, controversial," he said. "This is because of a feeling – voiced by some pundits and perhaps secretly thought by authors who feel unrewarded – that Hilary Mantel has recently been given too much too quickly. That issue, however, was rapidly dismissed by the judges. It would be ludicrous if a history of high achievement somehow disbarred a writer from the David Cohen prize's list of the highest literary achievers."
a salvo to the naysayers, and I am bursting with pride at Hilary Mantel's acceptance..
"There are some readers who think that I was born on the day Wolf Hall was published," said Mantel. "This prize acknowledges that there are no overnight sensations in the creative arts. That's not the way it works. The ground has to be prepared and I feel that this is recognition of the fact that for many many years I've been trying to perfect my craft."
Mark Lawson again...
"While the judges were as impressed as most readers by Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, it is our particular hope that this prize for three decades of dedication to the possibilities of narrative imagination and English prose will direct attention to such earlier works as the novels Fludd, A Change of Climate and Beyond Black and the autobiography Giving Up The Ghost. Consideration of this remarkable career soon led us to feel that we had had enough of anyone who will moan that Hilary Mantel has already had enough prizes."
I will be reading them all, some for the first, second, third or even fourth time (Fludd) and this has been a wonderful start. There are some laugh aloud moments in Every Day is Mother's Day, none more so than the very pretentious party that Colin and his wife Sylvia have to attend, the atmosphere described thus..
'Intellectually speaking it's a case of fur coat and no knickers.'
Let's just say this novel is fur coat through and through, and hold onto those knickers because Vacant Possession is even better.