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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Meeting the English


The art of serious parody
ARKESH AJAY | New Delhi, November 9, 2013 16:26
Tags : Meeting the English | Kate Clanchy Picador |

Anyone familiar with England of the 80s would be aware of the 'Hampstead novel'. The pejorative term refers to a series of self-consciously intellectual novels, about issues of middle class life that involved dinner parties, a general sense of boredom, lascivious escapes out of them, all dealt with such seriousness as if answering life’s most profound questions. It is hard to believe that people from that milieu couldn’t see their lives for what it had become. But Kate Clanchy will have none of that gob-smacking nonsense. Meeting the English, the brilliantly funny debut novel of this reputed poet and short-story writer, is a parody of the Shakespearean tradition. People who live in Clanchy’s Hampstead are serious people with serious lives, albeit ones who turn out to be tragically funny when seen through the novelists’ lense.


Struan Robertson is seventeen, exceedingly bright, and poor. He is waiting for university to begin, has a year to spare, and money to earn. Cuik, a mining village in the central place isn’t a place with any jobs left since the mines were shut down. When his teacher, Mr. Fox, brings to him an advertisement: “Literary giant seeks young man to push bathchair”, it obviously doesn’t stir his pining, but an opportunity to be in London, from where he has never seen anyone return to Cuik, and more importantly to tend to the famous Phillip Prys, draws him into it. In the summer of 1989, Struan makes this pilgrimage, expecting to meet plenty of the mythical English in the London of his imagining. What he is met with is a dysfunctional family at the center of which lay, literally, a not-so-popular patriarch Phillip. There is Shirin, Prys’s dainty Iranian wife, and a painter of miniatures; and her predecessor, the monstrous Myfanwy, whose sole obsession lies in real estate. While the wife and the ex-wife battle over the control of the family house, the two children, Jake and Juliet, who spend their lives dabbling in drugs, or obsessing about weight.

From this Hampstead home, Struan sees London for what it is – an mélange of differing identities, each trying to seek what they want to become. Giles, the manifestation of everything impeccably English, turns out to be a Dutch immigrant. Prys, and Mcfanwy, have both too come in from the Welsh valley. Struan finds no ‘English’, but only Londoners. And in finding them, Struan realizes why no one ever goes back from London – because it absorbs everyone exactly the way they are, and lets them breathe the way they want to; or at least lets them live the broad romantic idea of being able to do so. As Giles states what thrills him about the city, “no one cares here, no one notices”.

Around the same time as Struan comes about into his own, Phillip keeps losing the ability to make sense of everything around him, including his own self. Trapped in his immovable body, he watches this chaos of “mistaken identity” and “overwhelming passion”, but is able to do little more than blink, mostly because only his eyelids move, and he uses them to communicate with Struan.

What permeates through the novel is a sense of identity, and what we make of it. Who do we see ourselves to be, and how do we see others differently. Do we understand the difference, do we accept it, or do we keep ourselves wrapped in a world of judgments. Because judging is easy, understanding is tough. Kate Clanchy has always been interested in these questions. Meeting the English is no different. Through Struan, who begins at a point of great departure from these Londoners, we explore these differences. But it is not a sermon, or a morality story masqueraded as a novel. The author employs her sharp sense of observation to create comedy where for the protagonists it surely does not. Her ability to comment on the social, and on the farcical is truly remarkable. And it doesn’t hurt to have the lyrical ability of a poet. Certain sections of the book are so lucid, you are surprised more by how absorbed you get in the narrative, than by how sharp witted it is.

This book is a whimsical work, its humor sharp and severely incisive. In its pages, characters travel far, and meet themselves anew. In its words are reflected a great understanding of life, and how we live it. And though it sets itself in Hampstead, and indulges itself in attempting to find the mirage that is the ‘English’, it is for every place, and every one of us. Meeting the English is drenched in the passionate sweat of a very hot summer, but accompanies within itself the cool breeze of this summer’s evenings.

Author: Kate Clanchy Picador

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-14-47229-73-5

Pages: 320

Price: Rs. 650

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Posted By: Kate Clanchy | Oxford | November 10th 2013 | 00:11
Thank you. I have had several kind reviews of my book but I think this my favourite, because it finds such seriousness in my comedy. I shall treasure it. Kate Clanchy

Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017