Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

meetingKate Clanchy’s first novel is a perfect summer read: it’s laugh out loud funny, has pathos in all the right places, a sweet young hero and an inbuilt nostalgia, being set in Hampstead, North London, during the long, hot summer of 1989. I hope that that already might convince you to give it a go, but – as I have promised to write a full length review, let me tell you some more about it.

Clanchy is an award-winning poet, experienced at writing for radio too, and her acclaimed memoir Antigona and Me – about her relationship with her Kosovan refugee cleaner from six years ago, was an absolutely gripping read and dealt with many issues, not least the entrenched values of her cleaner herself, but still managed to have lighter moments. Her first novel builds upon all her experience and is a fully-formed thing – a social comedy that was a pleasure to read.

Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair. Own room in Hampstead, all found, exciting cultural milieu. Modest wage. Ideal ‘gap year’ opportunity. Apply Prys Box 4224XXC.

The literary giant in question is the Welsh writer Phillip Prys, author of the play The Pit and its Men. Phillip, an old reprobate who is now on his third and youngest wife (Shirin, a beautiful young Iranian) has had a severe stroke, leaving him conscious but unable to move or talk. Philip and Shirin live in a large Hampstead villa with Phillip’s children by his first wife Myfanwy. Welsh too, she is a former sexpot who’s become a bit blowsy with age and has an obsession with Laura Ashley. When Myfanwy gets to hear of the stroke in Waitrose, her first reaction is not quite what one would expect:

Now in her vision she saw, under Phillip’s bent yellow fingers, the deed of the divorce, and beside it, the agreement she had providentially pushed through with her lawyer: that in the event of the death of Phillip Prys before the majority of both his children, the estate should pass in trust to Myfanwy Shirley Davies Prys. Majority was twenty-five. Jake was twenty. Juliet was just sixteen. Myfanwy opened her eyes and smiled dazzlingly at the Manager.
‘Not fatal, I trust?’ he said.
‘Stable,’ said Myfanwy, ‘but critical.’ She blew her nose. ‘So no change there,’ she added, shocking the poor man to the core.

Myfanwy sees this as her passport back to the life she so envies, and sets about meddling, much to her daughter’s digust.

She hasn’t factored in the effect that young Struan Robertson will have upon the household though. Struan is seventeen, an orphan, who having finished school, needs to find a job. When his English teacher passes him the advert – it sounds perfect – and it so happens that Struan has studied Phillip’s play.

So Struan sets off south to ‘meet the English’… but they turn out to be completely different from how he’s imagined them. He’s certainly not what they expected either; having worked weekends in an old people’s home, nothing fazes him. Phillip couldn’t be in better hands. Struan is however, a novice at relationships and finds fitting into this fractious extended family who mostly ignore him rather a chore. Phillip’s agent, Giles, is initially alone in recognising the progress Phillip is making, especially once they start taking him to the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath.

Struan is sweet and gangly, placid and practical – the complete opposite to Juliet who still has her puppy-fat and is a complete and utter typical teenager. Jealous of her thin friend Celia, who has a lover, when Struan’s teacher Mr Fox turns up in Hampstead she embarks on an affair – but is at first scared to go the whole way. Her mother is actively disappointed when Juliet tells her ‘we only frotted.’

The relationship between Juliet and Myfanwy is a delight. Very true of teenaged girls and their mothers, it is also hilarious. There’s a lovely scene where Juliet accuses her mum of shrinking her favourite dress when it’s Juliet who has grown – the dialogue is sparkling. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the grasping Myfanwy, though, who is fully Londonised but will put on her Welshness when needed. Juliet however is great value.

Shirin, the young wife, is rather an enigma. She lets them all fight it out and quietly gets on with things in the background, but even she gets confused in Myfanwy’s duplicitous shenanigans and Struan is on the verge of giving it all up, just as he’s about to come of age.

There’s a little of everything plotwise in this comedy as well as some truly memorable characters. Struan’s coming of age, plenty of mistaken identity, poking fun at the Hampstead set and the nouveau riche and of course all the varieties of love, found, thwarted and re-found that you might hope for, all contrasting with the normal lot of someone in Struan’s position.

I could liken it to A Midsummer Night’s Dream re-imagined by Fay Weldon – but it’s Clanchy’s own beautifully crafted comedy. I will give Shakespeare the last laugh though…

Puck: Lord, what fools these mortals be!

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and has never visited Hampstead and its Heath…

Kate Clanchy, Meeting the English (Picador, London, 2013) Paperback June 2014, 978-0330535281, 320 pages.

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