Crumbs from a rich man's table

RICH DESSERTS AND CAPTAIN'S THIN by Margaret Forster Chatto pounds 17.9 9

Margaret Foster comes straight at you from her books. In a time when there is much talk of transparency, she is a writer of transparent intentions: they are good. In spite of the regularity and variety of her work - 16 novels and five works of non-fiction - she seems to be a writer whose prolificness is not, as often, neurotically driven. Indeed, she is the least neurotic of writers. This want of nervy fuss has the effect of clearing the air around her work, just as other writers create a fug or an aroma that complicates and fragments our vision. To the writer herself it may come as faint praise, but she manages to combine sensitivity (of an unegotistic kind) with common sense.

Common sense is a term used sometimes to launder aggression or limitation in an opinion-maker; it can be used to justify officious bluffness, busybodying or take-me-as-you-find-meism. The point surely is that common sense is far from common. It is what we should as humans share as a mutual behavioural base, but don't. This is the backbone of Margaret Forster's writing. It has a quality to which many superior artists may long to aspire, but which, like faith, can't be worked up, a kind of pleasing radiant ordinariness that makes you believe her and want to go on listening.

Oddly, this trait is to be found - hardened sometimes into a trope - in much contemporary American writing by women, where, I have to say, the sweetness can give me toothache. For all their undeniable entertainingness, I find myself devouring the works of Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley, Carol Shields and others at a suspiciously frictionless lick. Margaret Forster has a kind of pinched grittiness that is congenial to the overcomplicated reader and seems sensible - I hazard - to the better adjusted.

Her new book, then, is about biscuits. The Carr family of Carlisle, where Margaret Forster was born and initially educated, were Quakers who rode the new communications of the 19th century and filled the Empire with their selection of detectable and easily preserved biscuits, in the blue and white tins that are still be to be found in the corners of grandparental larders, displaying the many medals won in the field of nourishment (and in war).

The Carrs were ethical employers (Quakers having an obligation to make money but not to work for undue profit). The account given here of the conditions of work at the factory built by J D Carr, the first Carr to forsake bread- baking for biscuits, is fascinating. His commitment to relieving the cramped and filthy lives of the poor induced him to build a great new factory, to install a swimming pool, to make sure of a cleanly uniform and a healthy diet, and, in all this, to provide an example himself. He was strictly temperent, and no one who worked for him was permitted to drink.

Carr's is now owned by McVitie's, owned by United Biscuits. The story of a business carefully built up, flourishing to the point where it is part of a nation's pride, and then subverted by family schism and fate and lost to outside forces can never be uninteresting. In the intimate, local yet intelligently interpretative grasp of Margaret Forster, the account becomes gripping. The book contains anecdotes and vignettes of family life in a high-minded and prosperous family that are as touching as the photographs of great broods of children, half of them soon to be dead of infant sicknesses - and that in a home disinfected by money. Throughout one receives a sense of altriusm, from the Carrs and from the author.

Here is a modern Carr on the ethos of his family firm: "I do not care a fig for Unilevers ... or for the way they behave. We are unique. We are out of the ordinary. We do not copy anyone else, least of all the big companies. It is for you to cherish and safeguard our reputation for uniqueness, not to throw it away and turn us into a company just the same as thousands of others, each with its dreary, commonplace parrot cry: 'We are in business to make profit'."

Margaret Forster slips a little of herself into the story. At the beginning, she recalls the allure the biscuit factory exerted over her childhood, and then its strange off-puttingness when she was taken around it as a schoolgirl. In her Acknowledgements she thanks "the late Athol MacGregor. He was in the next room to my father in a Carlisle nursing home. His memory, at the age of 94, was formidably sharp..."

Perhaps we may hope for a history of New Lanark or of Port Sunlight, or a novel set somewhere like them, from this reliable author? While her style can - but it's rare - falter into cliche or worthy school essay, her moral poise is distinctive and compelling.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before