Crumbs from a rich man's table

RICH DESSERTS AND CAPTAIN'S THIN by Margaret Forster Chatto pounds 17.9 9
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The Independent Culture
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.