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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas