Kate Clanchy: Scot free among the English

The prize-winning poet and dramatist has written her first novel. She tells Suzi Feay how it recalls her own journey south

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The Independent Culture

Unlike Kate Clanchy, you may not remember the summer of 1989 as being particularly stifling. Maybe you need to have Celtic skin for that. You might, however, remember the enormous cellphones, the big hair and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. “Perfect Skin,” muses Clanchy. “Such an objectifying song, yet we all listened to it and didn’t think.”

The acclaimed poet, radio playwright, winner of the 2009 BBC short story award, and author of Antigone and Me, has written her first novel, Meeting the English. It started off, she explains, as a short story “which got out of hand”.

A clever young Scottish lad, Struan, is encouraged by his English teacher to leave his small town and head to London to broaden his life experience. That was the year Clanchy arrived in London too, and though she had studied at Oxford, her reactions were the same as her lead character’s. “The air!” she gasps. “Why is it so hot, and why aren’t people standing around saying, ‘This is really too hot!’? Who are these people in these extraordinary outfits? All of those things were me when I first came to London. Actually, years after coming to London I was still having those thoughts.”

Meeting the English is a comedy of manners with a dark edge; the gentle Struan has come south  to act as carer for Philip Prys, an  elderly, John Osborne-type playwright who has been all but blotted out by a stroke. Struan finds himself in the middle of a family in crisis: there’s a beautiful second wife, a constantly circling first wife, and two spoiled teenage children, Juliet and Jake. Underlying everything is the question of the inheritance; Philip has made a fortune with his gritty dramas of Welsh working-class life. With its cast of artsy, highly strung, badly behaved north Londoners, Meeting the English feels like an updated Iris Murdoch novel, with sharper haircuts and more Laura Ashley furnishings.

“That’s a classic thing for a novel isn’t it, the house and who’s going to get it?” says Clanchy, sipping her coffee. “One of my favourite passages is from Sense and Sensibility when the Dashwoods decide that they’re not going to help their poor relations but are going to give them the occasional present of fish and game. I suppose that’s another reason it’s set in 1989: that was the first flush of property being magically imbued with value by having Laura Ashley sponge paint effects; the inflation around then and, just as dramatically, the deflation. It was one of those times when the unreality of money struck me.”

There’s a wonderful comic grotesque in the form of Philip’s first wife, a Sixties dolly bird gone to  seed. Myfanwy is now a hopeless interior designer with vain dreams of making a killing on the property  market. A greedy spendthrift who swindles her own children, she is as irresistible to read about as she would be awful to meet. “I’m so glad you liked Myfanwy,” grins Clanchy. “She’s not abusive exactly, she’s just a bit insecure. She’s not made a great job of being a mum.”

Struan, poverty-stricken but too shy to demand his due, quickly spars with obnoxious Jake, a conceited but unsuccessful actor, and finds common cause with his “wee pal”, Juliet. Philip’s unloved daughter is painfully conscious of her weight and afflicted by a beautiful, anorexic best friend, Celia.

“A more conventional novel would have had Celia and Jake at the centre, having a highly dramatised, deeply felt love affair, all that kind of stuff,” Clanchy comments. “Whereas I’ve got the fat girl and the carer in the middle. And they don’t have a romance with each other. It’s very good for Juliet because then she knows that not all men are like Jake. What a brother! What a monster!”

I suspect Clanchy has known a  few Jakes in her time, heartless charmers from what she calls “the super-entitled classes”. It’s that culture shock again: “When I grew up in Scotland, I thought I was a bit English and a bit posh and when I came down I realised – oh my god! I’m not posh!”

There’s more autobiography in the interior design theme. “I bought a flat in Spitalfields just after the crash. It was tiny but very cute and I did, in the eternity of my single years, which went on and on and on – I was the most famously single person ever – during the hundreds of Bridget Jones years, I did paint it up a lot. You know, sponge things,” she says. I point out that her husband, the novelist and academic Matthew Reynolds, also seems obsessed with the subject, judging from his own quirky debut, Designs for a Happy Home.

“Obsessed? I think we once were. When Matthew and I first moved to Oxford we had a house together and it went all Farrow & Ball,” she agrees. But having three boys has put paid to paint effects for the moment. “Interior design, that making a life thing, it’s a good image, isn’t it? Houses are about history and engagement with history, especially in London: the layers of a house. In Matthew’s new one [The World Was All Before Them, Bloomsbury] it’s a new house, new-build and all new furniture and nothing has any depth.”

Contemplating the various phases of her writing career, Clanchy muses: “I was never happier really than when I was writing my first book. It never occurred to me that anyone would actually read it, so that gives you freedom. ‘No one’ll ever read that …’ I always think of myself as being this young ingénue, then you suddenly think, no, you’re the grown up, with authority.” She smiles broadly. “Sometimes I quite enjoy that.”