Telling tales about Angus; BOOKS

Margaret Drabble Hay Festival
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The Independent Culture
Had the onrushing stream of her consciousness not been directed into the writing of novels, Margaret Drabble could easily have been a very effective schoolmarm. Having positioned herself squarely behind her large wooden lectern, wearing a two-piece suit of an almost Thatcherite blueness and rectitude, she began to bark at her audience about the novelist Angus Wilson, the subject of her new biography. "I know you know that he was a very famous novelist," she explained, "but it's no good at all coming up to me later, and telling me stories about Angus that might have been included in the book. I put an ad in the Times Literary Supplement ages ago. That would have been the time to do it, not now," she hectored jovially.

The problem with Angus Wilson, of course, was that he knew absolutely everybody. He was such a gadabout, that man. He even knew Margaret Drabble. The biography had been a monumental undertaking, of course, and Wilson's sad decline in the years before his death had made it impossible for her to play the amanuensis to his brilliant stories in the way that she had hoped.

By now, the wind had seized hold of the marquee, and was shaking it about furiously. "I'd better shout now," she said. "It's getting very noisy." Wilson, she explained, positively wore himself out being a public figure - at literary festivals, conferences etc. "There is a danger in all this, of course," said Drabble, looking endangered. "People see an author, read an interview... and think they've read the book..."

She then interrupted herself with a public announcement. "Now I will take questions. You must speak clearly into the roving mike, and when you have finished you must hand it back at once." How did she rate him among other literary giants and pygmies of the 20th century, someone asked her. "I think Angus Wilson is a truly great writer," she replied by way of a surprise. "His concern was with the middle class but, after all, the middle class is most of us." The audience quietly examined its social credentials. "He was also good on rent boys and the low-lifes," she added. "He had his finger on the pulse of the worse that was to come..." A few rent boys at the rear sighed with relief, glad at least to be out of the rain.