The `God botherer' who just keeps on winning

In Britain and Ireland it has been seen as an `issues' book; an angry novel Trevor is happy to call it a thriller with a religious ending: he disagrees wit h other reactions
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The Independent Online
ON TUESDAY night, William Trevor won the Whitbread Prize for his novel Felicia's Journey. He also won it in 1983, and in 1976. "I don't drink the stuff," Trevor says with a crinkly grin, the Irish lilt still audible in his quiet voice, "and I don 't haveshares in the company. But they've certainly been very good to me."

His earlier winnings would seem small beer beside the £23,000 awarded for the Whitbread Book of the Year, a jump-off between the winners of five categories, which is just 10 years old. It makes a unique double, since Trevor had already won the Sunday Express award, worth £20,000, with the same book . But in a career that spans 35 years and includes 13 novels and eight collections of short stories, it is not his favourite prize.

"I'll never forget the first one, the Hawthornden Prize," he says. He won this for The Old Boys in 1964, when he was 36; he had begun to write after being a sculptor, and teaching in prep schools for a living. By that time he was working as a copywriter for Nottley's, an advertising agency which also employed the poets Peter Porter, Gavin Ewart and Edward Lucie Smith.

Together with his wife, Jane - they had married as soon as they graduated from Trinity College, Dublin - he was invited to lunch at the Ritz with Lord David Cecil and Francis Wyndham. The meal passed - Trevor anxiously checking his watch for fear of getting the sack for being late back to Nottley's - without a word about the prize, or anything so vulgar as the winner's loot. At long last, "Lord David Cecil went like this" - Trevor gleefully pantomimes pulling an envelope surreptitiously from his side pocket - "and passed it to me more or less under the table, just like an uncle who slips a few shillings to a child and says `Not a word to your father, mind'."

There was no such restraint last Tuesday night, when 400 people sat down to dinner in the great hall of Whitbread's London brewery. We ate surrounded by giant video screens playing loop tapes of extracts from the shortlisted books, like literary Muzak. Jeremy Paxman, one of the final judging panel, compered the proceedings; a reading and a video of each author followed. When Trevor finally made his quiet, good-humoured speech of acceptance, he was all but hidden by a wall of cameramen and popping flashbulbs.

At home in Devon, dapper in well-cut tweeds, Trevor looks every inch the kind of countryman who would hate such glitz. But he seems perfectly at home anywhere. Or perhaps nowhere. Born into a minority, a Protestant family in Co Cork, in 1928, he has always spoken and written about being an outsider. His father was a bank official whose job meant that the family moved constantly, from one small town to another, over the south of Ireland: the young William Trevor Cox (his real name) went to no fewer than13 schools, always the new boy, always set slightly apart by his religion.

"I never suffered any real problems," he says, "but I was different. It was about like being Jewish."

And although his attachment to Ireland (where so much of his work is set) is, he admits, "a sentimental one", he has, because of his rootless childhood, "no home town in Ireland, no particular town I can call my own. Every town in Ireland feels like mine."

Being "different", being rootless, can be a gift for a writer, as it allows you to watch from outside. "Stories are glimpses of people," Trevor says. His most characteristic stories, though, are set in the kind of deep-rooted Irish communities he never knew, and are often about tensions with the outside world.

In Felicia's Journey, a young Irish girl leaves her small-town home for England to look for the father of the baby she is expecting. She searches hopelessly for Johnny through faceless and desolate Midlands industrial towns (he told her only that he worked in a lawnmower factory); she never guesses, although her own father did, that he's a squaddie in the British Army.

In her increasingly pointless search, she spirals down through levels of despair, through squats and charity shelters to the streets. She falls among weird landladies, religious maniacs, down and outs of all kinds. And she comes across the sinister Mr Hilditch, lonely and obese, whose outward respectability as a catering manager masks the inner reality of his little "Memory Lane", sweet recollections of Beth and Sharon, Bobbi, Elsie and Gaye, and the other young women he'd "helped" when they were lonelyand lost.

This latest Trevor novel uses all the tricks of a thriller, and in the US, where it is being marketed as such, it is outselling all his other books put together. In Britain and Ireland, though, it has been received as an "issues" book: the Irish Times called it Trevor's "angriest" novel; critics here have read it as a critique of Thatcher's Britain. Some of Trevor's devoted fans, what's more, have found something cold, even distasteful, about it.

Trevor himself is happy to call it a thriller - Patricia Highsmith is among the living writers he admires most - but he doesn't agree with other reactions to Felicia's Journey. His perfect good temper does not slip, but with some emphasis he says: "It's not an angry book. And it's not a political book.

"I did an interview with Nigel Williams on Kaleidoscope, and he kept saying, `You're going for her, aren't you, going for Mrs Thatcher?', but really I wasn't - it's quite unfair; what is happening here is happening on the streets all over Europe. It justhappens to be set here.

"Nor is it a political book in the sense of the little Irish girl getting a hard time at the hands of the great big imperial nation state, just like Ireland always has. The Americans think that, of course. But critics have got to write something, haven'tthey?"

If the story had any particular genesis, it came mainly from "wondering why people end up like that, so many Irish girls who come to England and end up on the streets". Trevor never researches a story, except "backwards - I often go somewhere when the book's all finished, just to check." And he believes that "it's always necessary to go outside your experience a bit, otherwise you don't use your imagination at all. But I like to get every single factual detail right."

Trevor has a passion for accuracy, for place-names, exact locations on a map, brand names, for weaving in playful details (he gives us Mr Hilditch's PIN number, an old one of his own). It's partly for this reason that he enjoys his association with the New Yorker, which goes back 15 years. He has worked for three editors, but it isn't the editors so much as those guardians of accuracy, the "grammarians upstairs", that he values. And the celebrated fact-checkers, who have been known to discover that the cinema in a remote Irish town is called the Stellar not the Savoy, or to claim that a Venetian hotel is not brown but pink (this issue was only resolved when it was discovered that the hotel had just been repainted).

If Felicia's Journey has no political intent, is it a religious book? Trevor has said he is careful about names, wanting them to "work" for him: so the quest of his happily named Felicia is perhaps a spiritual one? "Yes, I think that's what the ending isall about. Felicia was offered a belief in a God, and all that goes with it, in Ireland, and it hasn't worked, somehow.

"She discovers her own view of God, a view that's completely individual. It's a God-bothering book, in that sense."

Is he religious? "I'm a God-botherer. Most of my fiction seems to do that. I'm definitely on the side of the Christians, but I don't mind where I go to church, whether it's a Catholic church or a Protestant church."

This might seem a brave attitude for an Irishman to take, even on this side of the water, but Trevor has obviously thought it all out: he says of Ireland, firmly: "I will be buried there."

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