It’s a lovely warm night, a night for rosé wine and sitting on the steps admiring the tulips. Spring is most definitely here because nine year old Joe has resumed his seasonal mountaineering practice and is climbing in and out of the front window. But the Divine Ms Anna, dressed all in black, has darker things in mind. No vernal frolics for us - the guest of honour at tonight’s literary salon is Helen Fitzgerald, whose affable exterior and laconic manner hide a seething mass of twisted preoccupations. No wonder the soup tonight is deep red borscht, curdling in the plate like blood.
Last time Helen came to talk to the salon it was about The Cry, a piece of domestic noir that became a bestseller. Her latest novel, The Exit, falls into the category of dementia noir, a sinister tale of Alzheimer’s, danger and unspeakable sexual proclivities promulgated on the internet. She decided to write it when she came back from Australia after the death of her own father two years ago. ‘Then I discovered everyone was writing about dementia,’ she says, laughing.
Her initial thought, she admits, was to write about elderly people being sexually abused. A shudder goes round Ms Anna’s living room at the very idea. ‘I know. No-one wants to read about that,’ says Helen, whose publishers did however agree to her writing about an equally esoteric form of sexual abuse, no less repellent, though I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t yet read the book. Suffice to say that the ways of the publishing world are mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. Religions have been founded on less gnomic principles than the book industry.
From dementia to sexual abuse may seem a strange leap of thought to those unfamiliar with the Fitzgerald oeuvre, which is dark, taut and deals with the very worst of human nature. This nihilism is clearly a family trait. Helen’s sister Ria, stylish in short dress and cowboy boots and as blonde and slender as Helen is dark and slender, confesses that she has frequent mental rehearsals for the day she has to get out of the back seat of a car sinking in the river. ’You don’t want those electric windows. They could just stop working altogether if water gets into them,’ she insists. Those of us without the Fitzgerald gene for imagining Gothic life events would clearly be at a distinct disadvantage in case of vehicular flooding.
Helen’s first encounter with dying was the death of her grandmother when she was 19. Visiting her in a Melbourne hospice left her shaken.
‘I was young and frightened of old people. I felt I was in there forever but it was only five minutes probably.’
Her grandmother confided that the staff were poisoning her, something Helen dismissed as the fantasies of a demented old lady at the time. It was only later that the thought began to emerge. What if it wasn’t?
Perhaps because of her own family history, her sympathetic portrait of Rose, an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s, is one of the triumphs of the book. Rather than showing the disease, she shows the person - who she was both as a child, when she suffered a traumatic experience that she is forced to re-live now, and as an adult, when she was a writer and illustrator of children‘s books.
Helen has herself published ten books, with another out next year, a level of industry that is in itself staggering - until you learn that she also works part-time as a social worker in the criminal justice system, helping offenders.
One of her great preoccupations in The Exit is the way the internet facilitates sexual offending, which leads the salonistas into a discussion of the problems of controlling how younger generations use computers.
We’re technologically outsmarted by our children,’ sighs Ms Anna, recalling an occasion when Joe, then only seven years old, wanted her to fix his i-Pad. She forgot to re-set the parental controls, and by the time she realised her mistake he’d already downloaded an app called 100 Best Sexual Positions. Although this now provides fertile material for blackmail - If you don’t eat your Weetabix/ stop climbing through the front window/go to bed this minute, I’ll tell so and so what you were watching - it does fill her with anxiety. ‘Young people’s brains are developing neural pathways differently,’ she sighs.
Joe is clearly more interested in obtaining a second piece of Ms Anna’s delicious courgette cake (one of your five a day, really, according to the cook) than in renewing his study of anatomical adventures, so she may be worrying prematurely. Maybe it’s just that the Fitzgerald family penchant for contemplating the darkness of human existence is infectious, though The Exit is more hopeful than the salonistas - its most touching element is the alliance achieved between the young and the old, between Rose and the other central character, Catherine, a young, thoughtless woman who lives her life through social media. When she has to, she grows up fast, as Joe and his generation undoubtedly will too.
The Exit, by Helen Fitzgerald, Faber and Faber
Pictures by Ria Fitzgerald
Look, I'm going to be honest here. I thought it was going to be the clash of the Titans. Katie Grant and Maggie Lennon together in one room? Irresistible force meets?... well, irresistible force. There would be blood spilt on the Divine Ms Anna's floor. Her elegant literary salon would be transformed into a bear-pit, all Maileresque brawling and braggadocio.
But La Lennon, sporting a haircut as spiky as her normal personality, was indisposed this week. On antibiotics. Good grief, she couldn't even drink. She retired early, leaving the floor to the whip-thin and whip-smart Ms Grant, whose novel Sedition is riding high in the bestseller lists. It's currently 58 on Amazon's literary fiction chart, if she cared to look, which she doesn't because she reckons it drives writers mad. Having heard of a divorcé
who kept comparing his novel's standing with his ex-wife's, I reckon she's right.
The evening started with soup the colour of the prospective blood on the floor. Beetroot, according to Ms Anna, impeccably sourced, of course, from Saturday's farmers' market. It was pronounced superb by the more sophisticated among us, though I have to confess Ms Anna found me staring into my bowl in dismay. I think red soup may be an acquired taste.
Katie Grant's book is set in 18th century London at a time when the French Revolution was in full swing and the spirit of dissent was fomenting in the city's coffee houses. There aren't many books which can be described as original but this is one of them, a darkly humorous brew of sex, revenge, betrayal and music that is as seditious as its title and yet also deeply touching. With its two extraordinary female heroines and a Dickensian supporting cast, it's a book that stays with you. In the kitchen table discussion Katie herself said she thought that books lingering was random, but I don't think so. The imagery, the spiritual quality of the descriptions of music, but above all, the people in Sedition embed themselves in your mind.
The reviewers agreed. One described it as the kind of book that 'bookworms burrow inside to devour with relish from cover to cover. The kind you'll secrete behind all the other books on your shelves in case friends steal it and somehow "forget" to give it back. The kind from which you'll read chosen snippets to your offspring when they're old enough. An induction into the magical unruliness of words.'
Actually, it's an induction into the magical unruliness of lots of things: rape, incest, castration, and most alarming of all, apparently, the wildlife that roosts in grand houses when left to themselves. The usually unsinkable Maggie seemed to have been particularly disturbed by a scene where curtains are drawn back in a drawing room and a swarm of bats and spiders emerge from the dust-laden drapes.
'But that's what happens!' exclaimed Katie, regaling the salonistas with tales of similar occurrences from her own family home, a once grand(ish) house (main family house now a museum and art gallery) in Lancashire. On one visit her parents reported that a wall had fallen down in a child’s bedroom. When Katie and her sisters trooped upstairs to see it, the wall had indeed fallen down and was seething with zoological specimens. Her intrepid parents, with true aristocratic insouciance, simply moved the bed a couple of feet away from the epicentre of insect activity.
Picture: Debbie Toksvig
'I suppose that did breed a sort of callous jollity that is part of me and has found its way into the books,' pondered Katie. She has previously written nine children's books, one of which deals with the severed head of one of her ancestors, who was executed for supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie. The head travelled widely, sometimes in a hatbox, and spent some years in the early twentieth century in a basket on a table in the drawing room. Finally buried in St. Peter’s Church in Burnley, the tomb was re-opened in 1978 to discover that Uncle Frank's head had been befriended by another head, origin unknown. The two heads are together still.
But it may have been the ferrets that finally finished Maggie Lennon off. One of Katie's sisters apparently keeps them as pets and had let them out in the night. For reasons which escape me, Katie's children came into the room and saw these little red eyes staring at them out of the blackness. They, having been brought up in Glasgow's leafy West End, were deeply upset, but Katie and her siblings had learned it was best to laugh. 'If you didn't laugh, the darkness of life would take over too much,' she said.
Maggie was looking pale by now, though managed to get in a comment about the Daily Mail and how no decent human being could be liked by the paper. Katie, who often writes for the Mail, ignored the remark and sailed on with a description of an article she'd written about primogeniture. Sedition has generated all manner of themes for debate.
Thankfully, the Divine Ms Anna's delicious orange and clementine cake restored equilibrium and literary pugilistics were averted. Maggie had clearly decided to conserve her energies for her next opponents. She's going on a night of speed dating before flying off to Berlin to hear Rufus Wainwright. 'So I won't give a damn,' she said. Her great charm is that she never does.
Katie Grant sallied forth into the night, plotting her next book, a novel set in 1985. Sedition startled many of her friends and family. After so many children's books they weren't expecting its dark content and savage wit. Her father, in fact, grumbled to one of her sisters, 'How does Katie know about all these things?' Katie, though, is relishing her freedom to write what she wants. I don't think she gives a damn either.
DOMESTIC NOIR AT THE DIVINE MS ANNA'S
'The pork pie is v.v.good,' said the Divine Ms Anna. Those of you with a literary bent will recognise the quotation, from the Helen Fielding masterpiece, Bridget Jones. But then that's the sort of high quality allusions you get at Ms Anna's literary salons.
There's also roasted red pepper soup, loads of wine and sparkling conversation—
a focus group with soup, as Mark Douglas-Home called it when he was the featured writer, just doesn't cover it.
We gathered in Ms Anna's high-ceilinged flat in Glasgow's West End to hear the Australian writer, Helen Fitzgerald, whose book The Cry struck a nerve with every woman in the room. A crying child on an aeroplane to Australia, an overdose, a cover-up—
the ingredients sound like those of a thriller, but The Cry is a psychological study of guilt, of motherhood and of women's immersion in the world of the men they love.
Although the book's subject matter is dark, it is so compelling to read that most of us devoured it immediately we got it. The unsinkable Maggie Lennon (her discreet hair colour offset with a pair of large earrings), identified so closely with the characters that she was up at eight in the morning to finish it off. 'How did you know all about me?' she demanded. Her life, it transpired, had contained similar patterns to those of the book's central character, Joanna—
affairs with unsuitable men and crying children who she claimed to calm down with brandy in her breast milk. 'I had the only children on the planet allergic to Kalpol,' she said.
This may have been poetic licence, it being a literary evening. There was certainly no criticism, only laughter, from the other women there. Many of them had been through the crying baby on the plane nightmare which starts off The Cry, one of whose major themes is the way people sit in judgement on women's motherhood skills. 'If it's a man they just say, Oh, what a good daddy he is, but women get blamed,' said Sara Hunt, publisher at Saraband Books.
Helen Fitzgerald, tall and austere looking but with a fine turn of wicked wit, said she hadn't done many events like this. She'd been invited to a book group in one of Glasgow's leafy suburbs after her first novel, but the good ladies of Netherlee uninvited her once they discovered that Dead Lovely dealt with 'adultery, weird sex and madness' during a hike along the West Highland Way. 'Clearly such things don't go on in Netherlee,' noted the Divine Ms Anna, wearing a bright red cardigan with a black and white polka-dotted dress tonight. Unusually for her, this did not seem to match any of her household accoutrements.
Discussion of the book moved into discussion of the characters, whose traits most of us recognised in ourselves. 'I always use the things about myself that I dislike,' confessed Helen, though all the female characters in The Cry are feisty, thoughtful women whose only flaw is that they fall in love with manipulative men. (Not the case for Helen herself, who is happily married to screenwriter Sergio Casci.)
The Cry, it appears,falls into a new category, domestic noir, though Helen said that her publishers, Faber & Faber, wanted her to make the next book more 'thriller-y,' a requirement that the focus group (now on to almond cake and wine) found quite unnecessary. Faber gave her a two book deal after she submitted a half page synopsis of the novel, which came to her suddenly one day in Beanscene, but they were not so keen on her next idea, a novel about the sexual abuse of a dementia sufferer. Not willing to take their word for it, she consulted several other publishers, who were all equally unkeen. She seems to be going ahead anyway, incorporating the storyline into a wider plot. It's not hard to see where her feisty characters come from.
Having published ten books since 2007, she is now, unsurprisingly, fed up with writing. But those of us who have become fans of her mordant wit, penetrating psychology and taut writing style are going to try and tempt her into Beanscene soon. Who knows where her clever, funny imagination will take her next?
The Divine Ms Anna and her Domestic Accessory
I missed the bit about pants. Unfortunately. I’m sure it was very enlightening, though have no idea where the discussion roamed. Thongs? Those bum-cleaving shorts with the seam up the back? The return of the tanga? (If only.)
That’s the beauty of the literary salon, that you are free to explore the most profound philosophical questions of the age, to debate politics, the economy, history, and books, of course. Plus pants.
The book in question was Dennis O’Donnell’s The Locked Ward: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Orderly, a compelling read whose humour and humanity outweighed the horror of the subject. Dennis, who comes from the spooky sounding 'hinterland of West Lothian,' has also written a series of novels about Jack Black, a Bathgate (yes, really) private eye. His rite of passage novel, I Am the Eggman, is set in the swinging sixties— he says he was once a hippy and you can sort of tell from the natty, Jaggeresque trilby he sports on his Facebook page.
Our hostess, the divine Ms Anna, was sporting a disappointingly muted combination of cropped jeans and soft grey shirt, no doubt to avoid comparison with her household appliances. But she surely can't think we failed to notice her planting of a domestic accessory?— her one male guest, former Herald writer Ken Wright, was wearing pink socks the exact shade of that kettle of hers.
After the gazpacho, fresh and tangy on Glasgow's brief attempt at a summer evening, we went through to Ms Anna's salon, where Dennis read from the book. The section, about a trip to the local garage with an assortment of inmates from the locked ward, was both funny and touching, as so much of the book is.
Dennis swore he'd fictionalised the characters by merging characteristics and even changing people's gender, but the pen portraits are so truthful and vivid that I can't help feeling people recognised themselves and were pleased to be included. I once wrote a book (The Cruel Game) about a year on the snooker circuit and found that few minded being lampooned or teased— what people really objected to was being left out.
The Locked Ward raises enormous issues about how we treat the mentally ill, questions about drugs, restraints and above all, compassion. Some in the group, which this time included museum curators, teachers and the unsinkable Maggie Lennon with yet another vivid hair colour, had actually had experience of the locked ward through family and friends, so there was much discussion of the ethics of it all, the black humour of the staff, and the need for commonsense. RD Laing's theories of mental illness being a valid response to the craziness of people around us was condemned by various members of the group, who saw mental illness as just that, illness that (like any other) would need treatment.
I think we were all agreed on one thing, that if we were to end up in the prison of the mind, Dennis O'Donnell would be the person we'd choose to help us through it, though I have to say he occasionally regarded the group with a look of both bemusement and amusement, the sort of look we might have for his collection of eccentric patients. Probably it was the far-ranging nature of the discussion, which was not confined to literature or mental illness.
Plus the pants.
THE DELICIOUS INGREDIENTS OF A
First, take one stylish hostess, Anna Burnside, in fabulous wedges that she confides are the sensible alternative to her 'mad shoes,' and pink cropped trousers that match her kettle.
Throw in a bunch of mixed professionals, including journalists, social workers, a film producer and a gardener.
Stir in home made pea soup, runny soft Brie, countless nibbles and copious amounts of drink and conversation and you have the recipe for a splendid evening.
I'd never been to a literary salon before and was honoured to be invited to talk about my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, in the divine Ms Anna's elegant flat in the West End of Glasgow. Not being familiar with salons and how they're conducted, I was a bit flummoxed to be asked to do a reading but luckily I'd appeared at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival the week before and still had the print-out of the extract I'd chosen. I'd like to say it was forward thinking that led to its presence in my handbag, but alas it was blotched with either coffee or wine stains (my two staples) and had an email address scrawled on the back. I'm sure I'll remember soon why I was to contact the lady.
A literary salon, according to Wikipedia, 'is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.' They've rather fallen out of fashion since their heyday in 18th century France but this is perhaps the moment for their revival, when the literati are mulling over the paradox that women are the main consumers of fiction, yet wield much less power than men. A recent breakdown of the gender balance of literary magazines showed an astonishing bias towards men, with a magazine such as the London Review of Books, for example, featuring 174 female book reviewers, authors reviewed and bylines compared to 574 male. No wonder Spare Rib is making a comeback.
The glittering French salons gave women the opportunity to shine. The most famous were run by fashionable hostesses famed for their erudition and brilliant conversation. Just like us Weegies really, though Ms Anna, the Glaswegian Mme de Staël, confessed that some colleagues at the magazine where she was working found her 'strong meat' because of her lack of inhibition in expressing her opinions. They clearly hadn't encountered the irrepressible Maggie Lennon, who was also there that night.
Anna eschewed the French tradition of lounging on her bed with her guests around her and instead brought out an eclectic collection of funky modern chairs. The other Jean Rafferty (Jean Bond Rafferty), an American who lives in Paris and whose invites to fashion shows I'm always receiving, would no doubt have been able to identify them. I just know they weren't IKEA.
It's an interesting process for writers to be in such an intimate setting with their readers. I've appeared at a couple of literary festivals and there's almost a protective veil between you and the audience—you're on a platform, you have a chairperson to moderate. I know Ms Anna would have jumped in if things had got heated, but this was a more democratic forum. And there was wine!
'I was very stern with them,' she told me. 'I insisted they all had to read the book beforehand.'
The result was a group of people genuinely addressing the issues of the novel—why did the Moors Murderers do it? why were they so reviled when subsequent serial killers have killed far more people? was their background enough to explain their actions?
The group were, of course, all women—they rather than men seem to have embraced the novel as an art form, perhaps because it doesn't require specialisation. In general women, no matter how elevated they become in their chosen profession, are still involved in the minutiae of domestic and family life. They're the ones who get off the red-eye from New York and still spoon yoghhurt into the kids or drive them into school. They never get too far from reality, so stories of human beings seem viscerally important to them in a way they don't seem to be with men.
Fiction ranges through every level of human activity, from philosophy to morality to passion to shoes. You can refract science or religion or love through its lens; you can use it to reflect on literary form or to reflect on eternity. That's what makes it such a useful vehicle for discussing big issues, the nature of reality.
And some small ones. Our inspiring hostess Anna Burnside led the discussion into unexpected areas, such as when did M take the wig* off after she met the priest who became her lover? And wasn't he hot? She also produced the most delicious banana bread which, like Proust's madeleine, stirred distant memories—in my case, that of chewing a bar of banana split toffee and jumping over puddles after I'd got my pocket money.
The whole thing was a delightful experience and I look forward to the next one, which will feature a male writer whose name Anna would not disclose. That's the other ingredient of the successful literary salon, a pinch of spice—and that Ms A has in abundance.
* M didn't sleep with the priest at their first meeting. The next time they met she brazened it out and turned up with her normal brown hair. He, being a hot male, wasn't looking that far north anyway.
** Men and haircuts: they're dimly aware you've changed something but they're not sure what.