For Struan Robertson, a 17-year-old genius from Scotland, London is more exotic than Paris or Thailand - it's a place that no one returns from.
Despite this- and encouraged by his English teacher Mr Fox - Struan takes on the job of carer for Phillip Prys, a revered author who has suffered a stroke, and heads off to Hampstead in the stiflingly hot summer of 1989, armed with nothing but the wrong jeans and the wrong haircut.
In poet Kate Clanchy’s fiction début, Meeting the English the arrival of Struan has a huge impact on Phillip’s warring friends and family and in his own endearingly honest way he manages to bring them all together. “Struan is a hero, I made him a genius just because I’m allowed, but you do meet very responsible, very mature teenagers just as often as you meet the other kind, but we don’t put them in novels much," Clanchy explains.
"I quite like it that Struan is not glamorous, I remember reading Less than Zero in 1989 and thinking I’ve never met anyone like that. We were all supposed to be identifying with that, but I couldn’t. What about ordinary responsibilities? Struan feels them too much . . .
"It’s partly class and partly nationhood; that solidity and sense of responsibility is very Scottish, but so is that narrowness. Mr Fox is right, he does need to go to London to widen his horizons.”
Born in Glasgow and educated in Edinburgh, Clanchy explains that Struan’s initial reactions to the quaint world of wealthy Hampstead: “Where are the real shops? Why is it so hot? Where is the oxygen?”—are all autobiographical. “When I first came to London I lived in west Hampstead and everyone says you shouldn’t write a Hampstead novel, but this is a Hampstead novel from a different point of view. I had all those questions, that’s all me.”
Snapshot of the ’80s
Meeting the English is very funny indeed; a literary novel that manages to pack an irreverent punch and take a wry look at the fashions and sensibilities of the late 1980s. Clanchy explains that the chance to create a raft of ridiculous characters was part of the attraction of writing a novel for the first time. “It is a comedy, it’s the plot of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the characters are all confused for the most part but then everything ends up well. It’s a classic idea but I had an outrageous amount of fun. I‘ve always made a lot of jokes, but (with poetry or short stories) you can’t be consistently mean for 70,000 words and rip the piss as much.”
Publisher Picador is billing Meeting the English as perfect for fans of Alan Hollinghurst, Ali Smith and Zoe Heller and Clanchy has managed to create a carefully drawn group of characters for Struan to “meet”. From his new best friend Juliet—Phillip’s fat, “Welsh dwarf” daughter who becomes addicted to speed and Jane Fonda-style workouts—to Juliet’s mother and Phillip’s first wife Myfanwy—an embittered woman who becomes obsessed with Phillip dying so she can sell the house: “Each hour you live in this house is a hundred off the value. You’re shitting money out of your flaccid arse.”—Struan is constantly baffled by his new troop of cohorts.
Alongside Juliet and Myfanwy is Phillip’s entitled and arrogant son Jake, Jake’s anorexic girlfriend Celia and Phillip’s beautiful, enigmatic “and shiny” second wife Shirin, who Struan falls hopelessly in love with.
Due to Clanchy’s skill as a writer, even the misogynistic Phillip makes for an appealing character. Left over from a play that Clanchy had written for Radio 3 about a Hampstead-dwelling poet, she explains that: “his baldness and his tweed came out right from the start. You do meet literary fiction men like Phillip, ancient old monsters born out of the complete misogyny of that era. When I was a cute young poet the misogyny was unbelievable, the assumption that you would sleep with people was ridiculous. But, writing from the point of view of someone who is very ill is quite a lot of fun and although he is awful, you do have to feel sorry for him because as Juliet says: ‘The old man in the wheelchair is quite sweet really.’”
Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy is published by Picador