The Hunter in me comes out of the attic

22nd August 1997 at 01:00
Roger McGough wrote a poem that referred to former art students whose careers were less creatively based than their training, as living with their "dreams portfolioed in the attic". On the basis of "those who can, do; those who can't, teach", I suppose many teachers use the summer break to indulge themselves in a more creative pursuit of their original qualifications than is normally possible during the hurly-burly of the school year.

So it was that I headed for the Edinburgh Book Festival with my English teacher hat for once more apparent than that of guidance or assistant head. This was the more artistic and creative side of my nature allowed out to play.

I was looking forward to seeing Hunter Davies interview Margaret Forster for a number of reasons, not the least being that he is one of my favourite writers. There is an easy, conversational style to his work which is deceptively effective. Furthermore, he's seemed to me to function as a kind of literary guardian angel, dogging my steps in print since the sixties.

His first novel, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, reflected the desperate search for a girlfriend indulged in by school-leavers in a small north of England town at the end of the allegedly swinging decade. It wasn't great writing, but it was close enough to personal experience to have a lasting effect, especially in alliance with the now hideously dated film version, paisley shirts, Judy Geeson and soundtrack by Traffic notwithstanding.

The first of the new wave of serious football writing, predating Nick Hornby by at least 20 years, was produced in his account of a year with Tottenham Hotspur, The Glory Game, and as I settled in to teaching, he wrote The Creighton Report, a blow by blow journal of a year in the life of a north London comprehensive.

My interests in Hadrian's Wall and the Lake District were fuelled by two excellent travelogues in his "A Walk along . . ." series, and then when my infant son took a shine to Peter Rabbit, there was Hunter with his highly accessible illustrated life of Beatrix Potter. Add to that chatty biographies of Wordsworth and Robert Louis Stevenson, and it is easy to see why my reply to the question "Favourite English writers?" provides the unlikely coupling of Charles Dickens and Hunter Davies.

Enjoying the written word is not enough, though: we want our literary heroes to be folk of whom we approve as well. He scores highly here, too, his newspaper columns revealing a comfortingly familiar obsession with football, to the point of family rows and the disbelieving scorn of casualty officers well into his late middle age. He even divides his life between London and the Lakes, thus getting to watch both his original love, Carlisle United, and his adopted grandeur at Spurs' White Hart Lane. What a guy!

Part of the attraction of this event was that he would be interviewing his wife, an interesting enough scenario on its own. Similarly to her husband, Forster originally hit the big time with a swinging sixties book and film, the well regarded Georgy Girl. Likewise, she has moved on, to the extent of banning reprints of most of her earlier work.

Her later writing, fiction and non-fiction, has tended to look at family relationships, generally involving mothers and daughters. Her latest memoir, Hidden Lives, relating the lives of her female antecedents back as far as her great-grandmother, has been a best seller, exploiting the interest we all have in looking into the ordinary lives of others for points of reference - the fascination originally exploited by Coronation Street and other soaps before sensationalism became the order of the day. This focus on relationships has led to Forster being occasionally dubbed a "women's writer", which may well be an unfortunate reflection on the reading habits of the male.

Still, I wasn't prepared for the shock that awaited me as I joined the queue for the interview in Charlotte Square gardens. The audience was overwhelmingly 50 and female. Surrounded by 200 pairs of glinting spectacle and feeling like a marshmallow in a sweet shop of Marks and Spencer pastel-coloured sun dresses, I did a quick survey of the male presence: six baldies, five beardies and three arty-looking silver-haired suits, undoubtedly literary personages. All of them were there with their partners.

I wanted to jump up and down and shout: "Actually, it's more Hunter Davies I'm here to see." Could I really be the only male under 50 in Edinburgh who enjoys reading Forster's family-based writing? I had to fight a shameful urge to hightail it to the BT tent where lots of six-year-old boys were giving their dads crash courses in computer technology and its relevance to literature (answers on a postcard, please).

However, I stuck to it, and glad I was. Hunter was exactly how I wanted him to be, charming and unpretentious ("You're just the popular Mr Toad," his wife gibed, as he admitted he'd stopped writing novels because bad crits depressed him). Our synchronicity continues: I noted he now qualifies for the Baldies' Club and, like me, had somewhat dubiously bought a light suit for summer. (I was pleased to note that he too justifies the suit by making a Martin Bell reference.) Despite the difficulties inherent in husband interviewing wife, both parties carried it off excellently, proving some fascinating insights. Forster claimed that while biographies were the product of three years' hard graft, novels germinated inside her, until they finally "boiled up" and were written down in around seven weeks.

The last revelation kind of dampened down the smugness I'd been feeling at a summer break filled with holiday, garage cleaning and gardening. A novel in seven weeks? That is one to share with my Standard grade class who take two months to produce a single page.

The ideal finish to the event would have entailed my approaching Hunter and letting him know my admiration, but I bottled it. I reflected that it would be embarrassing and that it might just break the spell, so I left without speaking to him. That's the problem with these long summer holidays: too much time to think.

Jotter returns next week

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