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Author finds the politics in the details

December 17, 2008|John Freeman

LONDON — Philip Hensher experienced an unusual contraindication to completing "The Northern Clemency," his epic Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about Britain in the 1970s.

"I started looking at orange plastic plates in junk shops," he says, "and thinking, 'Ah, this is quite nice.' "

Sitting at a cafe on Sloan Square, Hensher, a big cheery man in a pink shirt, chuckles and takes an anthropological tack on this recent fetish.

"I think domestic interiors are very interesting; they are always a mixture of the sincere and the aspirational. They state how people really are, and then other objects seem to reflect how they would like to be."

"The Northern Clemency" takes these details -- the stuff of domestic life in the hopefully landscaped, burgeoning suburban development of Sheffield -- and uses them to spin a mammoth, emotionally affecting tale of two families.

The book begins with a garden party hosted by the Glovers, a fractured family on the cusp. As the novel unfolds, and the Glovers gradually unravel, a second family, the Sellers, moves to the neighborhood from London.

Slowly, hilariously, the book chronicles the fortunes of each family as they rise and fall over the next two decades. It is, in many ways, to England what Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" was to America; Amazon.com recently selected it the No. 1 book of the year.

Hensher, 43, grew up in Sheffield. His father was a bank manager, his mother a college librarian. He originally planned to excavate this past in a brief book.

"When I started, I was going to write a very small, quiet novel about childhood, and it was going to be 150 pages long, maximum," he says.

But then he wondered what would happen to a young, obsessive child like so many he knew. "Well, I thought, of course he would be a member of one of those mad, leftist groups," he says.

Sheffield may have been boring, but it was impossible to grow up there in Hensher's time and not be affected by the violent miners strike of 1984.

"We talked about it for weeks and weeks," Hensher recalls. "There was a great deal of door slamming and people not speaking to one another."

The politics of the period had been trickling down to children for a decade at that point. Hensher attended a local comprehensive school that had aspirations to becoming a grammar school.

One day, a major in the British army stopped by to give a career talk, bringing a tank to the playground. "He got to the end, and the headmaster said, 'Thank you very much, major. Does anybody have any questions?'

"My friend Ian put up his hand and said: 'How do you reconcile your conscience working with an imperialist, fascist organization?' "

Hensher says this leftist charge was the result not just of local developments but also of a large-scale change in British culture after World War II. For the first time, people became socially mobile; through education and work, they might change the society and also their place in it.

"There's a book that came out last year called 'Austerity Britain,' " Hensher says, "and there's a wonderful little vignette in it of a public school boy getting out of a train at the end of the war and calling to the porter, 'My man!' And the porter turns around, 'No, all that is over now.' "

Of course, it was and it wasn't, but a great deal of mobility did occur within the middle classes, the group Hensher writes about in "The Northern Clemency."

"Jane's journey was very much like mine," he explains, referring to the older Glover daughter. "I went to Oxford. I went to Cambridge. Afterwards, I thought, 'That was nice. It was nice to be someplace with very good libraries.' "

What happened socially was also happening intellectually. When Hensher was earning a graduate degree in 18th century satire at Cambridge, among his undergraduate classmates was the New Yorker critic and novelist James Wood.

"When he started out, I would read him in the newspaper, passing judgment on the whole of literature and what it should do, and I just thought, 'He's 22!' "

Hensher followed a more roundabout path to writing than Wood did, applying for jobs in advertising and working for six years as a clerk at the House of Commons. After hours, he wrote a novel about a woman in Vienna called "Other Lulus," which was published in 1995 when he was 29.

Hensher has since published five other books, only one of which, "The Mulberry Empire," has come out in the United States. That novel, which channels Kipling, Dickens and Conrad to retell the history of Britain's involvement in Afghanistan, was encouraged by Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt.

"She is one of those novelists, and there aren't that many of them, who takes an interest in younger novelists," Hensher says. "She's always got somebody new she has discovered she is excited about. A lot of novelists get to the peak of their eminence and take no interest in what's coming up behind them."

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