Kennedy cre­ates in­trigu­ing cou­ple on a col­li­sion course for love

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - A.L. Kennedy Jonathan Cape, £17.99 Re­viewed by Todd McEwen

THIS is a bold, cin­e­matic novel that cov­ers a lot of ter­ri­tory, its sub­jects as large, di­verse and in­ti­mate as ad­dic­tion, pol­i­tics, cloth­ing, an­i­mals, cof­fee, the trap­pings of power, and what lit­tle mea­sure of kind­ness may re­main in the world. Not to men­tion love, and Lon­don it­self.

It has a great feel for Lon­don, Lon­don on a slightly dis­com­fit­ing day when you are not sure you want to be there or that you can make the city do what you want.

It would be hard to de­scribe it as a ‘ro­man­tic com­edy’, al­though it is a ro­mance and parts of it are ter­rif­i­cally funny. But that is what its ul­ti­mate ef­fect is, even though the com­ing to­gether of hero and hero­ine is painful to wit­ness.

Jon is a rather se­nior civil ser­vant, the ne plus ul­tra of anonymity. He’s sup­pos­edly from Scot­land, al­though aside from some hints about a stul­ti­fy­ing child­hood in Nairn and some good old pub­lic school tor­ture, Scot­land hasn’t had much ef­fect on him.

He’s a thor­oughly Bri­tish, thor­oughly messed-up male; the pa­thetic qual­ity of Bri­tish male­ness is one of the most sat­is­fy­ing themes of the novel.

His job of course is never, and can never be, suf­fi­ciently ex­plained to him­self, or to us, be­cause that’s part of how White­hall works: it never ad­mits any­thing, even to it­self.

He deals with doc­u­ments mostly, but some­times is sent out into the field, Alec Lea­mas style, to con­front some­one go­ing hay­wire or threat­en­ing to leak. He even gets beaten up at one point.

It’s hardly con­vinc­ing, yet the reader feels that that is what it would be like for some­one this neu­rotic and in­ef­fec­tual to get beaten up: not very con­vinc­ing.

AL Kennedy is re­ally en­ter­tain­ing on this mi­lieu, and at times the story looks like it is go­ing to be­come a full-blown Le Carré, al­though a kinkier and more de­scrip­tive Le Carré. Jon muses on the hi­er­ar­chi­cal na­ture of West­min­ster, even of­fice fit­ments. He ad­mires the “nicely heavy doors” of the of­fices of his su­pe­ri­ors.

There’s a fetishis­tic level of in­ter­est in cloth­ing through­out this book, par­tic­u­larly among the eti­o­lated se­nior ser­vants who haunt the plot and Jon’s var­i­ous para­noias and day-to-day tribu­la­tions.

A bird craps on him one morn­ing when he has al­most ar­rived at work, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a quick sub­sti­tu­tion of ‘non-U’ gar­ments, and this is what starts the story rolling.

He has to go to an (ugh) off-the-peg cloth­ier’s where the se­lec­tion of aristo trews ap­palls him: “… pink cor­duroy, gold cor­duroy, yel­low cor­duroy, pow­derblue cor­duroy, pur­ple … Christ … it was ei­ther that or even more hor­ri­fy­ing op­tions in li­nen – 20 sec­onds af­ter you’ve got in­side it, li­nen’s like wear­ing a week-old hand­ker­chief, you can’t win … The pre­dictably gar­ish choices pre­ferred by gen­tle­men of in­flu­ence.”

One is in­trigued to know how Kennedy can be so good, so ac­cu­rate on all this stuff, and one might be fright­ened to know the an­swer. Has she her­self had to in­trigue, for our ben­e­fit, in the cor­ri­dors of limp Bri­tish in­flu­ence? Hope not.

Like ev­ery char­ac­ter in nov­els about White­hall, Jon has a se­cret. It’s an in­nocu­ous one: he has ad­ver­tised him­self as a writer of let­ters to women who are lonely.

It’s not pornog­ra­phy; for a fee he sim­ply writes ador­ing let­ters to women who would like some­one to be nice to them.

The spooks find him out of course and tell him his ca­reer’s over, which doesn’t make sense: he’s not an op­er­a­tive, he’s not in an im­por­tant min­istry (we never know which it is) and there’s noth­ing il­le­gal about writ­ing love let­ters for money. Is there? The im­pli­ca­tion is that some­thing tawdry could be made out of it, and as White­hall is to­tally tawdry, some­thing will.

One of the re­cip­i­ents of Jon’s pretty sen­ti­ments is Meg, a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic, who spends her time fuss­ing over many va­ri­eties of cof­fee-based drinks and work­ing for an an­i­mal res­cue char­ity. (There’s a su­perb Kennedy ex­pli­ca­tion about the char­ac­ter of gun-dogs of the rich in here.)

Meg, too, is a writer of an in­ter­est­ing kind. She has suf­fered greatly at the hands of both Alcoholics Anony­mous and some ‘group’ which an­noyed the hell

Like ev­ery char­ac­ter in nov­els about White­hall, Jon has a se­cret

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