Of all English traits

Meeting The English
 Kate Clanchy
Picador
2014,
pp 310
Rs 399

There’s a difference between stories that are simply about the United Kingdom and stories written by someone who is deeply entrenched in what makes up the United Kingdom.

While the former, like a video made for the casual tourist, will only scratch the surface of what the UK is, the latter will take you deep inside a culture that has so many intricacies that it will give the impression of being absolutely alien. 

And this will hold especially true for non-European, non-American readers, because of their unfamiliarity with Scottish, Irish, Welsh and everything else there is. Heck, to some, Cockney might seem absolutely cuckoo.

It is this second kind of journey on which Kate Clanchy takes her readers in Meeting the English. Her background of poetry is clearly reflected in some of the passages, as they stick out from between otherwise prosaic narration. Yet, this juxtaposition adds to the flow of the story, somehow. 

A quick word of advice to serious readers, though. Make sure you have a good internet connection handy, because Meeting the English is replete with dated references that you will need to look up. Yes, “need to”. Because they will add to the ambience of where this story is taking place, and the actions and words of the characters will make more sense. Meeting the English has a simple premise.

Struan Robertson, an orphaned Scot, applies to take care of Philip Prys, described as a “literary giant”. By the time the 17-year-old arrives to take care of the noted playwright, who has been rendered without a lot of his motor functions thanks to a stroke, Philip’s first wife, the Welsh Myfanwy, and third and current wife, the Iranian Shirin, are already tending to him. Soon, other characters drop by.

The resulting amalgam is quite a handful for the poor but bright Struan, who has quite a few of his preconceived notions about the “English” shattered. Then again, a lot of the people he meets are not exactly “English”. Philip’s literary agent Giles may come across as a London gentleman, but actually is a Dutch Jewish émigré. So is Shirin, who has stolen from her grandmother to take her family to safety, and married for safety as well. And Myfanwy is Welsh; yes, there’s a difference.  

This is where Clanchy’s talent in bringing out certain typical qualities in her characters lie. This is also where the aforementioned non-European, non-American reader would like to get a little more geographical, historical and cultural bearing. That holds all the more true because the setting is the year 1989, when the Cold War is ending and world politics is experiencing a sea change.

Meeting the English sparkles with Clanchy’s use of words, and understanding of her characters. That each of them have a mind of their own, and a resultant sense of right and wrong, love and hate, only adds to the story. It also lifts the story to a point where you start to identify with the characters, even though you may never have been within a hundred miles of the country where all this is happening. This “global” quality of writing is indeed the hallmark of a good storyteller.

In the end, Meeting the English is yet another study by Clanchy of people from different backgrounds coming together, and the resulting sparks that fly from their interactions as uneven edges meet. Her biography of a Kosovan refugee neighbour might have attempted a similar study, but the results have definitely been different — as they should have been because only one of these stories is true. And yet, Meeting the English at no point seems like a false, ill-conceived account of affairs. And that is where Clanchy’s strength lies. 

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