Wednesday, 12 January 2022

On not taking the hint

This is Julian Barnes writing about Penelope Fitzgerald. (It's from 2008: never say that I fail to keep up with current affairs.) He talks about being on a panel with her at York University, about 10 years previously. (This is truly hot gossip.) He asked her to inscribe a couple of her books, which she did, with much thought. He put the books away without looking at the inscriptions. He describes the journey back to London as follows:

Afterwards, we were driven to York station to travel back to London together. When invited, I had been given the option of a modest fee and standard-class travel, or no fee and a first-class ticket. I had chosen the latter. The train drew in. I assumed that the university could not possibly have given an octogenarian of such literary distinction anything other than a first-class ticket. But when I set off towards what I assumed to be our carriage, I saw that she was heading in a more modest direction. Naturally, I joined her. I can't remember what we talked about on the journey down; perhaps I mentioned the odd coincidence that we had both made our first hardcover fictional appearance in the same book (The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories, 1975); probably I asked the usual daft questions about what she was working on and when the next novel would appear (I later learned that she frequently lied to interviewers). At King's Cross I suggested that we share a cab, since we both lived in the same part of north London. Oh no, she replied, she would take the Underground - after all, she had been given this splendid free pass by Ken Livingstone. Assuming it must feel an even longer day to her than to me, I pressed for the taxi option, but she was quietly obstinate, and came up with a clinching argument: she had to pick up a pint of milk on the way from the Underground station, and if she went home by cab it would mean having to go out again later. I ploddingly speculated that we could very easily stop the taxi outside the shop and have it wait while she bought her milk. "I hadn't thought of that," she said. But no, I still hadn't convinced her: she had decided to take the Underground, and that was that. So I waited beside her on the concourse while she looked for her free pass in the tumult of her carrier bag. It must be there, surely, but no, after much dredging, it didn't seem to be findable. I was by this point feeling - and perhaps exhibiting - a certain impatience, so I marched us to the ticket machine, bought our tickets, and squired her down the escalator to the Northern Line. As we waited for the train, she turned to me with an expression of gentle concern. "Oh dear," she said, "I do seem to have involved you in some low forms of transport." I was still laughing by the time I got home and opened her books to read those long-pondered inscriptions. In The Beginning of Spring she had written "best wishes - Penelope Fitzgerald"; while in The Blue Flower - a dedication that had taken considerably more thought - she had put "best wishes - Penelope".

Is it just me, or is this the story of a polite woman trying to shake off a bore? 

I can just imagine how the conversation went. "Do you recall the Times Anthology of Ghost Stories? 1974, I think it was. No, I tell a lie: it was 1975. Or perhaps 1976. No, 1975. Anyway, there's a funny coincidence ..." and all the while Fitzgerald was looking out of the window thinking that it was surprising how far Peterborough was from York and wishing she had brought some crochet so she had something to do with her hands. 

Surely, she must have thought that, as she pretended not to be able to find her travelcard in her handbag, the penny will drop? I'm sure this busy young man has important things to attend to and he'll have to make his excuses and leave. But no!  

No wonder she dithered so long about dropping her surname from the second inscription. She rightly read him as a bit of limpet and worried that it would look like a blatant come-on. She must have been scared stiff that he was going to invite himself in for a cup of tea. 

Still, Barnes is perceptive on the writing side of things. He picks out this bit of hers, which did raise a smile:

The Annual General meeting of the Clapham Antiquarians passed off quite well except when I went down to the Church hall kitchen to help Mrs Smith (the treasurer's wife, in a green hat and cardigan) get the tea (for 47 famished members) she was having a crise de nerfs, she told me she'd been worrying the whole of the week about the tea for the meeting, and, do what I could, I couldn't get her to put on more than one kettle, so the tea had to be made in small relays and the Antiquarians, who'd already sat down and eaten all the cakes, were getting quite riotous. I brought some sausage rolls but as soon as Daddy started handing them round they disappeared, everyone said they fancied something savoury. Unfortunately I dropped off to sleep during the talk with lantern slides, so missed many interesting facts about Clapham . . .

(Every well-equipped church hall should have a tea urn, but I don't know how they arrange these things in Clapham.) 

Now I come to think of it, I wonder whether, as he tetchily marched her to the ticket machine in King's Cross, Barnes reminded Fitzgerald of one of these riotous antiquarians who needed to be calmed by copious quantities of sausage rolls. He'll invite himself in for a cup of tea, she thought, and then he'll eat my food in the wrong order, and I had been saving that cold pie for Daddy.  

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