King of the Badgers – by Philip Hensher

KOBUnlike the book group in Hanmouth, where ‘some can’t even finish the book after a month’s notice’, our group read and, monthly, enjoyed this book. Some thought that the author was better than Patrick Gale or Alan Hollinghurst at writing about this sort of setting and more humorous. Many want to read more from him.

Someone who used to live in North Devon said that this place was typical. He thought he knew a Miranda in real life. As in real life, we don’t learn too much detail about people: we only know about them from encounters. ‘It’s like The Archers on speed,’ one said.

There was a good description of Paddington and annoyance at slow people when one is rushing for a train

There were good references to popular culture.

We get stereotypes: upper-middle-class villagers are shallow, selfish, and fat: being lower-class implies you are uneducated, grasping, and willing to do anything; being gay means that you go to wild orgies with drugs. Straights’ are obsessed with anal sex

There is a UKIP tendency: criminals are likely to have black accents and CCTV is mainly to monitor youth.

I liked the notion of Devon as a suburb of London. I disliked the description of Simon Russell Beale as someone of “real quality” because I can’t stand him.

The repetition of ‘He made love to the little girl.’ Was creepy and one person thought that abuse was too serious a topic to weave a humorous story around.

One thought that the chapters were too short and wondered whether the author committed himself to writing a set number of words each day and stopped once that target was met.

There is a seeming absence of editing – someone flew from Rome to London but we are later told it was in the other direction.

It was well-written, so the Americanism of ‘donators’ for ‘donors’ was a little jarring.

We are still not sure as to the origin of the title.


“at its most expensive, unfettered views of the estuary and the hills beyond, crested with a remote and ducal folly-tower.”

“In any case,” Heidi said to the police later, quite calmly, “I knew China hadn’t gone to visit her friends for one straight and simple reason. She doesn’t have any friends. She’s not been a popular girl, ever. They bully her, I expect, because they say she’s fat and she smells. I don’t think she smells, but at that age, it’s always some reason they’ve got to pick on her, isn’t it? I knew she hadn’t gone to visit a friend. To tell the truth, I thought at first, China, she’s playing some trick on her brother and sister. I’ll tan her hide, I thought at first.”

 She was aware of the dangers to a woman of her size and age of flowing red and purple velvet, of ethnic beads  and the worst that Hampstead Bazaar could do. She would not, like most of Hanmouth’s women, be inspired by Dame Judi Dench on an Oscar night, and she dressed , as far as possible, in the black and white lines and corners of the fat wife of a Weimar architect.

“Child Pornography,” “Slightly Jewish,” “Dead in Childbirth” and “Shitface.”

“The thing I truly object to, Kitty said, “and I know this sounds trivial and I don’t care if it sounds a bit snobbish, but I do care about this. It’s that the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Heidi and Mickey people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth, and frankly, they don’t. They live on the Ruskin estate, where I’ve never been and I hope never to go anywhere near.”

“I saw a newspaper photographer in a boat in the middle of the estuary, taking photographs,” Sam said eagerly. “Out there in Brian Miller’s ferryboat. Taking a photograph of the church and the strand and the quay. That’ll turn up in the Sun as a photograph of Heidi’s home town, I promise you.”

“As if that family could live somewhere like this.”

“Or, really, more to the point, as if they would ever contrive a story like this if they did live on the Strand,” Miranda said. “One may be cynical, but one does think that moral attitudes and truthfulness and not having your children kidnapped for the sake of the exposure don’t go with deprivation. It’s material deprivation that starts all this off.”

“They’ve got dishwashers, Miranda,” Bill said. “They’re not examples of material deprivation . But you’re right. You don’t hear about children disappearing from Hanmouth proper, do you? It’s just bad education, ignorance, idleness and avarice.’

“And drugs,” put in Sam. Don’t forget the drugs.”

“Why do we say ‘the cockles of your heart’?” David said. “Nothing to do with whelks, I suppose.”
“Previously, gay life had seemed a merry series of cabinet reshuffles and rearrangements, in which everyone was single for a time, then paired off for a time. If you stood still with a welcoming smile on your face, sooner or later somebody would come over and sit on it.”

“It happened to some people, that obsession with throwing their clothes off at an age when it would be best to keep them on.”

“You need to start making an effort,” Richard said. “There’s a thing called the gay scene nowadays. It happens in large cities – London, Manchester, er, wherever.”

“… something very unusual, a chocolate-flavoured log of goats’ cheese. “Made by lesbians in Wales,” Sam had explained superfluously.”
Previously, gay life had seemed a merry series of cabinet reshuf­fles and rearrangements, in which everyone was single for a time, then paired off for a time. If you stood still with a welcoming smile on your face, sooner or later somebody would come over and sit on it.

“Previously, gay life had seemed a merry series of cabinet reshuffles and rearrangements, in which everyone was single for a time, then paired off for a time. If you stood still with a welcoming smile on your face, sooner or later somebody would come over and sit on it.”

“It happened to some people, that obsession with throwing their clothes off at an age when it would be best to keep them on.”

“You need to start making an effort,” Richard said. “There’s a thing called the gay scene nowadays. It happens in large cities – London, Manchester, er, wherever.”
“… something very unusual, a chocolate-flavoured log of goats’ cheese. “Made by lesbians in Wales,” Sam had explained superfluously.”

return to the home page

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

TBA(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

So you’re an Asian young man in London for the first time. What do you find? A strip club. A launderette where they steal your clothes. Not a promising start is it? Nobody knows who you are beyond merely the colour of your skin: More than anything she hated any talk of race or racism. Probably she had suffered some abuse and contempt. But her father had been a doctor; everyone – politicians, generals, journalists, police chiefs – came to their house in Karachi. The idea that anyone might treat her with disrespect was insupportable.

Nor is it to be in a house where the neighbours post lighted rags through the letter box, smash the windows and generally terrorised you because you are Asian. Yet this happened a lot and groups of bodyguards grew up to help and sit with these people: The family had been harried –stared at, spat on, called “Paki scum” for months, and finally attacked. The husband had been smashed over the head with a bottle and taken to hospital. The wife had been punched. Lighted matches had been pushed through the letter-box. At all hours the bell had been rung and the culprits said they would return to slaughter the children. ……The gang sat up all night, sleeping on the floor in shifts. The next morning those who had lectures and college work left, and were replaced by others. Shahid, who had a clear day, didn’t get away until afternoon, and by then a bomb had exploded on the main concourse of Victoria Station. … But which faction was it? Which underground group? Which war, cause or grievance was being demonstrated? The world was full of seething causes which required vengeance – that at least was known.

Sexual mores are confusing: She [Tahira] went on, ‘Chad, I’ve noticed that you like wearing tight trousers.’

‘I do, yes.’

‘But we women go to a lot of trouble to conceal our allures.

Surely you’ve heard how hard it is to wear the hijab? […]

You brothers urge us to cover ourselves but become strangely evasive when it comes to your own clothes. Can’t you wear something looser?’

What is this England that they came too?: Chad would hear church bells. He’d see English country cottages and ordinary English people who were secure, who effortlessly belonged. You know, the whole Orwellian idea of England…

We had no life guides or role models among politicians, military types or religious figures, or even film stars for that matter, as our parents did. ….If coming from the wrong class restricts your sense of what you can be, then none of us thought we’d become doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians. We were scheduled to be clerks, civil servants, insurance managers and travel agents…..The point about stereotypes is that, in spite of their banality, in spite of their seemingly wrongness, they work. They have effects. They are at work in Britain today. And they are hard to combat, because nobody readily admits to being influenced by them. ….You see them, our people, the Pakis, in their dirty shops, surly, humourless, their fat sons and ugly daughters watching you, taking the money. … The new Jews everyone hates them. In a few years the kids will kick their parents in their teeth. Sitting in some crummy shop, it won’t be enough for them. … Here race and class barriers had been suspended. There were businessmen in expensive suits, others in London Underground and Post Office uniforms; bowed old men in salwar kamiz fiddled with beads. Chic lads with ponytails, working in computers, exchanged business cards with young men in suits. Forty Ethiopians sat to one side of one room, addressed by one of their number in robes […] There were dozens of languages.   Strangers spoke to one another. The atmosphere was uncompetitive, peaceful, meditative.

Yet the myth that Muslims want to take over the country persists: You will slit the throats of us infidels as we sleep. Or convert us. Soon books and … and … bacon will be banned. Isn’t that what you people want?

No wonder Muslims retreat in the need to belong: Arranged on three floors, the rooms of the mosque were as big as tennis courts. Men of so many types and nationalities – Tunisians, Indians, Algerians, Scots, French – gathered there, chatting in the entrance, where they removed their shoes and then retired to wash, that it would have been difficult, without prior knowledge, to tell which country the mosque was in.

In London, if you found the right place, you could consider yourself a citizen the moment you went to the same local shop twice. … Strapper saw lads his age in Armani, Boss, Woodhouse; he glanced into the road and saw broad BMWs, gold-coloured Mercs and turquoise turbo-charged Saab convertibles. He saw five-floor shuttered houses owned by men in their thirties, with nannies, cleaners, builders. None of it would be his – ever. It just wouldn’t be. …The wind-swept sand speaks of adultery in this godless land, Here Lucifer and colonialists are in charge, The unveiled girls smell of the West and envy the shameless. ….Shahid knew he couldn’t explain, he felt too ashamed; he wanted to stop himself crying. Hat was right. They had burned a book; but what had he done? He’d abused a friend’s trust without even considering it. How could he complain now?

Caught between East and West: How could anyone confine themselves to one system or creed? Why should they feel they had to? There was no fixed self; surely our several selves melted and mutated daily? There had to be innumerable ways of being in the world. He would spread himself out, in his work and in love, following his curiosity.

return to the home page

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

TSWe considered this book for a future discussion but it didn’t get enough votes. Two or three of us read it anyway.

This book gave me something to enjoy when I had the flu’ over Christmas. Without it, I would have strayed in bed feeling sorry for myself.

This sums it up:  Even back then Richie had a dawning sense that the fact that men loved to kick a leather ball to one another boded ill for the sanity of the human race.

It has a very physical beginning.

Some reviews have commented, negatively, about the amount of sex and of sexual fantasies. I suppose it is a sexist thing to say but I bet they are all women who don’t realise that most makes think about sex every four minutes, on average.

This book confirms what I have long observed – that the Greek Orthodox folk religion is incapable of sustaining people through crises. Children and expected to learn it by osmosis rather that systematically, so that when a crisis comes, there is nothing substantial on which to fall back.

There are two conflicting systems of morality. For some, the rights of women and children are absolute. For others there’s common sense. After all, the child in question is a spoiled brat who is still breast feeding as he approaches his fifth birthday. He endangers the lives of others.

The final section probes deeply the family around which this all started. It doesn’t bear much probing.

Someone clever as pointed out: There is a small lapse in what appears otherwise to be good research.  The Indonesian currency is the rupiah, not the baht, and thank you in Bahasa Indonesia is ‘terima kasih’ not ‘terima kasim’.  (p378 and p384)  An editor should have picked this up.

The Author’s Thoughts: I was in the kitchen helping my mother, and she, slightly frazzled with all she had to do, was getting annoyed that the three year old boy was opening up cupboards and drawers, taking out pots and pan and

using them as building blocks. She kept trying to make him stop and go out and play, but he was taking no notice of her. Nearly tripping on a saucepan, she became exasperated with him, pulled him up gently and with the smallest of taps on the bum, said ‘No more!’

The little boy – and I won’t forget the look of shock on his face – placed his hands on his hips and said to my mother, ‘No-one has a right to touch my body without my premission!’ To which my mother replied, ‘You naughty, I slap you.’…. driving home that evening my thoughts went back to the incident and I remember thinking of the world of difference between the young boy’s experience of life and that of my mother’s. She is a migrant from Greece, who was raised in that terrible period of Greek history where she experienced both the Nazi Occupation and the horrifying civil war that tore Greece apart after the cessation of World War II. She grew up in a culture where she was denied education because she was a woman, a culture where she was beaten if she as much as dared look askance at a man. Then there is the young boy’s experience of growing up in a postmodern world where his godfather is a gay man and where he has a sense of rights owed to him even before he starts school.

One particular experience put fire in my belly as a writer. I was on a train heading into the city; it was morning and the train was crowded with office workers and school kids. A group of adolescent boys were swearing their heads off, seemingly unconcerned about the effect this was having on an elderly lady sitting behind them. It was obvious she was humiliated and I decided to say something to the youths. It was the worst thing to do. The boys started yelling obscenities and insults at me and all I achieved was to increase the elderly woman’s discomfort. I got off at the next station, fuming, furious, wanting to slap these boys. But when my anger dissipated it was replaced by a sadness. How was it that these young men had not been taught one of the basic universals of human culture, respect for our elders? Or was it best to raise a generation critical of their elders? What did the incident say about my generation as parents, mentors, teachers, citizens? The people that come off worst in my novel are my own generation, those of us at the tail end of the “baby boomers” or “generation x”

the most vexing and difficult political question for us Australians is the continual dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their land and culture. No other issue more troubles our nation and it is the reason why so many of our great works of art have been attempts to deal with this history. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to have Bilal’s voice in the book, someone whose very history is about the tragedy of genocide and dispossession. A “slap” is delivered to every character in the book, and for me, the most important “slap” is the one Bilal delivers Rosie in her chapter when he tells her he wants her to have nothing to do with his family, that her people are “no good.” It is a provocative moment, particularly as it is delivered to an Anglo woman by an indigenous man. One of the continuing tragedies of our ongoing inability to heal the wounds of racism here in Australia is that too many indigenous youths are destroyed by alcohol and drugs. Bilal has found, through Islam, a means of transcending the violence of such a past. That too is a provocative choice but I think faithful to an experience, and possibly one Americans can recognize from their own history of racism.

Rosie represents the worst of the self–obsession, the entitlement and self–righteousness I associate with my own generation. But I think it is that I see those traits in myself that allow me to try and imagine her world, her thinking, her confusion, her determination.

This is a biographical note, and it doesn’t really matter to any reader of the book, but Richie is also a little like how I remember my partner, Wayne, when I met him twenty–seven years ago. He, like Richie, is a good bloke (and a cartographer, hence Richie’s love of maps).


It is possible the world is divided into three genders – there are men, there are women and then there are women who choose to have nothing to do with children. How about men without children, he answered quickly, aren’t they also different from fathers? She shook her head firmly, daring him to contradict her: no, all men are the same.”

You’re out, Hugo, you bloody spoil-sport.’ Rocco, at the end of his tether, went to grab the bat from the younger boy. With another scream Hugo evaded the older boy’s hands, and then, leaning back, he lifted the bat.  Hector froze. He’s going to hit him.  He’s going to belt Rocco with the bat.

In the second that it took Hector to release his breath, he saw Ravi jump towards the boys, he heard Gary’s furious curse, and he saw Harry push past all of them and grab at Hugo.  He lifted the boy up in the air, and in shock the boy dropped the bat.

‘Let me go,’ Hugo roared.

Harry set him on the ground.  The boy’s face had gone dark with fury.  He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright.  He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy.  The slap seemed to echo.  It cracked the twilight.  The little boy looked up at the man in shock.  There was a long silence. …

“Hugo pulled away from Rosie’s teat. ‘No one is allowed to touch my body without my permission.’ His voice was shrill and confident. Hector wondered where he learnt those words. From Rosie? At child care? Were they community announcements on the frigging television?”

‘You are not my father.’

He wished he could slap her.  So it all meant nothing, all those years of shared jokes, of affection, of defending her, of caring for her children, of assisting her and Hector with money and with time.  Love and family meant nothing to her? Nothing mattered to her at the moment but her pride.

‘Manoli, I’m sorry.’

He turned his back to her and walked away.  The words dropped from her lips but they meant nothing.  Australians used the word like a chant.  Sorry sorry sorry.  He thought she loved him, respected him.  He’d nursed this hope for years.  He wanted to strike himself for his vanity and foolishness.  He had never asked anything of her before and she must know he would never ask anything of her again.  Sorry.  He spat out the word as if it were poison.

He thought she loved him.  He was just a silly old man.

‘…the Americans rule everything.’

‘They destroy everything.’ Paraskevi undid the clasp from her veil, swung her head and let her hair fall around her shoulders.  ‘No one dares to do anything to them.’

Emmanuel shook his head.  ‘That’s not true, that lad, that Arab, he managed to bomb New York’.

‘And good on him’.

Katina frowned.  ‘Paraskevi, you’ve just lost a husband.  Think of all the widows who grieved in New York.’

Paraskevi made a loud squishing noise with her lips…’Katina, are you serious?  With all the suffering in the world you want me to care about the damn Americans? ‘  They all burst into merriment at the joke of it.

‘I don’t deserve you.’    Oh Christ, don’t let him start crying again. ‘I’m so ashamed, Aish.’

She too looked down at the menu.  She had no idea what would be the right thing to say.  She felt bereft, drained of any compassion or sympathy towards him.  At the same time she felt him to be completely in her care.  It was this distance between her intentions and her desire that was making her so weary.  She would have felt furious if he had not felt shame.  But she did not want to minister to his grief, his self-pity and to his sense of failure.  A cruel thought flashed quickly and guiltily in her mind: be a man, deal with your — mid-life crisis – it is so boring.’

‘He’s never hit her again.’

‘So he says’.  Aisha lifted her head and looked her husband straight in the eyes.  ‘I will visit Sandi, I will be a friend.  But I will never forgive your cousin, do you understand?  I hate him.  I detest that he is in my life.’

[Hugo] pointed at Richie. ‘He hurt me.’

Richie backed away, onto the verandah.  ‘I didn’t do anything,’ he protested, wanting to point at Hugo, needing them to know how unfair all this was. ‘Hugo spat at an old man.  I told him off.  That’s what happened.’

The two adults looked stunned.  Rosie shook her head. ‘I can’t believe that.’ She stroked Hugo’s hair. ‘Did the old man scare you?’

Richie’s mouth dropped open…

Her own parents’ racism had been casual, was certainly never expressed violently or aggressively. Her mother pitied the blacks and her father had no respect for them; but beyond that they prided themselves on tolerance.”

On the young generation: “These kids, they’re unbelievable. It’s like the world owes them everything. They’ve been spoilt by their parents and by their teachers and by the fucking media to believe that they have all these rights but no responsibilities so they have no decency, no moral values whatsoever.”

On love: “This, finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together.”

On aging: “But age did silence dreams, did mellow desires, even the most ferocious lusts and fantasies.”

“He believed he had glimpsed a truth, a possibility: equanimity, acceptance, a certain peace–in old age, all men were equal. Not in work, not in God, not in politics, only in age.”

On women: “Not for the first time, he sighed inwardly at the innate conservatism of women. It was as if being a mother, the agony of birth, rooted them eternally to the world, made them complicit in the foibles and errors and rank stupidity of men. Women were incapable of camaraderie, their own children would always come first.”

On the future: “… it slowly began to dawn on him that the future was not a straight linear path but a matrix of permutations and possibilities, offshoots from offshoots. The map of the future was three-dimensional.”

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink. opening

Fuckining poofter soapie producers. She was not looking forward to the morning meeting. During the last month her writing had become florid, deliberately theatrical, and at the same time, self-aware and mocking.

And that cunt wants to fuck it all up. He couldn’t decide who he hated more: the hysterical wife who had hissed at him with unconcealed contempt, the drunk, weak faggot of a husband, or the whining little prick he had slapped. He wished the three of them were dead.

It’s not embarrassing to feel things strongly. It’s nothing to be ashamed of that you get so indignant and mad about what adults can do. That’s one of the great things about being young. It just becomes a problem if you let that indignation become self-righteousness.

A cruel thought flashed quickly and guiltily in her mind: be a man, deal with your fucking mid-life crisis – it is so boring.

return to the home page