The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

TNC 4(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

One review said that Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.

It’s a slow start in rather flat prose until page 161. Then it livens up.

In the opening scene, Katherine Glover hands round plates of nibbles while her teenage son Daniel lolls on the sofa leering at the female guests, who are perturbed by his ill-concealed erection. By the end of the book it is the mid-1990s: Daniel has settled down and established a modish restaurant in a redundant forge, where the starters come speared to a foil-wrapped potato.

I felt sorry for the boy and his pet snake. Parents would do better to indulge their children’s obsessions – he might have become a world expert on snakes.

There’s a very good description of starting a new school and being baffled by a different accent, particularly that a teacher speaks in such an accent.

I was reminded of George Orwell’s ‘Down the Mine’ when the boss went to the coal face.

The scene where Andrew breaks his leg during a rough game reminds me of a similar experience except that I sprained my ankle badly – which can be more painful.

We all probably remember fascist PE teachers.

And I remember the way the phone didn’t stop ringing all day, immediately after advertising for a lodger. And the sorry specimens I interviewed.

The description of different types in the swimming pool is spot on.

I have often wondered about shops that seem to have very few customers but which stay open and seem to prosper.

TNC 2And I’m glad that I am not the only one who lives near a neglected, rundown house: one house excited comment. It was the Warners’. There, in the front, the lawn grew unchecked over the pathway, and the asphalt in the driveway had cracked as weeds forced their way through. The doors and window hadn’t been attended to in years, and the paint peeled off in long strips, showing the already rotting wood underneath. In the porch, addressed and unaddressed mail formed chaotic drifts; outside, half a dozen unwashed milk bottles, half full of rain and antique mould had been sitting for weeks — the milkman wouldn’t collect them, and neither Warner nor his son was likely to take them back inside to wash them. It was generally thought that sooner or later someone ­’Probably me,’ at least half a dozen civic-minded people, busy­bodies really, from different addresses tended to think — would take pity, go up the drive, pick up the milk bottles and wash them themselves. It couldn’t be hygienic, leaving them moul­dering and festering away like that, week on week. Pity was what most people felt about the Warners’ house. In any other circumstances, someone would have had a word with the owner, pointed out that the shabbiness of the house might affect the value of the houses to either side, and that the weeds flourishing in the garden, both front and back, were no respecters of fences.

The middle class family go to church while the working class ones have a lie-in.

The council appear not to look after middle-class areas – I know this was the ‘Soviet Republic of South Yorkshire’ but all posh districts claim that. More likely, middle class people phone and write letters to pester the council and get things done more quickly that in less affluent areas.

The miners’ strike is fairly peripheral (though The Battle of Orgreave is described and it is more than hinted that the police provoked it) whereas the right to buy your council house features strongly – then again, that is how Thatcher bribed people.

By p. 556, we get to the modern world – brainstorming, hot-desking, the pink pound (‘great double rooms’ get readvertised as ‘fabulous double rooms’), AIDS, gastro pubs and focus groups. By now, I was so gripped that I read the rest of the book I one sitting.

Remember Amsatrads? Mobiles the size of bricks?

I liked the idea of a disused mill being opened as a dancing school led by a redundant miner.

And don’t we miss the hole in the road, the shoe repair shop, entrance to Yorkshire, Electricity, the underground entrance to C&A. tobacconist, sandwich shop, people who used to sell posters (laying them on the floor either round the edge or in the middle near the plants), stinky toilets, the Escalators taking you down and the small island of plants right in the middle?

Surely ‘conniption fit’ isn’t an English, let alone a northern, expression.


“London had gone on for ever, its red brick houses and businesses clinging to the edge of a motorway, like small rodents to a balloon suddenly in flight.”

“little pie-crust collar Mrs Thatcher liked to wear on television

“like a bowling ball sitting on his shoulders”

“like being inside a huge body and listening to the… thunder of the heart”

“you could always tell a miner from the rim of black round his eyes, like make-up”

“like your dad on a weekend, and his hair, complicated in arrangement but perfectly held, glistened in the sun like a badge of distinction”.

At eleven, Malcolm got up, switched the television off, unplugged it, remarking that it was a relief all those power-cuts had stopped at last.

“no one seemed able to talk to each other. . . . They all had their reasons for concealing matters from or snubbing each other.”

“If you don’t say anything it can’t become important, but if you say it everyone’s ever after got to walk round it like a pile of rocks in the living room.”

“written over with the fact of her obligations.”

“For most of their lives together, it had seemed to him that he was admitted only to the public downstairs rooms of Katherine’s mind. The more intimate spaces and speculations, the whole upstairs and attics of her thinking were kept from him.”

“was tall and drawn-out in shape as someone else’s shadow.”

“I was wrong, deciding not to be shy. . . . Because if you’re not shy you go out into the world, but if you are shy then you stay at home, and it’s really better to stay at home. You’re going to be happy if you stay at home.”

“off from the guilt and burden of family. . . . She could feel herself shedding her ties like a dog shaking itself after a bath.”

`I don’t have a political position,’ Daniel said. ‘I’ve never voted in my life. They’re all the same.’

`That’s exactly what all completely right-wing people always say,’

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