Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Margaret Forster - a very private life

Saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Cumbrian author Margaret Forster.  She had been looking cancer in the eye for more than forty years, after being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mother. Although Margaret kept the diagnosis strictly private, the subject found its way, as writers' lives do, into her novels.  'Is there anything you want?'  is the story of a group of very different women who meet at a cancer clinic in a northern hospital that closely resembles the old Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.  She didn't tell the full story, publicly, until her most recent book, a memoir, 'My Life in Houses', written when secondary cancer had already invaded her spine.


Margaret had no time for euphemisms.  A spade was very definitely a spade, and her honesty sometimes terrified other people.  No talk of 'passing away', or 'kicking the bucket' -  'What's wrong with the word "dead"?' Margaret asked.   And she ridiculed those who talked about her brave 'battle' with cancer.  'There is no fighting that can be done,'  she observed.  'and being positive not only has no proven effect but it creates another psychological burden for the patient.'  She saw the illness as a 'touch of woodworm, or dry rot' in the house of the body - an insidious invasion that might never properly be eradicated.  It takes courage to see things with such ruthless clarity.

It was a novel, a film, a musical and a hit single!
Born and brought up in Cumbria, not far from where I was born, Margaret belonged to an older generation and her work was inspirational for younger writers.  'Georgy Girl' was a huge hit, both as a novel and a film.  It was a big influence - I even have a daughter called Meredith Jones!   Margaret and her husband Hunter Davies were, like myself, like Melvyn Bragg and many others, the product of a state education system that gave scholarships to working class children and enabled them to go on to university and enter the careers they dreamed of.  Margaret's parents lived in a council house in one of the poorer areas of Carlisle.  But she went to Oxford and became one of the UK's most successful novelists.

Margaret refused to compromise.  Her life revolved around her family and her writing.  She wasn't interested in the trappings of literary fame, though she did enjoy the financial benefits it brought. Publishers resigned themselves to the fact that she wouldn't go to literary festivals to promote her books.  A little radio, magazine and newspaper articles, some photo-shoots and that had to be enough. Margaret didn't do literary dinner parties either and many thought her sharp-tongued and reclusive.  As a new, rather self-conscious writer, I was terrified of her reputation.  I remember being struck dumb on a public platform where I was supposed to be giving a talk, because someone told me that Margaret was sitting in the back row of the audience.  When I actually met her, on another occasion, I was so tongue-tied I could barely stammer 'hello'.  She must have thought me a complete idiot.

But the friends who knew her well loved her incisive mind (Hunter Davies says that she was the most intelligent woman he had ever known) and she was extraordinarily generous.  I certainly found her so.  She gave my book 'A Passionate Sisterhood' such a rave review, I still blush when I read it. When I asked for permission to re-write the short critical biography I had originally been commissioned by the Arts Council to write, to bring it up to date, she gave me unqualified permission and her only worry was that it might cost me money, since she wasn't a sufficiently famous author (in her eyes) to merit such a work. But it wasn't a question of money, more of recognition for a Cumbrian writer I had always believed to be critically under-rated.


Her best work, in my opinion, is her memoir writing - Hidden Lives and Precious Lives - the stories of her own family. They reveal, more expertly than anything else I have ever read, the difficulties and tragedies, and the sheer waste of talent, of what used to be called 'the servant class' in the days before the welfare state, when women in particular were at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.   As we slide towards social inequality once more, books like this are worth reading as an awful reminder of what happens when we lose health care and education as a basic human right.

Margaret Forster will be much mourned by family, friends and readers alike.  Our thoughts go out to her husband, Hunter Davies - a partnership both literary and personal that has lasted for more than 50 years - and to her three children.


Margaret Forster:  A Life in Books
is published by The Book Mill



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