King of the Badgers, Philip Hensher’s seventh novel, comes on the heels of his ambitious, fictional survey of seventies Britain, The Northern Clemency. King of the Badgers focuses on the staged kidnapping of China O’Connor, in circumstances that inevitably recall the disappearance of Shannon Matthews. Shannon disappeared from her hometown of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 2008 and, after huge national media attention, was discovered a month later in the home of her step-uncle, who was eventually convicted and jailed along with Shannon’s mother. It delves into the private lives of the community in the fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. I met Philip in a trendily minimal Fitzrovia café, where Philip spoke of his imagined world as alive and elusively present.
Let’s begin with Hanmouth, the setting for King of the Badgers. What kind of place is it?
Well, it’s one of those places with a betwixt and between status. It’s a town: it’s not a village and it’s not a city. Pressures in England are pushing most places in one direction or the other. Surprising places are suddenly being declared cities. Chesterfield is a city now. Brighton is a city now. If it’s not big enough to have a claim to being a city then it’s pushed down toward being a village.
I like those betwixt and between places, ones with about forty thousand people. They are small enough that people know each other, or recognize each other. Small enough that faces recur, but big enough for the chain of connections to stretch to a breaking point, so that people can still be strangers. Hanmouth is also an old town of the sort that are all over England. There’s history in them that people want to identify with, but at the same time modernity keeps cropping up.
Not many of the residents actually seem to be from Hanmouth, and we see various people move in and out of the town.
A little itch started the novel. I realized that, when I was a kid, people retired and moved to the seaside; they moved to Bournemouth and Eastbourne. I thought, “No one moves to Eastbourne nowadays. Where do those people move to?” I looked into it and people are now moving to small market towns, university towns perhaps. They’re the Eastbourne of our day.
What was the attraction for you of this sort of place as the setting?
I like writing about communities. In The Northern Clemency, I was writing about a big city, Sheffield, and it felt like a crowded book to a lot of readers. Here, I wanted to shrink down the community a little bit and expand the cast list, so that it would feel more like the characters were occupying the psychological space.
You wrote about state-of-the-nation novels around the time you published The Northern Clemency, objecting to the strenuous ornamentation of such narratives with period detail.
Period detail is a rich and complex thing. It has as much to do with manners and conventions as it has to do with anything on the surface of life.
Which is one thing you get from Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical fiction.
Interestingly, Fitzgerald never went to any of the places she was writing about. She didn’t go to Russia before writing The Beginning of Spring. Her books are just all very thoroughly researched. At the beginning of The Blue Flower, there’s a moment where she sees two pigs and a sheep waiting for the ferry at Weißenfels. She must have read somewhere that the ferry at Weißenfels charged so much for a pig and so much for a sheep and then saw the rather sad animals waiting for the ferry. It’s a magical moment. I wish I knew how she did that.
In King of the Badgers, the framing device of China’s disappearance—and her mother’s complicity in it—invite comparisons with the case of Shannon Matthews.
You’re right: it is a framing device. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about a photograph having a punktum. It’s the one little thing that draws the eye and makes you think, “What the hell is that?” I had an idea for a novel about a community, but I didn’t have a way into it. Then the Shannon Matthews case came along and I thought, “Oh my God, that’s really something.” But, for me, the disappearance was like the middle of the sundial, casting its shadow over everything in turn.
Did this plot afford room for social commentary?
The dishonesty exhibited in the Shannon Matthews disappearance is not necessarily a social thing. People seem to think that I was writing about working-class mores, but that sort of dishonesty and greed strikes at every level of society.
The novel is also about surveillance. Does this sort of erosion of civil liberties concern you?
Yes, passionately. The ordinary freedoms that we used to take for granted are disappearing. Something about the constant presence of cameras is destructive to the human spirit. But at some point in writing the novel I thought, “What am I doing? I’m writing an old-fashioned, omniscient-narrator novel. I am the camera lens following these people around.”
It’s always interesting to learn what and how novelists read. What were you reading at the time you were working on King of the Badgers? Were you looking for anything specific?
Lots of Kingsley Amis. Novelists read curious things. When reading, I often look out for small physical gestures. I’ve come to think that one of the things that divides a good novelist from a routine novelist is the stock of character movements. If you read a very bad novel, then it’s going to be, “He sighed, she groaned, she scratched her head, he raised his eyebrows.” But a really good novelist will have a whole range of little details.
I’m on a bit of an Elmore Leonard kick at the moment. I rented an apartment in Berlin a month ago and there was a copy of Tishomingo Blues there. The dialogue in that is incredible. It leaps off the page in a magical way.
Kingsley is somewhat out of fashion at the moment, but I suspect that’s because people are wary of writing that sort of literary comic novel now.
One of the things I like about the English novel is that cheerfulness is always creeping in. You never know when it’s going to start joking.
And yet the combination of the comic and the serious seems to be something that American writers and readers accept much more willingly.
The Great American Novels usually have some comic backbone. Certainly, the American novels I like best do. I was reading a lot of John Cheever when I wrote this. I adore John Cheever. In fact, there’s a page in here that’s stolen from Cheever.
Do you consider King of the Badgers a comic novel?
No, but it’s meant to be funny. Formal comedy? No. I think the moment for that has passed. But it’s perfectly possible for a novel to be funny from time to time. I couldn’t take anything seriously that was comprehensively serious. Kingsley says somewhere or other that all great poetry has something light about it, but then he adds, “apart from Milton.” I don’t know where that leaves us.