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. Read More