Magazine article The Spectator

Midsummer Manoeuvres at the Museum

Magazine article The Spectator

Midsummer Manoeuvres at the Museum

Article excerpt

THE HOUND IN THE LEFT HAND CORNER

by Giles Waterfield Review, L14.99, pp. 284, ISBN 0747268851

Giles Waterfield's first novel, The Long Afternoon, hearteningly published in his early fifties, was a tale of expatriate English lives in the South of France between the wars. Perfectly balanced between elegy and analysis, it charted in miniature the failure of nerve of a particular class and culture without ever patronising it. The fact that the main characters were his grandparents, and their story essentially true, added piquancy to the fiction without detracting from the lustral artistry with which he recreated their long-vanished world. His second novel, The Hound in the Left Hand Corner, draws directly on his distinguished career in museums and other cultural institutions. But where The Long Afternoon was remarkable for the meticulous inwardness of its treatment of painful events, the new book approaches its material with deliberate detachment, so that the sharpness of Waterfield's observation is refracted through a farcical presentation which appears to challenge belief in the picture it presents. This may be another way of dealing with a set of truths no less uncomfortable than those which led to the suicides of his grandparents.

The action of The Hound in the Left Hand Corner is contained within a single midsummer's day at the former Museum of English History, an impressive Edwardian pile near Waterloo, recently repackaged as BRIT. At its centre is a tarted-up Gainsborough, `Lady St John as Puck', not seen in public since 1911, and recently acquired by the museum's domineering chairman, the property magnate Sir Lewis Burslem. It features prominently in Elegance, a blockbuster show about the 18th century, which opens that evening. The day has been carefully planned to mark Sir Lewis's emergence as a leader of artistic and intellectual life. He is confident the world will be impressed.

Sir Lewis is a comic creation, but not a laughable one. Against his charmless dynamism and the `impermanent feel' that accompanies his air of geniality is pitted the director of the museum, Auberon Booth, an academic historian with ascetic leanings but a weakness for glamour who views the machinations of Sir Lewis and his lackeys with languid revulsion, regretting that on the time sheets now required by the Department of Cultural Affairs `thwarting the chairman isn't listed as an option'. …

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