Magazine article The Spectator

The Hand of God

Magazine article The Spectator

The Hand of God

Article excerpt

There are three-and-a-quarter pages of acknowledgments, starting with the author's editor and ending with God: all played their part in the three-and-a-half years it took Shirley Conran to produce these 500,000 words. Two Roman Catholic priests (also Lord Longford) helped with the revenge and the forgiveness. Theatres invited her backstage, archives opened like roses. Old debutantes remembered, Mr Roger Seelig taught her all he knew about finance, Miss Sian Phillips all she knew about early theatrical make-up. Drafts were sent around the world, couriers waited at London airports until four in the morning, hairdressers called on Miss Conran at home (`whenever my fringe obstructed my vision'). God, once an energetic copy-editor on Mt Sinai, seems to have been an absent, if favourable, influence.

The result is that if you read the acknowledgments first you come away with the expectation that what you are about to read is not a work of fiction at all, but serious social history, the researching of which took Shirley Conran a year-and-a-half alone. And there is a great deal of very interesting social history:

Over a hundred years before [it is the year 1901] canny tavern landlords had noticed they sold more ale if there was a sing-song, so they provided free entertainment to promote profitable bonhomie. Then they built a stage for the performers at one end of their supper rooms. Now the variety shows had pushed the bars to the very back of the hall, and the music-hall stars had become the popular folk heroes of the day: everyone loved their raffish, carefree zest for life, as much as their performances. Apart from the pubs, the halls were one of the few places where the poor could go for a bit of cheerful company, light and warmth on a cold winter's night -- often the only way they could briefly escape a home which might be one, bleak, freezing, vermin-infested slum room housing an entire family.

Drawers are crotchless, giving a whole new perspective to the can-can, as the author, relentless as an adult extension lecturer, explains, 'At that shocking moment when each dancer clutched an ankle, held it high above her head and hopped round in circles.' But the garment, she goes on, did mean women in heavy skirts could use chamber pots. …

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