Pennies and Devon
Gerald Isaaman talks politics, tower blocks and terror with novelist Amanda Craig
06 July, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Amanda Craig, author of The Lie of the Land. Photo: Marzena Pogorzaly
Amanda Craig is adamant. We are living in dangerous times where the fabric of life is under attack and the future looks black and bleak without the sirens of rescue on hand.
So she has given her new novel a distinctive nostalgic title, The Lie of the Land, but one with wicked sting in the tail since it is about break-up, divorce, failure in life on a domestic – and national level – and has already been heralded as the first Brexit novel.
Indeed, she is fully aware the political system is incontinent – she says she hates party politics – and considered not fit for purpose. She lives too off Agar Grove within sight of some of Camden’s tower blocks and aware of others at Swiss Cottage being evacuated amid clouds of chaos.
And while with her family she enjoys a quiet bolthole in the beautiful Devon countryside, discrimination against immigrant farm workers on zero-hour contracts, she discovered, helped boost the negative Referendum vote with even her own children’s ethnic friends finding themselves frowned upon.
Emphatically, Amanda declares: “Yes, yes it is very distressing what is happening now. And I feel in many ways more gloomy about politics in this country than I’ve ever felt before. We really do seem to be in a state of upheaval with so much hatred and distrust and war between the generations. All of that is terribly worrying.”
As for tower blocks, she insists: “I have always felt they were utterly inhumane places for children and elderly people. There is the problem that they supposedly take up less land but I think it is absolutely dreadful that poor people have not been looked after and given decent housing together with so many other things.
“Really that’s been happening for the last 20 to 30 years and now it is coming home to roost. Yes, it is also the growing incompetence of national and local government to handle the country’s problems.”
At 57 she enjoys a reputation both as a journalist and author who admires in particular the work of Dickens, who exposed poverty and fear in Victorian days. “He is my great load star along with Trollope and Jane Austen,” says Amanda.
Her lack of faith in politics stems from being born in South Africa where apartheid forced her to flee to Italy, another country she describes as “such a wonderful place but so riven by local issues and corruption, a constant battle between the brilliance and goodness of its people and the absolute bastards who run its politics”.
Amanda’s initially compelling, highly complex saga puts its formidable focus on the escape to the country of Lottie and Quentin Bredin, a London middle-class family facing a collapsing marriage and redundancy, their children too caught up in the stigma of differing social classes she exposes with tremendous skill and talent.
The second section of her intimidating panorama picture is not so convincing since her story of the downgraded buying a neglected farmhouse on the cheap becomes an ingenious murder whodunnit. Some may feel that detracts from the excellence of her depiction – and understanding – of the degrading way we live now, albeit that she began writing her novel six years ago.
It’s not that Amanda claims amazing prescience. “When you are writing about contemporary life you seem to pick up something that is in the air,” she explains. “My last novel, Hearts and Minds, had a whole terrorist plot with three young men with back-packs coming to King’s Cross from Bradford.
“When you think hard about the terrorism happening now you can link it in some strange way with a feeling that something awful is going to happen. It was very obvious when 9/11 happened that London would be the next to be hit by terrorism.”
London nevertheless, which she describes as one of the most humane cities in the world, is a place she loves, especially its green environment. Her decision a decade ago to seek what she thought was the calm of the countryside was due to debilitating thyroid cancer and the desire for a gentler lie of the land.
Yet, as her novel exposes, we live in a great and growing divide, one in which countryside attitudes urgently need to catch up. While government, she believes, is in desperate need of good people to join the civil service and local authorities to cope with current incompetence.
“Very few people do go into government who absolutely have no social conscience,” she insists. “Yet from left and right you get these disastrous results affecting the very people they need to be looking out for.”
And there is a need too for the way contemporary fiction is treated.
“I have always felt that to write contemporary fiction is a kind of moral duty as well something that is an artistic one, I do feel that very powerfully,” Amanda points out. “We need contemporary novel as much as the Victorians did.
“Artists and novelists in particular have lost a lot by repeatedly writing about the past and the historical novel. I admire people like Hilary Mantel very much but at the same time I do take issue with her line that historical fiction has been the poor relation in the literary novel and has been looked down on.
“It feels to me as a contemporary novelist that I have been very much out in the cold while the historical novel is the thing has prospered and has been presented so extensively on television.
“And the past made to look a pretty good life and all the rest of it when we know, of course, that it wasn’t. I do feel there is a great danger in constantly looking backwards and not seeing what is happening now, which is changing so many lives so dramatically.”
• The Lie of the Land. By Amanda Craig, Little, Brown £16.99