Page 8, 18th March 2005

18th March 2005
Page 8
Page 8, 18th March 2005 — Alice, in her own words

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Organisations: Catholic Church, Tory party
Locations: Camden Town


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Alice, in her own words


The news that Anna Haycraft had died came to me by text message, which she would have hated, just as she hated anything else modern. Anna, whom Herald readers will know as Alice Thomas Ellis, loathed innovation, particularly innovation in the Church. Her local parish church, had, she told me, gone country and western (ie introduced a folk Mass) which to her, summed up the horror of the Catholic Church’s renunciation of its historic mission to be a bastion against change.

Yet she herself was not a conservative really, either with a big or a small “c”. She did not like the Tory party and was instinctively Labourite in sympathy – perhaps something to do with her Liverpudlian roots. Nor did she conform to the usual picture of “family values”; she had rather a lot of children but she was quite happy for them to wander off and make their own mistakes. She was one of the most tolerant women I have ever met. She had to be, presiding over that huge chaotic house in Camden Town, full of children, their other halves, and numerous people popping into her kitchen at odd times. She was liberal in the right sense: generous and relaxed. What she hated above all was political correctness, particularly that of the anti-smoking brigade. Her death was, I suppose, what is nowadays termed “smoking-related”; she had been suffering from lung cancer, though the last time I spoke to her I got the impression she had recovered. I told her I had said Mass for her; “Well, it worked,” she said.

There is an Alice Thomas Ellis legend which I am sure will be appearing in print in the appreciations and obituaries: all to do with a pie shop in Sloane Square, where she met her husband, and how she really wanted to be a nun. I once told her that she would make a terrible nun.

“Darling, I know,” she replied. She was far more down to earth than the legends about her suggested.

Like all comic geniuses she was also a depressive. Yet for someone who must have felt terribly sad for much of the time she had a happy and fulfilled life. Her work as a publisher was notable. Unlike the vast majority of modern publishers, she actually edited books. It is thanks to her that my second novel lost about 40 per cent of its length. “You have said that; you do not need to say that,” she would say, going through it with a pen and covering the manuscript with indecipherable scrawlings. She knew about structure and she also knew about tone: her advice was “be sincere”, and it was good advice.

Her own novels are masterpieces of compression and humour, which deserve to survive. I must have read thousands of novels since the day I first opened The 27th Kingdom, but I do not think I will ever forget the thrill of entering her imaginative world. Remember the cousin from the Eastern bloc who had to get out of the car and run up and down the side of the road screaming when being driven from Hampshire to Berkshire, because she had never crossed a frontier before with hassle about papers and permits?

Anna’s world was unforgettable; her own character was pretty mesmerising, but her novels must not be ignored. They are great, among the very best of our time.

Unusually for a novelist, she was also a brilliant journalist. Her Home Life columns for the Spectator were a delight, and readers of the Herald will remember her contributions in these pages. She got up some peoples’ noses – but they were just the stuffy sort of bores who deserved to be annoyed. If they overreacted, they proved her point about their intolerance.

She often said to me that she wanted to die and be at peace with God. I hope and trust that she has got her wish. I am confident that she has. I owe her a great debt that can never be repaid, as do many others. May she enjoy her heaven. We have had a faintly confusing few days. This is partly because we have two Beryls on the premises: one a dog and one a distinguished novelist.

I shriek “Beryl stop that at once” and the novelist jumps a foot in the air, I say “Beryl would you like a drink?” and the dog looks interested.

The hectic aspect arises out of the fact that Beryl, the dog, has four puppies: Brutus, Tertius, Alfie and Martha, imps of Satan all of them. They chew hand luggage, toes, each others’ legs, and have not yet grasped any of the finer points of the concepts of obedience, good manners or basic hygiene...

The prettiest have brown and black faces, while the plainest has a white domed forehead and appears a bit of a thug – small-eyed and mean looking – which is unfair since he has a charming nature. This is why so many human beings wear eye make-up. It softens the overall rather threatening effect given by beady eyes staring out of a naked countenance.

Finding myself in reflective vein I wonder what else, apart from a certain amount of maquillage, we could learn from these freshly-painted countenances; they relax completely, their paws go entirely limp and floppy when they’re asleep and although they occasionally utter a small yelp you know they’re not troubled somewhere in their unconscious about the consequence of imposing VAT on fuel or the fate of the rainforests...

Enough of canines, I must turn my attention to the novelist and give her a drink. Some human beings are delightful too, although I’d never keep one as a pet. Obesity seems to produce a remarkable amount of human misery, yet few people make the connection between greed and laziness and walloping fatness. Society does not suggest a return to the days when all food was home-cooked: it would be impracticable, so everyone goes on eating processed food more or less all the time, where once it was forbidden to eat between meals for fear of destroying the appetite.

The old attitude was quite different from that which pertains today: some people ate too much and millions didn’t have enough but on the whole, food was regarded primarily as a means of staying alive and children particularly were expected to eat what they were given, which was pretty hard on them since what they were given was often mutton or gruel, but the overall idea was sensible.

Now food is regarded primarily as a source of pleasure and no one suggests that we should eat anything we don’t like simply because it’s all there is. Food, like sex, is seen in the western world as an aspect of recreation rather than anything to do with the survival of the species. People seldom fast which, unless taken to extremes, was a custom that had a beneficial effect on both body and soul; but they do slim, which is a custom doomed to failure since it is concerned only with the body and personal vanity and lacks the intellectual and spiritual rigour of the old discipline.

Most modern cookery books are employed as bedtime reading – often causing the reader to get up and seek for something pre-prepared in the fridge to still the pangs of greed.

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