When people express nostalgia for the glory days of British television, it doesn’t take long for them to propose the 1966 BBC play Cathy Come Home as among the pinnacles of broadcasting. Not only a fine piece of drama, it also brought the plight of the homeless to the viewing public.
And Jeremy Sandford, who wrote Cathy Come Home, didn’t stop there. Finding himself the owner of a large house in Shropshire, he invited various homeless people to take up residence. It would be nice to relate that these indigents responded with gratitude, courtesy and warmth. Nice, but not true. Terrible arguments broke out, hostile takeover bids were launched, areas of the house and grounds barricaded against its genial proprietor.
In a piece of dreadful irony, Sandford found it so unpleasant to be at home that he became a virtual exile, touring the countryside, with only his accordion for company:a late-20th century troubadour, lodging where he could — often in his car — in neon-bright knitwear, with a plastic fried egg attached to his waistband as a spur to merriment.
Come to the Edge is a timely satire about the property-owning classes. In Joanna Kavenna’s version, the poor locals who get rehoused in the empty holiday homes of fiendish bankers are worthy and hardworking and brimming with gratitude: having known Jeremy Sandford, I think such a response most unlikely. Nor are Kavenna’s two protagonists at all lifelike. The heroine is a militant, gun-toting hippy with flame-red curls, whose idea it is to effect this anarchic property transfer. (One thinks of Rebekah Brooks, recast as an eco-warrior; a more erotic picture than which can scarcely be imagined.) The narrator is her reluctant lodger, a young woman who is meant to have come from a Midlands suburb, where she had a boring office job and a lot of glossy kitchen surfaces. Despite the dullness of her provenance, this narrator has a marvellous vocabulary, a literary style steeped in the tropes of modernism and the spirit of an adventurer.
It hardly matters that the characters are unrealistic, because the purpose of this novel is to be amusing and subversive, and it is, in spades. Kavenna has a deftness and wit which carry you along at such a pace that you hardly notice the technical feat of her skill in mastering a large cast and a plot full of bizarre turns. And she’s very funny, too.
Second-home owners are the principal target here, selfishly gobbling up all the prettiest farms and rural cottages, only to abandon them to almost perpetual darkness. But no householder is entirely safe from Kavenna’s ridicule and the book offers a very original corrective to dinner-party talk of property prices and granite kitchen countertops. As such, it would make a terrific book-group choice. Come to the Edge is playful, inventive and very much of its time.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012