Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

Rather a cold fish

Text settings

The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall

Paul Torday

Weidenfeld, pp. 288, £

Published first novel (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) at the age of 59, Richard and Judy choice, won Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction; spent his whole career in industry; lives in Northumberland, wears tweed cap, likes fishing…These are the facts you read about Paul Torday time and again, and he must be getting tired of them.   

That first book really was good: the kind of novel you wish you’d written yourself, all done in emails, extracts from diaries and letters, snatches of Hansard, articles in newspapers, transcripts of interrogation sessions. It was a charming satire, about politicians, entrepreneurs and fish. His late career-change and success gave hope to thousands of 59-year-olds.

Now, I fear, people are going to start saying, ‘Tiredness can kill your prose. Take a break.’ The man has been churning out novels at the rate of at least one a year since 2007. They’re not bad, but they’re not a patch on Salmon Fishing. We all feel for him. Acts are hard to follow.

Rather a cold fish. That’s how I’d describe Ed Hartlepool, the main character of this latest book, and indeed most of the other characters. From writing about literal cold fish, Torday is now writing about the human version. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of my best friends are cold fish. Easily embarrassed, slightly uncommunicative English people are a fascinating breed. But I’m not sure Torday really means them to be this cold, this impenetrable, this sexless, this lacklustre. I think it’s more that he doesn’t make the effort to get inside their minds. So, as you read, you feel as if you’re perpetually in a waiting room, not quite getting to your appointment with the real person.

Great family house built by magnate ancestor, now in state of disrepair, heir to title comes back from tax exile to deal with it, developer with Ferrari wants to turn it into flats, nice well-brought-up spinster in the neighbourhood (who lives with bossy mean father) is going out with developer as no other suitable men around, not in love with him, will she fall in love with heir to big house? Butler old and doddery, spills wine, is laid off, old lady turns up, pretends to be titled, turns out to have been a high-class tart who had an affair with heir’s father.

That’s the world you’re going into. All readable enough. You just about turn the pages to find out what’s going to happen to house, heir, old lady and nice well-brought-up girl. So it’s quite a moment when the latter gives a little kick to her bossy mean father, which tips him down the stairs and kills him. She experiences no guilt at all about this, just drags his body into the dining-room, props him up at the table for six weeks, and sprays the place with air freshener to ward off the stench.  

It’s the poorly imagined details that really get you down. For example, the book starts with Ed Hartlepool reading a letter on the loo. We hear about his daily bowel movements, watched by the ‘silent audience’ of his old school photographs.

All fine and good. But we never see him move off. He just sits there, reading and reading, and you’re left with a sense of incompleteness. Annabel (the spinster) is sent some flowers, and arranges them in a vase before opening the envelope to find out who has sent them. That just wouldn’t happen.

As for the clichéd descriptions and thoughts, they are not worthy of someone who has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. If only Torday had chosen less obvious accoutrements for the developer than a Ferrari, a hairy chest, buttons undone and gold cufflinks. If only he had endowed the butler with rather less predictable characteristics than Downton Abbey/Remains of the Day ones. Of Annabel, Torday writes: ‘She picked up the book she was reading, but it provided no comfort. The story no longer held the power to transport her from the grim world she lived in.’ And of Ed, on his predicament: ‘His only way of life, the only life he had ever known, the only life the last six or seven generations of his family had ever known, was about to change, fundamentally and for ever.’  This is pallid stuff. And it leaves a nasty smell in the nose, what with that dead body and the unfinished bowel movement.

But it is a story with a beginning, middle and end, and other people might like it — particularly, perhaps, people over the age of 60 who live in Northumberland and wear tweed caps.