Candid confessions cut from glass – Candia McWilliam

May 30, 1993

Every reading she gives, there’s one. Tonight’s asks a mangled question involving class and ”congruence” and sincerity. If the meaning is opaque, the message is unmistakeable: you’re posh, you write fancy, your feelings aren’t real. The supreme wordsmith of her generation says nothing. It’s the organiser of the evening who leaps in with an answer, while Candia McWilliam lets that great sweep of hair fall over her burning face and rocks on her chair like a child.

She dwells in the attics of language, dusting off forgotten treasures for everyday speech, dishing up life on great-grandmother’s best china. Not everyone likes it. Some suspect she’s ritzing them, putting them down; to others it’s affectation, setting herself up. It doesn’t occur to them that the rococo vocabulary might be integral, the only alternative to that silent, rocking child.

Next morning, taking tea in the grand old Caledonian, she’s a strange mix of glamour and self-effacement, a shrinking peony who says she yearns for invisibility. Pretty futile if you’re six feet tall with long, winter-blonde hair.

Ironically for a woman whose second novel satirised the ethos of the ‘pink penny dreadfuls’, McWilliam tends to attract the perfumed in a journalist’s pen. She’s head-to-toe in Marks and Spencer, she laughs, but they always seem to have her ”swathed in the rarest of cashmeres”. This is tantamount to a challenge to list split ends and smudged mascara but, in truth, I’m as susceptible as the next hack. She hates what she sees in the mirror, disparaging her appearance with very funny one-liners which are entirely groundless and almost entirely meant.

The voice is deep Oxbridge, at once clipped and drawling, deadpan-droll. Jewelled sentences fall, small miracles of metaphor and construction, from her lips. She knows the accent irritates, and it’s terrible when people dislike you, but to change it would ”whiff of falsity”, so it stays. Having laboured to shed mine, I can only admire her guts.

How to address the question of class and Candia McWilliam? If you simply sort the world into the posh and the rest of us, there’s no question that she’s in the former camp; beyond that the ground gets slippery.

Her Edinburgh childhood was genteel but unconventional, impoverished-bohemian. At boarding school she was all but adopted by her best friend’s father, Lord Strathcona. At Cambridge she felt so out of things she acquired a cat for company. On leaving, she worked in the comparatively classless fields of journalism and advertising, then married an aristo, had two children, and divorced. She won’t talk about the marriage, but reading between the lines of A Little Stranger, with its Dutch narrator observing the alien rituals of her husband’s country estate, I’d guess she didn’t feel to the manor born.

She’s now married to a don at Oxford, a Parsee, who teaches 17th century English literature, but she’s quick to dissociate herself from the academic set. Those cleverly-constructed comedies of manners and menace A Case of Knives and A Little Stranger have made her a fashionable name in literary London but she doesn’t run with the Groucho pack either. She’s too bright to be a social snob, and too bright not to be an intellectual one. (Discovering that the Cally possesses an ‘entresol’ makes her day). The group with which she feels most affinity is women.

She puts it down to domestic solidarity, her homebound life as ”Mrs Average”, juggling the novel she hopes to deliver by September with the demands of husband and small child, but there’s more to it than that. Women feel safe. And Candia McWilliam doesn’t.

”In common with many large people I’m rather timid and jumpy. I don’t like unpleasantness. You know how people love a row? It scares me. I hate raised voices.” Then there’s her preoccupation with sudden violence, the smiler with the knife. ”I’m scared of sudden movements, I’m scared of things happening, and I believe that that fear brings things on. It’s a catalyst.”

Aggression is a feeling she’s never experienced. What, not even the satisfactions of righteous anger? She looks faintly sick. ”Not with reference to myself. I don’t want to be in a position of righteous anger: tabloid emotions.”

Her impulses are quite different. ”I always want to give people a good time. I’ve got a naturally conciliatory bent which is entirely instinctive – my intellect isn’t so conciliatory. I’m a pleaser; it’s a sort of female tic.”

If she’s coming across as human Horlicks, don’t be fooled. Behind those girlish compliments and the flattering adjustments of rapport she misses nothing. She has a cruelly amusing wit when she chooses to share it, but as often her face will assume its absent look and you know she’s passing judgement in camera.

It’s not an unprecedented paradox, astringent mind and emollient temperament, formidable powers and fearful insecurity, but Candia McWilliam is an extreme example of the type.

Her selflessness takes her beyond the bounds of good breeding into the possibility of psychopathology or cant. Recalling the hostile questioner at the bookshop reading, she says her chief concern was that he might hurt those members of her family sitting in the audience. And her own feelings? ”Shouldn’t come into it.”

Asked to describe herself, she shies like a foal. ”I’ve no notion what I’m like. I’m tall… I simply couldn’t. I describe other people.” We move on to other matters but a few minutes later a thought strikes her. ”Perhaps I can’t tell you what I’m like because I didn’t know my mother.”

She was an only child, and an unhappy one. She felt fat, ugly and profoundly unlovable; guilty, too, which meant forever running round trying to make things better. She was a prodigious writer of letters and enterer of competitions, largely for the sake of the return post. If there were fewer than the specified 72 mints in a packet of Matchmakers she’d write to the manufacturers. ”I remember writing to the Bunty saying that my dog could lay the table.” Her face takes on the mock-serious expression she must use for her own children’s peccadilloes. ”I reckon that the people who ran the Bunty realised this wasn’t true.”

Her father, Colin McWilliam, spent his days saving Scottish buildings. Her mother was a talented woman of thwarted glamour, encumbered by housewifery and her solid child. This, at any rate, is her daughter’s view, expressed in the current issue of Granta magazine.

As a piece of writing it has everything you’d expect: acute observation, detail you can smell off the page, language so gloriously chewy it makes you want to laugh out loud, and a certain gothic feel, the shadow of doom. It describes Candia McWilliam’s nine-year-old life until the day her mother committed suicide.

I mention the distress of discovering that it wasn’t fiction, and all at once we’re playing out a scene of high social comedy, the bereaved daughter full of compunction for upsetting a stranger with her mother’s death.

”I’m sorry you were distressed.”

”Don’t worry about me; I was distressed for you.”

She seems surprised by this idea.

”I find it very usual, suicide.”

She has friends whose parents killed themselves; it has its consolations. ”They use it as a sort of sugared lollipop to comfort themselves: the thought that if it all goes wrong they can always do that. But I think it’s very unlikely that I will. That much distress, that early, is in an awful way an excellent property to sustain people when in later life they get their pain.”

Her mother’s death gave her both steel and emotional suppleness. She worries about friends who’ve come this far without calamity, even wondering if she should innoculate her children with measured doses of harm.

However usual suicide may be, there’s something strikingly unusual about this particular tragedy: she has never attempted to ascertain the details. She knows more than she’s telling me, but that still leaves plenty unexplained.

She respects her mother’s choice. ”It’s what she wanted – if it’s so that she died in that way, which was never established.” She corrects herself. ”I’m sure it was established, but I’ve never known, and I’ve never wanted to bother anyone.”

Writing the memoir for Granta filtered into her dream life, disturbing concentric circles of memory, but the idea of digging up the truth appals her. ”That’s like hurting other people’s teeth: why do that? I didn’t want to hurt anyone living. It’s not sort of acknowledged in the very few people I know of my parents’ world. We never discussed my mother’s life after she died, and I love my stepmother. I didn’t want to make things at all edgy.”

Incredulity hangs over the tea table. She smiles. ”I believe in repression. Really. And self-control and good behaviour and jokes.”

She’s a psychoanalyst’s picnic but she’s simply not interested, regarding ”all this self-revelation stuff” with grave disapproval. Unknowability, of people and future events, is a recurring theme in her work. Delving into the unconscious belongs in the same bracket of vulgar fads as entresols, tabloid emotions, and ‘style’ sections in the Sunday press: the banal, reductive consensus of contemporary culture.

She prefers to put her faith in the accumulated weight of civilisation, the freedoms of formal structure, traditional ways. Her thoughts are a teeming, threatening canvas, by Bosch, perhaps, or Richard Dadd. The great thing about fiction is the way it processes the details forcing themselves on her attention. As a child she was susceptible to the allure of hospitals, wards full of crises that could be resolved. She loves the illusion of calm, like sailing on tractable seas. Or writing a novel. ”Ordering things, sorting things out: perhaps I should work at Benetton.”

Her father died in 1989. She didn’t get to his funeral. The awful thing was that it was funny, she says, then says that it wasn’t funny at all. A freak blizzard diverted their plane from Edinburgh to Glasgow, they hired a car but the driver managed to take the wrong turning. She remembers the willpower she needed not to cry, and staring out of the window, and passing Falkland Palace or some such building with a crown steeple.

”All the landscape was black and white and I saw a black horse run across a field. It was like a print, but animated. All the time I was looking at the countryside; it was the only thing that stopped me from howling like a dog. And then my husband said: ‘Colin was always very elusive’.” She gives a smile that threatens to tear her face. ”The real by-product is that, of course, I don’t believe he’s dead. Arriving at Turnhouse the other day, I expected to see him.”

It’s not the last thing Candia McWilliam says, but the story, with its moral of what happens to emotion denied formal observance, stays with me long after the gossip and the jokes. Hard to say why, exactly: something to do with the pathos of the tale and the consummate art of the telling. The man at the public reading might not find them congruent, but it’s the way that she feels.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications