On a summer afternoon fifteen years ago, I went to hear Jane Gardam at the South Bank Centre. She does not often appear in public, indeed she has been withering in her fiction about the idea of an author meeting her readers. ‘It must be like discussing your marriage with strangers,’ thinks Betty in Old Filth (2004), and there is a devastating portrait of the perils of authorship in The Queen of the Tambourine (1991).
However, there she was, sharing the platform with Georgina Hammick. The room was packed, the readings brilliant, the audience perhaps less so. What, demanded one chap rather testily, was the meaning of the story she had just read? In it, an elderly couple driving down Devon lanes turn a corner and disappear. ‘Well,’ said Gardam with bemused patience, ‘I suppose it’s about death.’ The sun shone through the dusty plate glass behind her, and it felt all at once like a moment from one of her own books: a clever woman in a difficult encounter; the collision of the quite unlike; death – ‘the serious act of life’ as Eliza Peabody puts it in The Queen of the Tambourine – never far away.
That dusty sunlight, too, made of the moment something otherworldly and surreal – like the ghosts and apprehensions which haunt so many of Jane Gardam’s short stories: the African bishop in ‘Waiting for a Stranger’ who stays the night in a North Country B&B though he has been killed in a car crash on the way there; the beloved dead dogs in ‘The Latter Days of Mr Jones’, frolicking in the snow as their old master dies of loneliness and sorrow. These come from The People on Privilege Hill (2007), a collection with which I spent the whole of a happy New Year’s Day in bed; but there are plenty more such shivery moments in her work.
Something of Jane Gardam’s blend of the solid and surreal comes from her own childhood. Brought up in north Yorkshire, a Catholic, she often explores ideas about
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