Le Cafe Noir. offGlasgow‘s George Square. is about the nearest some of us will get to Paris this spring. Obviously. unconvinced that spring had truly sprung. Ronald Frame. Bearsden’s greatest living novelist. had already discarded a coat and brolly. At least another three more layers could have gone if there was a sudden rise in temperature. The self-confessed ascetic eschewed coffee and ordered a hot chocolate which arrived in a cup so wide Blondin could‘ve walked across it on a tightrope.
Ronald Frame looks smaller than his photographs suggest or perhaps he had shrunk himselfinto the chair to avoid being spotted in a place so conspicuously ‘in'. Reports suggest he is not an ‘in‘ sort of person. Some say he is a young fogey (in denim‘.’). others that he is fey or precious. or both. Maybe it's because good manners and politeness are so rare. He does admit that because he is. perforce. a bit ofa loner he as become ‘the object of people‘s fantasy and imagination.‘ ‘And fantasy.‘ he adds. ‘is not too strong a word to use. given some of the stuff that‘s been written about me. lfyou don‘t give people very much about yourself. and as you go on writing. you become more enigmatic. Socially. people pick up on that. Last week I was asked to appear in a magazine feature on eligible bachelors. which to me is quite incredible. For five seconds it‘s very ﬂattering. then you say. no thank you. But what did they mean by eligible? They actually only mean that you have to be unmarried. There‘s probably a very limited stock that they could pick from anyway.’ He acknowledges. however. that after publishing four books in two and a half years. and been laurelled as the ‘Most Promising Writer New to Television‘ and given the Samuel Beckett Award for Paris. his first television play. smart chaps with poisonous pens are pointing their nibs at him. So to avoid the slings and arrows which outrageous good fortune has sent winging his way. he lies low in pukka Bearsden. where he lives with his parents. rarely confabbing with other writers. This may seem. he admits. an unnatural way of life for a healthy 33 year-old (albeit with a bad back) but he accepts that as a penalty of making writing ‘the number one thing in your life.‘
From an early age he knew he
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“Eligible bachelor“? ‘Promising writer“? Alan Taylor meets the real Ronald Frame.
reached the end of his sojourn at Glasgow High School he was devouring Penguin Modern Classics as an aperitif to studying English at Glasgow University. From there he emerged with first class honours and went to Oxford. followed by a three-year stint as a teacher at an English boarding school. But he always conserved ‘the best part‘ of his brain for writing. Now his manuscripts joined the unscrutinised piles on the desks of editors and publishers. Some stories surfaced sporadically but the real breakthrough came in 1984. after a romantic novelist called Betty Trask left her royalties from Love Has Wings and Desire Me Not. to the founding ofyet another literary prize. Frame submitted the then unpublished Winterlouraey and the
judges gave it a share ofthe first price: £6750. to be spent on edifying travel. In the conventional sense Winterloumey is not what anyone at Mills and Boon would recognise as romantic. Apparently The Times said Frame was adept at creating monsters. This. he says. rather frightened him. ‘In WimerJoumeyI tried to make the people as excusable as possible. I do try to show that notions ofout-and-out evil and badness have to be tempered with something else.‘ In any case there was no question of him being typecast. By the time the prize was awarded he had moved on and readers barely had time to draw breath before two collections of stories (Watching Mrs Gordon and A Lon g Weekend With Marcel Proms!) appeared.
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For him. writing shorter pieces makes 'logical sense'. He always handwrites. spares his backache by surrendering his manuscript to a typist and says. “I’m not averse to glueing bits of paper together and laying it out on the floor. I think you actually have to see stories in physical form.‘ However. it‘s not a method ofconstruction which lends itselfto a 48(l-page novel. the length of the newly-published .S'amlmouth People. Already it has achieved things his other books did not. Knopf have taken it in the States (where the title. to avoid spurious confusion with The Bone People. is to be truncated to .S'andmoulh). Sceptre are paper-backing it here. and on a recent trip south he got ‘a puerile joy‘ from seeing it stacked high in Hatchard‘s of Piccadilly.
Set in the 1950s. Sandmouth People takes a symbolic St George's Day in the life of a sleepy South Coast resort. not a stone‘s throw from Bournemouth. Through an album of snapshots Frame builds up a picture of surface propriety then subverts it by introducing dark pasts a'id salacious presents. permeated with snobbery and social affectation. It is a society of randy nannies. degreeless schoolteachers. closet gays and upwardly-mobile hairdressers.
‘What I was interested in.‘ says Frame. ‘was why people lost their ambition and hopes in the Fifties and why. suddenly. this new democratic age didn‘t work out for them.‘
It is a novel which has sent reviewers scurrying for their lists of comparisons. Priestley. Trevor. Compton Mackenzie. even Agatha Christie. have been implicated. Ronald Frame will have none of it. ‘I think Dickens in a way is behind the book. You can say you‘re using the fomt of EastEm/ers. but it was also what Dickens was doing in Our Mutual Friend. Keeping all those stories going together.‘
Sandmourh People certainly accomplishes that but maybe because it‘s set ‘in a terribly introspective part of the country‘. it
also has a brooding intensity. And as the pages slip. amusineg and easily by. there is the realisation that harm might come to Tilly Moscombe. an illegitimate half~imbecile whose peripatetic life makes her privy to happening others would prefer to have kept private. Is she the author's alter ego'.’ I didn’t dare ask. Sandmoulh People is published by The Bodley Head. [11.95.
The List 17 — 30 April 45