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Interview: Francis Spufford, writer and lecturer

26 August 2016

‘What makes me angry? Myself’


KT Bruce

I seem to have a kind of handily generic imagination. Things interest me, eccentrically and weirdly, which are just about to interest a lot more people. I wrote about Captain Scott and polar exploration in I May Be Some Time just before the great boom in Scott and Shackleton and icy places generally. I wrote about growing up with children’s books just before Harry Potter came along. I started to write about the collapse of Socialist economies just before the capitalist economies went pear-shaped in 2008.


Possibly my writing about Chris­tianity signals that an enorm­ous religious revival is imminent. I await offers to install me, at a gigantic salary, as a cultural early-warning system.


No, I didn’t foresee Brexit. I’m not a successful cultural litmus paper on this point. I was aghast, but it says important things about the way huge amounts of the country have been left out, whereas to others social change means lovely ethnic cuisine. I didn’t see it coming, because, five years ago, leaving the EU was a fringe political position held by not that many people.
Now it isn’t.


The EU is not the real issue, though people have strong feelings about it. It got lined up as sym­­bolic repres­entation of the way things are. It was represented by the business-as-usual faction in public life, and people clearly didn’t want business as usual. But I wish they had picked a different issue to make their potent symbolic rejection of inequalities.


I think there’s been a hunger for imagination to reach back towards the world of fact, for writers to use the wonderfully varied tools of language to give us an account, more direct than the fictional one, of the different facets of contem­porary life. Science writing and his­torical writing and memoir-writing have all had little renais­sances at the same time, and also grown towards each other. The essay is alive and well, just living under other names.


Golden Hill is a historical novel about the 18th century which also harks back to the glorious dog’s breakfast that was the novel at its 18th-century beginning, when it could mix up adventure with serious themes, tragedy with farce, low pleasures with (I hope) high ambi­tion. It’s set in the very small colonial town of New York.


In Unapologetic, I wanted to find a way to show non-believers what faith felt like, and why, even if you didn’t share it, you could recognise it as a solution to real, urgent human needs. I was frustrated by the way that the New Atheist bestsellers like The God Delusion had turned the public conversation about faith into a boring Punch-and-Judy battle between abstract claims. The response has been lovely, and hardly hostile at all, except from a few atheist polem­icists who are maddened that I don’t know my place, and some Chris­tians more conservative than me who feel I’ve misrepresented us. I’m delighted with the first, and very sorry indeed about the second.


I was so keen to squash the slander that Christianity is about fearing death, and trading in your reason for unrealistic promises of post-mortem pie in the sky, that I was probably a bit too satirical about the traditional idea of heaven. After all, the stuff about harps and clouds is only another inadequate human sketch of something towards which I, too, do my best to face in hope and trust, generating my own inadequate pictures.


My first experience of God hap­pened in a café when I was feeling wretched in an entirely deserved way, and someone played a tape of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. What I felt was a strong and unac­count­­able conviction of mercy I didn’t have to deserve.


I haven’t had that sense of visitation for a long time, and now struggle to remember what it was really like — as opposed (professional peril for a writer, here) to my descriptions of it. Nowadays, praying feels more like reaching out, in hope and as much stillness as I can manage. But I have what I need.


What is the Church of England? Now I’m on General Synod I have a bit more of a collective view of it, but still my fundamental reference points are the trio of country parishes where my wife has been the priest for the past six years: specific congregations of specific faithful people, doing their local best. I do think that nationally we’re a bit broken, and lamentably cut off from the moral and spiritual experience of most of the country we’re supposed to serve, and it’s urgent that we reconnect in all sorts of ways. But against the pessimism of that truth I set the simplicity of something that works as well as it has ever done. Two or three of you gather in his name, and off you go.


I’d like us to be better at being the Church of England: to weigh our need to fit with and work with the moral sense of this country more heavily than with the Anglican Communion. It’s really, really urgent that we work with where we really are. Sexuality is only the presenting issue. It’s the job of the Church of England to articulate in a deeper, more organised, profound form what our culture believes about goodness, justice, and mercy, and not be side­­tracked by headline issues. It doesn’t mean we should just give up our Christian difference, but we do need to be talking about the same stuff, not retreating into churchy reservations.


I’m on the liberal side of the argument about sexuality in a con­servative kind of way — somebody who thinks that we need not an accommodation to this world, but a positive, demanding Christian understanding of what marriage is, which happens to be gender-blind.


I’m still finding my feet at Synod; so I’ve been as quiet as an apprentice church mouse so far. I was impressed by the Shared Conver­sations, although I was in one of the groups for whom the process didn’t work very well. Some groups gelled more easily. I come from a country-parish background where we all have to recognise each other as Christians just to keep the show on the road. In debate, we have to recognise each other as people of faith and good will; so I wasn’t frustrated by not being able to go headlong on the issues.


I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as the child of academics, the histor­ians Peter and Margaret Spufford. Boarding school and an English degree at Cambridge, where I met my wife, Jessica Martin. My mother died in 2014, but my father lives one village away from Jessica’s cure of souls in South Cambridge­shire. Do the relatives of saints ever think they’re saints? The qualities that made my mother extraordinary also made her dif­ficult, sometimes. She handled a lifetime of chronic pain, and then the cognitive indig­nities of demen­tia, with pro­found grace and gallantry. I miss her a lot.


Bridget was my downright, witty younger sister, who died in 1989 from the effects of a ridiculously rare congenital disease called cystinosis. Some of her story is in my mother’s book about suffering, Celebration; and, after her death, a hostel for disabled students was founded in Cambridge in her name, later to metamorphose into a char­itable trust supporting disabled access to higher education.


We’re on the move again now to Ely, where Jessica has just become a res­­­­­id­en­­­tiary canon. Before now, I lived in a vicarage buzzed by Spitfires from the Imperial War Museum, with Jessica. Our dau­gh­ter, Theodora, who’s ten, wants me to write a children’s book. I also have a grown-up daughter called Stella.


We moved house this week; so my head is like a furniture van full of awk­wardly shaped future projects, and I’m trying to work out how to fit them in. I’d like to write a big
fat novel about London over the past 50 years, and the children’s book. No, no more on theology. Unapologetic got said what I had to say. I want to get back to being a writer who happens to be a Christian.


I teach on an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths. Our students are
of all ages, with three big bumps corresponding to just graduated, mid-life, and just retired.


Students’ preparedness varies from generation to generation, but not in the sense that some are less prepared and some are more so: they’re prepared in different things. The oldest ones tend to have the keenest sense of the whole shape of lives, the middle-aged ones have the keenest sense of mutability and the change­­ableness of lives, and the youngest ones have the keenest sense of the poss­­ibilities of the present moment (while not always knowing what to write about). But you can make literature out of everything.


What makes me angry? Myself. Fashionable sneers. The state of the Labour Party. The debauching of the public domain for profit.


I’m happiest reading aloud at bedtime; co-operatively following the twists and turns of a thought with my wife; when I’m lost in oblivious concentration on writing that’s going well.


My wife has influenced me most. She is also my parish priest, and therefore has the cure of my soul, poor her. She is the best preacher I have ever heard.


Grace gives me hope for the future.


If I found myself locked in a church with a companion, I’d choose Terry Pratchett. I did actually meet him a couple of times, but not in cir­cumstances that allowed for nattering. The Discworld books, especially the ones from his long mature middle period, are marvels of genuinely popular art. He was an atheist, hostile to religion in some ways, generously curious about it in others, and — like the England whose contemporary decencies he articulated better than anyone else — far more Anglican than he knew.


Francis Spufford was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Golden Hill is published by Faber & Faber (£16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29)).

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