2 September 2012

Ian McEwan’s ‘Sweet Tooth’

Ian McEwan was, like me, born in the UK in the years just after World War 2, so it’s not so surprising that I was buying his early short stories when published in their racy 1970s covers (left) and have read most of his novels since. On the whole I enjoy his work more than that of the other British writers he is usually associated with: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and the late Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens, unlike the others was not a novelist, and is the dedicatee of McEwan’s latest book Sweet Tooth.

Sweet Tooth has had plenty of publicity in the form of author interviews and reviews, mostly favourable. The novel is a complex mixture of spy story, love story, state of the nation in the 1970s (Memories of the Heath Administration, as it were) and literary incest. The opening sentences:
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.
seem to give an accurate description of what is to follow.  The plot has been summarised up to a point in nearly all the reviews and I won't repeat it here.

Sweet Tooth is the code name of the security service mission and the novel is set partly in the Angletonian 'wilderness of mirrors' of the intelligence world and partly in academia, in particular the University of Sussex near Brighton where McEwan studied English Literature in the late 1960s. Sussex’s reputation at that time was much higher than it is credited with being in university league tables now. There is a strong personal element to the novel, for example the view of Oxbridge expressed by Serena’s lover, Tom Haley, a writer and academic at Sussex, is almost exactly that of McEwan in his recent BBC2 interview with Kirsty Wark. Haley’s short story, Lovers, which we read through the eyes of Serena, has more than a passing resemblance to McEwan’s short story, Dead As They Come, from In Between the Sheets (top right). Haley is, one might conclude, in many ways a McEwan might have been.

Serena is a Cambridge maths graduate but also an avid reader, a contrivance which presumably allows her to react intelligently to Haley’s writing without getting bogged down in the formal apparatus of lit crit. The use of terms like aposiopesis would hardly maintain the interest of the majority of McEwan’s readership, who are probably like Serena and only capable of a ‘base level of discourse’, as she puts it. I was intrigued by her background, as I remember a former colleague with an Oxbridge maths degree who had joined and left MI5 about 10 years before Serena. She was a brigadier’s daughter rather than a bishop’s, and had resigned not long after recruitment. What she did there I was never told, but I was left with the impression that it was boring. No doubt the work has since been transformed by IT as in most other organisations. Anyway, most of us have no real idea of what working for MI5 would be like then or now. Which makes former head of MI6 John Scarlett’s review of Sweet Tooth in the Daily Telegraph all the more interesting:
Is the backdrop of national crisis and MI5 stumbling correctly told and authentic? Up to a point. The novel is carefully researched.
He concluded:
Sweet Tooth is a fine and complex novel, the work of a master storyteller. It will absorb readers, of whom there will be very many. They should not go away thinking this is a true picture of the Security Service of 40 years ago. And why should it be? It is a work of fiction, not of history.
One thing he might have had in mind is the existence of the standing D-Notice system introduced in 1971. The existence of careful preparatory research is borne out by the book’s Acknowledgements which include Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 (in the US, Defending the Realm) and David Cornwell (better known as John Le Carré) for “irresistible reminiscences”. At which point it might be worth noting the distinction between MI5 and MI6. MI5, the Security Service, as they explain on their website, protects the UK domestically from threats to security, whereas MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, collects foreign intelligence – and in the public’s mind is usually associated with James Bond. So it’s a little surprising when Serena states:
At work the one topic was war in the Middle East. Even the most light-headed of the society girls among the secretaries was drawn into the daily drama. … A wall map went up in our corridor with sticky plastic beads representing the opposing divisions and arrows to show their recent movements.
While McEwan is noted for being assiduous about his research - he spent weeks with surgeons while writing Saturday (2005) - he admitted to Kirsty Wark that he often makes mistakes. This is puzzling as he also told Wark that he hands his publisher a final draft which he expects to have to alter, although at the same time he gave the impression that disruptive suggestions were unwelcome. One can’t help thinking that a fact-checker could have improved Sweet Tooth in draft by removing, for example, the non-existent RAF rank of Flight Commander (page 55, more likely Wing Commander from the context). On the next page we are told that an MI5 colleague had, after Winchester, gone to Harvard where ‘he did a law degree and then another in psychology’. I may be wrong, but doesn’t admission to the Harvard Law School require a first degree? Haley seems to have an unusual academic pedigree too: a degree in English, then an MA in international relations, but the subject of his PhD is The Faerie Queen.

By contrast, at school Serena had been “a freak of nature – a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics … Obviously, an exam in maths was far less effort than one in English literature” (oh sure) but on arrival at Newnham College, Cambridge she learnt at her first tutorial “what a mediocrity I was in mathematics”. “Gawky boys, unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy and generative grammar … leered as I struggled with concepts they took for granted. … I couldn’t succeed because I was like nearly all the rest of humanity – not much good at maths, not at this level”. I know of a girl who was at Oxford about ten years ago and in a similar position after getting good A levels – she transferred successfully from maths to psychology. However Serena “did my best to transfer out to English or French or even anthropology, but no one wanted me. In those days the rules were tightly observed.” But someone I know who went to Oxford in Serena’s day transferred soon after arrival from physics to law - if anything the rules are tighter now than then.

Serena tells us that at MI5 she was responsible for the registry files on Communist Party members in Gloucestershire:
In my first month I opened a file on the headmaster of a grammar school in Stroud who had attended an open meeting of his local branch one Saturday evening in July 1972.
But there was almost certainly only one grammar school in Stroud (rhymes with loud) with a headmaster at that time – oddly enough it was attended by Peter Hennessy, the historian of the modern British state, in the 1960s. Sometimes a devil can lurk in such details. According to Channel 4 News:
… the new novel's truthful parallels ran aground when his real-life publisher was forced to reprint the novel. The original Sweet Tooth had included a Sussex University English professor called Tom Healy - coincidentally the name of a genuine professor of renaissance literature at the university.
Matthew Cain, the Channel 4 News Culture Editor, interviewed McEwan in Leconfield House in Mayfair, one of the buildings used by MI5 in the 1970s and where Serena worked. The map below is taken from the endpapers of Christopher Andrew’s book. The blue stars show the Headquarters buildings used circa 1972. Serena’s recruitment interview took place at the location near Regent Street.

If my tone seems a bit carping, the only excuse I can offer is that McEwan’s attention to realism encourages nitpicking - Sweet Tooth features Martin Amis and other literary personalities of the day as well as numerous real places. Despite his distaste for us techies, “unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy” as we are, I always think McEwan is a Chateau Haut-Brion among authors and is to be appreciated, if one gets the chance, whatever the vintage. 2012 looks like a good year for both - fortunately for UK readers the price of Sweet Tooth is determined by Random House and Amazon and not by the weather and the Chinese.


In a post last year, British Writers and British Art, I expressed some doubt as to whether in McEwan’s last novel, Solar (2010), one of the characters, Melissa, owner of three dance clothing shops, would have owned a Henry Moore maquette, and I rather sourly concluded that:
… I can’t help thinking that Henry Moore maquettes … are more likely to be found in the handsome houses of successful writers like … McEwan (in London’s … Fitzrovia, …) than in the humbler dwellings of … minor retailers.
At Cambridge Serena has an affair with a history don, Tony Canning, who introduces her to MI5. In his cottage:
… was a bright Mediterranean scene of whitewashed houses and sheets drying on a line. It was a watercolour by Winston Churchill, painted in Marrakech during a break from the Conference in 1943. I never learned how it came into Tony’s possession.
Most of Churchill’s watercolours are at Chartwell, but there is nothing particularly improbable about Canning owning one (although the Conference was at Casablanca and Marrakech was a subsequent holiday).

I was interested to read in an interview with McEwan in the Guardian that the Fitzrovia house which had featured in Saturday has just been “replaced with a flat in Bloomsbury and a house in Gloucestershire”. Gloucestershire (Serena’s CP specialism) is in SW England, a region where writers like to spend at least some of their time – John Le Carré in Cornwall and Jeanette Winterson, also in Gloucestershire, come to mind. By the way, Frome (rhymes with plume) is a town in Somerset in SW England, but on high ground some distance from the area known as the Somerset Levels.

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