City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Book Festival: Margaret Drabble: First New Novel for Seven Years

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 16 August 2014

Dame Margaret Drabble
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The title of the event, “First New Novel for Seven Years” certainly drew a huge appreciative audience to the Book Festival to hear Dame Margaret Drabble talk about her 18th novel, "The Pure Gold Baby".

This was published exactly 50 years since her delicious debut, “A Summer Bird Cage” in 1963.

Tall and elegant in a flowing coral red dress with matching shoes, Dame Margaret strode on to the platform accompanied by Ramona Koval, (an exemplary presenter through sparkling, intelligent conversation with a humorous touch.)

So why did “The Pure Gold Baby” have such a lengthy gestation period? We learn that the background story is based on fact, inspired by the situation of a real family. Drabble spent five years composing the narrative, unsure if it could be published, until she received permission from the people fictionalised in the story.

To introduce the plot-line she reads an extract from page 4 about a young girl, Jess whose baby daughter Anna is a peaceful, contented, happy child, ready to smile at strangers. “ She was born that way, her condition. .. supernatural in her happiness.”

This passage is narrated with a gentle pace, savouring each phrase with poetic inflection; she goes on to express her interest in using specific words (prolaptic meaning foreseen), and her love of language.

Jess knows Anna is different and soon identified as a child with special needs. For Jess in her early twenties, living alone in Finsbury Park, North London, it's a challenge, as related through this personal study of a family, a friendship and a neighbourhood from the 1960s to the present day.

There’s a discussion on the way medical science has evolved since the 1960s when foetal genetic disorders could not be tested, and when sunbathing was good for you.

To evoke the period, there are “memory triggers” such as early fast food, Butterscotch Instant Whip “the synthetic flavour was really quite nice,” Margaret recalls with a laugh.

We hear about her fascination with African explorers, the two Scotsmen, Livingstone and Park. Jess is an anthropologist which provides a narrative link between Livingstone’s work and the plight of African communities today.

Questions from the audience: One gentleman enquired if "The Pure Gold Baby" is a woman’s novel to which she replied not at all, that she has no reader in mind when she writes. This prompted one of her male reader fans in the audience to warmly recommend this excellent novel to us all.

And then a final anecdote. Margaret Drabble had travelled to Edinburgh by train, departing the West Country at 11.30am, arriving at 7.15pm. This gave plenty time to read and observe a family sitting in the same carriage: the mother, a kind, caring father and two children all chatting together.

During the journey, the woman had mentioned having to change trains at Waverley to travel on to Dunfermline where she was looking forward to a large glass of wine after the long journey. How romantic, remarked Drabble, reminded of the poem, “The King sat in Dunfermline toun, drinking his blude red wine…”

When they all got off at Waverley, she saw with surprise that "the father" went off by himself - not with the family at all.!

As was so apparent in this tale, she finds stories, characters and romance, in the world around her. Perhaps this incident of a brief encounter on the train will inspire her 19th novel over the next year or two.

“The Pure Gold Baby” by Margaret Drabble is published by Canongate Books.