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Margaret Walters

Margaret Walters is film critic of the Listener and a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Kureishi’s England

Margaret Walters, 5 April 1990

The ‘beautiful laundrette’ that provides the title for Hanif Kureishi’s first film catches the flavour of his very personal brand of humour – off beat, off-the-wall with a cynical twist. Indian teenager Omar, working for his uncle while he waits to go to college, takes over a dingy, run-down laundrette, and tarts it up – with orange walls, fish tanks, hanging ferns, muzak and a glittering, picture-palace neon sign – till it’s ‘a ritz among laundrettes’. He hustles, steals from his family, and bosses his white friend Johnny into doing the dirty manual work, then stages a grand opening ceremony, champagne corks popping while eager customers queue outside. (The movie has quite a lot in common with that notorious strip-teasing Levi’s ad: Omar knows a launderette is a refuge from the drab, lonely streets, a meeting-place that promises entertainment and sexual or at least voyeuristic excitement.) Kureishi gives an exuberant account of one South London kid who makes his kitschy fantasies come true; at the same time, his movie is a chilling anatomy of a Thatcherite businessman in the making, and already on the make.’

Women’s Fiction

Margaret Walters, 13 October 1988

Penelope Fitzgerald has always seemed a quintessentially English novelist, low-key, exquisitely perceptive, and with a notable feeling for place – the seedy houseboats on the Thames in Offshore, or the mean little Suffolk town that dominates The Bookshop. Her latest novel, The Beginning of Spring, is a surprise, and something of a tour de force. Its subject is Moscow just before the Revolution: ‘dear slovenly Moscow, bemused with the bells on its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers and seminarists straying onto the tramlines, centred on its holy citadel but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers’ dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and last to a circle of pigsties, cabbage patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village.’ The great messy city, muddling towards its destiny, is conjured up in vivid and astonishing detail: the narrow back streets with their seedy basement workshops; the crowded markets and railway stations; the exuberantly noisy club where the merchants drink tea and vodka; the vast dark river choked with broken ice and rubbish.’

You bet your life

Margaret Walters, 21 April 1988

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is a tall story, as elaborate and fantastical as any of the yarns spun by the trickster hero of his last novel Illywhacker. For one thing, it’s a family history, and we’re all of us secretly stunned by the coincidences which have resulted, against the odds, in our existence. And the narrator’s account of his great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins, is, by any standards, a weird one. It begins in Devon, with a Christmas pudding snatched from the child’s lips by his harsh Plymouth Brethren father. It ends – as a direct consequence of that pudding – half a world away in 1866, as Oscar sits, ill and miserable, in a glass church drifting on barges down a remote Australian river. He’s there because of a wager with Lucinda Leplastrier whom he loves – and who will not be the narrator’s great-grandmother. The church itself is airily beautiful, a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, the product of years of dreaming. It’s also a folly, quite unsuited to the climate, already battered and twisted and cracked. And it’s heavy: made of ‘thirty hundredweight of cast-iron rods, five hundred and sixty-two glass sheets weighing two pounds each, twenty gross of nuts and bolts, sixty pounds of putty, five gallons of linseed oil’. The miserable effort needed to transport it across the trackless bush causes more than one death.’

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