The Romantic Novelists Association complains that libraries in the South do not stock romantic novels. They intend to apply pressure to them. Heart-throb specialist Miles Kington explains how.
JENNY ran her finger inside her collar and sighed. It was one of those sweltering June days. Not hot exactly, but
so warm and so muggy that the plastic bindings which the head librarian had insisted on for all new books stuck together, and every time that a reader took down Casanova, Life Of, it came away from Carlyle Thomas, A Biography Of, with a sucking noise rather like you made when you suddenly sat up straight in the bath. Or rather, thought Jenny hastily, like any thing but that; such a simile would look rather good in a novel but it wasn’t the sort of simile that actually happened to you in real life.
She looked out of the window, out to where the municipal willows swayed in the breeze and came back to attention. The distant scent of council wallflowers wafted into the room and drifted into her in-tray. She sniffed and wondered how Iris Murdoch would describe it. Iris Murdoch was one of her favourite writers, so of course there was lots of Murdoch in the library, because Jenny was in charge of all fiction selection. She was a real novelist. She knew exactly how characters in books behaved. None of your sloppy rubbish, where people mooned around in gardens and sniffed happily ever after. There was nothing like that in her library.
Jenny sighed and came back to the publisher’s list she was studying. There was a new novel by Hugo Fairborn, which was terribly important. It was all about a photographer who has a homo—sexual affair with an unnamed Prime Minister—or perhaps with somebody who simply thinks he is Prime Minister—and it was all a riveting attack on political megalomania, unless it was a bitter yet compassionate account of the self-importance of photographers. She made a tick in the margin.
She looked up. It was pretty young Lydia, the new assistant. Pretty? Edna OʼBrien would have made short shrift of her.
"Don’t forget the representative from the Romantic Novelists Association will be coming to see you this morning.”
As a matter of fact, she had forgotten, which was surprising considering how much she was looking forward to it. She saw herself as a B.W.Aldiss hero awaiting an interplanetary virus or any Graham Greene character asking the devil to step this way, please. Or as Lucky Jim… no, not Lucky Jim. Kingsley Amis was not a real novelist. He was read by too many people, and after all more means worse.
She looked up, startled. A man had opened the door. Not just any man, either. He had a travel-worn smile which somehow interested Jenny. Someone out of Somerset Maugham, perhaps? Not the Maugham people knew about, thought Jenny at once, but the Somerset Maugham who wrote when he wasnʼt trying to be Somerset Maugham.
"Can I take a moment of your time?" Jenny hesitated. What if the Romantic Authoress arrived? She didn’t want an audience for her slaughter of the victim in the bull-ring a la Hemingway. But there was something about his crinkling eyes, mysteriously blue, which intrigued her. I could not put him down, she thought, and smiled. He was obviously so desperately unhappy about something.
"Of course. What can I do to help you?"
"Well, for a start, you can put down that dreary publisherʼs list with the latest dreary expose of an author’s dream world and come out into the fresh air with me for a talk.”
Aghast, she found herself doing just that. And outside, under the cool town lime trees, she found herself listening, as in a dream, while this breathtaking man talked in a rich safe voice of his life and the things he had done. How he had gone into publishing, had worked for a while in a place called Bletchley ("Bletchley sounds wonderful,” she said and he smiled and said "Some day perhaps Iʼll take you back there") and how he had grown sick of publishing and moved single-handed over to public relations. He told her how he had come from London that morning, spinning along the M4 in the soft breeze and taking the turning before Maidstone that you’d never notice unless you remembered to look for the red phone box; he told her about the trouble he was having with his transmission (she didn’t know what transmission was but he so obviously knew these things) and she, who had never seen anything of life beyond the enclosed world of dwarf kleptomaniacs, impotent customs officers with dipsomaniac wives, and alienated film directors, thrilled to the exotic message from what seemed another planet.
When he had fallen silent, she turned and gazed into his clear brown face.
“Do you know,” she said, “when you first came I thought you were somebody out of Maugham. You won’t think I’m silly, will you?”
“No,” he said, taking her hand. “I would never think you that.”
“Tell me who you are,” she said, laughing. “Are you from a Margaret Drabble novel?”
“Can’t you guess?” he teased. “I’m the representative of the Romantic Novelists Association.”
She gasped. Suddenly a veil fell from her eyes and she saw something new and wonderful.
“What a fool I’ve been,” she whispered. “What a little fool.”
He squeezed her hand.
“I must go now. I have to be at Hazelbury Library by twelve.”
“To see Miss Ganley,” she said, an awful suspicion clouding her heart.
‘Routine, Jenny, sheer routine. Do you think I want to leave here? But I shall be back next week, with a crate of romantic novels just for you. And the week after, and the week after that.”
Suddenly he was gone, leaving a golden kiss burning on her cheek and a card in her hand. When she returned to earth ten minutes later, she read it and saw that on it was the single word: “Roger.”
Punch 4-10 August 1971