The Spoiler

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A deft, impressive debut novel?a dark hyper-comedy?published in Britain to great acclaim (?Wily, insightful, engaging? ?The Times; ?Brilliant . . . It grips from the first with verbal polish and razor-sharp satire? ?The Mail on Sunday) is set in London in the late 1990s during the height of the newspaper wars just before the dot-com tidal wave.
It is a novel about two women at different times in their careers?one a legendary war correspondent (called in her day ?The Newsroom ...

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A deft, impressive debut novel—a dark hyper-comedy—published in Britain to great acclaim (“Wily, insightful, engaging” —The Times; “Brilliant . . . It grips from the first with verbal polish and razor-sharp satire” —The Mail on Sunday) is set in London in the late 1990s during the height of the newspaper wars just before the dot-com tidal wave.
It is a novel about two women at different times in their careers—one a legendary war correspondent (called in her day “The Newsroom Dietrich” because of her luminescent beauty) now in her eighties, who, over the decades, as the golden girl of the press has been on the frontlines or in the foxholes in every major theater of war in the twentieth century (Madrid, Normandy, Buchenwald, Berlin, Algiers, Korea, Vietnam). The other, a young feature writer out of Media Studies, a list compiler (what’s in/what’s out . . . the ten best of anything), who writes for a newspaper gossip magazine and is sent to interview the doyenne of British journalists.
The eminent correspondent is about to have a new collection of her dispatches published. She is famously tricky and has made it clear to her publisher that the details of her private life are off-limits to interviewers.
The young feature writer doesn’t have the time or the inclination to read either the woman’s books or her clips. She’s after the dirt on the old gal: who the former beauty palled around with, slept with, and the truth about her three failed marriages. The correspondent’s life work—her courage, her objective prize-winning reporting—is of little interest to the young feature writer.
What starts out as a tango of wills and egos fast turns into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, as secrets are revealed, lies unearthed and the stakes ratcheted up as two vying newspapers are drawn into the tug-of-war, with what each thinks is an explosive story, and with one paper playing off against another in a ruthless, desperate grab for sensation and circulation.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Two female journalists: one, a venerated Pulitzer Prize-winning octogenarian; the other, a young, struggling freelancer. Against every expectation, their paths converge fatefully when the novice receives an assignment that she can't afford to refuse.

Kirkus Reviews
A sharp, intelligent novel about "old" journalism, "new" journalism and the moral gap between the two. Pulitzer prize–winning journalist Honor Tait is 80 years old, and some of her vintage pieces of reporting are being re-released in book form. She has had a distinguished career and won the Pulitzer for her reporting from Buchenwald in April of 1945. But 1997, the year in which the novel is set, discloses a different type of reporting when Tamara Sim is asked to do an interview of the crusty, reclusive and highly intelligent older woman for S*nday, a journal whose clientele is more interested in scandal than in truth or integrity. Tait has indeed had something of a lurid life, one that would be sure to titillate S*nday readers, for she's had three husbands, countless lovers and is rumored--even at the age of 80--to pay for sex with younger men. Tamara's initial interview goes badly because she feels Tait's contempt for what she's doing, but Tamara keeps pursuing the story, for she wants to dig deeper into the scandalous doings Tait has told her about--a love affair with Bing Crosby, for example, cocaine use and wild Hollywood parties. Tamara hopes her reporting will make her reputation and elevate her status from her previous position on Psst! magazine, but it becomes clear that Tait has been stringing Tamara along until truth has gotten swallowed in speculation. And although Tait has not published her journalistic writing for decades, she's still working on one more memory from her Buchenwald experience that she's repressed for over 50 years. McAfee writes with sparkling intelligence and raises serious issues about the relationship between reporting and truth.
The New York Times
In these pages [McAfee] writes with poise and polish, using her reportorial eye to create a fictional world that feels like a fun-house mirror of journalism from the late '90s…when it comes to evoking the raucous, Bruegel-like world of Fleet Street that Tamara inhabits, Ms. McAfee manages to fuse satire and observation together in a potent brew. In doing so, she creates a blackly comic, Waugh-esque portrait of a newspaper called The Monitor that is peopled with hacks, has-beens, poseurs and some genuine reporters, rabidly ambitious youngsters and weary old-timers, pretentious literary types and gutter-minded twits.
—Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times Book Review
…McAfee skewers the Fourth Estate with an insider's insight, cutting wit and razor-sharp writing.
—Alison McCulloch
From the Publisher
"A wonderfully entertaining comedy of manners about the dying days of Fleet Street and the cult of celebrity... The Spoiler is a clever, literary romp with flashes of Nancy Mitford and Helen Fielding... A darkly, deliciously witty read."
—Independent on Sunday
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307957344
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/10/2012
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Annalena McAfee was born in London and worked in newspapers for more than three decades. She was arts and literary editor of the Financial Times and founded the Guardian Review, which she edited for six years. She is the author of eight children’s books and has edited a collection of literary profiles, Lives and Works. She has been a judge of the Orange Prize for Fiction, the South Bank Show Awards, and the Ben Pimlott Prize for political writing. She lives in London with her husband, the writer Ian McEwan.

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Read an Excerpt


London, 17 January 1997

She had two hours to conceal the secrets of her life. Evidence of vanity, foolishness and worse must be expunged. Domestic disorder was not a concern; the maid had remedied that this morning. And though Honor Tait might have been a slattern by inclination, she was never a collector, of people or of things. Divorce, bereavement, a house fire, a stringently unsentimental nature and the protocols of regular travel had ensured that, for a woman of her years, the flotsam was minimal. She had always travelled light. In love, as in life, it was hand baggage only. So what was left here in the London apartment? Which piece of junk, what accidental survivor of time’s winnowing, would betray her?

Breathless and gripped by uncharacteristic panic, she glanced around the room at the furniture, pictures and bookshelves. It was mostly Tad’s, of course. It had been his bachelor apartment and then it became their married pied-à-terre. Now it was her widow’s cell. He had been the homemaker, after a fashion. He had bought paintings, framed photo- graphs, chosen curtains, indulged a whim for Staffordshire figurines and Sèvres china, taken a strange delight in the pair of soiled wingback chairs he had found in an Edinburgh antique shop, and spent silent hours, like a medieval monk at his manuscripts, poring over cumbrous books of fabric samples. Even at the companionable peak of their marriage, they both regarded Glenbuidhe, seven hundred miles north, with its invigo- rating discomforts, as her home and Maida Vale as his. Just as Honor had taken little interest in dressing the flat, she had no urge to dismantle it—to strike the set, as he would have said—once Tad had gone. Now she would be called to account for the acquisitive spirit and questionable taste of her dead husband.

Artifacts so familiar that Honor no longer saw them, books and pic- tures haphazardly accumulated, unwanted gifts and gewgaws, sentimen- tal impedimenta, carefully dusted and rearranged by the maid, would be seized on as telling details. Too much had been said and written about Honor already; rumours, misinformation, insinuation and distortions had been picked up, polished by successive inquisitors and turned into lapidary fact.
She was still smarting from the Vogue piece, which Bobby had talked her into. It was more than a year ago now, but she felt incensed, demeaned by its inanities (and the photograph!) every time she saw an issue of the magazine—invariably, these days, in a doctor’s surgery. To insult and patronise and get so much wrong in the space of a three-hundred-word caption was quite an achievement. There had been radio appearances, on Woman’s Hour (so much fuss for an eight-minute slot) and with Melvyn Bragg on Start the Week, where Honor had attempted to make herself heard over a lugubrious scientist, a cleric who seemed to be under the impression that he was still in the pulpit and a novelist with eccentric views about animal welfare.

More recently, there had been the South Bank Show. (Melvyn again. Were there no other serious broadcasters left?) She had been assured that the programme would focus exclusively on her work—she had made it clear that her personal life was out of bounds—and she had been stupidly flattered into thinking that it would celebrate her “place, as a writer, at the heart of twentieth-century history.” Instead, what had it amounted to? A shrivelled old cadaver talking in the gloom about world events that no longer meant anything to anyone; a quavering Miss Havisham recalling the wedding that never was.

They had punctuated the interview with archive footage and stills— of Scotland, Paris, Spain, Germany and Los Angeles, with a procession of artists, poets, politicians and Hollywood panjandrums, and, succes- sively, three husbands—a parodic distillation of her life in six minutes of flickering film. Painstakingly true to their word, the programme makers had refrained from actually mentioning any family, husbands or lovers, but the relentless pictorial parade was less discreet.

The researchers had unearthed a publicity shot of Maxime, waving a cigarette holder like a conductor’s baton, dwarfed by his own shadow, flamboyant as Noël Coward, though without the wit or warmth, or indeed the testosterone. Sandor Varga appeared twice: sleek and saturnine as Honor’s bridegroom in Basel, then, ten years later, plump and smug in Monaco with the cheap little trollop he had left her for. Tad, her third and last husband, had, bizarrely, received less attention in the doc- umentary than the overpraised actress Elizabeth Taylor—the voiceover included an oafish reference to “Hollywood royalty”—with whom Honor and Tad had been photographed once at some film industry gala. His work was represented by a couple of clips from his films, which proved a mixed curse; out of context the humour had seemed even more puerile and strained, its nudging sexual references suggesting repression rather than liberation. She had felt for the poor old thing, safely out of it, in St. Marylebone Cemetery.

Respect was paid to her working life with some war footage— juddering front-line stuff from Madrid, Poland, Normandy, Buchen- wald, Berlin and Inchon. Shadowy figures flitted through the Casbah in fifties Algiers—more stock footage—and there was a mawkish picture of her cradling a startled infant in a Weimar orphanage in the late sixties.

Hungarian students dashed themselves against Soviet tanks in 1956, and thirteen years later (three seconds in absurdly concertinaed screen time) their Czech counterparts did the same, while across two borders, in Paris, the privileged sons—it was mostly the sons—of the bourgeoisie, future lawmakers, academics, politicians and pundits, played at revolution, kicked in shop windows and hurled bricks and firebombs at the proletarian gendarmes.

A shot of Honor in the fifties in a Korean foxhole, unkempt and besmirched, showed her looking less like a war correspondent at work than a debutante surprised in a face pack. Mostly, though, the clips showed her young self as shiny and groomed, lustrous hair tumbling artfully to her shoulders, her smile an Olympian beacon, defying anyone not to find her beautiful, to desire her, to admire her cleverness and envy her success. The juxtaposition of this luminescent, capering goddess with the palsied pensioner in the filmed interview made for an exquisitely cruel vanitas: an Ozymandia for the modern age—Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. The friends and lovers momentarily brought to life on-screen might all be ghosts now, decomposing slime beneath the soil, or long ago cast to the air as ashes, but the grimmest spectre of them all was Honor Tait, the survivor, condemned to watch, appalled, over her own slow shrivelling.

What a mortifying thing fame was these days. It astonished her that so many people appeared to have little better to do than to sit gape- mouthed before late-night TV arts programmes. She had been recog- nised everywhere—taxi drivers, maître d’s, shopkeepers, strangers at gallery openings, passers-by in the street. One labourer in an orange jer- kin, shouldering scaffolding poles near her consultant’s clinic in Wim- pole Street, had tipped his hard hat at her and called out, “Keep up the scribbling!”

Then there had been T. P. Kettering, the fawning academic who had volunteered as “official biographer” and, when rebutted, attempted to become unofficial snitch. His book, published by an obscure university press, with a title of preposterous grandiosity—Veni Vidi: Honor Tait, History’s Witness—had been a flaccid collage of cuttings, neutered by lawyers and fatally sunk by Honor’s unspoken decree that anyone who wished to retain any connection with her should have nothing to do with the proposed book or its author. Martha Gellhorn, Honor had been galled to see, had given Kettering a polite and mendaciously respect- ful quote. The book had been poorly reviewed. (“There is a compelling biography to be written about the extraordinary Honor Tait, but this vapid volume is not it,” Bobby wrote in The Telegraph.) The book had been mercifully forgotten, as had Kettering himself. Honor’s pleasure on learning that he had sunk into alcoholic desuetude, and was reduced to ghosting a footballer’s autobiography, had verged on indecency.

She could not, however, excise her name from the indices of other people’s biographies, or from the press cuttings that had been Kettering’s source. Nor could she remove her work from the archives. So much was in the public domain already. At this stage she needed to preserve the few shreds of dignity and privacy she had left.

She must look around her flat with the eye of a stranger, a malign stranger: a journalist. For her, of all people, this should not be difficult. But she was old and out of practice—she had not published any original reportage for eight years and her last piece, on the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong, had been turned down by The New Statesman six months ago, with a letter of breathtaking obsequiousness. The “New Journalism,” of which she had once been seen as an exemplar, had been superseded by even newer forms, whose guiding principles baffled her. Like the nouvelle vague of French cinema, or the wasp-waisted full skirts of Dior’s New Look, Honor Tait’s distinct brand of New Journalism—politically informed, veraciously impartial—was as obsolete as an antimacassar in this ironic modern age. Only the wilfully arch, the nostalgia nuts with a taste for “vintage” style and Bakelite aesthetics, held her approach in any esteem.

She stood in the centre of the room, a fragile, fretful old woman, her hair awry, in a shabby dressing gown of paisley silk. She had recently developed a sporadic tic, a nodding tremor of the head that seemed to become more pronounced when she was agitated, as she was now, and gave the impression of enthusiastic endorsement when the opposite was invariably the case. Her left hand gripped the back of one of Tad’s precious wingback chairs and, steadying herself, she turned slowly, her watery blue eyes narrowing, trying to take in the room as if for the first time, to read it as if she were illicitly scrutinising someone else’s intimate journal.

Start with the walls: the pictures and photographs. How long was it since she had actually looked at these things? That watercolour of verdi- gris waves and muddy mountains—Antrim? The west of Scotland? Not Loch Buidhe, anyway. It was too wild and open for that sheltered glen. Another of Tad’s impulse purchases; blamelessly unbiographical and criminally inept. Honor’s young interviewer would have difficulty draw- ing disparaging conclusions from this crude seascape, unless she was a connoisseur of art, which, given the calibre of most newspaper people these days, or indeed most young people, was unlikely. For the dealer in swift stereotypes, the picture might reflect a fondness for conventional Sunday painters or Celtic melancholy. Entirely wrong, but a harmless misreading.

The deceptively simple ink and wash of Tristram and Iseult could be more problematic. Tad had found it so. His first inclination had been to destroy the drawing, rip it in two with his meaty hands, or at least to leave it where he had found it, in a stack of Honor’s unregarded papers at Glenbuidhe. But the proprietorial husband, furious that his wife, whom he had married in their middle years, had ever been close to anyone else, lost out to his peculiarly American deference to fame. It was Tad who eventually chose the unwieldy ebony frame, after a degree of contempla- tion and dialogue that would not have discredited Plato, and placed the picture over the mantelpiece in the flat, where it still hung today. The artist had united the lovers in a single line and, if an interviewer were to examine the drawing closely in an unobserved moment—when, say, Honor was making tea in the kitchen—she might detect his dedication, written vertically in his tiny square print up the line of Iseult’s gown: To Honor from Jean. Je t’embrasse.

The story of their friendship had been regurgitated several times, in biographies of Cocteau and in the few profiles of her. Most recently, Kettering had attempted to warm it up and serve it again to an apathetic public. And the South Bank Show had shown jerky footage of the party for Le Bel Indifférent—with Picasso characteristically clowning for the cameras—but, observing her stipulation to the letter, the programme makers had refrained from attribution or comment, using, instead of informative voiceover, a rippling guitar soundtrack from Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France. “Oh, Lady Be Good.” Not an exhor- tation that was often heard in her circles in those days.

Her brief time with Jean had preceded her marriage to Tad—the last and best of husbands—by many decades, but timing had never been the issue for Tad. Nor did he need any evidence of intimacy. His jealousy— retrospective, current and prospective—had seemed a manifestation of madness evident nowhere else in his nature. A naughty deed in a good world.

But, really, what interest could such a story of busy couplings and sunderings, opium addiction and wild drinking among artists and bohe- mians in Paris—what was it? sixty years ago? sixty-five?—possibly hold for readers of a British Sunday newspaper magazine in the dying days of the millennium? Today art was about smearing your bodily fluids on canvas or parading your personal inadequacies for the benefit of the gawpers. They were all artists now; at it like farm animals, drinking like Bacchae. Opium, or its contemporary equivalent—was it cocaine again? or Ecstasy?—was served at industrialists’ dinner parties, shopgirls’ sup- pers and suburban pubs. Yesterday’s scandal was today’s optional foot- note. Who really remembered Jean? And of those few wilful connoisseurs of obscurity who remembered him, who cared? The picture could stay. Besides, it was too heavy for her to move it unassisted.

Opposite the Cocteau, in a frame of unvarnished oak, was a harsh oil portrait of her, painted ten years ago, stiffly coiffed, carmine lipped and glacial. It was unflattering, even menacing, but something about it, its raw candour perhaps, or the timeless impassivity of a Russian icon—The Temptation of St. Honor, facing down innumerable unseen demons—had appealed to Tad, despite his constitutional antipathy to the artist. Daniel had painted it in his first and, as it transpired, final term at the Slade. His final year. She wrested the picture from the wall, cursing the effort this simple act required of her. But setting it down against the skirting board, she was dismayed to see that the painting had left a ghostly rect- angle of dark wallpaper, like the poignant patch in the Boston museum that awaited the return of the stolen Vermeer. The absence of the portrait might invite more speculation than its presence. Better to leave it. She struggled to replace it on its hook. Her heart began to race uncomfort- ably, a prick of pain in each beat. She sat down to catch her breath.

Despite Honor’s initial refusal, her publisher had persuaded her to meet the interviewer in her flat. For all her earth-mother affectations, Ruth Lavenham, founder and editor in chief of Uncumber Press, was a steely operator. The intrusion would be good for sales of Honor’s new book, Ruth had said. Good, too, was the implication, a threat sheathed in a smile, for Uncumber Press, a valiant David to the corporate Goliaths of the publishing world. Honor owed her. It was Ruth who had rescued her from insolvency two years ago, just after Tad’s death, with a smart new edition of Honor’s first collection of journalism, Truth, Typewriter and Toothbrush, originally published by Faber in the 1950s and long out of print. The book, in its second incarnation, included her Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the liberation of Buchenwald and became a surprising succès d’estime. Honor Tait was “rediscovered” and, more grati- fyingly, she was able to pay off some of her more pressing debts. The hope was that the new book, Dispatches from a Dark Place: The Collected Honor Tait, would repeat the trick. And next year, if all went well, there would be a third book, with the title, suggested by Ruth though resisted by Honor, of The Unflinching Eye.

“Oh, come on,” Ruth had said when they discussed advance publicity for Dispatches, “an interview with the most respected magazine in the land? In the comfort of your own home? Where’s the harm in that? And in publicity terms it’s infinitely better than a double-page advert.”

Cheaper, too. So Honor had capitulated. But she knew it was a mistake. On the few occasions in her life that she had consented to be interviewed, she had never admitted any reporter to her home. Even the most well-disposed journalist would regard the flat and its contents as her psyche’s porthole, curtainless and illuminated in the dark. The South Bank Show conversation with Melvyn had been filmed at the Lon- don Library, where she had previously agreed—in a moment of reckless narcissism, justly rewarded by the photograph itself (a Halloween fright mask in hell’s reading room)—to pose for Vogue.

Hotels, impersonal no-man’s-lands, stripped of signs and souvenirs, were best for these encounters. The most energetically malevolent reporter would find it hard to take you to task for the blandness of the interior decoration, the stains on the sofa or the musty smell pervading your room. Even then, in a corporate suite of beige leather and chrome, where the only indigenous books were the Gideon Bible and the Yellow Pages, you could be caught out, like poor John Updike. She had written him a note of sympathy after one newspaper interviewer had spotted a discarded pair of underpants under a chair in his hotel room and went on in her article to use the white briefs as a metaphor for what she considered to be the casual, masculine attitude to sex reflected in Updike’s fiction. It was the priggishness Honor had abhorred. Here in her flat, at least, thanks to the maid, there would be no underwear on view.

It was an old technique: alight on an apparently insignificant object and use it to construct a catchpenny psychological case history of its owner. How else to sum up a life on the evidence of an hour’s conversa- tion and a little legwork in the cuttings library? Honor had resorted to the practice more than once herself, particularly when the interviewee was unforthcoming. Every tchotchke tells a story. Even in the newest New Journalism, some things never change. She recalled her own blood-sport thrill when she had spotted the netsuke mule on MacArthur’s bureau in Tokyo; a playbill for a Max Miller burlesque in Beckett’s Montparnasse redoubt; the copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets by Mme Chiang Kai-shek’s hospital bedside; and the signed photograph of Ida Lupino in de Gaulle’s austere wartime office in Carlton Gardens.

Could her own photographs, still on the bookcase and on the walls where Tad had first placed them, withstand such scrutiny? One black- and-white shot showed her as a young war reporter, lithe as a lioness and chic in fatigues among the grinning doomed boys before Normandy. Next to it was the iconic image, for Collier’s, sitting with Franco, newly appointed commandant general of the Canary Islands. Above the waist she was primly professional, her notebook and pen raised in a posture of exaggerated attentiveness, like a thirties stenographer. “Take a letter, Miss Tait.” Below she was all showgirl. Her long tanned legs, in tailored shorts and high-heeled sandals, looked as if they were on temporary loan from the Ziegfeld Follies. The picture was syndicated all over the world. “The Newsroom Dietrich,” they had called her. All on the record. All part of the myth. Nothing could be done about that now.

The doctored paparazzi shot of the candlelit dinner—a fund-raiser for the Progressive Party—might be more contentious. In its unexpur- gated form, with Sinatra by her side, whispering in her ear, it certainly had been at the time. He was married but openly dating Ava Gardner when the picture was taken, and the gossip pages had been exultant, though with the sycophantic tone of those more innocent days; mortals enviously ogling the sport of gods. Now the mortals were in the ascen- dancy and the gods in the stocks, pelted with rotten vegetables. She lifted the photograph from its hook and held it in her hands, admiring—yes, why not admit it?—the way the light fell across her shoulders, illumi- nating her gardenia corsage. The blooms were as soft and dewy as her guileless young face, apparently caught in a state of precoital deliques- cence. How the camera lies, and sometimes in our favour. She had been a matron by the standards of the time; she had hit thirty, with one war, one miserable marriage and several ill-advised romantic liaisons behind her. Two further wars—three, if you counted Algeria—lay just round the corner. She had been in no mood for that kind of evening—her old friend Lois, then working for the Henry Wallace campaign, had strong- armed her—and Honor had been irritated to find that the seating plan had twinned her not with Alvin Tilley, a progressive playwright, one of the Hollywood Eleven, but with the kitsch crooner Frank Sinatra. Sina- tra, too, clearly had other plans for the evening, though he had been civil. His murmured proposition, as recorded by the camera, was actually a conversation about the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.

Two decades later Tad, in another squall of jealousy, had cut the picture in half, removing the singer, with his fallen-seraph smile, as well as the encircling photographers and fans. The original unedited picture was still in circulation, owned by one of the big agencies, and had been used in the recent documentary. Posterity, savagely capricious, had kept Sinatra’s forty-watt gifts ablaze in the public imagination, while number- less brighter talents had been extinguished. Might Honor’s interviewer, the bathetically named Tamara Sim, recognise this version in her hands as bowdlerised and conclude that Honor, a thwarted lover perhaps, had taken the scissors to the photograph herself? Could it set the girl off on a false trail? Honor had no wish to encourage any prurience from The Monitor, or its Sunday magazine.

On the brink of a new millennium, and despite their journalists’ shambolic private lives, drink problems and drug habits, despite the widespread commodification of the most arcane sexual practices, news- papers faced with any story of the mildest marital impropriety still responded like Edwardian spinsters confronting their first flasher. Honor was permitting this newspaper to invade her privacy only up to a point, and for one purpose only: to sell the wretched book. Or, more precisely, to make money and pay some bills. Best to be safe. The photograph should go. Clutching it, breathless again, she turned back to her chair. She must sit down.


Seven miles away in Hornsey, in a narrow street of subdivided semis, Tamara Sim sat in the perpetual dusk of her basement flat squinting into a mirror. Lipsticks were scattered like spent shells on the dressing table, and there was an artist’s battery of cosmetic brushes at her elbow as she applied her makeup with the infinite care of a girl about to embark on her first date. Which in a way she was.

When the editor of The Monitor’s prestigious S*nday magazine had sent a message asking Tamara if she would interview Honor Tait, she had replied instantly.

“Of course! Old-school journalistic heroine!! I’d LOVE to do her!!! . . .” Tamara’s response began.

In fact she had been surprised to learn that the legendary reporter was still alive. Her knowledge of Tait’s oeuvre was limited—a piece on the wife of a Chinese dictator from the 1950s had been a set text in Tamara’s Media Studies course. According to the lecturer, Tait had borrowed a nurse’s uniform, bluffed her way into a hospital where the old woman was being treated and spent an hour at her bedside. The interview itself was as dry and uncompelling as a broadsheet leader, and Tamara got through her finals without actually reading it in its entirety.

Chinese history, or history of any sort, had never much appealed to her. Nor, for that matter, had old-school journalistic heroines. In-depth profiles of elderly writers were not her usual beat, and the deadline—three weeks—was tight. But she had been exhilarated by Lyra Moore’s terse proposal, sent via the office computer, that she “write 4,000 words on Honor Tait’s life and work, deadline 19 Feb for S*nday issue of 30 March, to coincide with Tait’s 80th birthday and publication of her new book.”

Tamara worked four days a week on The Monitor as a freelance sub-editor and occasional writer for Psst!, the paper’s Saturday celebrity gossip and TV listings magazine—a leering lout to S*nday’s snooty metaphysician. The world described in the primary-coloured pages of Psst!, peopled by sex-addicted soap stars and feuding boy bands, footballers’ anorexic molls and drug-taking TV hosts, was as remote from the intellectual aristocrats of S*nday as was Pluto, in both its planetary and Disney incar- nations. Lyra Moore’s magazine, irreproachably elegant and cerebral, was regarded as the British riposte to The New Yorker, with the added appeal of pictures. Its pages, soft and slippery as silk, had most recently hosted a meditation on medieval aesthetics by Umberto Eco, a disquisi- tion on Kierkegaard by George Steiner and an essay by Susan Sontag on the potency of the Polaroid, accompanied by instant photographs— mysterious, personal and touchingly ill-composed—taken one day last March by the recently besieged citizens of Sarajevo. All three writers were strangers to Tamara and, though she did her best to tackle their contributions to S*nday, she felt no compulsion to pursue their acquaintance by reading their books. Never mind the inclination, where would she find the time?

She decided against the vampish slash of red lipstick—it accentuated her incipient cold sore—wiped her mouth with tissue, and opted for frosted pink. She had to look the part today. Groomed but unthreaten- ing. A knee-length navy bias-cut skirt and matching jacket, white cot- ton blouse, beige trench coat and low-heeled court shoes—the sort of unexceptional outfit Princess Diana might wear on an official visit to a children’s hospital.

Tamara knew this commission was going to be a trial of endurance, requiring a long interview and the obligation to write it up, at consid- erable length and in polysyllabic words, within a bracingly brief span of time. Four thousand words would, she was aware, be a struggle for someone more used to turning in a two-sentence caption story, a twelve- line list or a two-paragraph column on celebrity mishaps. Her occasional interviews might run to eight hundred words, and she had been called on to produce two pieces of a thousand words each—a chequebook job with a transsexual lap dancer who claimed to have slept with a children’s TV presenter, and an exposé of the drug-taking teenage son of a senior policeman—for The Sunday Sphere. But four times that length?

A great deal of typing would be involved, not to mention research.

It was daunting, but a commission from Lyra Moore was the highest compliment any journalist could be paid. Five years after the launch of S*nday, its title was still uttered with quiet reverence, despite occasional stumbles over the typographic tic. Snobs admired Lyra Moore’s glossy for its intellectual cachet, while pragmatic hacks envied its lavish budget. And as an ambitious journalist with a wide freelance portfolio, no sick pay, holiday or pension provision, no access to a trust fund and a depen- dent brother, Tamara could not afford to turn down this opportunity.

She had fretted that her reply, which she’d typed within seconds of seeing Lyra’s message flashing on her computer screen, had been perhaps too effusive—“. . . I’d LOVE to do her!!! . . . I SO much admire! . . . I’m THRILLED to be part of!! . . . Amazing magazine!!! . . . Fantas- tic writers!!! . . .” Did the editor of S*nday prefer an aloofness in her contributors that matched her own? Could this explain Lyra’s failure to respond to that message, or to reply to any of Tamara’s subsequent mes- sages or phone calls? Was it possible that, as with men, one could be too enthusiastic?

As a weekly fixture at Psst!, Tamara was a “regular casual,” with the job security of a day labourer on a dodgy building site. But as long as she was useful and enjoyed the patronage of Psst! ’s editor, she had an income and a desk to sit at for four days a week, Monday to Thursday, leaving her three days to find freelance work elsewhere. She had written pieces for Monitor Extra, the paper’s daily features section, known as Me2, run by the hollow-eyed adrenaline junkie Johnny Malkinson. These pieces were chiefly lists, ring-rounds and vox pops, but she was getting a reputation—extending beyond The Monitor to an encouraging number of copy-hungry magazines and papers—as a reliable supplier of humorous low-cost fillers.

Tamara had done her time—three months—as a junior reporter on The Sydenham Advertiser, before moving on to become an adaptable con- tributor to professional and corporate newsletters, including Inside the Box: The Voice of the Cardboard Packaging Industry; Glaze: The Chartered Institute of Food Stylists’ Quarterly; and The Press: Trade Paper of the Laundry and Dry Cleaning Industry. She had graduated to hobbyists’ house journals, addressing weekend mountaineers, ballroom dancers and bud- gerigar enthusiasts, switched to general consumer magazines—Glow and Chicks’ Choice—and eventually worked and wheedled her way as a freelancer into news sections, features pages, diary columns, travel sections and weekend supplements on many national and regional papers, tabloid and broadsheet. The process had equipped her with a diverse knowledge base, giving her a familiarity with the advantages of aluminium ice axes and polypropylene pants, the relative merits of carbon tetrachloride and perchlorethylene, the difference between the mambo and the merengue, and the correct spelling of Melopsittacini.

In the course of duty, she had travelled business class and seen the world. In Mexico City, where she had been sent to report on Expo- Pack1995, she enjoyed frozen daiquiris and three days of furtive sex with a big-box retailer from Nebraska; in San Diego she had fallen in love, painfully unreciprocated, with an Italian photographer while covering a three-day Salad Styling Workshop; and in Mauritius she went deep- sea diving for the first—and last—time during an avian veterinarians’ conference on the treatment of clinical megabacteriosis. She took pride in her professional versatility and, reflecting on her “regular casual” role at Psst!, saw her working life as a mirror of her love life—she was playing the field, having fun, and felt no pressure to commit until the right pub- lication came along and made an attractive offer. Only then would she be prepared to consider a serious, more monogamous working arrange- ment. If only Tim Farrow, editor of The Sunday Sphere, had delivered, she would be looking at a satisfactory resolution on both fronts. But he had proved a serious disappointment.

She must not think of Tim. It would ruin her mascara. She had sobbed for a fortnight and needed to move on, and up. The S*nday commission was timely. One door closes, another opens. She had served her apprenticeship slogging in the foothills of trade publishing, laboured on to do her share of latrine cleaning in the tabloid base camp and now, at this stage of her career, at the age of twenty-seven, she could aim higher and set her sights on S*nday, the Chomolungma of British newspaper publishing. With a little perseverance, a staff job or a fat freelance con- tract with the most admired publication in the UK would be hers for the taking.

She frowned at herself in the mirror. She wished she could afford a trip to the hairdresser’s. Her highlights badly needed retouching, but the cut—a high-street approximation of Diana’s layered bob—was neat enough. She gathered up her notebook, pencil and tape recorder and stowed them in her bag.

Honor Tait was famously tricky. Even her publisher acknowledged as much, warning that any details of her author’s private life were off-limits. But Tamara would be prepared. She had The Monitor’s cuttings library file on Honor Tait’s life and work, printouts from the publishers, an advance copy of the new book, and another unappetising hardback— grim and dense as a sociology textbook—of an earlier collection of Tait’s journalism, which apparently included a Pulitzer Prize–winning article. Though Tamara had not had a moment to look at any of the research material in depth, she had already jotted down some questions in her notebook. As she walked to the bus stop on her way to the interview, she felt armed and ready for combat.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Annalena McAfee
You were a newspaper journalist for many years. Was it difficult to make the transition from fact to fiction?
Like most journalists, I always wanted to write a novel. I started working in newspapers simply as a way of making a living until I could find the resources and time to write a book. As Mark Twain - consummate reporter turned writer - said: "A thunderstorm made Beranger a poet, a mother's kiss made Benjamin West a painter and a salary of $15 a week makes us a journalist." But I fell in love with newspapers and, though I wrote a number of children's books in that time, I was happily sidetracked by journalism for the next three decades. Five years ago, I was on holiday in the remote Scottish highlands with my husband - no television, no internet - and we entertained ourselves in the evenings by reading to each other. After I had plundered Chekhov's short stories, I decided it was time to offer some original material so I wrote a few pages about an elderly war correspondent preparing to be interviewed by a brash young reporter. That fragment became the opening pages of The Spoiler.
Why did you set your story in 1997?
January 1997 was a time of transition, a cusp moment, in newspapers, and also, incidentally, in UK politics. After 18 years in power, the Conservative government was about to face its first serious electoral challenge. In the print media it was the last breath of the old order, when it was still possible for sceptical print journalists to dismiss the internet as a passing fad. Months later, we had the apparent new dawn of Tony Blair's victory, and it soon became clear that the world of newspapers was about to change forever. It was also just before the near-universal use of mobile phones when, as we now know, some UK tabloids, desperate to uncover sensational stories to boost dwindling circulation, began hacking voicemail messages. My story prefigures that era and, I hope, shows the culture that made such systematic illegal intrusion possible. Incidentally, 1997 was also pre-Viagra, providing a small but key element in my plot.
By pitting the two women - the young tabloid writer and the veteran war correspondent - against each other were you making the case for one form of journalism over the other? And what is your perspective on the role of the internet in the future of journalism?
I wanted to avoid over-simplification - the argument that old equals good, new equals bad. So my distinguished old war correspondent is something of a snob, and may have shameful secrets she wishes to shield from public gaze. While my scurrilous young gossip journalist is unscrupulous in pursuit of a story, it could be argued that she demonstrates more integrity, or moral commitment, in at least some aspects of her personal life. Of course there was something magnificent about the old rigorous approach to journalism and the view that pictures, let alone picture bylines, distracted from the primacy of words. But there was misinformation, too, even in the hey-day of serious print reporting, and journalists, like everyone else, have always been personally flawed, whether they write for the tabloids, the broadsheets or the web.
I'm a technology enthusiast and think the internet is fantastic, with the potential to bring all the accumulated wisdom of the world into every home. But it also gives access to sometimes overwhelming quantities of stupidity and cruelty. As newspapers struggle for survival in the age of the internet, trivialisation has become endemic. The illegal and corrupt practices of some UK tabloid journalists have recently been exposed and I find the appeal of "celebrity" coverage baffling. There are, however, plenty of heroic journalists still out there - Marie Colvin and Anna Politkovskaya, both killed in the course of duty, were recent outstanding exemplars of the tradition - working painstakingly to expose injustice and corruption and risking their lives to cover conflict. All that has changed is presentation and the means of delivery.
Does your novel explore other, non-journalistic, themes?
Journalism is one of the most narcissistic of professions, chronicled in fiction by so many former 'hacks', as we like to style ourselves, that the newspaper novel has a genre all of its own. We want to read about the job, and when we leave it, we want to write about it. Fortunately for the ex-journalist who turns his or her hand to fiction, their former workplace is a milieu which seems to have an appeal for the general reader, not just for the happy few who have ever filed copy for a living. At its best, the world described in the newspaper novel - that particular setting which Evelyn Waugh characterised as "neurotic men in shirt-sleeves and eye-shades [rushing] from telephone to tape-machines, insulting and betraying one another in circumstances of unredeemed squalor" - stands in for the wider world, and to suggest that it is only of interest to reporters is like arguing that Moby-Dick uniquely appeals to sailors, or Anna Karenina can only be appreciated by students of 19th century farming practices.
In The Spoiler, I also attempted to look at the subject of love, of personal integrity, and the question of sexuality and ageing. It is still a fact, as the older character in my novel ruefully observes, that while it is seen as acceptable for an old man to dally with a much younger woman, the reverse arrangement is usually viewed with abhorrence. Nature is not an equal opportunities employer.
Who have you discovered lately?
It took me a long time to come across this book, but then it took many other people a long time too. Though Tony and Susan (surely one of the most unprepossessing titles ever) was published in the US in 1993, it was only recently published in the UK, seven years after the death of its author, Austin Wright. On the surface it is not a book I would normally be drawn to, featuring a chilling story describing the terror and brutality visited on an innocent family by a group of psychopaths. It is much more than a mere thriller, however. It is a novel within a novel, a clever meditation on the act of reading itself, in which a writer sends the manuscript of his shockingly violent novel to his former wife. We read the story with her, sharing her mounting alarm and her sleepless nights, and we also share her relief as she closes the pages temporarily to deal with her young children and engage in her unthreatening daily routine. But the dark sub-book subtly infects her life, as it does ours, and she begins to reflect with growing disquiet on the nature of her current, apparently happy, marriage. It's one of the most compelling novels I've read for a while.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 26, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The author is a show off. Yes, the author has a big vocabular

    The author is a show off.
    Yes, the author has a big vocabulary and can use esoteric terms. Yes, she knows 20th century history and historical characters as well as Hollywood stars. The plot is trite. the writing is not reader-friendly. Who was the author trying to impress? I believe she wrote this book to impress Ian McEwan. I wonder if they're still together. this is not a book with any appeal. I read a great deal. I have university degrees. I know several languages. Believe me, I have not read very many books that I have disliked this much. Don't waste your time and/or money on this book. There are too many GOOD books available to waste your time on this pretentious tome. Eeew..

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2012

    Hit and a miss

    I was excited to read this book then I did. I disliked almost every character in it.

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