Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 21, 2011

The Northern Clemency (2008), by Phillip Hensher, narrated by Carole Boyd

The Northern ClemencyI loved this. I don’t think it’s ‘great’ literature, but for nearly three weeks as I listened to it en route to work, I found it vastly entertaining – in the way that a well-constructed soap opera is entertaining.  I’m not surprised that it was nominated for the 2008 Booker, but I would have been surprised if it had won over The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (see my review).

It’s the story of two families in Sheffield, the Glovers and the Sellers, covering the period from 1974 to the end of the Thatcher government. Social history emerges as you follow the lives of the protagonists: it charts the heady days when women like Katherine Glover took on a job despite her husband protesting that they didn’t need the money – and that low-paid job becomes a trigger for her to go on to higher education.   Britain’s emergence from its appalling culinary reputation is depicted in the story of Daniel’s trendy restaurant.  There’s parental dismay at Tim’s 1970’s long-haired radicalism, and there’s the tragedy of serious illness exacerbated by family estrangement.  Emigration to Australia makes an appearance, and of course there’s the miner’s strike, most poignantly depicted when Helen won’t take Daniel home to meet her parents because she knows that their culture of hospitality would see them go hungry for the rest of the week rather than not offer him a meal. I found this story-telling engaging right through all 22 CDs.

Other reviewers haven’t been especially kind to it, see The Guardian or this one  or The Age, but these criticisms are ably dealt with by Guy Savage over at His Futile Preoccupations.

Would I have enjoyed it as much without the excellent narration by Carole Boyd? Maybe not. But if you enjoy a panoramic bit of nostalgia and social history from a place you’ve never been (and are highly unlikely to visit), this will be fun.

And it does show the sad truth, that for most people, momentous change is something they barely notice because they’re so busy with their own banal lives.

Except to them, their lives are not banal at all…

Author: Philip Hensher
Title: The Northern Clemency
Narrator: Carole Boyd
Publisher: The Whole Story Audio Books 2008
ISBN: 9781407430737
Source: Personal Library

Availability (audio book)
Fishpond The Northern Clemency


  1. I’d admire the fact you can listen to books. I just cannot do it. I get too distracted. Start doing other stuff. It’s probably why I never listen to the radio either — and I struggle with podcasts, too.


    • I agree that some just don’t work as audio books. I really struggled, for instance, with Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, but a straightforward narrative works fine, but only when I’m on auto-pilot driving to work. I can’t concentrate on them around the house, and not when I’m relying on the Navman to get me where I’m going either!


  2. Lisa: I read this and found it excellent–although I too read some nasty reviews. Hensher has another one coming out soon: The King of Badgers and I know I’ll be reading it.


    • Thanks, Guy – I’ve added a link to your review above because I like the way you addressed the criticisms.
      Cheers, Lisa


  3. I think Hensher tends to piss people off, and I can’t help but wonder if this impacts his readership. I came to this book with a clean slate, and as I said, I loved it. Can’t wait for the new one.


    • Why? What has the man done to annoy them?


      • It’s just my opinion from some of the nasty comments I’ve read. He’s a columnist and a book reviewer (plus teaches creative writing at the Uni of Exeter), and he isn’t shy about giving his opinions. When I read The Northern Clemency I found some negative reviews. That’s no problem, of course, but many of them included comments that were personal (not book related).


        • Maybe ex-students doing a payback, or professional rivals – that’s happened before on Amazon…


          • Yes, some of the Amazon stuff… well it’s all too human.


  4. I can’t listen to books either like podcast about books ,I not read the book suppose I should really Lisa living ten miles from sheffield but it is just so long ,all the best stu


  5. I wanted to read this one at the time but didn’t get around to it somehow – but I’d still like to read it if it wasn’t so long. Its interesting to hear a different take on the book – from someone who listened to it rather than read the words on a page. For myself, a talking book is a guarantee of falling asleep. If I last five minutes that will be an achievement.


  6. Stu and Tom, I am beginning to think there is a PhD into researching how audio books work for different people!
    Not having very good eyesight, I get quite panicky about not being able to read, and I don’t find the idea of audio books as an alternative any comfort at all. As I said above, I find them hopeless for certain types of books (e.g. anything modernist or unduly poetic) and on the rare occasions when I’ve tried listening to them while doing something menial around the house (e.g. ironing) I lose ‘my place’.
    But for me they are perfect for the 40 minute daily commute on good straight roads in reasonably well-behaved traffic – as long as they’re a straightforward narrative with no fancy plot twists needing back-tracking.
    I wonder if brains can be trained to like them if there is no choice?


  7. Agreed – fine when driving! My problem is trying to listen to them in bed.


  8. […] thought it was going to be a bit like Phillip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency which offered a human face to post-Thatcher Britain — and it is, except that Middle […]


  9. […] Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs see my review Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency see my review Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole see my […]


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