21 May, 2012Issue 19.3Fiction

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Friends in High Places

Rosie Lavan

BritishAlexandra Shulman
Can We Still Be Friends
Fig Tree, 2012
304 pages
ISBN: 978-1905490783


It is hard to read Can We Still Be Friends, the debut novel by Alexandra Shulman, without thinking about Vogue, the magazine she has edited for 20 years. Fig Tree, its publisher, has pushed the connection front and centre: on its cover the novel is virtually billed as a spin-off product, “from”—not by—”the editor of British Vogue“. It is a bid, in the crowded chick-lit marketplace, for Shulman’s novel to share some of the distinction enjoyed by Vogue among women’s magazines. It is also an attempt to validate it by association, and it is certainly true that without Vogue in the background Can We Still Be Friends would be far less interesting.

Set in the mid-1980s, the novel follows three best friends from university who have moved to London. Beautiful, domesticated Annie worries too much (“The taramasalata was too pink”), but finds her PR career in Chelsea more fulfilling than she had expected. Salome, or Sal, a journalist, “would rather be one of the guys” and drinks too much and smokes too much to prove it. Kendra, daughter of “chic, liberal” Notting Hill parents, dedicates herself to the Chapel in Kentish Town, a tough-love centre where misunderstood teenagers get a second chance. By turns gritty and alternative, Kentish Town is a useful location for Shulman, where things like bicycle theft, lesbianism, and drug abuse take place—the latter not to be confused with the snatched and sexy snorts which Sal enjoys with the vacant son of a millionaire in the downstairs loo of Kendra’s parents’ chic and liberal Notting Hill home. It is also where we meet Gioia and her Jamaican mother, the only non-white characters in the novel; Shulman might have thought twice before describing an angry Gioia making “her eyes exaggeratedly wide so that her dark-chocolate irises were surrounded completely by the white” and waving her arms “like some voodoo queen”.

For plot and character, Shulman turns to an old catalogue of female experience: sexual humiliation, lousy boyfriends, and unhappy pregnancies for the young women; anxious widowhood, slackening skin, and some unmentionable complication of the womb for their older counterparts. Something else is going on though. Comfortably middle-class though her background in Cheltenham may have been, and despite the Wildean flourish of her Biblical name, Sal’s Cheltenham is not Annie’s Hampshire or Kendra’s Notting Hill. Her friends think she’s vulgar: Annie flinches when her “romantic night” with Jackson of the long and longed-for forearms is recast as “a shag” by Sal. When Sal suffers the unwelcome advances of her news editor Stuart, in an encounter presented as much as a social transgression as a sexual one, Shulman makes a double strike. Stuart, whose “flat vowels” help Sal to determine that “he must be from somewhere up north”, takes her for a drink at a flashy bar, where he gets excited about the unions and indiscreet with his cash. Outside, in the dark, he goes too far. He grabs, grasps, and then forces his mouth on hers, replying to Sal’s protests that she had not meant this to happen in Shulman’s best northern: “Yes, you did, my lovely lass.” When Sal breaks free he lashes out and bruises her face. Not only are such things to be expected of men like Stuart, Shulamn implies, they are also to be expected by women like Sal, who are scutty and coarse and none too careful. The scene also exposes the total want of depth and empathy in the novel: initially understood as an attempted rape, the incident is later remembered as a mild embarrassment.

There is at least some fun to be had in the relentless and clanging period references. Shulman’s 1980s is the decade that irony forgot, and she herself forgets that her readers may have some awareness, not to say personal memory, of the time she is writing about. “I really don’t know how Arthur Scargill can behave this way”, Annie’s mother says, before regretting what a mess those women at Greenham Common have made. The girls are easily distracted at the fashionable parties they go to: “was it Simon Le Bon?” People are placing bets on the name of the new royal baby, but Diana isn’t looking very happy. Back at home and depressed, “Sal was left pacing around her old bedroom […] plugged into her Sony Walkman listening to Frankie Goes to Hollywood . . .” And there’s a thrilling glimpse of the future: “How about one of those new phones I’ve read about that you carry round with you . . . ? Great invention.”

You get the overall point without Shulman having to labour it as she does: all three women can, one way or another, say thanks to Maggie Thatcher for the personal and professional situations they find themselves in; the choices which the 1980s seemed to present to women were not without compromise or sacrifice; sometimes it’s hard to be a woman even when a woman’s at the top. None of this is new, but it could bear reconsideration amid the inevitable generational repositioning that is currently responding to the fact that the 1980s are becoming 30 years ago. In rehashing it so crassly here, Shulman offers a reminder of how often the cardinal points of women’s experience, as they are routinely and carelessly represented, are left open to neglect, abuse, or just plain parody in books like this one which are aimed at a female market.

This matters in particular because Shulman, as editor of Vogue, enjoys a degree of authority in speaking for women and about the women’s issues which perennially stir the media—be it body image or maternity leave or women in public life—because it is Vogue she edits, and not Grazia or Cosmopolitan or Elle or Marie Claire. On her watch, the magazine’s circulation has grown to more than 200,000—not the largest in the market, but significant for a monthly with a cover price of ¬£4.10—and she was given an OBE in 2005. Vogue‘s cachet rests on its outmoded infatuation with Society in an era when that word is rarely capitalised unless people are talking about David Cameron’s “big” one. (Incidentally, the Cameron connection is pertinent and real: Emily Sheffield, Vogue’s deputy editor, is Samantha Cameron’s sister.)

Beneath all this is Vogue’s great obsession with class, which so often goes in disguise. There is an implied contempt in Vogue, however slight, for its readers, a snobbery insidiously filtered through fashion, its special interest which marks the boundaries of its exclusion zone. It is the ultimate aspirational magazine, but if you’re in Vogue, you have very little need to read it. That’s not to say that the magazine hasn’t made the odd concession to the way its Society is changing. Few mainstream publications would have presented themselves as riding out controversy, as Shulman’s Vogue did, when it featured Coleen McLoughlin in June 2005.

Nonetheless, Justine Picardie’s interview made it clear that McLoughlin wasn’t really Vogue’s type: “Talking to Coleen, and to her mother and aunt, you realise that they are entirely straightforward in their approach to fashion . . . Whether or not Coleen had come into large amounts of money, these are the kind of consumers that keep the fashion industry afloat.” In April 2008, Shulman put Victoria Beckham on the front cover. In her accompanying interview she played the condescending fairy godmother, allowing herself to be “charmed” by the surprising “good manners” of this Essex-born Cinderella before granting her “what she wants, what she really, really wants, which is this Vogue cover . . .” Perhaps it’s wrong to read Can We Still Be Friends too seriously. But when Shulman’s Vogue is taken—and takes itself—so seriously, it’s an easy mistake to make.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.