Leaf Arbuthnot: How rent-a-gran scheme sparked a debut novel

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Leaf Arbuthnot

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Leaf Arbuthnot’s novel tells of the story of an unlikely friendship

By rights, freelance journalist Leaf Arbuthnot should have been pretty busy of late with preparations to launch her first novel. But, like for so many of us, normal life ground to a halt as the coronavirus swept in.

That meant abandoning any ideas of a (cheap) white wine-fuelled press party or public readings from her novel Looking For Eliza, she says.

“I feel like my life has been thrust into the deep freeze. It’s sad to see all those things disappear. It’s a bit depressing,” she adds.

Instead, holed up at her parents’ house near Reading, rather than in her London flat, she’s been trying distraction techniques to quash worries about how her book will fare and the future of her arts and culture freelance career.

Baking has been high on the list, as has playing with the “ridiculously fluffy” Norbert – a chick from the family’s chooks.

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Leaf Arbuthnot

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Nigella Lawson’s gingerbread has brought some sweetness to a bitter time

But these things only go so far in a crisis, especially when the events she would normally cover have stalled and papers, struggling even before the pandemic, are tentative about commissioning freelancers.

“I’m frustrated by the way I’m dealing with this. I seem to be more paranoid. My friends tell me this is completely fine. This is a pandemic, your career isn’t ending,” says Leaf, who writes for the likes of the Guardian, the Spectator and the Sunday Times.

“I realise just how much of my work relied on the world happening with business as usual. But I know I’m lucky my book is coming out at all and without the internet I’d really be up the creek.

“Yet I feel like I need to touch base with reassurances again and again. I have low level neediness. That makes me dislike myself.”

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Neighbourly support in difficult times

Her feelings will chime with those of a lot of people – and so will the themes of her book.

Though unsurprisingly nothing to do with a pandemic, Looking For Eliza is about cross-generational loneliness – increasingly debated in recent years – and the value in forming human bonds outside your comfort zone.

Its protagonists are the widowed, disenchanted poet Ada in her 70s and the 25-year-old first-year Italian PhD Oxford student Eliza. Both are suffocated by loneliness, in its truest form.

No efforts towards social interaction – be that fresher events and sex for Eliza, or hiring herself out as supportive “rent-a-gran” for Ada – can fill their individual emotional voids.

And though they live across the road from each other, they could be worlds apart, like so many neighbours even without the barriers raised by a health crisis. And the generation gap doesn’t help.

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Leaf Arbuthnot

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Norbert brings his own special friendship even if conversation is limited

But underneath they are two sides of one coin, having both become disconnected from a sense of self or place through the loss of a significant other.

“I see Eliza as a young vine,” says Leaf. “She’s recently disentangled herself from quite an abusive and intense relationship with her ex-girlfriend, Ruby, which started just as she was becoming an adult.

“She’s grown up with that support, even if it was quite twisted. Now she’s suddenly having to work out who she is by herself but lacks the tools to scoop her out of loneliness.”

As for Ada, whose husband was a revered university professor, “she’s had a really wonderful marriage to a man who was generous and kind”, says Leaf.

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Leaf Arbuthnot

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Leaf finds swimming in fresh water in all temperatures a big boost

“After his death, she realises the friends she thought were theirs collectively were more on his side of the ledger and suddenly all those relationships thin out and fracture.

“She finds she’s living alone, not having had children because they couldn’t, and she doesn’t have the confidence or resources internally to be able to build a new life.”

The two are brought together by Ada’s Rent-A-Gran venture, through which she’s realising just how widespread a problem social dislocation is.

Their connection is instant. They bond through simple pleasures, such as cooking and lapsang souchong tea. And crucially, they are curious and non-judgemental about the generational differences in their world views.

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Leaf Arbuthnot

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The exhilaration of wild swimming has helped Leaf’s arthritis and mental health

Ada is particularly interested to learn about Eliza’s bisexuality. And, set against the backdrop of the Brexit vote, politics is thrown in (lightly) too.

As the friendship grows stronger so does their self-worth.

“I really do think you can tool up against loneliness, you can pull up against it by finding connections close at home,” says Leaf.

“There’s been a real flowering of activity since lockdown, where people are really reinvesting in their local communities and just helping.

“I’ve got friends who now know their neighbours’ eating habits because they’re doing their shopping. And yet they’d never spoken before and haven’t physically met. I’ve been quite encouraged remotely.

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Writer Primo Levi is an invisible yet strong presence in the story

“On a community level I think we will enjoy the benefits of having engaged with people nearby and maybe a renewed understanding of how interconnected we all are.”

In her own life, Leaf knows the value of reaching out to relationships outside your age bracket. She volunteers for Age UK, has separately made friends with two elderly people, and turns to her “remarkable” 100-year-old grandmother for advice.

“I feel I connect much better with two generations up,” says Leaf. “There’s a real lack of judgment around these relationships and a mutual lack of understanding, which can be quite charming and lead to quite free conversations where you learn a lot about each other’s point of view. Even if you don’t agree, it doesn’t matter.”

In its review The Lady magazine said Leaf had been “even-handed in pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both women and reminds us how important it is to be with our elders”.

While in the Evening Standard, Susannah Butter said of the book: “There’s a lot to identify with, whether you are in your seventies or a millennial.”

And as curious as it may sound, the seed of Rent-a-Gran grew from true events. A Google search will throw up agencies offering mainly the childcare services of an elderly lady.

But Ada’s experiences derive from articles Leaf read about Japan, where actors are hired short-term to fulfil familial roles.

“You can rent a girlfriend and even children to take home with you to keep up appearances. I was really struck by that, because I felt that it was incredibly sad,” says Leaf. “We’ve got to a stage where people are so alienated from their families they can’t be honest about the littleness of the life they’re leading in the big city.”

In other cultures, you can hire mourners or singers for funerals and other intimate ceremonies, she also found.

Besides her relationships with older people, Leaf also injected other elements of her own life into her story but says: “I didn’t set out to write myself on the page.”

She studied modern languages at Cambridge and remembers “hoping it was going to be a great experience”. But, then not a drinker and being “quite nerdy”, she felt isolated by the boozy socialising.

“I was both too mature and immature to flower in that context. Also, the horror at thinking, ‘if this is going to be the time of my life, well good God, this is not sustainable, it’s too disappointing,'” she says.

But like Eliza, she came to admire the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. His presence looms in the background, “hopefully to introduce readers to him,” she says, as does Leaf’s love of poetry – she’s a judge for the Forward Poetry Prize and dabbles a bit herself.

And then there’s a nod to wild swimming, which Leaf does all-year round, often in a mixed-age group. Sub-zero temperatures help her arthritis but she also reaps other rewards.

“It’s been really good for my mental health and there’s a euphoria that sets in after three minutes in three degree water,” she says. And she concludes: “It’s a good example of cross-generational connection.”