“We gotta get out of this place…”

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how-to-build-a-girlI’ll start up front by saying that this book is one of the sweariest, wankiest, shaggiest stories I’ve ever read, and it’s narrated by a teenager who is just fourteen at its outset. The first lines set the tone…

I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin.
He is six years old. He is asleep.
I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masturbating.

To be fair, it’s a biggish bed, and she does put a ‘little, friendly Berlin Wall’ of a pillow between them – but still! So, if you can’t bear swearing, wanking and shagging in a novel, this might not be the book for you.

… But you would miss the point, for underneath all its bravado is a story about a girl’s coming of age. A teenager in a large working-class family that lives on benefits in a part of the world where most people are in the same boat, told in Moran’s typical earthy style.

… However, although Moran insists that her heroine is not her, despite coming from a similar background, if you’ve read her part rant, part memoir How to be a Woman, you’ll be familiar with her own lifestory and you will find this novel repetitive. Luckily, although I love her journalism, I’m one of the few who hasn’t read that book, so this novel was sort of new for me.

It’s 1990, and Johanna Morrigan (Johanna with an ‘h’ as in Dylan’s song – never acknowledged, but surely chosen specifically), wants to escape the poverty she’s stuck in, she wants to be someone – in London not Wolverhampton. Her ageing hippy dad wants to be famous too, he’s never let his vision of being a rock star vanish – he’ll force his audition tape onto anyone, but no-one listens. Her older brother Krissi is at that shutting himself away stage of adolescence, her mum is worn out with looking after the twins and is clearly suffering from post-natal depression. They live on the breadline, buoyed by her dad’s disability benefit.  Johanna dreams of a future…

… I don’t want to be noble and committed like most women in history were – which invariably seems to involve being burned at the stake, dying of sadness or being bricked up in a tower by an earl. I don’t want to sacrifice myself for something. I don’t want to die for something I don’t even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that’s sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something, instead – as men do. I want to have fun. The most fun ever. I want to start parting like it’s 1999 – nine years early. I want a rapturous quest. I want to sacrifice myself to glee. I want to make the world better, in some way.

To cut a long story short, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a Goth-inspired ‘lady sex-adventurer’. As soon as she can, she leaves school, starts writing record reviews for a London rock newspaper and sets out to conquer the world through the media of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll. She undoubtedly has a good time – but does she like what she’s become?

You do want to like Johanna, however precocious she is. You may be a little envious of some of the things she gets up to as a teenager – just some! (Getting on the guest list as an 18 yr-old at the Marquee Club when my boyfriend agreed to do a roadie stint for a (Christian) prog-rock band back in 1978 is my claim to fame in the rock’n’roll department only – none of the other!).

The book, although a bit meandering, was easy to read but very rude of course. I particularly enjoyed the parts featuring Johanna and Welsh rocker and pissante John Kite, with whom she strikes up a true friendship. The problem is that Moran’s own story is always in the back of your mind, and I think I’d have preferred to read that. They say write about what you know, but we already know that in Moran’s case, so let’s hope her next fictional outing is less transparent – I’ll happily read it.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Jul 2014, Ebury, Hardback 345 pages.
How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, paperback.

P.S. Lyric quote from ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, performed by The Animals in 1965.

 

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Anderson & Zweig; Thorn and Morrissey

I know – it’s too long since you had a proper book post – they will come soon, promise. Life is so busy at the moment, and for the next couple of weeks it’ll be the same – as I have the Abingdon Science Festival to go to/help at, several trips to the Oxford Literary Festival planned (Natalie Haynes, Celia Rees and friends talking about women in history in YA novels, and Ian McEwan. I plan to write about them all in due course. Plus there is that big project I mentioned before that I can’t tell you about quite yet (what a tease!)

All of these are taking up too much of my time, (but in a good way!).

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterMeanwhile, I’ve given myself the night off from reading and am going to see The Grand Budapest Hotel at the movies this evening.

There is a bookish link, as director Wes Anderson has based the film on stories by Stefan Zweig, and Pushkin Press has brought out a book of selected writings, introduced by Anderson … The Society of the Crossed Keys (affiliate link) to link with the film.

I’ve never read Zweig, but have ordered the book above so I can get started after seeing the film tonight, and I may well put down my thoughts about the film tomorrow.

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bedsit disco queenI’ve read a lot of good books lately, but the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past couple of weeks is Tracey Thorn’s volume of memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. Forget the purple prose and bitter rants of Morrissey, reviewed here, Tracey’s book is just brilliant all the way through.

She tells her story from her punky schooldays, through forming The Marine Girls, then English at Hull university and meeting Ben Watt, through all the ups and downs of Everything But the Girl, eventual big stardom thanks to that remix of Missing into semi-retirement and motherhood.

That she’s managed it all and stayed totally sane, never becoming a diva – remaining the extrovert introvert she is – and obviously a nice person, made this the best memoir about pop music that I’ve ever read.  One bit that really tickled me though was in a chapter called ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side‘ where she talks about Morrissey and the Smiths – here’s a taster …

I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before, and which I now blush to recall. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well, no, I did actually, but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another). It was more that I wanted to BE him. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this, though I suspect most of the others who felt this way were probably boys. For an androgynous girl like me, Morrissey was an intoxicating new kind of role model – camp in many ways, but also surprisingly butch. He reminded me more of a male version of the female singers I liked – Patti Smith or Siouxsie  – than any previous male rock star. His onstage performance style inspired mine for a good couple of years – a Melody Maker review from 1985 reads: ‘Tonight Tracey might have played it like the girl with Morrissey at her side’, while this one is from Sounds: ‘Thorn continues to stifle her desire to impersonate Morrissey, arms threatening to lose control of themselves.’

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Harry choosing

 

And finally, the winner of the Giveaway of a copy of Mark Miodownik’s new book (reviewed here, as picked by Harry is …

K E V I N

I’ll be emailing you for your address very soon.  Well done, and thanks to all who entered.

Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice

Sibling Rivalry, Love and Betrayal

The Heart Broke in by James Meek

Meek, a former journalist at the Guardian, came to my attention with his strange but wonderful Russian novel, The People’s Act of Love which he started writing in the mid 1990s but wasn’t published until 2005, and subsequently longlisted for the Booker prize. The People’s Act was set in 1919 Siberia and featured a strange religious cult and a sociopathic escaped prisoner – I loved it. I’ve not read his other novels, which are totally different in settings, but jumped at a chance to read his new one, hoping for more enigmatic writing…

The Heart Broke In tackles the subject of sibling rivalry, primarily seen through the eyes of Ritchie Shepherd, a rock star turned TV producer, and his sister Bec a malaria researcher. Sibling rivalry might sound a small theme, but this is a big novel, and Meek takes an expansive as well as microscopic examination of the lives of Ritchie and Bec by looking through the lens of love and betrayal…

Ritchie used to be guitarist in a rock’n’roll band, Lazygods, together with his wife Karin. Now, they live in a big house with their two lovely children, and Ritchie the successful producer of an X-Factor for teens style show.

Ritchie was at the Rika Films studios before eight next day. By mid-morning shivers of panic were rippling through the building. One of the acts, a band of fourteen-year-olds from Rotherham called The What, had shown such rapid improvement from the original audition that the team was convinced it had been swindled. As it stood the kids sounded too professional to be put on the show and they’d been brought into the studio early to get them to recapture their previous, possibly fake, hopelessness.

I wonder how true that is?  Apart from production troubles, there’s a hotly denied rumour going around that Ritchie has been seeing a fifteen year old. Well, he was, but he finished it – it cost him around £30k.  Very sad, very rock’n’roll, very of the zeitgeist. You just know that it will come back to bite him eventually.

Whilst Ritchie’s life is constrained by family and job, his younger sister Bec has no such ties now.  She was going out with Val, the Editor of a red-top newspaper, but when he got too serious she called it off. A medical researcher, she’s a free spirit, going where her work takes her. Then she makes a discovery that is going to curb her freedom a little. In Africa, She finds a microscopic parasite that gives partial immunity to malaria. She infects herself – only trouble is that uncontrolled, the parasite causes spells of temporary blindness.

Bec compounds her medical success by falling in love with Alex – a medical researcher making breakthroughs in stem cell treatments for cancer. Alex just happens to have been the drummer in Ritchie’s first band – he still drums his fingers all the time, ‘as an elaborate form of fidgeting, it helped him think.’

Science’s golden couple make big news, eclipsing Ritchie, who’s also taken aback by finding out that it was Karin the fans worshipped in the Lazygods.  Alex has family problems of his own, he works for his Uncle Harry who is dying of cancer, and Harry is leaving everything to Alex, rather than his own son Matt who is too God-fearing for him, and this is complicated by the arrival of his layabout brother Dougie down from Glasgow on the scene. Meanwhile, Alex is desperate for a baby with Bec, and it’s just not happening. It builds up so there are just too many secrets, lies and barriers to communication in Ritchie and Bec’s families. The dam is going to break and they are forced to choose between love and betrayal.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Bec – she was mesmerising as a character, serene, slightly aloof in a good way, independent, and then there was the whole self-experimentation thing – foolhardy or brave? A bit of both, I’d wager. The science could have got quite difficult, but Meek has a light touch with it and although I’m not a biologist, it all felt very authentic and well-researched.

The personality of Ritchie too, despite all his faults, is sympathetically drawn. He is on the verge of a mid-life crisis at the beginning of the book, and you do want to find out what’s going to happen. Schadefreude, yes, but also hope that he can pull himself together.

There is a huge amount more to the brother and sister relationship – what happened to their father in particular, and Alex’s family too, that I’ve not mentioned above. The dynamics are complicated – and reminded me somewhat of The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, which also has a science and TV background and explores complex emotions.  Both books are solid and totally gripping, full of moral dilemmas. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a big read in all senses. (9/10)

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further, please click below:
The Heart Broke in by James Meek, pub Aug 2012 by Canongate. Hardback, 550 pages.
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale