Posts Tagged ‘Caitlin Moran’

Double yolks framed

As it happens I have also just read, one after the other, two novels in which much of the action takes place in Wolverhampton, a place I’ve never been to in real life, nor, as far as I can recall, fictionally.


Raphael Selbourne‘s Beauty (Tindall Street Press, 2009) is a car crash of urban clichés just waiting to happen.  And as such it held a certain fascination.  If it hadn’t been a Book Group book I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing it through.  Indeed, I took against it on the very first page when I encountered the word ‘nostril’.  Beauty, a – ahem – beautiful innocent young Bangladeshi girl stuck in all the traditional traps of an immigrant family (and then some) is going through her early morning toilette.  She “cleaned her nostrils, face and ears three times.”  Now, as a reader I favour vernacular rhythms, language that flows – Mark Twain is my hero – so apart from reading it just now, when was the last time you came across the formulation ‘nostril’ for nose?  I rest my case.  The stilted prose never actually gets much better than this.  Why three times?  We are not told why specifically.  (Because it’s in the Hadith, where it says Satan resides in yer nose overnight).  Nor are we given any explanation of the ritual Islamic phrases Beauty says to herself throughout.  Not that we’re given much help with the Wolverhampton accent coming from the mouth of ex-con chav trying to turn his life around by breeding Staffordshire bull terriers Mark either;  I’ve worked out that ‘ay’ actually translates as ‘aint’.

Who else?  Cynical under-achieving porn-using white middle class loser Peter, on the run from white neurotic London pseudo-intellectual (says Peter) smart set girlfriend Kate and – the most rounded of the characters, I thought – white working class patriarch fat Bob.  Plus a full supporting cast including the family meanies (I don’t doubt it), birds down the pub, teeth-kissing African Caribbeans (Selbourne is big on teeth-kissing) and the off-stage presence of yer inner city inhabitants and tensions including – Iranians (?), Pakistanis, Sikhs, Hindus and … Kosovans (?).

Here’s the problem.  At one time Peter (who just happens to be about the same age as the writer) had

[…] thought he’d do something creative. He’d even sat down to write, but had soon realised he was unable to follow Goethe’s imperative that a writer should turn his attention to the real world and try to express it; to write one must have something to say. All that Peter had laboured to produce had been a list of grievances born of his despair at the dumbing-down and coarsening of the arts. How many acclaimed novels had he flung into the corner of the room, enraged, when he reached the inevitable ‘he was sat’ and ‘they were stood’? And what was the moral purpose of these novels?

So here we are.  To be fair, Selbourne plays a fair game of rock, paper, scissors in the moral philosophy stakes, as his characters wrestle with notions of family and duty, freedom and responsibility, community and society, modernity and tradition.  The passages in an old peoples’ home, where Beauty works in her bid for freedom, where the English have dumped their elders, are some of the book’s most affecting, while those set in the Job Centre are the wittiest and ring true enough.  But Mark and Peter seeing their liberation in Beauty’s, and other episodes of self-help babble, reek of happenings in fictional space rather than the real world.  Mark undergoes remarkable changes in the space of a few days, and here, for example, Peter is speaking:

Leaving aside his designs on her for a moment, would she understand the implications for herself, that she was in control of her destiny, that she could break free of the shackles of a religious mindset that would only enslave her to a paralysing fatalism?

In the end – in a philosophical sleight of hand that even the book’s supporters at Book Group weren’t convinced about – Beauty comes to a surprising conclusion as to where she wants to be.  But in getting there we have been treated to the revelation of heroism from a previously unexpected corner, while Peter’s comeuppance is neatly done with a nice irony involving search engine histories.  For all I’ve said, I can’t deny the narrative drive, even if I did start this off mentioning car crashes.

How to build a girlWolvo

Caitlin Moran‘s Wolverhampton starts out at least a decade and a half earlier, in 1990, in How to build a girl: a novel (Ebury press, 2014).  It’s a rite of passage, coming of age romance about a teenager leaving home and seeking to become a legend of a rock journalist.  “This is a novel and it is all fictitious” she pleads in duplicate between title page and chapter 1.  Yea right, but you can see the joins.

I love her writing, its (aforementioned) vernacular rhythms endlessly quotable.  This is Johanna Morrigan’s testimony and she says it herself at a certain stage: this is “The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”

How to build a girl is full of witty literary and pop culture references, and like Mole, she can deal in incongruities for big laughs.  Just a few samples:

  • At a family gathering just after Johanna has dyed her hair and become a goth: “I bet the hair dye’s sodded your grouting,” Aunty Sue says, flicking ash into the sink.
  • Her dad was once in a band: ” “I’ve spent twenty years waiting for someone to come along and get me a record deal,” he says, getting HP Sauce out of the bottle with a knife.
  • I give Tony my very best ‘dominatrix look’ – seeing my reflection in his eyes, I see it looks less ‘Venus in furs,’ and more ‘Mrs McCluskey from Grange Hill when Gonch has set off the fire alarms again’ …

  • An early sexual encounter with Big Al’s penis: “I feel like a snake-handler on Blue Peter […] The last time I saw something like this, it was at dead Fat Nanna’s house, across the bottom of the front door, with two buttons for eyes.” (She is very funny writing about sex).

She’s great on being a certain kind of teenager too:

  • what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and co-ordinates, to tell you where you’re going.
  • I am collaging myself, here, on my wall.

  • I enjoy the feeling that deciding who I am is work. I now have a career …and so she briefly becomes a goth.  “Fake it ’til you make it,is the mantra.  I am Chick Turpin. I am Madame Ant.”

  • On the first time she heard the Stone Roses: “… feeling excited, for the first time, to come from a battered industrial town.

And she’s great, too, on the rock press and its cynicism.  Her nom-de-plume: Dolly Wilde.  I should have grown out of this fascination by now (I’ve certainly grown out of a lot of the music) but it still fascinates:

  • Advice from the established rock journos when reviewing a gig: “talking at the back is the right thing to do.”  Learning,It’s exhausting being cynical.”

  • The leading intellectual on the mag says something “in a way that’s so post-post-post ironic it actually stops being communication.”


the editorial meetings at Disc & Music Echo (the real Disc ceased publication in 1975) are comic tour de forces.

The Wolverhampton passages that touch on what it is like growing up poor are as fresh as ever despite, the theme’s not infrequent occurrence in  Moranthology , the anthology of Caitlin Moran‘s journalism, and her actual earlier memoir, How to be a woman.  Part of the narrative crisis of How to be a girl is a weekend spent at her boyfriend’s affluent parents’ house in the company of, well here they are:

They call out their names – ‘Emilia! Will! Frances! Christian!’ Names that do not have to bear heavy weights, or be written on benefit application forms – pleading. Names that will always be just a joyous signature on a birthday card, or cheque – and never called out, in a room of anxious people.

So here’s to the girl who used togo … down to the library, and spend the afternoon there, with all my authors, hanging.”  Whose Dadda gave her the sage advice, as she embarked on her career,Whenever you need to win a situation – talk about jazz, Johanna. It confuses people.” (How much am I smitten? – she can call him Dadda all she wants.)  The girl who can say, at one point in her evolution,  Hot tramp! I love me so.”  Yay.  She makes me feel so young.  Intelligent and hugely enjoyable.  And right now, Sod the Booker Prize.



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Quick, before they recede any further …

Evie Ladin & Keith TerryA dozen days ago now Evie Laden and Keith Terry at York House.  World-class Americana for a fiver less than half a mile down the road – aint life grand?  Even if the beer ran out early.  She was a clawhammer banjo player and step dancer tutored in the south Appalachian tradition and he was a jazz drummer when they met; when they moved in together they found there wasn’t a single duplicate CD in their both extensive collections.  Not that there was much evidence of jazz in this show.  Tunes old and new, of the tradition, in the tradition, and some amazing hand-clapping body-slapping rhythmic routines.  Near the end a speeded up breakdown version of Ewan MacColl’s The first time ever I saw your face which worked beautifully and has revived the song for me.  A great night, for which much and many thanks, Ken.

And the next day I turned up too late for the usual suspects but did witness and survive Barney and accompanying cajónist’s singalong rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Scribal April 2014will survive in the closing stages of the AORTAS open mic night at The Old George.  No, really – it was great.  Glad I bothered.

Tuesday saw the launch of The Box Ticked‘s actual CD – which I might well be writing about in a separate post – at the April Scribal Gathering.  They delivered a nicely judged and hugely satisfying set of originals from the album and gave us an accomplished cover of Bowie’s Five days as a bonus.  And apparently the righteous Xanadu, previously mentioned favourably in despatches, are actually called In Xanadu, which isa slight improvement (though I still can’t get the image of Dave Dee, Dozy, Mick and Tich out of my skull).  Another varied evening’s entertainment chaired this month by that man Ken (again).

Oxford to BletchleyO to B ticketIt’s a bit specialist, is Oxford to Bletchley including Verney Junction to Banbury by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith in the Middleton Press Country Railway Routes series (2006).  Not particularly well reproduced b&w photos (with detailed captions) of stations on one of the many routes that didn’t survive Beeching, by far the best and most interesting photo for me – though there’s a good one of Bletchley station back in the day at the end of this post – is the days-of-futures-past shot on the cover of the rather stylish diesel railcar, that was introduced with no great success on the route in 1938.  Still, good to nostalgise a bit (on tracks I never rode on) and to think this is one of the lines that might rise from the ashes again in the future.

MoranthologyI could quote endlessly from Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), Caitlin Moran‘s entertaining and wide-ranging collection of pieces from her Times interviews and columns.  I like her a lot.  She has me punching the air – wit and wisdom: yes! – on many topics, and her serious stuff (with a potential guffaw never far away) on, for instance, what it’s like to be poor, deserve wider currency and to be out there in the political arena:

We’re all just monkeys using sticks to get grubs out of logs, really.  However.  There is one, massive difference between being rich and being poor, and it is this: when you are poor, you feel heavy.  Heavy like your limbs are filled with water.  Perhaps it is rain water – there is a lot more rain in your life when you are poor.  Rain that can’t be escaped in a cab.  Rain that has to be stood in, until the bus comes.  […]
But the heaviness is not really, of course, from the rain.  The heaviness comes from the sclerosis of being broke.  Because when you’re poor, nothing ever changes.

And she knows because she was brought up there.  Her notion that being taxed is a signifier of personal success – “What a seriously grown-up thing to be doing“- needs to be stated more often.  Some of the pieces here fill in some of the gaps in her memoir, How to be a woman.  Hence her passionate defence of public libraries, where she ‘home’ educated herself after primary school (and didn’t we librarians do a good job?).  Her Celebrity Watch columns are up there with Charlie Brooker’s take on all the nonsense.  Hard to shake off, too, her description of David Cameron, three months before he became prime minister, as the potential winner of a  ‘C-3PO made of ham‘ fancy dress competition: “His resemblance to a slightly camp gammon robot is extraordinary.”  Her TV criticism is usually on the ball, with a big ‘Yay’ to Sherlock and a classy demolition of Downton (easy, I know, but she does it so well), though her championing of The hour did give me pause.  But her summing up of Doctor Who certainly hits the spot:

It is, despite being about a 900 year-old man with two hearts and a space-time taxi made of wood, still one of our very best projections of how to be human.

One last quote that, I think, epitomizes her take on life beautifully.  She’s describing in retrospect the event – “having gone mad after having smoked a massive bong in front of Later … with Jools Holland“- that led to her leaving behind any mind altering substances other than alcohol:

… it’s obviously unendingly amusing that I lost my mind whilst watching Jools Holland playing boogie-woogie piano with The Beautiful South on BBC2.  If there’s anything that proves I have managed to ascend the class ladder from ‘working class’ to ‘middle class’ it is, surely, this.  Well done me.

After LiffI’ve been dunning After Liff: the new dictionary of things there should be words for (Faber, 2013), John Lloyd and Jon Canter‘s sequel to The meaning of liff 30 years on.  They get the words needed for those “perfectly common things around us that have somehow escaped having names” by “recycling the ones on signposts.”  Hence Dunning (a small village in Perthshire) is a verb, present participle, meaning “happily reading  a book in the loo.”  Which is where my copy of After Liff has lain since  it was bought as a cheap offer makeweight to get free postage when buying another book altogether, and because a friend had raved more than once – “funniest book”etc – about its predecessor.  I’m on my fourth time through now and it just gets better with each reading – more pennies dropping every time as some sort of sense emerges.  They range from the pretty obvious, from bad puns through decent cryptic crossword clues, into words that somehow sound just right and then we enter a zen or even an Ivor Cutler universe of fetching nonsense; with mild filth and not a few duds on the way too, of course.  So, not entirely at random, how about Nantwich (noun: a snack where the filling drops out, leaving an empty husk),  Stockleigh Pomeroy (noun: the manhunt that takes place after a murder, to find a neighbour willing to say the line: ‘He kept himself to himself”) or just plain Malmö (adjective: happily tired) for starters?  It’s cumulative.  I’m on the look out for the words on a signpost that will fit that sinking feeling and frustration when you get half the hazelnuts or dates in a kilo bag of Jordan’s Natural muesli falling into just the one bowl on one morning.

InfamousFinally, if Derren Brown came out onto the stage to the strains of This charming man no justification would be necessary.  And he works so hard.  Derren always asks people not to reveal what happens in the show so as not to take the element of surprise away from those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’m not going to say much about Infamous except, par for the course, we came out going not so much WTF? as How?  Vastly entertaining and good-natured.  The usual mix of the aforementioned charm, illusion,  manipulation, mental tour-de-forces, wit and demystification, with some autobiography thrown in for spice and inspiration.  Undoubtedly a force for good; so pleased he’s on our side.

And here’s that photo.  Never let it be said I don’t keep my promises.  Most of the time:

Bletchley Station in days of yore, the Oxford train awaiting the off (or having just arrived).

Bletchley Station in days of yore, the Oxford train awaiting the off (or having just arrived).

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Every now and again I go on a PaintShop Pro posterize binge.  This is a streamlined LMS Princess Coronation class loco cresting Shap.  The original b&w photo is in the NRM collection.

Every now and again I go on a PaintShop Pro posterize binge. This is a streamlined LMS Princess Coronation class loco cresting Shap. The original b&w photo is in the NRM collection.

Princess BrideThe Princess Bride

The princess bride has been on the to read list for a while now.  With established cult status, both the novel and the movie make regular appearances on various ‘best of’ lists, so it was  a bit of luck it was last month’s Book Group selection; I was looking forward to it.  I’ve both read the book and watched the film now, and while I didn’t have a bad time of it – hell, the others at Book Group pretty much hated it, so I was very much appearing for the defence in that court – I have to report a certain disappointment.  The book was too long and the movie was too short; much as I enjoyed it, and it certainly has merits of its own – not to mention a cameo appearance from Peter Cook and a modest Mark Knopfler soundtrack – the movie made me appreciate parts of the book more in retrospect.  The Cliffs of Insanity were climbed too fast and my imagination did a better job of the Fire Swamp, while the giant Fezzik’s charming appetite for rhyme is hardy indulged in at all.

OK, full title, for those familiar with the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, is The Princess Bride: S.Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure. The ‘good parts’ version abridged by William Goldman;  it still has the power to fool people.  The actual author is a William Goldman, novelist and Hollywood screen writer, responsible for, among many other films, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.  He shares many features with the fictionalised author writing the whichever highly entertaining framing introductions you get depending on the edition of the book you’re reading (and who also wrote BC&TSD).  Some members of the Book Group thought these introductions (and the subsequent editorial interjections, many explaining the ‘excisions’, in the actual text) were the best bits, but really you have to take it as a whole.  It made me laugh from time to time and I admire the conceit.

The band of brigands who get turned into a freakish Three Musketeers as the story unfolds. all with a vivid backstory in the book only sketched upon in the film: the brains, the criminal Sicilian Vizzini who is outwitted by the man in black who replaces him; the Spanish fencing master Inigo Montoya and the rhyming giant - Turkish wrestler Fezzik.

The band of brigands who get turned into a freakish Three Musketeers as the story unfolds, all with a back story in the book only touched upon in the film: the brains, the criminal Sicilian, Vizzini, who is outwitted and replaced by the man in black; the Spanish fencing master Inigo Montoya; and Turkish wrestler Fezzik, whose need for motivating rhymes is again only briefly assayed in the film.  Yet visually it’s the film’s masterstroke.

This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it” is how the original 1973 introduction to the ‘book’ opens, setting it in the context of Goldman’s entirely fictional family life, how his father read it to him when he was sick, but also containing film industry anecdotage anticipating his much-lauded memoir Adventures in the screen trade (1983).  The edition I read was the 25th anniversary edition of 1999, which opens “It’s still my favourite book in all the world. And more than ever I wish I’d written it.” and tells – presumably factually – how the 1987 film came about, in particular the casting and tutoring in role of the rhyming giant of an actual oversized pro wrestler.  There’s an appendix too, concerning a sequel which isn’t exactly crucial to the enterprise, though it has some fine stuff about the copyright holders in Florin, where the adventure is set – “Florin, as you may know, is the root vegetable capital of Europe” – wanting to get in on the post-film action.   There has subsequently been a 30th anniversary edition but I can’t say if anything else has been added.

There’s a definite touch of Mark Twain about The princess bride, the undercutting of the traditional themes and characters of both the high adventure and fairy tale genres, the text littered with the odd strategic out-of-place word or phrase. Here’s the outcome of a deadly game of wits between Vizzini and the man in black:

You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

There’s an anticipatory  touch of the Monty Pythons in there too, and I’d guess it was an influence on the whole Shrek phenomenon.  Like Twain’s work of similar ilk it can also be found in both adult and children’s sections of public libraries and I’m told children love the movie; I could easily watch it again.  I’ve hardly scratched the surface here, haven’t mentioned princess Buttercup, her one true love or the Dread Pirate Roberts (which turns out to be an honorary position) and much else.  More than once a moral is drawn, well away from the conventions of the genres.  In one of the editorial interjections Goldman’s fictional wife tells him:

“Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.

Caitlin MoranHow to be a woman

Fairness is one of the many themes taken up by Caitlin Moran in her splendidly reasonable and boisterous How to be a woman (Ebury Press, 2011).  Like the media’s treatment of women, what even prominent women, have to put up with just because they’re women.  She has some delicious things to say about princesses (and extra-regal ones like WAGs too) as role models.  How to be a woman is combined memoir, musings and rant.  I knew little about Caitlin Moran apart from she got enthusiastic reviews from blokes in a couple of the rock music glossies; I’d given up the inkies – where she got her first job, aged 16, on the MM – long before, and never looked at The Times (especially after the website went down the pay-route).  Easy to see why those reviews were so good; here was her generation’s Julie Burchill but with a big difference – a fierce autodidact intelligence, for sure, but without the obnoxiousness.  I don’t think it’s cheating to give you her conclusion, belaying the book’s title, that:

All through those stumbling, mortifying, amazing years, I thought that I wanted to be was a woman.  […]  Finding some way of mastering all the arcane arts of being a female, until I was some witchery paragon of all the things that confused and defeated me at the outset, in my bed, in Wolverhampton, at the age of 13.  A princess.  A goddess.  A muse.
But as the years went on, I realised that what I really wanted to be, all told, is a human.  Just a productive, honest, courteously treated human.  One of ‘The Guys’.  But with really amazing hair.

It’s an engaging and highly amusing journey, from The worst birthday ever (the book’s Prologue – aged 13, in a big crowded working class family home in Wolverhampton, soon to discover The female eunuch) through puberty, work and play, love and marriage, motherhood and more work.  It’s a nicely nuanced egalitarian feminism, enthusiastically proclaimed and defined but free of stridency.  If I’d stopped to make notes of quotes it would have taken me three times as long to read, but here’s one typical cracker: “Women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits.”  Caitlin’s self-deluding affair with a self-deluded failing musician is a lovely example of what can happen on the way.  The chapter Why you should have children is directly followed by one titled Why you shouldn’t have children, and the chapter Abortion is healthily positive and unrepentant.  Her verdict on cosmetic surgical Intervention (such a neat chapter title) is just to accept mortality; and a lot more flows from that.  (In passing, she may even have me exploring Lady Gaga’s music if I remember.)

Caitlin Moran shares with Kurt Vonnegut the view that a major step on the path to a better world is for people to just be more polite, seeing political correctness as a cack-handed attempt on the way.  If I had daughters of a certain age I’d be happy for them to read this book; sons too.

coronationscot-dillcartroughs-1939 posterisedcoronationscot-train posterizedMore Princesses

Days of future past:  the stream-lining was removed  from William Stanier’s top of the line express locomotives because of its inefficiency in overall running.  I’ve always thought it regrettable that many great steam engines were named after dodgy monarchs or their aristocratic chums, relations and residences.  The London Midland & Scottish and the Great Western Railway were the worst.  Early members of the Princess Coronation class of locos illustrated were named after queens, princesses and duchesses.  We had to wait until the nationalised British Railways for Oliver Cromwell to get a look in.

AORTAS at the Old George & Scribal

Another fine evening of music at the Sunday AORTAS open mic at the Old George where – pleading forgiveness for sidelining their (I dare to presume) republican sympathies but nodding to the spurious thematic consistency dumped on this post – two princesses of the MK singer-songwriting community granted us five new songs between them.  Two from Naomi Rose, one subtly celebrating the Fire Garden in Campbell Park that was a highlight of the International Festival in MK a couple of years ago; and three – count ’em – from Nicky & Mark’s The Last Quarter.  John Meed, back from Cambridge for the night, added more variety.  And The Last Quarter did it again opening Tuesday’s Scribal; not with three more new songs, that is, but with the aforementioned songs, now slightly older and wearing well.

Scribal Mar 2014The Broadway TwistersScribal Gathering 2.0 hit the ground running with a bang.  Ably compered by storyteller Theresa Kelleher, there were a couple of new poets too, c/o the Poetree Alliance just down the road, and fine short sets from The Box Ticked and the badly named Xanadu, a young dramatic folk-blues guitar, soul vocals duo, who made an impact.  Featured act The Broadway Twisters – their normal schtick “Hattori Hanzo-grade Rockabilly”. Quiffs optional! – excelled with a two-man acoustic set of what they called “beat poetic trashabilly“.  Though they steered clear of the classics on the night they more than lived up to the promise of their Facebook rubric : “Along with hi-octane 50’s classics and a few ‘off the beaten track’ toons The Broadway Twisters’ incendiary brand of noir-country trash-R&R is evolving into something unique – think Allen Ginsberg meets Link Ray.”  When someone rather unfairly objected on FB, “Well I like Link Wray – Ginsberg was a whiney little bitch tho,” guitar man, writer and strong vocalist Adrian Stranik came back with, “Okay then, Rimbaud meets Lux Interior?” –  you get the picture?  Stand up rockabilly bass – courtesy of Billy J.Mann – is an experience in itself.  All this and Probably North 10th Street, a song about a knocking shop – you have to know MK to fully appreciate the title.  Great band!

And just as Robert Browning had his Last Duchess, here’s my last Princess:

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