Category Archives: Autobiography

The Stranger in the Mirror

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The Stranger in the Mirror – A Memoir of Middle Age
By Jane Shilling
Vintage Books – £9.99

The Independent referred to this book as ‘dashingly cavalier and artfully artless,’ which I guess it is. It then went on to say it ”bubbles with wit and brio,’ which again, I can’t help but agree with. But there’s something about The Stranger in the Mirror – A Memoir of Middle Age that essentially comes across as being just a little too coquettish for its own good.

There’s absolutely no doubting the fact that Jane Shilling is an altogether magnificent writer. That she regularly writes about books for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Mail, clearly corroborates as much. Although mid-way through this thought provoking, and on occasion, eloquently written, semi-autobiographical memoir; I found myself reading from that of the subliminal persuasion as opposed to the ultimatum of the here-and-now.

This was particularly the case during the sixth chapter (of twelve) ‘The Body’s Body,’ where, credit due, the authoress makes no bones about being steeped in fashion: ”One day I bought a fashion magazine: ‘The Don’t Miss List – Vogue’s need-to-know guide to autumn,’ said the coverline. I hoped it might point me in the right direction. Inside were pictures of Kate Moss wearing trousers sewn from a Union flag; a grey chiffon top with a fringe of silver and sulphur yellow beads. In a derelict room with shattered floorboards and walls of ruined azure she stood between a chipped metal chair and an electric kettle, wearing a ballgown of pleated platinum satin; a short dress of white ostrich feathers and another of white organza roses with a studded black leather motorcycle jacket; a ruffled rag of rose and peach-coloured chiffon beneath a frogged military jacket […]. A paragraph of text explained the purpose behind the apparently random juxtapositions of silk fringing and metal chain; embroidered tulle with goat-hair and horsehair, studded leather and old metal badges. ‘Who wants to look like a fashion robot when the joy is adding the you, the me?”’

In and of itself, such Vogue induced writing is for me at least, a dive unto the relatively unknown. So why read the book in the first place eh?

Well, it’s good to venture unto new territory, although I was initially attracted to The Stranger in the Mirror, due to Shilling’s seemingly acute analysis of ageing – and the (nigh hopeless/never ending) coming to terms thereof. On the very first page, she already writes: ”Fashion journalists and doctors would place the onset of middle age well before the end of fertility, at the point at which one’s rate of egg production and cellular renewal begins to slow, and one’s ability to wear hot pants and biker jackets with conviction to diminish.”

Egg production and hot pants aside, there were moments that I found myself teetering upon the near precipice of rapprochement whilst reading some of what the authoress had to say. Especially such a line as the all prevailing: ”All that narrative, and not a syllable of it left written on the body.”

Whether or not such thinking was triggered by Jeanette Winterson’s excellent 1993 novel of the same name (Written on the Body) is of course, open to oodles of conjecture. Either way, this overtly self-introspective book will most certainly make you think.

David Marx

Only When I Laugh

paul merton

Only When I Laugh
By Paul Merton
Ebury Press – £20.00

Paul Merton is without doubt, the funniest man on radio and television at the moment. Also the wittiest – and has been so for a number of years.

The rate at which something inventive and hilarious will suddenly leap forth into his most colourful, idiosyncratic imagination, is astonishing, inspiring and more often than not, absolutely nothing short of simply brilliant.

In other words, Merton is a modern day Groucho Marx – a comparison I’m sure the south-London comic will embrace with all the acute, gazelle like speed of cathartic wonderment – which says a lot considering generational difference and the fact that the former was born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan the latter in Parson’s Green.

But that’s comedy for you, a place where there are no rules and there are no parameters.

A place where only the resonance of laughter, and the all resounding connection of which that fundamentally entails, matters: ”That night in the big top I heard the sound of massed laughter, and that buzz, once tasted, is forever with you. From that night on I wanted desperately to be part of it all. To be in the ring, to be in the middle, to be part of the creative spirit that sparks people into laughter. This is where I wanted to live.”

This is why I wanted to read Paul Merton: My Autobiography – Only When I Laugh; as I’ve always been compelled to find out more about what essentially makes comedians tick. And I don’t mean the vast array of five-minute wonders; the totally unfunny toss-pots, that have always (and continue to) litter the comedic terrain with all the smug and pointless gallantry that’s comparable to cement.

I mean the true geniuses like the aforementioned Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Peter Cook – of which Merton is clearly one.

As for this book, well its 334 pages are written in chronological order and they touch on varying facets of Merton’s life. From his early years in Fulham to what sounds like a resoundingly strong work ethic; from both romantic and professional relationships to his all round approach to comedy writing.

It’s twenty-three chapters bequeath a flavour of what it’s like to be Mr. Merton.

Admittedly, there are times when certain areas of the writing appears to merely skim the surface of what really transpired, but then that’s Mr. Merton’s prerogative. The degree to which he wants to regale readers with personal or work orientated information, is for him, and him alone to decide. Although in chapter 13 (‘Woof Woof Boom’), he translucently shoots from the hip so far as the execution of stand-up comedy is concerned:

”I had full houses every night and always strove to be at my best for the people who had paid to see me. And yet. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Listening to myself onstage talking for an hour was boring to me. I used to pray for somebody else to walk on. A comedy butler played by a Comedy Store Player. A bit of human interaction.

I loved the impro shows with The Comedy Store Players. In comparison, stand-up felt like I was drawing in pencil compared to the lush Technicolor pastures of group work. After all my effort, all the dreams I’d had, the awful truth started to dawn on me – I didn’t want to be a stand-up comic anymore.

It’s not that I didn’t like stand-up. I love it, it’s a true art and one I’d spent a lot of time getting good at. But when I thought back about the moments I’d enjoyed, most of them were more about the camaraderie than comedy.”

In itself, this is somewhat revelatory. Although given Merton’s particular brand of comedy, utterly understandable – as are many other segments of Only When I Laugh.

An altogether terrific book, which I have to say is (on occasion) candid, poignant, and rather lovely.

David Marx

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times

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Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times
By Thomas Hauser
Portico/Anova Books – £11.99

”I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam. So I’m going to fight it legally, and if I lose, I’m just going to jail. Whatever the punishment, whatever the prosecution is for standing up for my beliefs […].”

Never short of a suave, sparkling sentence or two, it goes without saying that the greatest fighter ever, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, wowed audiences in a plethora of arenas – both inside as well as outside the ring. For apart from being a stupendous boxer, he was nigh irresistible to (obviously) watch and (curiously) listen to.

The above quotation being not only a perfect example, but a mere tiny tip of the literary iceberg contained within these 516 pages.

To be sure, Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times – which has been described by The Times as: ”A superb book; hilarious, sad, moving and hopeful” – ticks an array of boxes so far as a really good and fulfilling read is concerned. As it is indeed, sad, moving and hopeful. But like Ali himself, the book is also in your face, somewhat monumental and rather provocative; much to the credit of its author, Thomas Hauser, which ought hardly be surprising, as apart from being a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Hauser has written a number of books (among them: The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing, Brutal Artistry and Mark Twain Remembers).

Admittedly however, some of the more idiosyncratically entertaining writing, was already written for him by Clay himself. All the author had to do was chronologically indulge his labour of love, and capture the full essence of a man to whom the title, ‘bigger than life,’ surely belongs and was surely never more warranted.

For instance, I found the opening gambit of this review in the seventh chapter, ‘Exile,’ which alone, is far more stimulating than a menagerie of entire books I’ve recently read. Reason being, a mere seven paragraphs later, Hausen once again quotes Ali on the subject of hate: ”I don’t hate nobody and I ain’t lynched nobody. We Muslims don’t hate the white man. It’s like we don’t hate a tiger; but we know that a tiger’s nature is not compatible with people’s nature since tigers love to eat people. So we don’t want to live with the tigers. It’s the same with the white man. The white race attacks black people. They don’t ask what’s our religion, what’s our belief? They just start whupping heads. They don’t ask you, are you Catholic, are you a Baptist, are you a Black Muslim, are you a Martin Luther King follower, are you with Whitney Young? They just go whoop, whoop, whoop! So we don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.”

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times will undoubtedly appeal to the entire boxing fraternity; although there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever, why it ought not also appeal to those to whom boxing means very little. Or next to nothing.

Just one reason being, the subject’s outspoken humanity.  What John Lennon endeavoured to attain for world peace, Muhammad Ali at least tried to attain for Black Human Rights (alongside many other issues).

If nothing else, Ali believed – which to my mind, surely places him alongside the likes of Martin Luther King and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmod Tutu.

David Marx

Bedsit Disco Queen

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Bedsit Disco Queen –
How I grew up and tried to be a pop star
By Tracey Thorn
Virago/Little, Brown – £16.99

Along with the likes of Paul Weller, Jeff Buckley, Morrissey and obviously countless others, I’ve always been somewhat drawn to the music of Everything But The Girl. The British duo of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, formed at Hull University in 1982, and whose name derives from a furniture shop in the city called Turner’s – who at the time, had a sign in the window that read: ‘’for your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.’’

Having always been rather understated in their music (which I believe is part of the attraction) and inexorably silent with regards their private lives (it was never publicised that they were a couple, let alone married, let alone had three children), I couldn’t help but be instantly drawn to Thorn’s memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen – How I grew up and tried to be a pop star.

True to the music and, I should imagine, the personality of the authoress herself, the book is an exceedingly pleasant, mild-mannered and persuasive and read, which never ever ventures into a slight imprint of shall we say, Keith Moon territory. But then it was never going to. EBTG did after all, have about as much in common with the rock’n’roll lifestyle of The Who and the Stones et al, as perhaps George Osborne.

So if you’re expecting a titillating and tempestuous read, punctuated with tales of mayhem and madness, this isn’t it.

These 360 pages are a chronological overview of Tracey Thorn’s – and to a certain degree, Benn Watt’s – professional life, viewed through the prism of the relative limelight. As The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis has been quoted as saying: ‘’As distinctive and lovely as its author’s singing voice, Bedsit Disco Queen isn’t just a wry and wise memoir of a unique career; it acts as a kind of eulogy for a forgotten era of British pop.’’

I know what he means.

Could you imagine any of today’s current assembly line of charmless, faceless, gormless, talentless, witless, Botox induced slappers in heels, admitting to – let alone actually writing – any the following (from the chapter ‘Popstar Trace’):

‘’The lyrics I wrote now were almost exclusively personal, and given that every second of my life seemed so vivid and rich with detail and event, there was no shortage of subject matter. The smallest, most ‘trivial’ things could provide inspiration or an opportunity for reflection. I had no worries about whether or not these stories were too private to be of interest to an audience; I never even really considered any particular audience. I felt entirely connected to the time and place in which I was writing the songs, and so believed that those around me would feel the same as me and would understand them. Like every other new band who find themselves taken up by the press, we took the attention for granted, having no idea how precious it was, how hard to come by and how impossible to recapture once lost.’’

Somehow I think not.
Regardless of how psychologically well groomed ye current onslaught of (so-called) talent-show contestants will continue to bow down at the alter of fame and fortune.

To be sure, Thorne touches on as much later on in the book (in the chapter ‘Express Yourself’), wherein she writes of her own loss of role model: ‘’But the 1980s had become a very much more conservative decade. The female icon you were supposed to revere above all others was, of course, Madonna, and no one could have seemed more alien to me. A shiny, brash, Teflon-coated embodiment of AMBITION, she was absolutely a version of feminism but not the one I felt I’d signed up for, and the pouting and flirting of songs and more particularly videos like ‘Material Girl’ and ‘Like A Virgin’ left me cold. Manipulating men, using your feminine wiles ‘to your own advantage,’ above all exploiting a simplified version of your own sexuality was suddenly the name of the game.’’

Unfortunately, it still is the name of the game – which is why I wholeheartedly agree with the aforementioned Petridis, that Bedsit Disco Queen ‘’acts as a kind of eulogy for a forgotten era of British pop.’’

It absolutely does, which is just one of the reasons that makes it so very readable, valuable and worthwhile.

David Marx

Who I Am

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Who I Am
By Pete Townshend
Harper Collins – £20.00

‘’Historically, The Who’s stage act had revolved around a kind of childish look-at-me competitiveness that had worked well from 1964 to 1968, as the four of us, boys still, tried to get the attention of the audience in our own eccentric way. I jumped around, posed like a Mod fop, squiggled sideways, swung my arm and battled my Marshall stack. Roger swung his long golden hair and twirled tassels on his shawl or his chamois leather jacket, as he sang and produced white noise or explosions by pushing his microphone against Keith’s cymbals. Keith played too many notes and made too many faces, throwing too many sticks and falling off his stool too often, but never lost the beat. John got attention simply because he stood so still, his fingers flying like a stenographer’s, the notes a machine-gun chatter.’’

So bequeaths Pete Townshend in Chapter Twelve (‘Tommy: The Myths, The Music, The Mud’) of this outstandingly compelling and beguiling book, Who I Am. A musically idiosyncratic insight, that in and of itself, many a fan of the semi-solipsistic songsmith, may – one way or another – have surmised for themselves many moons ago. To read The Who’s prime, powerhouse protagonist and fundamental, literary beating-heart; writing and admitting as such, is not only sonorous in the extreme, but also regal and revelatory.

Perhaps poignant is the word I’m looking for?

We are after all talking about Pete Townshend, who, along with John Lennon, has always machine-gunned straight from the nigh sacrosanct hip of socially iconographic honesty. A sometimes-fraught yet more than commendable and valuable if not pristine facet, which in this day and rather unfortunate age of Simon Cowell’s pre-ordained, uber wank fodder of cancerous, ideological persuasion, has become almost extinct.

Indeed, an all-circumnavigating facet, which, if not extinct, then increasingly impossible to find. This then, is just one of the reasons (and there are many) that accounts for this book being something of a refreshing reminder that a very substantial semblance of the musical truth, did actually once exist.

For if there’s one thing that Pete Townshend has executed exceedingly well throughout his long, pre-eminent and altogether varied career, it’s always been extolling things as they really are. And what he’s ultimately chosen to include amid these 507 pages is absolutely no exception.

Very early on in Who I Am, we encounter just one of the author’s countless reflections upon his childhood: ‘’When Mum paid the occasional visit to Denny and me […], she gave off an aura of London glamour and of being in a hurry, but also of being unreliable. Meanwhile Denny was running after bus drivers and airmen, and I was miserable. I had lost my beautiful young parents to a life of Spartan discipline with a pathetic woman desperately watching her youth slip away. Denny’s feelings for me seemed vengeful (…), as did Mum’s abandonment […]. At the age of seven, love and leadership both felt bankrupt’’ (‘It’s A Boy!’). While eleven chapters (and a mere eighteen years) later, Townshend is more than just a little introspective with regards his own familial responsibility: ‘’I was 25 – a young man still beset by anxieties and insecurities, who had no idea how to reconcile a growing family with the new pressures presented by The Who. As a result I found myself living in a bubble of denial: I would tell the band they came first, and I’d tell my family the same thing. I didn’t except that if I served one well I would probably fail the other’’ (‘Lifehouse And Loneliness’).

Replete with a keen eye for almost exceptional detail, these thirty-two chapters cover most, if not all aspects of Townshend’s career as a sublime, yet restless, curious, chameleonic artist. An artist, whose interviews I’ve always, always made a point of reading. Reason being, not only does he sting with all the gravitas that an exceptionally shrewd, intelligent and gifted talent entails, but he does so with a resounding, contemplative uncorruptibility, that is simply beyond compare.

Towards the back of the back, in a chapter touchingly entitled ‘Letter To My Eight-Year-Old Self,’ he writes: ‘’Julia Cameron also suggested writing letters to oneself, and during this period I wrote one to Pete Townshend, aged eight. It proved to be a crucial act of affirmation that eventually helped to heal the pain and hurt I had been harbouring all my life: it started me on the path of becoming more at peace with myself over the next decade, and of forgiving myself for whatever it was that still intermittently caused me anxiety, guilt and shame.’’

Who else might have the sheer strength of character and conviction to write such open-ended, high-octane, revelatory, self-rumination and analysis? Robbie Williams? Katie Price? Liam Gallagher? The closest Rod Stewart came – whose hugely disappointing biography I recently reviewed – was admitting: ‘‘You’re a 45-year old man and you’re flying in shags. Is this what you now amount to? Is that all you’ve got?’’

Like The Who itself, Who I Am is something of an exhilarating read.

More importantly, it sets the benchmark for which surely all future (rock’n’roll) biographies will have to undoubtedly be written.

As is written on the sleeve, this book really is: ‘’a chronicle of ambition, controversy, relentless perfectionism, rock’n’roll excess, emotional and spiritual turmoil, and ultimate redemption.’’ Resulting in it perhaps being the most poignant and powerful, honest (and in parts) harrowing biography I’ve ever read by anyone.

So in short, worth every penny; even if just to read and ultimately digest the wit and grit of either of the following: ‘’Musicians have to learn to listen before they can begin to learn to play. I think it’s the hardest part, the listening part’’ […]. ‘’I believe rock can do anything, it’s the ultimate vehicle for everything. It’s the ultimate vehicle for saying anything, for putting down anything, for building up anything, for killing and creating. It’s the absolute ultimate vehicle for self-destruction, which is the most incredible thing, because there’s nothing as effective as that, not in terms of art, anyway, or what we call art.’’

David Marx

Rod – The Autobiography

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Rod – The Autobiography
By Rod Stewart
Century – £20.00

Having read Rod – The Autobiography, I’m not really any the wiser as to Rod Stewart the singer/musician/artist.

I’ve admittedly come to know a hell of a lot about his personal life with regards a menagerie of fleeting, vacuous WAGS – a footballling term I know, but as our Rod’s into Footie in a B-I-G way – but to be honest, I was hoping for more of an insight into his views and thoughts on singing in general.

Not to mention the everlasting influence the sublime Sam Cooke has had upon Stewart’s startlingly successful career. Alas, this wasn’t to be.

There are admittedly, a few reticent references (or so it would seem) to the uber fantastic likes of The Faces, Ronnie Wood, Jeff Beck and Elton John; yet given the potential impact these artists could, and ought to have had amid these 346 pages, it’s disappointingly thin on the ground.

I for one, really, really couldn’t give a toss about how Rod met yet another twenty-two-year-old blond bimbette in a nightclub in Los Angeles or London or Monte Carlo or wherever. And even he admits as much in Chapter Fifteen, where he writes: ‘’Mostly, though, the ‘long hot summer’ trip was Jack the Lad writ large – a slice of rich hedonism. So rich, in fact, that I ended up sickening myself. What’s that Woody Allen quote? ‘Sex without love is an empty experience – but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.’ That’s undeniably true, let me tell you, from a position of some expertise in this area. Yet in a quiet moment, between the comings and goings, I found myself thinking, ‘You’re a 45-year old man and you’re flying in shags. Is this what you now amount to? Is that all you’ve got?’’’

Precisely, is this what Rod Stewart’s undeniably eminent career has amounted to? Not only having shags flown in from around the planet, but then having some sort of reflective rancour to write about?

The fact that Stewart has come to admit as much, might, in assorted quarters, be considered commendable. That he has done so without any seeming qualm(s) whatsoever, is altogether, another. It doesn’t do much to alleviate the irksome and annoyingly relentless barrage of Stewart’s rather myopic view of sparkling success – that’s for sure.

Let’s be honest, Rod Stewart is a terrific singer: his timing, his phrasing, what he chooses to leave in, what he chooses to leave out; all are without question. I could well do without the tedium of the terrible ‘Songbook’ collection mind, but that’s a different matter altogether. No doubt, Stewart will quaff at this last remark by informing me as to how many albums said awful collection has shifted. So what? The fucking devil incarnate, otherwise known as Justin Bieber, has sold quite a few albums too.

In all, Rod – The Autobiography is a huge disappointment. It ought to have been one of the best autobiographies on the market. Instead, what we have here, is a withering re-collection of tiring totty conquests, punctuated with a few threadbare rock’n’roll anecdotes.

David Marx

Full Circle

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Full Circle
By Jane Hersey
Matador – £7.99

Full Circle is the extraordinary sequel to Jane Hersey’s debut novel, Breath in the Dark and I read it in one sitting ! Before starting on my household chores one afternoon I thought I would take an hour out to start reading Jane’s latest literary offering, after my partner had waxed lyrical about it. A few hours on and it was clear that the only thing I was going to get done by way of housework, was plumping the sofa cushions.

Full Circle follows Jane’s life as young adult and all that she encountered as a deprived, abused, Jewish woman in Liverpool during the 70’s. It is not a big book, but it is big on power, big on emotion and definately big on provocation.

My god it’s big on provocation: ”He looked very angry. I tried to push past him to get to the safety of the bedroom. My head was pulled sideways and I was being shaken and slapped repeatedly. I prayed he would feel tired or decide to go out. He carried on slapping. I didn’t try to pull away. He was too strong. He stopped and grabbed his coat from the living-room. ”I’m going out !””

To finish a sentence so laissez faire after the abuse that’s just taken place is typical of the rest of the book. At first I found it a little strange, but soon realised it happened with such regularity, it almost became ‘normal.’ Not just physical abuse but more subtle abuse from the behaviour of people around her. I have to add here that I haven’t read the first book Breath in the Dark, in which Jane tells of her traumatic childhood. In hindsight, maybe I should have done in order to get a sense of Jane’s mental state and attitude to the world in general.

That there were so many people around to take advantage of a disadvantaged young girl beggars belief, and makes one feel ashamed.

There you go: provocation !

Just like any other good read, I have lots of questions for the author such as; ‘why this?’, ‘what about that?’, ‘how did that happen?’ My only hesitancy in this instance is, that it’s her life story not fiction; and it must have taken a lot to share in the first place. So I will refrain from being so intrusive.

Full Circle is not a feelgood book, but not everything in life is, is it?

Long after the pages have been closed, you will still be thinking of Jane Levene’s story.
 And that to me is a good book.

Aphra Darlington

As I wrote the Forward for this book, it wouldn’t have been correct for me to have also reviewed it.  Hence, Aphra having written the above. David Marx