The Hand That First Held Mine. Maggie O’Farrell. 1943. (Headline, 2011)
If the middle-age, middle-class woman has a natural habitat it is surely the book club. Their hegemony over the organised reading of things is well-known, (and statistically corroborated) but the extent of this pre-eminence was not truly made clear to me until I took the trouble to actually join one. I’ve never really been that concerned to formally share my thoughts on literature with others beyond the medium of this blog, whereby I can shout nonsense into the ether, relatively cosy in the knowledge that little by way of belligerence will be forthcoming. What swayed me from my usual reticence on this occasion was the embarrassingly mundane carrot of a miniscule slot on a provincial UK radio station. And so, I find myself 2 weeks from broadcast D-Day reading a novel I would never have chosen, with the mounting suspicion that I’ve crossed an unspoken social divide, for which a suitable comeuppance is being prepared forthwith. Whilst it’s undoubtedly refreshing on a personal level that my worldview is now that much greater thanks to this largely useless insight into how the other half lives, I wouldn’t be wholeheartedly against the genie being returned to its bottle.
The nature of my group’s democratically nominated choice of book for our debut session did not initially leave me feeling less exposed, in a manner that is honestly pretty unusual as an educated white male. With florid purple cover, and endorsements from Elle, Marie Claire, and Woman and Home, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine stakes its claim to a particularly gendered audience pretty severely. At the halfway point I’m still not too sure why this should be the case. Sure, the book deals with relationships, with love, and with loss, and it does so in a manner less masculine cerebral and more maternally contemplative, but there is simply nothing here in the substance of the plot, the characters, or the narrative tone that need render it chick-lit, unless we accept that the notion of a character with post-natal depression is too alien a concept for the male psyche to comprehend. Maybe the publishers simply worry that female protagonists will not strike a chord with male readers, though in the age of Katniss, Hermione, and Arya that theory’s pretty hard to uphold. Whilst nowhere near as iconic (and somewhat older), the women of O’Farrell’s tale would fit well into such company, given that brooding, dislocated, Elena and combative, whirlwind Lexi are complex and layered individuals, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures of the female which would legitimately discourage readers of either sex. And given that we spend half our time with their male counterparts in any case, who are granted as much impetus and agency as their opposite numbers, worries over our developing a testosterone deficiency are plainly unfounded. It’s genuinely baffling that such regressive marketing exists well into the second decade of the 21st century.
Of course, the book has flaws, but again they’re refreshingly unisex shortcomings, bog-standard literary imperfections not solely borne, as far as I can subjectively tell, from any macho prejudices on my part. It would not be fair to say that any of the main group, Lexi, Elena, Ted or even Innes were totally one-dimensional. As referenced above, their depictions are nuanced and each individual marries a human unpredictability with their own personal variety of innate compassion. Innes is inescapably predatory, and I sense that the character works much better on the page than he might on a TV screen, (or indeed were he chasing real-life girls through real-life London) but even he maintains a certain naiveté and vulnerability that keep us on his side. But if the characters win our affection early on, it’s a shame they can’t build anything from this. There is no development of note in any of our four main players. This is most pronounced with Elena and Ted, whose mutual weary detachment, mental checkouts, and unconscious recriminations have all the variety of a Belgian landscape. In the case of Lexi on the other hand, her marooning from her past leaves her attached to Innes for both emotional and actual direction which, whilst central to the story O’Farrell presumably wants to develop for her heroine, leaves both our paramours in a form of dead-end limbo for the first 200 pages. Innes’ death ostensibly frees Lexi to grow and flourish away from the small world they inhabited together, but little that the author or character have done so far suggests such a radical alteration of course.
This lack of methodical progression seems to stem from the trait of O’Farrell’s which is both her strength and her weakness: her ability to write the realistic. Episodes such as Ted’s occasional miasmas of confusion or Elena’s cold terror at the surreal monotony of her world post-child are rendered so vividly that our inhabiting of their world need be nothing but effortless. When Lexi finds herself in a dingy London bar, her surroundings and its attendant denizens are presented with such clarity that it instantly gains the familiarity of one’s favoured local, even if there exists no resemblance whatsoever. Much as this authenticity helps us transcend the boundary between our own reality and that of the author’s fiction, it also leaves the journey feeling less like a holiday and more like a business trip. By focusing overlong on the humdrum, commonplace, and everyday aspects of existence, in both the 1950s and contemporary versions of our backdrop, the appeal of dipping in to either is greatly reduced. Again, Elena and Ted take this to a level beyond Lexi and Innes, as their dialogue in every interaction basically boils down to some mumbled, fumbled attempts at empathy and a collective shrug, this then repeated ad perpetuum. Every conversation is eminently believable, and exactly how I imagine a couple in their situation would communicate, but it’s not sustainable to the level attempted here without some form of modulation. As with The Glass Bead Game, this conscious choice of tone is central to the novel’s makeup. In Hesse’s work, Joseph Knecht’s academic aloofness remained to the very end. Conversely The Hand that First Held Mine seems to be rendering a tipping point unavoidable at the halfway marker.
The success of the novel really hinges on how successfully any change of pace is brought about. There is the seed of a really good novel here, for readers of either sex, if the meandering rootlessness and simmering resentment of the first half is a building block for something more, rather than an end in itself. The early results of the Half-Way-Through Review suggest we rarely change our feelings about a story drastically from those we hold at the end of the first half. Maggie O’Farrell’s slow-burner is the most obvious candidate to upset this apple-cart. Maybe the secret lies in those maligned marketing choices. I was so sure I’d hate the flowery, girly nonsense that surely lay within, that I’m progressively more ecstatic to find something completely different.
1/2 Way Rating: 6/10 Final Rating: 8/10
The Glass Bead Game. Herman Hesse. 1943. (Vintage Classics, 2000)
Writing in any form should always be challenging (though perhaps less so than this blog would make seem), but maintaining the concentration to produce a novel during a World War is presumably a wholly different kettle of fish. The fact that Hermann Hesse, ensconced in the relative tranquillity of neutral Switzerland for the duration of the second global conflict of the 20th century, might have dreamt of utopian futures is completely understandable given the destruction of not only human life, but also the artistic and cultural inheritance of central Europe taking place in the countries around his adopted homeland. That he used the Glass Bead Game to dissemble a flawed paradise rather than posit an unblemished plan for a better tomorrow shows however that Hesse’s literary and critical skills maintained the ability to rise about his immediate historical context and see a different and bigger picture, rather than a narrow band coloured by Nazism and warfare. Counterintuitively there is a lovely optimism in Hesse’s refusal to take us to an idealised future but instead to continue his investigation of the human quest for knowledge begun elsewhere in his canon in works such as Siddhartha. It’s simply impossible to read Hesse’s last work and maintain a negative view of the human race. Those peopling the Glass Bead Game are never perfect but are almost uniformly well-meaning and where humanity falls short of its abilities the culprit is always a lesser sin such as ignorance or over-confidence rather than any genuine manifestation of malice. Whilst ideas of good and evil are not central to the novel, the author’s unspoken yet tangible stance makes for a subtly and refreshingly uplifting read.
On the other hand, the nature of the world we find ourselves in also self-consciously lays bare the potential downside to Hesse’s positivity, and to my mind prevents this intriguing tale from soaring to the heights of a true classic. The world of The Glass Bead Game is painfully dull. The fact that this is a deliberate conceit on the author’s part doesn’t prevent it impacting on our enjoyment of the story. The debate about what gives meaning to an individual’s life, and whether the quest for cultural and intellectual pursuits can by itself bring definition to anywhere near the same degree as genuine suffering, is of course stimulating and Hesse presents both sides with precision, tact and wit. However, the fact that the landscapes presented to us are so one-dimensional is deeply problematic. The narrative exists in a sexless, airless vacuum devoid of tension or excitement, which on the one hand proves that any ahistorical, apolitical utopian society would be untenably mundane, but conversely is stifling within minutes of entering into it. In a novella this might perhaps be sustainable; in a full-blown novel it’s a genuine obstacle to enjoyment.
By the same token, whilst marooned in an environment of sterile placidity, we remain permanently welded to a likeable yet undeniably bland main character. Joseph Knecht is too perfect to inspire any sort of lasting place in the memory, regardless of his supposed multiple crises of faith throughout his life span. As a parody of multiple genres, amongst them overtly flattering biography and the bildungsroman of the prodigy, the manipulation of Knecht’s life story is an expert display of craftsmanship. Again though, this isn’t enough for us to span the ocean that divides us from a real empathy with our hero. It’s not merely that he has none of the regular drivers of a normal human being, be they sexual, financial, professional or otherwise. Nor is the banality of the few personal relationships he manages to maintain the real issue, though the thoroughly wet Tegularius and the would-be anti-Knecht Designori allow little room for interaction of the non-didactic variety. Really it’s the ease with which all this is accepted. The philosophical questions which Knecht wrestles with and which tempt him to stray from the accepted path, are meant to be accepted as manifestations of a deep and long-running battle for his soul but thanks to his cool detachment these chasms register as nothing more than a slight existential ennui. There is of course still half a novel for these conflicts to bear fruit, but the otherworldly, saintly nature of our protagonist suggests they will be resolved without involved philosophical or narrative satisfaction for anyone but Knecht himself.
That might seem damning but more than a few shafts of light persist. From the outset, as suggested above, the Glass Bead Game is steeped in the spiritual, well-meaning humanism of the author. Hesse imparts a wonderful love of learning, especially music throughout, yet never strays into the proximity of preachiness. It’s nothing less than a pleasant and wholesome read throughout. Moreover, the construction of the work, being two parts narrative of Knecht life, and one part Knecht’s own writings, leaves a lot of room for a change of pace, style and characterisation as we move into the latter pages. Indeed, it’s probable that these less straightforward structures might produce the bigger shift in HWTR grades, but it’s early in the experiment, and time will tell. In the meantime, we can only join our favourite Castalian in wondering how far we can subsist on wholesomeness alone.
1/2 Way Rating: 6/10 Final Rating: 6/10
The news, for those who haven’t the time, as communicated by the ghost of Edward Lear.
This week: Britain covers itself in glory, as direct democracy avoids the pitfalls of fact or reasoned debate. And millions around the globe wait to see if the inhabitants of the UK will get their country back, whilst asking what exactly it looks like, and where did they last have it?
No.1: The Owl and the Autocrat
There once was a man called Farage,
Who sailed down the Thames on a barge,
He declaimed: ‘But it’s true,
If it weren’t for the EU,
I’d have had a boat two times as large’.
No.2: Farage Redux
That mad former banker Farage,
Routinely the facts did massage,
He howled: ‘EU sods,
Stop us fishing our cods,
Though this clearly was nought but mirage
No.3: The UKIP strikes back
There was an old chap from UKIP,
Who sailed nary to sea in a ship,
Cried out he: ‘Why dwell so,
On news from 2 weeks ago?’
In this post’s case an apposite quip.
No.4: Unfair generalisations of the most toxic kind
An Isle in the midst of the sea,
Decided it’s need to be free,
From the EU’s red tape,
So it made it’s escape,
On the back of a racist or three.
No.5: Appease is a dirty word
The Honorable Member for Witney
Had a hard time campaigning though didn’t he?,
A bloke raised a hue,
Said he thought he could view,
Some resemblance to old Neville’s ministry.
No.6: No-score draw
That foolhardy bunch called Remain,
Couldn’t help but from facts go a-straying,
They said ‘Brussels goes halves,
On your tabs at the bars
And your mortgage they’re already paying’.
The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. 2013. (Granta Publications, 2014)
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an 800+ page Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries is a tome with decided pretentions. One of the aspects of modern literature which this blog has occasionally considered in the past is the question of just how books are marketed to the public, and whilst today’s subject is not exactly in disguise, there is a certain considered coyness around elements of its constitution. Simply put, Luminaries is a crime novel, a complex historical whodunit, yet this potentially populist label is deliberately avoided. Coupled with the zodiacal seam running through its pages, (at some distance from the narrative itself), the end product is a book with an unusual but palpable aura. That we begin with a character chart, which divides our players into Stellar, Planetary and Terra Firma groups, does nothing to dispel the air of mysterious erudition, and yet the story itself could easily survive without such peripheral paraphernalia. I can’t think of too many novels whose stage is set so meticulously before the tale is begun when an absolute concrete need does not exist. Our author clearly wants us to enjoy the story against a very specific mental backdrop, which is a bold and interesting move.
I suspect that the temptation for most when reviewing such a confident book, steeped in international recognition and success, and with clear affectations from the onset, might be to find the inevitable flaws and go to town knocking the magnum opus off its lofty perch. On the other hand, maybe that’s only true for those, such as myself, with deeply uncharitable natures. In any case, whatever one’s natural predilection to build up or do down, the craftwork of The Luminaries is so strikingly apparent that to ignore it would be a callous dereliction. I am under no illusions about my own skills as a writer (exhibits A-Z for the prosecution can be found among this blog’s output) but oftentimes when I read I like to fancifully consider whether I could reasonably have fashioned even a single sentence which has gone into a work’s creation. Most of the time the answer is, obviously, an undiluted ‘no’, but even so the manner in which the cognitive wheels have turned in an author’s head to get to their end product is usually to some degree discernible, even if you can’t reproduce it yourself. With The Luminaries I found even this step outright impossible. The prose simply flows and ripples in such a unique manner as to render such analysis futile. This isn’t just because of the erudition which has gone into constructing a richly believable historical reality and its attendant denizens. Moreover, it’s testament to the fact that the author has really written a new type of novel, a page-turner which is as densely and unashamedly verbose as any classic of the Victorian era.
Nor have I come across too many books which offer such cutting insights into the fundaments of human nature. Yet it would be a huge disservice to call it aphoristic, given that these observations are interwoven so naturalistically. The effect is a ready mine of epiphanies for readers who are so inclined to accept the philosophy on offer. My personal favourite is one character’s observation that given how much of our life is given over to the contemplation of death, the afterlife itself might be a strikingly boring and empty affair. It is simply astounding how many profoundly substantial musings spring from the author’s pen, and the reader will drop their attention, even for a second, at only their own expense.
Given that this isn’t a cover blurb we should make some attempt to temper our praise for The Luminaries to some extent, and for all its craftsmanship there are some obvious flaws therein. Some of these indeed derive from its own readability. Because it’s easy to see a few hours pass in the company of this novel, and consume a hundred or so pages in the process, a repetitive reliance on some limited formulations becomes more pronounced and noticeable. We have about 15 main players in the plot, which should in theory give rise to a whole host of possible constructions of interaction. Yet we see practically the same conversation repeat itself over-and-over. Two (usually male) characters will converse. We will receive fairly lengthy declamations on their characters, temperaments and predilections (not unusual practice but, given the number of male leads, difficult to remember in their finer detail), and once or twice per scene a protagonist will learn some new information which visibly shocks them. The book is almost Socratic in its devotion to the dialogue, perhaps unsurprising for a work which reads on occasion like a philosophical tract. Amazingly though, these dialogues without fail prove to be well constructed, they move the plot along at a perfect pace, and the characters retain their own unique identities despite any shortcomings in the system. The amount of reoccurrence is jarring and uncomfortable to our sensibilities, but if the pace and enjoyability of the narrative remains intact, does this matter?
We could ask a similar question about the crime (or at this stage a presumed misdemeanour) at the very heart of the story, in terms of whether or not it is of importance to us, and to what extent we can be invested in its solution. At the moment it seems that the primary antagonist is likely to be one of the individuals who has existed on the circumference of the main action heretofore. That shouldn’t matter of course, it all depends on the execution of the reveal. The interwoven connections between each character, including with those in whose direct company we spend precious little time, have been meticulously constructed, and are immensely complicated. It would be impossible to keep track of developments, were it not for the author’s good natured and subtly reminders dotted throughout. The intricate web of our players and the depth of their back stories, coupled with prose of such quality, promises a deeply satisfying pay off. Having set our sights so high, anything less would be a disappointment. And as always, for each 100 pages you add to a text, the contract between author and reader becomes that little less forgiving.
1/2 Way Rating: 9/10 Final Rating: 7/10
Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison. 1952. (Penguin Essentials, 2014)
Ideally, in the following scenario, I’d like to cast myself as the victim of circumstance and context. I had perused one copy of Invisible Man in my lifetime. This was a dusty volume tucked away in the bowels of an uninviting academic library, whose sombre black binding allied with a misleadingly severe synopsis inside the front cover led me to the callow conclusion that here was a worthy book, but probably not an enjoyable one. I scented exhortation and instruction and I balked. It was not until some years later that I came across Ralph Ellison’s magnum opus again, this time in the sunlit basement of a cosy, local bookstore. Gone was the dour binding, with the fresh, modern paperback instead carrying an arty, designer affect. More importantly, the misleading blurb had vanished. In its place one telling snippet of review purporting that the contents were nothing less than ‘savagely funny’.
Whatever part the contextual played, to have deprived myself of so fine a book for so long seems like just desserts for an approach to book selection so ill-advised as to be axiomatic. Ellison simply blurs so many of the boundaries inherent in most strands of literature that every new page is at once a surprise and a reward. Take our main character. On some level he is an everyman, an exemplar of the postwar black Americans who sought the decent life they were promised, and the path of his life, from an unfulfilling education through a jungle of inhospitable employment to the unavoidable heart of the city, is one which many millions must have undertaken in the same era. Yet throughout he remains a unique quantity, his actions not predictable to any template, but consistent to that singular consciousness discernible in both past and present iterations of our protagonist in spite of the vast oceans of experience which separate them.
By the same token the manner in which Ellison refuses to name our titular invisible man allows him to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand we are forced to acknowledge the system which denies him name and personhood. On the other Ellison is explicit in repeatedly forcing us to flirt on the brink of a final knowledge of this name. These are light, playful, genuinely comedic moments, so palatable that we almost miss the nugget of truth inside, namely that identity involves much more than mere possession of forename plus surname. Yet they are instants that should make us profoundly uncomfortable also. We’re forced to confront the fact that, though we are familiar with, and comfortable in the presence of, our protagonist there is so much about him we do not know, and a chasm of experience which a reader such as myself, at such a remove of time and distance, can never truly cross.
This dichotomy gives the book a unique flavour but it one of a number which keep the book in a state of flux, and draw us away from assuming the Invisible Man’s life is one grey traverse. In a similar vein, the state of reality we experience in the book is rarely static. At one moment we are traipsing across the pristine lawns of the southern college anchored by the presence of the proud academic buildings surrounding, at the next we are thrust in to a surreal vortex of character and noise at the Golden Day. No sooner have we passed the time by literally watching paint dry, with all the attendant mundanities of trying to eke out gainful employment in the face of an obliviously ignorant employer, than this sombre semblance of routine is shattered by the industrial accident which lands our hero in hospital, via a jumble of senses and sounds which leaves us just as shell-shocked as its recipient, and renders the resultant interlude of semi-conscious drifting a welcome refreshment.
Ultimately it is this ebb and flow which gives life to the tale. Despite the narrator’s vantage point from the end of the tale, the trajectory of his immediate future seems as much to take him by surprise as it does ourselves. The action often accelerates out of nothing, and ceases motion just as fast, but when we restart it is always at a new pace, at a total remove from anything encountered before. The evolution of our hero is so bewildering and incomprehensible to him precisely because of this. He exists, through no design or desire of his own, outside of the normal experience even of time. His invisibility manifests itself again.
1/2 Way Rating: 8/10 Final Rating: 8/10
Jack Duckworth and Me. Bill Tarmey (& Alan Hart). (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
On the world stage, you might think that Bill Tarmey is a relatively unimportant figure. You’d be pretty much right on that count. (I had to check how to spell his surname just now, despite having read half of his autobiography literally minutes before writing this, and typing it out in the title of this post only seconds ago.)
He is more widely known in soapy circles as Jack Duckworth from Coronation Street. And this is the (first half of the) story of his life.
Coronation Street, for those out of the cultural loop, is the longest-running soap opera in the world, set in Manchester, England, and centred on the area surrounding the ‘Rovers Return’ pub. It’s popular to dismiss soap operas as a shallow and throwaway popular art-form, but for all its faults, Corrie remains genuinely well-written and well-performed, especially considering there are now five half-hour episodes every single week, and that it has been on-air continually for over 50 years. Bill played the character of Jack Duckworth between 1979-2010, described by Mark Lawson of the Guardian as: “A pigeon-fancying, flat-cap-wearing, wise-cracking, philandering, Sinatra-loving Lancashire lad, Jack epitomised the vivid character comedy in which the serial specialises.”.
- DON’T TOUCH ME!
Now to the task at hand. It’s almost too easy to be dismissive and haughty about the autobiographies of B-to-Z-list celebrities. You could make a career of tracking down books by the lowliest and seemingly least-worthy personalities, and tearing them to (metaphorical) shreds. (You could make a less lucrative career tearing them to literal shreds, entering into the already-overcrowded book-pulping industry – ha ha.)
I’m not clutching my pearls here and saying that we should all live in a Medal-of-Participation world free of criticism – but it also seems too easy a lot of the time. It can sometimes feel cynical and bleak to seek out bad things on purpose, just to point out how they’re not good. And particularly with autobiographies, this approach can come across as a bit nasty (assuming the book is more than a lazy A-list cash-grab or marketing exercise).
It feels to me as though taking glee in tearing books like this apart is slightly too close to the bullying tactic of pretending to engage someone only to mock them for believing someone might be interested:
“Tell me the story of your life, it seems really interesting.”
“Really? Okay, well, I grew up in—“
“Ha! Not really you loser! Hey everyone, this guy thinks we’d be interested in his life story!”
(In a similar real-life example, I remember once at school a boy a few years above me was on crutches, and asked for help crossing a road. While it was a little suspicious, it’s not really something you can decline, so I offered an arm – whereupon he shouted “Don’t touch me!” and hobbled away with friends, laughing at his jape.)
In the end, I’m aware that nobody forced me to buy this book, it wasn’t necessarily written for me, it was very cheap, and Bill was asked to write it by the publishers rather than arrogantly foisting his life onto a world that wasn’t willing. So I think taking the effort to write a blog post tearing it apart and mocking it would say more about me than it would about Bill and his book.
But even this approach to the book still feels rather too patronising. As if we should react like parents do while watching a nervous child perform badly in a school play or do a terrible magic show at a family gathering – “Good effort, well done you for trying so hard!”.
Let’s not pretend we’re astute literary masters looking down our noses (negatively or positively) at something that we’re going to “give a chance despite its obvious deficiencies”, and let’s not be hipster-YouTube-knobheads reading it only to make jokes at the book’s expense and over-reacting for comedic effect as if the book is the worst thing in the universe.
I’m going to approach this how I try to approach most things – as if the people I’m talking about were listening in. (Incidentally, Bill died in 2012 – so there’s little chance of him wreaking mad revenge, but still.)
- THE SUBJECTIVITY OF BILL
We notice pretty early on, that Bill has a tendency to focus a little too much on minor facts and figures. He lists names of family members, precisely where they lived, their relation to one another and roles in his extended family – as well as listing the top ranking characters every chapter by the number of episodes of Coronation Street that they were in each year. It’s fairly clear that no reader will possibly remember any of this information, have any use for it, or even be truly interested in it. Nothing is really done with this pile of information – it’s just there.
Throughout the book, it feels as if Bill is using this opportunity to create a solid historical record of his and his family’s life – stacking up facts that will be entered into the British Library forever upon its publication. He carefully lures us in with the promise of Coronation Street on-set gossip … and then sneaks in as many useless facts about his family and life as the ghost-writer will allow (more on him later).
And this goes on throughout. The book is full of not-quite-anecdotes which end up just being floating minutiae because they lack a real sense of significance. On p. 80, he describes how three members of his family were on television on the same day (his son as a ball-boy for Manchester City, his daughter Sara in a school choir on Tiswas, and Bill in a television play about black puddings). This is a fact that you might bring out in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way if the topic came up in conversation – but you’d expect a muted reaction even from close family members.
In his strict adherence to facts, there is very little gossip at all in the book, and it feels as though Bill is restrained at times by just how much he likes the cast (and knows that they will probably be reading). All the stories about people are positive and a little banal (barring an odd aside where he rather harshly criticises Bill Waddington’s ukulele playing in the green room), and there are few details that stick out as truly memorable or that couldn’t be found elsewhere. In an industry fuelled by incessant gossip, maddening plot spoilers and unrelenting rumours, you can’t help but feel like a lot of the fans will have been left a little unsatisfied by how nice it all is, despite the fact that Bill is simply being as professional and reasonable as he can when talking about his friends and their careers.
Bill, basically, seems like a nice bloke. And more importantly, he seems aware of how hard it is to write a life story that does not contain many of the dramatic elements people have come to expect. As Eve Claxton says: “It seems that the more a famous person has struggled and suffered, and transcended his or her difficult beginnings, the more likely their story is to feel relevant to readers”. And Bill didn’t really struggle. Not any more than most. And so the story lacks the paradoxical natural-feeling artifice of a character arc. There was no abusive childhood, no list of failures and determination before a big well-deserved success – and so the story is both more realistic and less immediately believable than most.
He is self-depreciating throughout about how foolish he has been at times, and tries to find his own way through the fundamental problem of autobiographies, that: “it is a hard and nice subject for a man to write himself; it grates his own heart to say anything of disparagement, and the reader’s ears to hear anything of praise from him” (Abraham Cowley, 1667).
At times, Bill does touch on more interesting topics, but still tries to avoid any deeper engagement. In doing so, he hides his true personality, but crucially, also allows the reader to inject their own opinions with a swift dramatic side-step. On p. 63, while talking about the working men’s club comedy circuit, he just says: “All the stand-up comics, including the black ones […] told racist jokes in those days”. And that’s it. It’s hard to tell what opinions he’s implying and what opinions we’re inferring.
Along with Bill’s own story, he also summarises the various plots and events that were happening on-screen on Coronation Street at the time. While describing his own family’s life, he describes Jack’s as well. And after a while, this juxtaposition does interesting things. In a way, he encapsulates here the essence of soap opera – it’s all plot, and there is no room for indulgent opinions, symbolism, or in-depth analyses of topics and ideas. It’s story and character, and anything not visible on-screen cannot be communicated to the audience.
Even major storylines in his career, like Jack “burning down the Rovers” show an almost-too-stringent adherence to the visible plot. Despite claiming that “Perhaps I’ll be best known as the idiot who burned down the Rovers Return” (p. xi), introducing it as an important lynchpin in his life story and character, he spends half the chapter called “Jack Burns down the Rovers” (which is a mere 6 pages long) talking about a charity football match and burgeoning heart trouble, and mentions the fire simply by describing the storyline.
The structure of the book is essentially Bill’s life told as though it were the synopsis of a soap opera character. And through this, it seems like Bill has inadvertently written a book that encourages us to ask fundamental questions of the autobiographical genre.
At its heart, the book succeeds in that it forces us to ask ourselves why we are reading it.
I’m not saying this to be trite or dismissive, or to disguise mockery behind a veneer of pretentiousness – but in telling his life story, Bill makes us think about why we are interested enough to have paid good money to read it. It makes us aware of our own approach to the book. We can see right from the title (“Jack Duckworth and Me”), the cover of him essentially in-character as Jack, and the subtitle (“My Life on the Street and other adventures”) that Bill is very aware that the vast, vast majority of people have picked up the book looking for behind-the-scenes Corrie gossip. But he also wants to tell his life story beyond this – what he sees as important events and facts, regardless of their dramatic potential – and what results is an odd tension between these approaches.
He tells his life story, and in doing so makes us aware that a life story is more than just a story – it’s more than a plot synopsis punctuated by anecdotes.
- IS THIS YOUR LIFE?
I confess, when I saw the book, I did buy it with the hope that it would be awful and I could perhaps quote choice passages and make jokes at its expense in this TWTBR – but as mentioned above, the book made me reconsider this approach pretty quickly, and got me thinking about why I was looking for a terrible book in the first place. Similarly, I imagine those who bought it for gossip or slander not only found themselves a little disappointed – but also found themselves asking why they were looking for these in the first place, and why they expected to find them at all.
And this leads to deeper ideas, as the book continues – and you really do find yourself asking why people seek out and read autobiographies at all, and why they are almost exclusively written by famous entertainers or media personalities. Bill actually talks about this exact issue while mentioning his time on This Is Your Life.
This is Your Life was a long-running show where a ‘special guest’ was taken by surprise by the host, whisked away to the studio, and then told the story of their life from a big red book, accompanied by people from their past. As Bill says, the original series of This is Your Life was not solely focused on the lives of celebrities, as it was later, but also on “worthy” members of the public (a firefighter who saved dozens of people from a burning building, for example). But this soon stopped when “viewers were switching channels if the star of the show was unknown” (p. 176).
There are obviously exceptions to this when it comes to autobiographies, but it seems there is something special and specific about fame that makes us want to read someone’s life story. It can’t just be that we’re aware of the celebrity and feel like we know them – because could you honestly say you’d be interested in reading the life story of any of your friends? (You’d feign enthusiasm, but I doubt you’d fork out £12.99 – and you’d probably spend more time being indignant about their audacity behind their back than actually reading the book.) And it can’t just be that an exciting life makes for a popular book (there are millions of people whose life stories are dramatic and exciting, but find themselves without book deals).
And while he never approaches it directly, Bill’s book raises this exact question. What’s the purpose of an autobiography, and what was Bill trying to achieve?
Is it to entertain an audience, or to accurately tell the story of a life? Many writers have huge trouble trying to write the story of a real life, because lives are not structured in a way that makes them easy or satisfying to tell. This is why the juxtaposition of Bill and Jack’s life is so enlightening, as Jacks life is – simply put – more interesting than Bill’s on the whole. In the same way as in badly-written historical dramas, the banal but crucial facts of real life often weigh down the story, and the narrative is overtaken by research and adherence to one version of the truth.
A Beautiful Mind, the movie purporting to be a biography of the mathematician John Nash is almost entirely fictionalised, taking the basic foundations from the book, but editing and changing details which do not fit a strict narrative structure. Whole events are removed, affairs which complicate the marriage-arc of the movie are simplified, and a complex and deeply-rooted schizophrenia which manifested aurally is simplified to a fight-Club-style visual twist. And this isn’t a bad thing – it makes for a good movie. But it’s not John Nash’s life story. And do we even want to know John Nash’s life story, when the movie alternative is not only better-structured, but also has the potential to tell us more about the character of John Nash than an adherence to the facts could tell us about the real John Nash? Hamlet tells us more about the human condition than a biography of Shakespeare.
Bill’s adherence to the facts, then, when contrasted with Jack’s fictional life shows just how far from a “life story” a standard autobiography is. Lives are not made up of hilarious and interesting anecdotes. They are made up of small, intimate facts and events that mean different things to different people, and mean everything to the person doing the writing. And sometimes it’s hard to know what to make of the facts of someone else’s life. Because they don’t matter to those who didn’t live them. They can mean the world to you, as part of your rich unconscious cross-stitch, but to an outsider they are quickly forgotten.
And this is where we have to finally confront the idea of a ghost writer (in this case, Alan Hart).
- THE GHOST IN THE SOAP MACHINE
A ghost writer’s job is seemingly to arrange the “real author’s” reminiscences and facts and recollections into a serviceable book. But this approach has wider-reaching effects than simply acting as a catalytic converter (metaphor) for the writer’s content (stories) – filtering out impurities (boring bits) from the writer’s exhaust pipe (mouth) through the clever use of platinum (money).
Ideally, a ghost writer’s influence would be minimal, teasing out stories from the writer that they might ordinarily have forgotten, and providing a structural and narrative framework to best tell the story (helping to get around the problem of real lives being narratively unsound in terms of structure). But a ghost can get in the way, and it feels here as though Alan’s voice and style tends to mute Bill’s at times.
It arguable that any ghost-written autobiography is merely an authorised biography – a true connection to the writer being censored (however inadvertently) by the ghost. It’s impossible to know the real influence of a ghost writer, but it really seems like Bill’s voice struggles to come through properly here. You can tell a lot by a writer’s use of sentence structure, how they organise their thoughts, and how they tell their stories on the page – and it feels as if a lot of this has been intentionally flattened, which distances us from a true connection.
But this doesn’t necessarily negate the above points – the core of the book is still Bill. It’s his life and his story – and while the ghost seems to hinder Bill’s true voice a little, it does not detract from the questions the book raises. In fact, it adds to them. Why are we seeking out autobiographies, particularly those not ‘really’ written by the people they claim to be written by? What are we looking for?
In the end, the book succeeds in that it confronts us with an almost absurdist approach to the genre. It doesn’t ask us what our motivations were for reading it – it makes us ask ourselves.
The people seeking gossip and malicious rumours are left asking themselves why they expected a nice bloke like Bill to risk his career and friendships to satisfy this rather nasty impulse. The people seeking a terrible book to mock are left asking themselves why they were so desperate to take glee in someone’s perceived failure. Are we looking for inspiration? Advice? A strong narrative? A closer look into the mind of someone we recognise? Anecdotes and factoids to relay to others at parties?
In the end – it’s a nice and unremarkable book. But there are depths there (as there are everywhere) if you’re willing to look for them.
It’s a book that certainly deserves to have been written (if not necessarily read).
- POST-SCRIPT: FOUR GOOD MOMENTS FROM THE FIRST HALF
We could of course continue along these lines, and dissect the autobiographical genre in much more depth – but to do so would stray too far from our aim of reviewing the first half of this book.
So to put aside the navel-gazing on the analysis of the form – here are four moments which stood out most strongly in the first half of Bill’s book, all of which feel like something tender and interesting slipped through the attempts to be truly objective.
The first, is the genuinely touching detail (which is never mentioned outright), that Bill and his wife Ali met at school, and remained together until his death in 2010. But what stands out is the way this is approached – there is no melodramatic declaration of love at first sight, no descent into cliché or pride in the length and scope of the relationship – it’s as if it was almost a given, and not even worth mentioning. It feels like it was obvious to Bill that they were a perfect match, and so to draw attention to or dramatise it was unnecessary. (I actually had to go back and check the names, because I was surprised by the lack of fanfare at their remarkable relationship.)
The second point is where Bill talks about fans’ odd tendency to talk to him as if he really was Jack Duckworth: “I didn’t understand how rational people could chat as if I were a character in a soap opera. Surely they knew it was only pretend. […] It’s often nervousness on their part. They want to say something but they don’t know what. So they talk to me as if I’m Jack” (p. 89). This comes across as a casual but genuinely incisive point about human nature and our relation to fictional characters (and celebrity), showing an enviable amount of empathy and joy in his many interactions with fans.
The third is the feeling of incongruity on p. 154: the descriptions of queues of fans turning up wearing Jack’s signature broken glasses from Corrie, and of huge advertising billboards in the centre of Tokyo featuring his face, that seem so at odds with the intimacy of the rest of the book. You tend to forget that Coronation Street is as big and popular as it is, because there’s none of the international fanfare and advertisement of the ‘bigger’ television series. You’d never have clips of Corrie going viral on Reddit, and despite its massive viewing figures it always seems to come across as a fairly modest working-class kitchen-sink drama. And yet, Jack Duckworth was a big enough character to have queues of people in Canada and Japan literally cosplaying as him.
The fourth is Bill’s description of how he used to be able to tell his dad’s intentions by how and whether he was wearing his flat cap: “If he came in and kept his cap on, it meant he was going straight out again. If he sat down and put his cap by the side of him while he ate a meal, he was going out again later. If he put it on the hook, he was staying for the rest of the night. If he put it on the tallboy, he hadn’t decided what he was going to do with the rest of the night and he was keeping his options open” (p. 124). While this is basically as small and inconsequential a factoid as describing how three members of his family were on television at the same time, it manages to convey a deep essence of character that is missing from a lot of the other recollections. This is what separates good writing (especially in soaps) from the bad. It’s not necessarily about what happens in the plot, but rather the subtlety and depth of the characters actions, and what it tells you about them.
1/2 Way Rating: 5/10
Final Rating: ?/10