The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 5: Jack Duckworth and Me

Jack Duckworth and Me. Bill Tarmey (& Alan Hart). (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

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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.”.

  1. 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.)

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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

PK

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