The Village That Died For England -Patrick Wright (1995)

December 1943- The sleepy coastal Dorset village, Tyneham, is taken over by the British Military for use as a firing range, incorporating it into neighbouring areas such as Lulworth and Bovington, already being used for manoeuvres and tanks.  The village, which included a school, church and post office is emptied of its residents who are relocated to other parts of Dorset.  They are told they can come back when the war is over.  They never return.

These are the bare bones.  It’s certainly not as simple as this idyllic bit of lost England being subsumed by officialdom suggests and Patrick Wright is on hand to tell this story which feels as British as an Ealing film comedy.

Having recently moved to Dorset after only ever holidaying here decades ago I’m finding myself stirred by long distant memories and back in the early 1980s I could recall a visit to a lost, abandoned village.  I hadn’t thought about it for years but moving here I began to wonder about it, I couldn’t even recall its name.  I saw this in Dorchester’s Waterstones and realised this was just the book to fill in the memory gaps.

I read the 1995 hardback edition from the library but it was reissued in paperback in 2021 by Repeater Books with a new introduction which brings the story up to date.

This is an unusual non-fiction choice for me and I wasn’t totally at ease with the author’s style, initially.  I found it slightly wandering to begin with and he didn’t bring me in  as a newcomer to his subject- I felt he assumed I’d know things I didn’t and with the passage of time there will be fewer of us who remember the national controversy over Tyneham which simmered from the war years onwards so a new edition would seem a good idea.

It is far less about the good, dislocated people of Tyneham than the reasons for the decisions made for them and the development of this part of the Dorset coast in National Defence.  There’s some memorable characters who made their home in this area before the war, including Rolf Gardiner, who promoted youth work camps and of whom there’s quite a bit here; the literary set of the Powys family as well as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her same-sex partner Valentine Ackland; the fiery squire of the Lulworth Castle who may or may not have been tainted by the Curse of Tutankhamun and who sat and watched  his castle burn down in 1929 (I’ve just found out it was restored and is now an English Heritage site).  In his bringing these people back to life Wright’s account shines brightest.

There’s some mileage to be had in the rival associations aiming to repopulate Tyneham in the late 1960s-70s where hippy idealism both works with and clashes against the established order with young firebrand Rodney Legg taking central stage.

It is more than a story of lost England as within Tyneham’s takeover and the decades spent in trying to get it back for the residents there’s really a pocket guide to the shifts in values and priorities of the nation.  Class, unsubstantiated fears and prejudices and relationships with authority all play their fascinating part in this tale which is equally complex and straightforward.  A measure of the success of this type of book is whether it makes me want to read more about the subject and although I feel that most of the texts would be bucolic reminiscences from those who lived thereabouts at the time Wright has certainly piqued my interest.  I also think a visit to Tyneham might be on the cards.

I read the Jonathan Cape 1995 hardback edition but it would probably be easier to find the 2021 Repeater paperback reissue.

Let’s Do It – Jasper Rees (2020)

Here’s a big book, the authorised biography of Victoria Wood that I’ve only just got round to despite it being one of my books I’d wished I’d read in 2020 (still only up to 70% of this list).  I think I’ve been a little nervous of this really hoping that Rees gets the balance right between the career and public persona and the very different private person and juggling also the humour of her work and zest for life with the inevitable sadness at reading of a life which ended too soon.

I don’t know of the author, but as a journalist, he seemed to have a professional but not close relationship with Victoria Wood in her latter years.  I was heartened by this book appearing on a number of Best Book Of The Year lists and one description of it was that it was “impeccable”.  It certainly is thorough.  This is the definitive biography of Victoria Wood, no one else need bother.  Rees has had access to all the right people and material and herein is included really all we would need to know.

He does indicate at the start that Victoria Wood was collecting material for a memoir, making audio tapes which he had access to.  It would have been fascinating to see how such a private person would have approached such a publication but it is unlikely that it would have been as thorough and probing as this biography.

It was so important to me that Rees got this right as Victoria Wood (1953-2016) is, in my opinion, the greatest British comedian.  I don’t think a single day goes by without at least one of her lines coming into my head.  Whilst reading this book I dug out a DVD of her award-winning “As Seen On TV” and was staggered to see how many of these were almost low-key asides in their original setting rather than fanfared jokes; often said by characters who were not central in the sketch.  This shows how good her writing was on every level.  And, despite this genius, not everything she did hit home, the same viewing showed that some of the early songs at piano have not dated well and yet, for many years, this was her bread and butter and the first flush of fame came when she performed comedy songs on 70’s TV talent show “New Faces” and topical songs on “That’s Life”.

As a shy, private person it must have been difficult for Victoria as fans felt that they had such a personal bond with her.  She tried to keep a brave face on in public but people could find her prickly and taciturn away from the limelight and even when in it.  I lived in Highgate when she did, would often see her around and was one time rendered speechless by her when teaching as she appeared in my classroom on a school visit for prospective parents (both of her children attended the Primary School I worked at).  This was a school which had more than its fair share of notable parents but this was the first time I felt myself floundering in presence of celebrity.  With someone as good as she was at analysing speech I felt my words being analysed as I spoke to the class, when, in reality, even if she was listening, she was just a mum looking around.

Rees gets this private/public person split very well.  She was demanding to work for, rewriting and striving for perfection and insisting on actors being word-perfect and not deviating from her script.  She was driven, as indeed she had to be, at the time there was no woman writing comedy in this way, there was much resistance to female led female written comedy on British television (“As Seen On TV” predated the first French & Saunders TV series by three years).  She was a pioneer, who achieved so many firsts in her career.  Jasper Rees is also strong in celebrating this, it made me want to go back and experience her work again, always a good marker for a biography.  What I don’t think I need to do is read any more about her life as it is all here- the years of struggling after the New Faces appearance, her marriage, the children, divorce and final illness set alongside the comedy magic she produced. This book deserves my five star rating.

Let’s Do It: Authorised Biography Of Victoria Wood was published by Trapeze in hardback in 2020 and paperback in 2021. Since then Jasper Rees has put together a collection of unseen sketches, songs and other memorabilia in his November 2021 publication “Victoria Wood Unseen On TV” which I am adding to my To Be Read list.

Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002

The Real Diana Dors – Anna Cale (2021)

Diana Dors (1931-84) was a British National Treasure.  It’s close to forty years from her death and still new material is being published about her, this time by film and TV writer Anna Cale.  The author seeks to re-evaluate the career of Diana Dors through her performances rather than the gossip and scandal which surrounded her throughout her professional career.

It could be said that Diana was the first British “celebrity” with the trappings with which we associate that word today.  She was certainly aware of the power of the press and played up to their interest but before we discount her as a 1950’s Gemma Collins we have to consider the range and scope of her work and the affection the British public had for her.  The notion of celebrity both made her and overshadowed her (there were so many stories made up about the extent of her wealth that tax departments hounded her).  Her Hollywood career was pretty much scuppered by what could have been a publicity stunt gone wrong and at the time she was known as much for being “the girl in the mink bikini” (it was actually rabbit); “Britain’s Marilyn Monroe” (a comparison she hated) and for Sunday newspaper “exclusives” on her love life as for her many TV and film appearances.   

An all-rounder, Diana would embark on variety tours, released records and was a regular talk show guest (and host) and game show regular when the film roles dried up.  A whole generation rediscovered her by her upstaging of Adam Ant in his “Prince Charming” video but whether the public loved her from the film “Yield Into Night” (1956) which established serious acting credentials; her 70’s hit sit-com “Queenie’s Castle”; the TV adaptation of “Just William” or in one of my favourite roles of hers as Mrs Wickens in “The Amazing Mr Blunden”(1972) she always made an impression.

mrblunden4
Wickens!!! Diana with David Lodge

Cale is very factual and does not hang around for too much analysis (she does get fired up by Diana and husband Alan Lake’s need to do low-budget sex comedy films in the late 1970’s as that was all the British film industry could really offer at that time).  I would have liked a little more of the author’s voice and opinions in this re-evaluation as to be honest, there wasn’t much in this book that I hadn’t read before.  I think I favour a trashier publication from 1987 “Diana Dors: Only A Whisper Away” by Joan Flory and Damien Walne where the whole dichotomy of celebrity/actor is conveyed better.  That is a book I have read a couple of times and really enjoyed.  I was expecting more from Cale’s book with its greater hindsight expecting it to be the definitive word on the life and career of Diana Dors.

It wasn’t.  I’ve also read at least a couple of her autobiographical works and remember them being quite candid showing that Dors was not reluctant in keeping the scandalous side of her alive, knowing that this was what the public wanted and that it would sell books.  Amazon suggests three titles I haven’t read David Bret’s “A Hurricane In Mink” (2010): Niemah Ash’s “Connecting Dors” written in conjunction with Diana and Alan Lake’s late son, Jason (2012) and “The Shocking Truth” by Harry Harrison (2020) which shows that the interest in reading about her is without doubt still there.  I think Cale’s book may be the most restrained of these but that might not be what those wishing to find out more about this marvellous woman would want.

The Real Diana Dors was published in hardback by Pen and Sword in July 2021.

Le Freak- Nile Rodgers (2011)

I don’t know why it has taken me ten years to read a book which seems so suited to me.  Subtitled “An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco and Destiny” and written by a true original, gentleman and legend in the popular music industry this is a fascinating insight into Nile Rodgers and his Chic organisation.

I particularly favour music autobiographies when you really feel like you get to know the subject, where there is no holding back and when there is a good balance between the personal and professional life. This book has these elements just right.

I thought I knew a fair bit about Nile Rodgers.  In interviews he is a great raconteur and so stories like the conception of Chic’s biggest song “Le Freak” linked to an attempt to get into Studio 54 to see Grace Jones are very familiar but there was a lot I didn’t know.  This is where the family aspect comes in.  The suave appearance of himself and musical partner Bernard Edwards always gave off well-heeled vibes of the black urban professional making a name within the sophisticated world of disco culture of the late 70’s, Nile, however, was pretty much a street kid.  Born to a mother who was 13 years old when she got pregnant he was moved around for relatives to care for him and then back to mum.  By the age of 6 he was skipping school and travelling to forbidden areas of cities to spend his day in the cinema and before he was much older than that he was following family members’ proclivities in prodigious drug taking and alcoholism.

He was largely a functioning addict so it didn’t really hold back his multi-million selling career with Chic and production duties for Sister Sledge and Diana Ross and when disco succumbed to the racist, homophobic backlash of the Disco Sucks movement as a producer for David Bowie, Duran Duran, Madonna, Grace Jones and countless more.

The extent of his addictions, his attempts at sobriety and his response to the tragic death of Bernard Edwards in Japan in 1996 when Chic were firmly on the comeback trail are handled very effectively and poignantly.

We end in 2011 with a cancer diagnosis which we know he survives as 10 years on he is still very much with us and still a musical force to be reckoned with (especially as a live festival act).  I’m looking forward to a second volume to bring the Nile Rodgers story up to date.

Le Freak was published in 2011.  I read the Sphere paperback edition.

The Magic Box- Rob Young (Faber 2021)

I can’t resist a chunky well-researched book about British television and Rob Young’s latest certainly ticked these boxes for me.  Subtitled “Viewing Britain Through The Rectangular Window” this is a thorough work within its scope even if it is not quite the book I had thought it was.

Young examines Britishness through what we have watched for entertainment over the decades but this is not the social history I was expecting – this is more a guide to folk history.  The focus is evenly on film and television and the author is happy to divulge plot spoilers occasionally to prove a point (I admit this grated on me even if the likelihood of me watching many of his examples is minimal).

To be honest, I realised quite early on, after the first few chapters, that most of the productions Young focuses on I hadn’t ever seen, and that was because, in a lot of cases they wouldn’t have appealed at the time they appeared.  I would have written a lot of it off as too weird or too rural or elemental, although with the passing of time many do hold a greater appeal to the me of now.

He is very good on British folk horror and cites three films as being vital in the development of this genre, “Witchfinder General” (1968), “Blood On Satan’s Claw” (1971) and,unsurprisingly, “The Wicker Man” (1973) all hugely influential in Young’s study.  I found the author’s observation about threats in horror film fascinating.  In British productions it often came from the ground whereas in the USA it was more likely to come from the air.

The land and our response to it is present from “Quatermass” to the recent revival of “Worzel Gummidge”.  As children we were often presented with the weird and Young cites cult and ground-breaking (often in more ways than one) programmes which offered dystopias, ghosts, alternate histories and parallel times set within our land which is not always , through the eyes of TV and film-makers, a green and pleasant one.

The author has sat through a lot of material to produce this work from slow-paced rural documentaries and information films to Plays For Today, which in itself has provided rich pickings.  This was a long running strand on television which I remember being so diverse that you always had to give it ten minutes or so to know whether you were watching a future classic or needed to change channel.  Its scope was broad in that it offered something for everybody although rarely within the same play. 

The book is tightly-structured and always readable and as I was reading it I was aware of the people I could recommend certain sections to.  I personally did not end up with a massive list of things I wanted to watch as I had anticipated when starting it but these are insights into our past the like of which we will never see again.  Young is right with his statement that in the times of streaming services, Netflix and viewer algorithms there is no way that most of the works featured in this book would ever be commissioned.  It felt good to be informed and reminded of them.

The Magic Box was published in both the UK and US by Faber and Faber in 2021.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  There is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Carefree Black Girls – Zeba Blay (Square Peg 2021)

This is a difficult review to write for a white middle-aged man and I am sure that the author would appreciate the fact that I would find it difficult- it means that the issues she raises have hit home.

I selected this book on the basis of its subtitle “A Celebration Of Black Women In Pop Culture”.  I have often used this site to applaud the contribution of Black women within music, the arts and literature and thought this celebration was something I really wanted to be a part of.  The subtitle is not inaccurate, it is a celebration, but not quite what I had anticipated.

The author is central to this work, she is Ghanaian who has become an American citizen in recent years and works as a film critic and commentator on culture.  She also has struggled with fragile mental health, with suicide attempts and attributes this, at least in part, as her experience of being a Black woman in America.

You can appreciate from this the tone would not be as celebratory as I had anticipated.  An author’s note warns the reader to “be tender with yourself” if likely to be triggered by the issues in this book.

Zeba Blay studies the Black American female experience in terms of racist expectations and stereotypes borne from white supremacy including the body, sexual identity, skin tone, childhood and the quest to be “carefree” using women from popular culture as evidence.  Her arguments are powerful and impressive.  I do not feel it appropriate for me to comment on these truths other than to encourage a reading and an absorbing of what the author is saying.  I’m just going to write 10 quotes from the book which will be enough for you to know whether you are prepared to go on this journey with her.  I read the US edition before publication over here.  I see the UK edition has a Foreword by radio DJ Clara Amfo which may put some of this into context for the British reader.

I’ll give you the quotes as they appear chronologically within the book and also the section in which you will find them.  They will be out of context, perhaps, but I have not distorted them in any way.

“And writing about Black women is the thing that put me together again, that got me through and helped me become reacquainted with the concept of joy and freedom” (Introduction)

“To say that Black women are everything, are indeed essential to American Culture, to the global Zeitgeist is simply to observe things as they actually are” (Introduction)

“… to exist in a Black body is to exist in a persistent state of precarity, to be in constant anticipation of some form of violence” (Bodies)

“Black women’s bodies were once legally considered property.  They were bought and sold, traded and loaned” (She’s A Freak)

“How can a piece of property be raped?  Black women were therefore assumed as always being sexually available and this way of seeing them was sanctioned by the American government” (She’s A Freak)

“The fact that one in four Black girls will be abused before the age of 18, that one in five Black women are survivors of rape and yet for every fifteen Black women who are assaulted just one reports her rape comes as no surprise” (She’s A Freak)

“If Beyonce had a deeper complexion would her dominance within the Zeitgeist be as ubiquitous as it is” (Extra Black)

“My Blackness doesn’t make me depressed, but being Black in this world can be depressing.” (Strong Black Lead)

“the exuberance of Black joy springs forth from Black despair.  Collectively, we made a way out of no way.” (Strong Black Lead)

“Black women are killed in America at a higher rate than women of any other race.  Trans Black women are killed at an even higher rate.” (Strong Black Lead)

Carefree Black Girls is published in the UK by Square Peg on October 21st 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Desire: A Memoir- Jonathan Dollimore (Rowman & Littlefield 2021)

This is a revised and expanded edition of a memoir which first appeared in 2017.  Then it was around 192 pages long, now it comes in at 232 so there’s a significant amount of new material.

On first publication it was critically very well received.  Jonathan Dollimore has a background in academia and is a leading light in gender studies and queer theory.  He has also packed a lot of social life into his time on earth, has suffered periods of depression and is a gay man who later on in life had a fifteen year relationship with a woman and is a father of two daughters.

His memoir is a combination of the academic and autobiographical elements interspersed with his journal writings at the time.  I’m not sure which of these areas has been the most expanded.  It’s all loosely hinged around a study of desire in all its forms including risk, a desire to live dangerously, lust and romantic desire, to occasional desires for death.  The writing is forthright and pulls no punches but it is this linking the memoir to this theme which doesn’t always work for me.  I would have liked this to have been tighter or abandoned.

I was more attracted to the autobiographical elements here- the motorbike loving teen whose life changed direction following a serious accident who becomes a significant figure in higher education (there’s little of this part of his life here) and becomes immersed in gay subculture in London, Brighton, New York and Australia at a time before, during and after HIV changed everything.  Modern autobiographical writing seems to have developed a distinct style over the last few years and its one where we can be offered intimate details yet held back at some distance at other points.  I’ve mentioned this quite a bit recently with Jeremy Atherton Lin’s “Gay Bar: Why We Went Out ” and Armistead Maupin’s “Logical Family” immediately springing to mind.  I’m not convinced it should be possible to read a memoir and end up not feeling that you know very much about the person writing it.  I prefer the writer to really let us into their lives which is why I was so bowled over by Dustin Lance Black and Grace Dent who both made my 2020 Books Of The Year list. Having said all this, Dollimore’s writing is seductive and kept me interested even when I was not totally following the points being made.

My criteria is a 4 star rating is appropriate if I feel the book is worthy of revisiting and I think this is a book which will both remain with me and repay re-reading at some point so this fulfils this criteria.  Dollimore has a good publishing team which will ensure this book gets seen.  I was invited to read this probably because of the other similarly slanted autobiographical works I’ve read and had difficulty accessing a digital copy.  They continued to maintain a conversation with me and sent me a physical copy.  I like it when publishers go out of their way to recognise us bloggers and I was rewarded with a read which often resonated strongly with me.

Desire: A Memoir was published in May 2021 by Rowman and Littlefield.  Many thanks to the publishers especially Tim in the Marketing Department for going over and beyond in ensuring I had a review copy.

Logical Family: A Memoir- Armistead Maupin (2017)

Armistead Maupin’s ground-breaking “Tales Of The City” is the book series I can’t bear to finish.  I’ve read most of them more than once but the final volume “The Last Days Of Anna Madrigal” remains unopened on my shelves .  Taken as a series its significance is phenomenal.  Written by an out gay man from the mid 70’s onwards with a diverse cast of characters it was devised initially for daily serialisation in a San Franciscan newspaper.  The type of characters Maupin created had never appeared in such a mainstream work before.  The first TV adaptation enhanced his reputation and was a thing of absolute joy and cemented his position as a LGBT+ icon.

Probably my favourite work of his is outside the “City” collection, his 1993 stand-alone “Maybe The Moon” was my favourite read of 1994.  It feels like Armistead Maupin has been with me for my whole adult life and I think that may be the reason why the last “Tales Of The City” novel remains unread.

Not everything has worked.  The 2019 Netflix reboot chose to bring his characters to the modern day alongside the next generation.  I uncharacteristically gave up on this after a couple of episodes as I could feel it tainting my memories of the original.  And it was with this experience quite fresh in my mind that I began this memoir.  Published in 2017 it’s been a bit of an under the radar book.  I don’t recall that much heralding of it on publication so I imagine it may not have been as commercially successful as the publishers would have liked.

For me, it is very much a book of two halves.  Maupin talks of a logical family which is what many of us need to find to thrive away from our biological family.  He grew up in conservative North Carolina with a racist, homophobic father and that upbringing makes tough reading.  I don’t think Maupin helps us out much here as stylistically I found it a bit of a slog.  There’s lots  of references which would resonate for those in the American South of those days but it all felt rather alien to this European reader.  I felt that when he was writing about his biological family he kept us at arm’s length and I didn’t really enjoy that distance.

It is when he moves to San Francisco that he discovers himself and the writing here took off for me as it did in his professional career.  I especially enjoyed his perspectives on others he met up with- Rock Hudson, Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy and Harvey Milk.  I was drawn deeply into this book then.  His relationship with his parents develops a new dimension when they visit San Francisco when his mother is fading from breast cancer and they meet with his friends at the time of the assassination of Harvey Milk in what becomes a beautifully written poignant account and a point where the logical and the biological blend temporarily.

Armistead Maupin is a truly inspirational individual and as it progresses his memoir does become inspirational.  I wondered when starting it whether this might be the book I would always remember him for, as I am partial to memoirs, but it isn’t but it might encourage me to finish that almost complete series I started reading over 40 years ago.

Logical Family was published by Doubleday in 2017.