Working Backwards

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Book Review  

Jolly Lad, John Doran  (Strange Attractor, 2015)

An Encyclopadeia of Myself, Jonathan Meades (Fourth Estate, 2015) 

jollyladThe autobiographer has something in common with Narcissus although not if the comparison only reduces the writer to being an egoist in love with the story of his own life. Before Narcissus sees himself in a pool he is ardently solicited by the nymph Echo but he rejects her advances and she wastes away in grief until only her voice lives on. When, later, Narcissus sees himself reflected in the water his anguish, like Echo’s, resides in not being able to embrace what is so dearly desired. He dips his arms in the water, reaching for the neck he sees, but cannot touch for himself. Consumed by his own grief, Narcissus dies and mourners find only a flower by the water’s edge. It’s a potently suggestive myth, inlaid with parallels: repetition as representation – verbal in one case, visual in the other; yearning for something out of reach; failure to reciprocate desire leading to death.

Unlike the autobiographer who will be worth reading, Narcissus fails to register a difference between his present self and an image that would represent him. What he sees is not his own self but an other that reflects his self; he speaks and sees his lips moving in the water  but the image doesn’t speak to him although it is a visible and spatial repetition of his voice. Like a letter without an address, his desire returns undelivered to its sender. Derrida’s opposition that pits a writing that is always deceased and deficient against the full presence of the living voice, the script versus the body, is part of the constellation that makes up the author as a selfhood presenting itself. Writing your own life retrospectively attempts to create the self’s authentic voice but, like the image Narcissus beholds in the clear water of the pool, it cannot provide what is being sought. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the narrator addresses Narcissus: ‘What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own.’ Autobiographies can be calibrated according to their degree of success in acknowledging the inherent failure in trying to reach what has passed, as if an echo could somehow be the real thing. As the White Queen paradoxically observes, ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’. John Doran in Jolly Lad has a knotty problem that compounds this immanent impasse: can he bear to look at his previous existence? He writes of a ghastly past that he desperately needs to leave behind but achieving this entails asking himself what kind of self will take its place.

Doran’s childhood was marked by the kind of material deprivation that characterized many working-class families around Liverpool in the 1970s and cannot be simply pointed to as an explanation for his troubled self. His father, reduced to working short hours and a pinched income, had little sympathy with John’s manic attraction to pop music and only in adulthood is his son able to contextualise his father’s moroseness and hatred of U2:

Of course, this was another example of capitalism’s great cloaking mechanism in full effect. Blaming expensive hat wearing stadium rock divots for your lot in life is no less unreasonable than blaming immigrants, the police, the middle classes, those on the dole, claimants of sickness benefit, your neighbour who has a better car than you, those on your shop floor who have better shift patterns than you, the secretary you suspect to be fucking someone else in middle management, the students who are  only working in your office over the summer break, black people, Asian people, Europeans, people from Wigan, people from Manchester, people from London, people from Yorkshire, people from the other, better side of Warrington Road…

(True, it might have been no less unreasonable than blaming others but, let’s be fair,  some mea culpa  should be expressed by son to prescient father for identifying U2 as bellends.)

John Doran was growing up depressed in Thatcher’s Cold-War Britain and he turned to alcohol. As ethanol becomes his neurotoxin of choice,  self-estrangement makes  him feel less harassed in a gay bar – where both toilets were marked ‘Gentlemen’ but with fairy lights round only one of the doors –  than in straight company. Alienation grows and alcohol dependency sets in with the hardness of concrete. He goes to university but can’t hack it and gets thrown out. His wry comment on this – ‘I may have been the first person in my family to go to university but I was the first person in my family to get thrown out of it as well’ – should not be mistaken for frivolousness. He knows only too well the special chance he botched and his self-contempt is revealed in a series of vignettes that make plain just what a total douchebag he became. He seems to have remained one throughout his twenties and thirties. It’s incredible that he still has a functioning liver and, if you’re the kind of deluded alcoholic who thinks they drink moderately and only occasionally binges, his account may well terrorize you into shedding that daydream. It makes plain how the availability of cheap booze in our part of the world is as crazy as being able to walk into a store in the USA and arm yourself with an automatic assault weapon. His pitiful loss of self-respect is bad enough but the consequent self-loathing never lasts long enough to effect a change in his behaviour.

Whatever it was that reflexively threw out a lifebuoy to his drowning self remains the ultimate enigma of this book. It finds expression not in what he recounts but in the wit and style of his delivery. There is a liveliness and social positioning in his language that allows a thuggish workmate to come alive as a ‘giant ex-army prick with a chin that looked like a snow plough’ or Ecstasy pills to be described as making ‘glands I’d never previously been aware of [become] tiny land mines bursting their caches of delicious electrolytes’.

John Doran stopped drinking in 2008 at the age of 37 – he had started when he was 15 – and some of the most painful accounts in Jolly Lad are those describing just how difficult this was to accomplish. It’s a bravura story and there is no Disneyesque ending to the tale of an individual who is difficult to like but who has the honesty to admit there is little that could be liked about his past life.

Encyc_myselfOn the face of it, the story Jonathan Meades tells of his own earthly evolution is altogether different. He grew up in the 1950s in Salisbury but, while provincial English life for a middling middle-class family in that era had little in common with the lot of Liverpool’s proletariat three decades later, there are points of strange contact. The two writers share a truculent, recalcitrant  spirit even though their wildly  divergent prose suggests otherwise: Meades has a wide-ranging vocabulary and he employs it for imaginative, stabbing touches, not to impress but for pictorial precision: he remembers a man whose hair ‘refused to be tamed by brilliantine and rose in Mayan strip lynchets’, a bizarrely colourful comparison taking in an agricultural image – evoking  a field’s downhill ledge formed by years of ploughing – quite unavailable  to Doran’s latter-age, urban and un-exotic universe.

Meades is a polymath of sorts, knowing more than a little about much of quotidian life in the 1950s, and what he does know or remember is usually conveyed with visceral vigour. He seems to have forgotten little that he saw around him in childhood and the pleasure of reading his tale lies in the details his prodigious memory has stored up. He is constantly opinionated and likes to work up a froth of indignation about all sorts of topics. As with John Doran, there is no narcissistic cloying and, like him also, there is no wish to dress up his past in false clothes or over-invest it with emotions, manufactured or otherwise. When something very private and affecting is revealed by Meades it is never explicitly stated as such but the reader comes to discern it by a modulation in the prose. His childhood may have been lonelier than he makes out and there is a rare moment when he describes telling his parents that he feels unloved, unwanted. They respond by shrugging off his worries with euphemisms and bonhomie, telling him he’s just feeling ‘a bit browned off … off colour … not rubbing along too well’. Jonathan Meades, the adult looking back, sees their response as typical of:

… a generation which denied itself deep immersion in feeling, had not learned to wallow in empathy, understood an outpouring to be the discharge of cloacal rather than lachrymal sewage. The lexicon of demonstrative care had yet to be coined; the people’s absurd princess had yet to be born; the mistakenly unaborted Blair had yet to perfect the catch of tremulous sincerity in his voice.

The passage is characteristic in some ways – the stridently forthright and wordy style is typical of Meades – but the urge to contextualise his parents’ reticence is here expressed with more than mere outspokenness. His anger is directed at the present generation with ferocious intent and while it hits the nail on the head there is also the possibility that this fury – which in this paragraph is a notch or two up from his usual expressions of spleen — is deflecting a hurt suffered from remembering emotional starvation as a child. There are other moments in the book where such hints of affective deprivation are detectable but he is not going to get all weepy and dewy-eyed about it. Meades, like the author of Jolly Lad, has a dry humour that mercifully separates his writing from the self-pitying type of mush found in books like Angel’s Ashes. He can recollect himself as a vulnerable child pained by his parents’ rectitude but, unlike Narcissus, he is not reaching out to touch and (re)possess that image of himself. Perhaps, ironically, because he has imbued from his upbringing a degree of self-reserve that was part of the spirit, what Hegel called Geist, of his parents’ generation. Nowadays, outside of a book like An Encyclopadeia of Myself, we barely hear even an echo of it.

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