Tuesday 17 April 2007

Holiday reading

We took a short break in the sun over Easter, spending most of our time on a sunbed, reading. Holiday reading's a funny thing. We used to take only 'light' material, then realised we felt brain-dead after a few days away and started packing heavier tomes (in both senses) as a means of reconnecting with our everyday selves while away. This time, my reading straddled the popular-serious divide, as I spent most of my time absorbed in a couple of recent memoirs: Griff Rhys Jones' Semi Detached and John Cornwell's Seminary Boy.

My enjoyment of Rhys Jones' nostalgic evocation of growing up in the 50's, 60's and 70's was partly due to the pleasure of recognition: like him, I went to an Essex grammar school then on to Cambridge to study English, and at roughly the same time, but from a much more modest background. In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly reading the book was the way that the class system of 30 or 40 years ago constrained and stultified its beneficiaries as well as its victims. Coming from a working-cum-aspiring-lower-middle-class background myself, I found Rhys Jones' early chapters, about his middle-middle-class childhood in the Home Counties, almost unbearably suffocating.

The book also made me reflect on the nature of celebrity and the way it transforms the way we think about a life. Though entertainingly written, this memoir of childhood contains no great insights into why this particular middle-class boy ended up as a celebrated comic actor and presenter - and we wouldn't be particularly interested in the story if its author weren't so well known. Rhys Jones ends his narrative when he is on the verge of becoming famous, emerging from the dull anonymity of his background into the bright light of celebrity and 'known-ness' - which is the 'point' of the story, the transformation that casts a retrospective light on the preceding chapters and gives them meaning. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that celebrity (auto)biographies are rather like the religious conversion narratives of previous eras, with the dull ordinariness of pre-fame life standing in for the pre-conversion life of sin, and 'becoming famous' the contemporary equivalent of the moment of spiritual transformation.

However, rather like those conversion narratives, the celebrity memoir not only gives retrospective significance to its subject's otherwise dull pre-fame experience, it also has the effect of making everybody else's non-celebrity lives appear drab ('lost' would have been the religious equivalent) by comparison. There's a description in the book of Griff returning to his old school for a reunion, some decades on. Without the dazzling light of his celebrity shining on them, his erstwhile friends' post-school lives as businessmen, teachers, professionals might have seemed perfectly decent and worthy, but the effect of his presence is to make them appear rather disappointing - as if he were the only one to have achieved anything of note.

Interestingly, I also found personal points of connection with Cornwell's memoir. Like my own parents, he was born in working-class East Ham, in the East End of London, though a few years after them, and into a Catholic rather than a Nonconformist family. As others have noted, his story of delinquent youth transformed by the experience of a Catholic minor seminary, followed by progression to higher education and loss of faith, has the imaginative power of good fiction. This is a memoir that has an intrinsic and universal interest - for its recreation of the progress of a young mind (and soul) and its insight into relationships between sons and fathers (and father-figures) - regardless of the fame or otherwise of its author. It's a conversion (and de-conversion, then re-conversion) narrative in the more conventional sense, but a remarkable one. Highly recommended.

I also read (or tried to read) a couple of popular novels while on holiday. I don't like giving up on books once started, but I just wasn't able to get on with C.J.Sansom's Winter in Madrid, despite the acclamatory reviews peppering its covers. Despite what they say, Shadow of the Wind it ain't, and in its mining of the Spanish Civil War for popular fictional material, it's not in the same league as Javier Cercas' brilliant Soldiers of Salamis. It just doesn't have the pace and verve of those books. Although I mustn't rush to judgement until I've made a greater effort to finish the thing, I have to say that (so far) I agree with the rather mixed and lukewarm responses posted by Amazon reviewers of Sansom's book. I got on much better with Jeb Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder, which cleverly combines the real-life story of Freud's only visit to the US with a fictional murder mystery - and manages to be both thought-provoking and a page-turner.

There's a lot of snobbery attached to holiday reading, isn't there? For some, it's important to be seen with a volume of Proust or Anthony Powell poking out of the hand luggage. I thought I was immune, but realising that at least two of my chosen holiday books were Richard and Judy Bookclub recommendations prompted a moment of snobbish queasiness before departure. On such occasions, there's nothing for it but to remove those little round recommendation stickers and, next time you're passing a bookshop, attach them mischievously to some little-read academic volume, perhaps one in which you've had some personal involvement (not that I've ever done this myself, you understand).

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