About A Girl
By Max Dunbar.
Different for Girls: My True-Life Adventures in Pop, Louise Wener, Ebury 2010
A character’s backstory is one of the hardest things for a novelist to get right. John Niven does it perfectly in his Britpop period piece Kill Your Friends. Niven’s sociopathic A + R man never talks about his life before the music industry until the end of the book, when he reflects on Christmases past: ‘me and my mother, just the two of us, exchanging gifts; me handing her the usual box of bath salts or whatever and her reciprocating with the envelope of cash.’ The line doesn’t diagnose Steven Stelfox or explain him away but it does put into context his restless insecurity, which he conceals with swaggering contempt. In his heart Stelfox knows that he is only one fuckup away from a return to the struggling masses from which he came. The disconnect between his hedonistic elite and the public who buy their records is illustrated in a scene where Stelfox walks into his office on the morning of Diana’s death. Bemused by widespread displays of mourning, he wanders over to a television where his colleagues are watching rolling news. A working-class woman, interviewed on the street, tells the BBC through choked grief that ‘She… she… she done so much good for people.’ As one, the industry men collapse in hysterical laughter.
England is mile upon mile of dim satellite towns where hopes and dreams go to die. Louise Wener’s father grew up wanting to study law. Instead of going to university he went to war, then ended up in Ilford working in the civil service. Wener struggles to resolve her dry, unhappy father with the young man enjoying the heady days of post-liberation Paris. Eventually, her dad retires and becomes a mature law student. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy,’ Wener says. Nine months into the course, he contracts the brain tumour that kills him. Wener is twenty-five and deep into the minimum wage at the time of her father’s death:
I realise ambition and curiosity are not the preserve of youth, that they continue always, that they are what keep us growing and moving forward. Dad’s lost opportunities are lost forever, and I grieve for them as well as for him. I am fiercely aware of time passing, grateful of growing up with so many choices, and all those wasted months suddenly seem like an affront. I’ll make it just to prove that I can, for all the ways that Dad couldn’t.
We obsess over the things we hate far more than the things we love. We talk ceaselessly about the nightmares of the past to prove to ourselves that we have moved on. For all that Wener detested her dull suburban childhood, it features heavily in her music, and also in her memoir. Robert Herrick noted the irony in his poem ‘Discontents in Devon’. Admitting that ‘More discontents I never had/Since I was born, than here’, he goes on to say this:
Yet justly, too, I must confess
I ne’er invented such
Ennobled numbers for the press
Than where I loathed so much.
Soon after her father’s death Wener hit the big time with her focused, intelligent, guitar-driven pop. Her band Sleeper acquit themselves well from the collapse of the Britpop bubble because Wener saw the crash coming and split the band after their third album, allowing them to leave the party with their heads held high. From the safety of middle age she can recognise the nineties music industry as a Russian novel of deals and intrigues, with everyone somehow able to go through the charade that they are about the music and nothing else.
You have to slog through about a hundred pages of Wener’s childhood to get to the interesting stuff (childhood and adolescence are the most boring parts of any life story) and it’s hard going, written in that appalling self-deprecatory Guardian Lite prose that is the house style of twenty-first century bourgeois wit. Once Wener has grown up and began to get her show on the road, the book becomes much better and more readable, loads of tales about touring and sex and drugs, full of insight and outrage. Quickly she becomes aware that the alternative scene is just as full of cliques and claques as the high school hierarchies she’s escaped. Her gender is a problem. The music industry is full of misogynic scum, from the suits who expect a blowjob for a line of coke, to pallid nonentities writing songs about how much they hate women for not fucking them.
The whole Cool Britannia period is an easy target for satire but to me the Britpop scene looks a dozen times better than the nouveau-twee landfill indie that’s all over the radio today. Wener is a novelist now, and in fact has released more novels than albums. You don’t learn much about her life after rock from her memoir. There’s a sense of company, kids running around, early shifts and simple pleasures. A sense of survival, coupled with the realisation that it doesn’t matter how long you stay at the party. The suburbs will get you in the end.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 22nd, 2010.