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Excerpt: Memphis Underground II


The deaths of writers Robin Cook, Kathy Acker and Laurence James were all deeply upsetting for me, and made my shock at the passing of Elizabeth Young in March [2001] all the more traumatic. Liz read compulsively and when a new book came out by someone we both admired — say Bridget Penney or Darius James — we’d spend hours discussing it. Not that Liz restricted her interests to books: alongside well thumbed tomes her Ladbroke Grove flat was filled with some of the most unbelievable kitsch I’ve ever encountered — brightly coloured cushions, garish clothes and novelty knickknacks.

Typical of the things Liz bought is a key ring with a miniature leather jacket hanging from it that she gave me one Solstice. Presents were very important to Young, and her friends were constantly amazed by her ingenuity and generosity with regard to them. That said, Liz’s love of curiosities wasn’t limited to trinkets.

She was the first person to offer me smart drugs — at one time her fridge was filled with bizarre “medicines” she’d mail ordered from the US which allegedly boosted one’s intelligence. More to my taste was the weird range of herbal teas I’d be offered whenever I went down The Grove — not to mention the latest developments in health food. Young was always on top of consumer trends.

I first met Liz when she came to the launch of my bildungsroman Pure Mania at the now sadly defunct Compendium bookshop in Camden Town. Young was notoriously retiring but we immediately struck up a friendship because she was intrigued by the sexual imagery I was using in the novel. Liz knew well enough that what I was doing was developing and exaggerating the kind of metaphors that are found in pulp fiction, but for years she would tease me by saying “do you really imagine mudflats, amphibians and the big bang when you’re having sex?” I suspect that the Goth in Young was secretly disappointed that I wasn’t quite as mad as my books, while her more respectable side was quietly relieved that I am no more than half-insane. We had rather different relationships to the notion of capital “L” literature. Liz saw me as too antagonistic towards what I refused to accept was “the” canon, although she also greatly appreciated the fact that my fictional practice emerged from extensive reading both “within” and “around” “it”. We rubbed along very well since among other things we shared a relish for both horror fiction and conspiracy theory as forms of unintentional humour. We also tried and usually failed to maintain a polite silence over differences of taste. Young had little time for what she viewed as my “ironic” immersion in dialectics, and I was always astonished by the amount of true crime she gulped down.

Reading a proof copy of Liz’s forthcoming collection of journalism Pandora’s Handbag: Adventures in the Book World, it was as if she’d been conjured back from the dead and was lounging on a sofa across from my chair. Young was very much given to taking to her bed, but when she received visitors she’d sprawl on her sofa with her much loved cat. Liz was a long term sufferer from hepatitis C and if she didn’t feel well enough to receive people, she’d lie in bed and talk on the phone. Young rarely called earlier than ten or eleven in the evening, and the conversations could go on till dawn. Pandora’s Handbag is very much like a marathon phone conversation with Liz, although obviously the collection is also shaped by the demands of jobbing journalism. Young was always very adept at working her interests into review and feature formats — and as a result landed regular work from national newspapers (which if not always better paid, were certainly more prestigious than the magazines she also wrote for).

The constraints imposed by these forms of writing, pressures of “space” and “time”, certainly produced curious effects when Liz was struggling both with and against them. There is a provisional feel to everything gathered in Pandora’s Handbag; opinions are revised and even almost imperceptibly reversed between the articles and the introductory sections. Further eddies and crosscurrents emerge from the tension that also exists between Young’s love of narrative, and simultaneous attraction to theories that undercut narrative. Negative spaces emerge that are every bit as fascinating as anything Liz states explicitly.

That said, Pandora’s Handbag also shows Young very gracefully coming to terms with her life. She was often upset by the way her journalism was edited, and in this collection —which she was working on right up to her death — cuts are restored, and in some places records set straight. The introductory sections also show Liz as a little less unwilling to be overtly critical than in the past. One of the things fellow literary critics never allowed Young to live down was that in her twenties she appeared in the film Rude Boy — based around jock rock band The Clash — giving roadie Ray Gange a simulated blow job. Liz may have been quiet and understated in the way she addressed the baroque mythology surrounding her insignificant walk-on part in a fifth-rate film, but she was also unflapped and unembarrassed. Introducing a review of Johnny Green’s book about The Clash A Riot Of Our Own, she reproduces the words Green claims were exchanged immediately after this scene was filmed. Gange is alleged to have propositioned Young as follows: “How about doing it for real?” To which she is said to have responded: “You must be joking.” Liz comments wryly: “Actually the conversational interchange wasn’t quite like that and that’s why we have ‘Rashomon’.” Quite.

Despite coming from a very privileged background, Young also moved in what might quaintly be described as “low-life” circles for the whole of her adult life, and partly as a result of this she wrote from a liberal position that was on the whole to the left of her broadsheet colleagues. Liz had a difficult existence and hard drugs, as well as books, were her retreat from the world. It was typical of Young that if something didn’t interest someone, she’d try to keep the subject out of her interchanges with them, no matter how important the matter was to her. While I agree with much of what Liz wrote about the persecution of heroin users, I have never found drug rushes very enthralling. Once Young realised this, she rarely spoke to me about narcotics. That said, I do think it was direct experience of repressive drug laws that served as one of the well-springs of Liz’s instinctive sympathy for those she perceived as dispossessed and persecuted. Her outrage at her black brother-in-law being continuously stopped and searched because he drove a decent car was completely instinctive. However, the pressure of working to tight deadlines for the liberal press could take its toll. In an interview with T. Coraghessan Boyle collected in Pandora’s Handbag, Young quotes this sound bite sensationalist as saying: “If I wanted to use all my gifts to write extravagantly beautiful novels in praise of Hitler, then it is my right and my prerogative…” I always found Liz at her most elegant and eloquent when she addressed post-modern “blank generation” fiction, perhaps because our understandings were at their closest in this area. I didn’t share Young’s patience with “the great American novel”, nor its transatlantic equivalent — “the great British mistake.” Indeed, when we strayed into this area together disagreements inevitably arose. While it is unlikely Boyle would seriously consider writing a book praising Hitler, his overblown rhetoric is an example of precisely the sort of thing I felt Liz should have been deconstructing, whereas she would run with it.

However, Young understood long before any broadsheet hack why writers as diverse as Irvine Welsh, Iain Sinclair, Dennis Cooper and Lynne Tillman were significant. Indeed, her reviews of Cooper, in particular, played a pivotal role in breaking him in the UK. Books were important to Liz but as she makes clear in Pandora’s Handbag while introducing a piece on the rise of biography, what she enjoyed much more than criticism were literary anecdotes. Given this, it is almost inevitable that I should pause here to provide some gossip about the time I turned up to visit Young shortly after Will Self had arrived unexpectedly at her flat. Rather than buzzing me in as she usually did, Liz came down the stairs looking flustered. After Young had explained that Self was upstairs, and I’d solemnly promised to be polite to him, I was ushered into her quarters. Liz liked Self’s work but knew I had a low opinion of it. Self lay sprawled on a sofa, while Young spoon-fed him Weetabix in an attempt to coax him out of a torpor. As time passed, Will cheered up and even became curious about me. Liz was asking me a few questions about my writing because she was preparing a piece on my books for The Guardian. Self hadn’t heard of me, which Young clearly found embarrassing. I simply took this as proof he was poorly read. Anyway, Liz pulled a selection of my paperbacks from a shelf and handed them to him, saying he ought to know my writing. The books Young had grabbed included my novel Red London which carried the following citation from a Steven WellsNME review: “Stewart Home’s sperm’n’blood-sodden scribblings make Will Self’s writings read like the self-indulgent dribblings of a sad Oxbridge junkie trying to sound hard.” After absorbing this, Self slumped back against the sofa moaning: “but it’s true, I am a sad Oxford junkie”, while Liz began the process of cheering him up once again.

Needless to say, Will Self and I have not enjoyed the best of relations since this incident. It is therefore very much a tribute to Young that when I encountered Self at the Austrian Cultural Institute in London shortly after her death, we succeeded in being polite to each other for the first time in seven years. Liz had so many unlikely friends and enthusiasms, and I don’t think there is anybody else who — without even being present — could have inveigled Will Self and I to speak courteously to each other. Thus Young lives on in memories and the innumerable social relationships that both shaped her and which she had a hand in shaping. Since only the history of a writer’s influence can be addressed by consistent materialists, a more substantial treatment of what Liz achieved will to have to wait. For the time being it is fitting enough that while her Times obituary stated she was born on 6 February 1951, The Guardian placed her birthday on 6 June. This is a mystery that I prefer to leave unresolved; it is enough to state that all the obituaries agreed Young died in London of liver failure on 18 March 2001. Pandora’s Handbag is available from Serpent’s Tail.

This is taken from Stewart Home’s latest book, Memphis Underground (Snowbooks, 2007).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 26th, 2007.