A Blessed life

Cover of Absolute PandemoniumBritish actor Brian Blessed is a force of nature. Everything about him is big, robust, and gung-ho. He’s a boys’ own adventure wrapped in facial hair.

His autobiography, Absolute Pandemonium, is everything you would expect from such a singular creature – full of ripping yarns, scrapes, scraps, and quite a lot of swearing. Oh yes, the language is quite colourful in places.

By any measure Blessed has had an extraordinary life. From humble beginnings in a mining town in South Yorkshire he’s had a career that has seen him steadily employed (when he wasn’t too busy climbing Mount Everest) for over 50 years. He’s appeared in everything from Blackadder and I, Claudius to Flash Gordon and Much Ado About Nothing. And he’s got a few stories to tell, some of which might actually be true.

To give you a bit of insight into what Absolute Pandemonium is like, I thought I’d share a few descriptions of famous people Blessed has met, loved and worked with over the years –

On Peter O’Toole:

Peter O’Toole wasn’t just a man of extremes; he was the man of extremes: Lord Byron with a knuckle-duster, love.

On Prime Minister Harold Mcmillan:

…he was about as animated as a curling stone, though seemed to move slightly slower.

On Orson Welles:

He seemed to be about the size of a rhino. Absolutely enormous, he was, and smoking a cigar that looked more like a log.

On Katharine Hepburn:

Boudicca in slacks

On Geneviève Bujold:

She was effervescent, naughty and very, very beautiful.

On meeting legendary Hollywood producer, Dino De Laurentiis for the first time:

He greeted me warmly, like a long-lost son.

‘Who the hell are you and wada-you-want-a?’

On Timothy Dalton:

Tim’s an incredibly handsome man and looked just like Errol Flynn in the film. A bit of rough compared to me, of course, but he definitely has something.

And finally, on his own good self:

Now, if I ever had to choose one word to describe myself, in addition to virile, sensual, intriguing, dainty, elegant and of course sensitive, it would have to be tenacious.

Definitely recommended for fans of the man himself or the people he’s worked with to get the inside (though possibly exaggerated) story on what they were like – honestly the section on O’Toole is rivetting.

To be honest, towards the end I was a bit over all the anecdotes in which Blessed’s tremendous actorly insight saved the day but I’ll forgive him because if you can’t skite a bit on your own memoir, when can you? It’s also extremely funny and I was hooting with laughter within the first few pages so I can forgive Blessed a bit of ego stroking.

What are your thoughts on Mr Blessed? Delightfully madcap or too much like a foghorn for polite company? I suspect both…

Amy Poehler? Yes Please!

Amy Poehler author photo
Possibly my favourite author dustjacket portrait of all time.

Amy Poehler is one of those actresses I was vaguely aware of but to whom I’d never really paid much attention. She occasionally cropped up in movies like ‘Blades of Glory’ and Mean Girls, usually playing someone blonde and kooky.

Later I associated her with Tina Fey, as her friend, and as one half of the legendary Saturday Night Live Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton “I can see Russia from my house” sketch.

It wasn’t until I started watching sitcom Parks and Recreation, that I truly came to appreciate the comedy genius that is Amy Poehler. And by the time she and Fey formed The Ultimate Funny Lady Tag Team to host the Golden Globes I was a solid fan.

It’s from this perspective that I came to read her book Yes please.

Cover of BossypantsI’d already tried Fey’s autobiography Bossypants, and despite a love of the 30 Rock creator’s humour, I found the book something of a letdown. Yes, there were reminisces about SNL. Yes, I learned some things about her childhood (like how she got that scar on her chin – random knife attack by a stranger), and yes there were jokes, and feminism, and a chapter devoted to Poehler, but it was all a bit, er, cold? I felt, as a reader, that I was being kept at a respectful distance. Stand-up as an arena show, with Fey present but rather far away.

In Yes please Poehler covers similar territory but, hey reader, wanna bring it in for a hug first? Come on, tough guy. Get on over here.

If Fey’s book is a gig at Horncastle Arena, Poehler’s is a small, intimate, comedy club where the tables are so close to the stage performer and audience can see each other sweating.

Cover of Yes pleaseAnd “Yes please” is not at all a straight out autobiography. It’s that but it’s also part self-help manual in which her experiences (which include waitressing, improv, performing a rap number live on TV a few hours before going into labour, motherhood, divorce, visiting an orphanage in Haiti) all feed into reflections and wisdom, all with a sharp, self-deprecating, “I know what my crap is and I own it” attitude.

You feel as if you just made a new best friend and she’s dishing all her dirt to you and you love her because of it. Poehler admits her mistakes, celebrates her triumphs, and tries not to be too hard on herself. And she encourages you to do the same for yourself.

But don’t just take it from me. Listen to Amy. Continue reading

Heaven knows I’m miserable now – The Morrissey autobiography

Cover of AutobiographyMorrissey is one of the most provocative and polarizing musical personalities there is – He’s idolized with a cult following. Many seem to loathe him. And many (like me), like and dislike him at the same time.

Morrissey has a ‘rep’ for winding people up with his inflammatory statements and no one is excluded from his critiques regardless of how important or well liked they are – The Royals (his “We hate Will and Kate crusade), other artists (calling Madonna “McDonna”) and general irreverence whatever the subject or personality.

That’s why his autobiography was such an anticipated read … Oh yeah, also the fact that his band The Smiths, was one of the most pioneering musical acts ever – arguably conceiving the Indie sound/genre, or at least being very influential in the indie-rock scene.

Typical of most things Morrissey, his book immediately elicited a controversial response from book buffs as it was published as a Penguin Classic. This roused literary people to storm the gates of Penguin or take it to the internet. One reviewer has referred to the work as Morrissey’s “droning narcissism and the whine of self pity”, however, I feel this is more a response to the persona than the pen-work, as Morrissey possesses a knack for writing that most musicians (and writers) don’t.

His autobiography begins with funny and sad insights into the many and varied aspects of his life, much of which has little to do with his and guitarist Johnny Marr’s song writing success. There are the subjective details and impressions of life growing up in “forgotten knife plunging Manchester” in the 1960’s, where “the birds abstain from song”, the “1960s will not swing” and the alleys “have cracked under duress like the people who tread them”. Sounds depressing but provides a well articulated, intimate and almost sociological picture of rough industrialized 1960/70s England which makes me feel very grateful for growing up in this verdant city.

The rigid, hyper-authoritarian education system of the 1960s is also illuminated with funny treatments – he was among the unwashed pickpocket children under the authority of Headmaster Coleman who “rumbles with grumpiness in a rambling stew of hate”, the “bearded nun who beats little children” and other teachers who will “die smelling of attics”. Perhaps an exaggerated recollection but one that no doubt provides echoes for people who were caught up in the system of the time. Morrissey portrays Manchester life as seemingly soulless, forever wet and working class, which he laments over throughout the first thirty pages with singing possibly the only way out.

Beyond this Morrissey discusses all manner of subjects: his musical influences, poetry, his sexuality and romantic interests (subject to speculation over many years due to his self -proclaimed asexuality), his acrimonious relationship with his record company Sire and then there is the bitter and drawn out recollections of a court case involving him against other band members – I found this hilarious, however, other reviewers dismiss this portion of the book as being a highly subjective rant void of self scrutiny. But who would really know?

Adding to the texture of the book are his various interactions with other famous people – David Bowie comes up a bit and is referred to disdainfully as “flesh eating Bowie” (due to Morrissey’s ardent vegetarianism). He states candidly that Margaret Thatcher should have been assassinated, which is no surprise given his song “Margaret on the Guillotine”. Other musical and political figures are given a beautiful or brutal treatment depending on his preferences.
If you like music, give this a read. If you like The Smiths or Morrissey, its a must. It might make you angry, or it might make you laugh. Or in True Morrissey fashion it will probably do both.

Read (and listen) more

Cover of Meetings with Morrissey Cover of A light that never goes out Cover of Mozipedia Cover of The Smiths

Draw your life – graphic novel memoirs

At the beginning of the year, I was checking out the graphic novel section at Central Library Peterborough, when a young bloke approached me. “Have you read this one?” he said, and thrust Blankets by Craig Thompson at me.

I’m glad he did. I was totally sucked in to this autobiographical story. It’s a beautifully drawn (in both senses) tale of first love, religious doubts, growing up, and family relationships. It has a raw and tender honesty.

This was the first in a run of brilliant autobiographical comics / graphic novel memoirs. The comic author/artist draws (and draws on) part of their own life as a story.

The next discovery was Are you my mother? A comic drama by Alison Bechdel. It is the follow-up to Fun home, an autobiographical tragi-comic about her relationship with her high-school English teacher and funeral home director (and gay) Dad.

Are you my mother? has Alison exploring her difficult relationship with her mother – she can’t find in her Mom the motherly support she wants. It is a layered, complex and touching story that any son or daughter will recognise. She explores her own motivations and drives, and draws you in.

I love how she also delves into the life and work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and embeds him into her own story. Art and literature is there, in abundance. As Laura Miller’s review in The Guardian points out:

Like all of Bechdel’s work, Are You My Mother? is furiously literary, full of citations and quotations, and crafty symbolic parallels to the books its author is so often depicted reading with furrowed brow. The presiding genii of this particular work include Adrienne Rich, Sigmund Freud, Alice Miller and, above all, Virginia Woolf and the British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott. (“I want him to be my mother,” cartoon Alison says.) The concepts Winnicott contributed to object relations theory (the “good enough” mother, transitional objects, the true and false self, etc) provide themes for each of the book’s seven chapters, but its swirling, circular structure derives from Woolf.

My next autobiographical comic was Paying for it: a comic strip memoir about being a john by Chester Brown. It was a challenge. It’s an unblinkingly honest and compelling account of prostitution, from the rare perspective of the “john”. Chester’s tone is dry as a bone, and his pictures have a similar precision.

His friends mentioned in the book are allowed to have their say via footnotes included in the book. They serve as a kind of chorus or commentary, and let you know a little bit more about Chester than what he has revealed. It really is something to behold.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle was recommended to me by Auckland librarian Sean M (big tip of the hat!). Guy comes across as a reasonable,  thoughtful bloke. He documents the difficulties and oddities of life in Jerusalem on both sides of the wall. Stephen Carlick’s review in The National Post says:

… it’s his juxtaposition of the various points of view — Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, that of Médecins Sans Frontières, and his own —  that makes it his best. The tension in the Holy City between what is how sacred to whom is central to the success of Jerusalem, largely because of the clear-eyed way Delisle depicts the struggles of daily life in a city where so many strongly opposed factions coexist.

The success of this book is how it simply presents the everyday details of life.

These comic autobiographies explore the micro and the macro. They manage to show both an individual’s life in prosaic detail and the big picture of human experience. A local comic memoirist is doing just that in the excellent blog Let me be frank. New Zealand author/artist New Zealander Sarah Laing presents past and present episodes of her life in comic format. It’s brilliant, and well worth signing up to.

Richard not Richards

I watched the news this morning and was sad to hear that British actress Wendy Richard, aka Miss Brahms, aka Pauline Fowler had finally lost her battle with cancer.

I briefly met Ms Richard in the late nineties when I lived in West London. She and her partner lived nearby and frequented a tiny pub near the Edgeware Road that I and my boyfriend used to drink at. The locals had mentioned that she often popped in but never when I was there, always the day before or earlier in the evening, so it turned out that ours paths only crossed once. I was introduced briefly and she seemed very friendly. I remember she smoked her cigarette in one of those long holders and that I thought it very un-Pauline Fowler-like but very theatrical.

Richard also had a keen sense of humour. Apparently on an earlier occasion she’d offered to take my boyfriend’s football kit to work with her (ie the set of Eastenders) and give it a star turn in the laundrette washers. This wit is also evident in the title of her 2000 autobiography Wendy Richard — no ‘S’ : my life story. Richard was frequently and mistakenly referred to as “Richards” with an “s” (something our Prime Minister could probably sympathise with) and, I get the sense that she was sick of correcting people. So what else would you call your autobiography then?

The Baddest of the bad boys

DandyDo you sometimes find you are unintentionally reading a bunch of books on a similar theme? Well I seem to have a bit of a “bad boy” thing going on, at least in a literary sense.  I’ve just finished Sebastian Horsley’s memoirs Dandy in the underworld (titled after an album by his beloved Marc Bolan and T Rex). This is quite a shocking read with more depravity than you can shake a stick at. Yet the dandy Horsley is so flippant it has a strangely light touch :

This book begins with his bizarre and neglected childhood … where his alcoholic mother regularly attempted suicide (his drunk, crippled billionaire father moved out when her lover moved in). It charts his years as a dandy, an artist, and a visitor of prostitutes.

Booky wookNext on my reading pile is another bouffant bad boy: My booky wook by comedian and media personality Russell Brand. He is pretty much a legend in the U.K. but less known here.  The Guardian has published some extracts and call it “shockingly frank”. For Brand:

… his work is his lifestyle. Or as he puts it: ‘My life is just a series of embarrassing incidents strung together by telling people about those embarrassing incidents.’ And Brand possesses an embarrassment of embarrassments … He recounts outrageous indiscretion after shocking infidelity with a sort of pathological devotion to full disclosure. It’s often unclear whether the animating emotion behind these stories is pride or shame, but the motivation, as ever, is comedy.

There are drugs, sex addiction, dressing up like Osama bin Laden, and yes it is all about the comedy. Whereas for Horsley it is all about the style and glamour; he orders a bespoke red velvet suit, handmade platform boots and numerous other feats of fashion are performed amidst the squalor. Continue reading

Autobiographical Honesty – fact or fiction?

A long way goneThe literary world is often spiked with scandals about truth – memoirs where fact and fiction are well and truly blurred. Ishmael Beah’s memoir A long way gone is the latest autobiography under attack. It has been reported that the Ex-child soldier’s literary bestseller is ‘factually flawed’. The Weekend Australian revealed that Beah appears to have been two years older than he claimed when he went to war (15 rather than 13), and served two to three months in the Sierra Leone army (not the two years claimed in his book). The academic who helped Beah with his first draft puts it all down to poetic licence.

Other debates on autobiographical authenticity:

Oprah Winfrey touted the grimy autobiography by James Frey – A million little pieces. But later it became apparent that the drugs, crime and murkiness had been “dirtied up” for dramatic effect. A tell-all report in The Smoking Gun says:

When recalling criminal activities, looming prison sentences, and jailhouse rituals, Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond.

Continue reading

David Crosby

David Crosby is a fascinating figure; proud owner of a new liver, biological father of Melissa Etheridge’s children and alleged inspiration for Billy, Captain America’s sidekick in Easy rider, as played by Dennis Hopper.

Since then: how I survived everything and lived to tell about it is his autobiography and it’s all here – guns, drugs and rock and roll.  Crosby has been around the music business for a long time, he’s done a lot and he’s seen a lot and refreshingly he doesn’t try to gloss over any of his excesses which is good because loving descriptions of excess is what most of us read rock ‘n roll memoirs for.

So I married a Beatle

The George HarrisonPattie BoydEric Clapton love triangle is one of pop music’s most famous. Now Boyd has broken her silence with a new book Wonderful Tonight.  Harrison and Boyd met on the set of A Hard Days Night, and  married after a short courtship.  Their marriage ended when Eric Clapton (who had been dating Pattie’s sister) admitted he was really in love with Pattie.  Pattie was a face of the swinging sixties and inspiration behind many songs, most notably  Harrison’s Something and Clapton’s Layla and Wonderful Tonight.

JohnI’m hoping the book is an honest account of the times.  I didn’t really enjoy Cynthia Lennon’s John, but that might be because I am pro-Yoko Ono.  Her album, Yes I’m a witch has been one of my favourites this year.  On it she collaborates with such noted contemporary musicians as The Flaming Lips, Cat Power and Antony, and it’s interesting to hear how Ono’s distinctive vocals fit quite nicely into the electro-clash sound.