Thursday, 20 December 2007

Book Review - Stories We Could Tell by Tony Parsons

When he’s not busy scribbling populist musings for his weekly column, Daily Mail right-winger Tony Parsons spends his time in the ring with Nick Hornby, battling it to be ‘king of lad-lit’. His latest testosterone fuelled man-book, ‘Stories We Could Tell’, is a semi-autobiographical account of Parson’s time working for the New Musical Express in the seventies. Back then, punk was a growing phenomenon that screamed anarchy in the face of the fraying hippy movement, prompting the NME to rapidly hire a gaggle of young talent off the back of a gunslinger ad to capitalise on the new scene. Parsons and his first wife, Judy Burchill, were both among this first round of punk critics. Whilst Parsons avoids directly penning the story of their reckless rock and roll romance, he has clearly garnered much of his material for the bread-and-butter working class Terry and his slippery, aloof girlfriend, Misty, from personal experience.

As Terry tries to keep a hold on the wayward Misty, his two best friends – also new recruits on ‘The Paper’ (as the NME is renamed) – must grapple with their own coming-of-age conundrums. Leon, a bourgeois leftie, tries valiantly to disassociate himself from his happily middle-class parents at a time when privilege was something to be ashamed of, and ends up hiding from gangs in disco halls and squatting in disused buildings. Meanwhile Ray is still long-haired and lost in a sixties hippy haze and must get a golden interview with John Lennon or face losing his job for being out of touch.

The whole story takes place over the course of one day and night: 16th August 1977, the night that Elvis Presley died. Rather conveniently this also happens to be the night that Leon’s squat gets shut down and Lennon is passing through town, which makes the plot seem rather contrived. However these converging plot elements force the narrative forwards and avoid the festering sentimentality that Parsons sometimes lapses into in his novels.

That’s the thing with Tony Parsons: all the male characters are muddled softies – the narcissistic reflected fragments of Parsons’ self confessed sentimental side – which can get a little dull, as can transparent symbolism and predictable plot lines. There is enough here to keep music lovers amused, if not only in spotting Parsons’ parodies of the big names of the NME in the seventies: Kevin White is Nick Logan incarnated whilst Parsons’ hero, Nick Kent, appears as the lovable Skip James, perpetually locked away in the mystical review room. Though clichés abound infest his writing, the result is a strangely pleasing sprint through the early days of British punk, spruced up a bit for commercial appeal.

Book Review - I'll Never Be Young Again by Daphne du Maurier

The beginning of a new year habitually brings with it some reflection on times gone by. Suddenly, the hopes and worries of the future are laid out before us will frank immediacy, and we are left peering into the past to wonder how we became the people we are at the start of 2008. What was it along the way that moulded us into the individuals that now stand on the brink of another year, and must push on into the unfolding uncertainty of the future?

Inevitably, the formative years of youth are pivotal in the making of the individual – those troubled and treasured memories of our first forays into the adult world. Many a prolific writer has tired to capture the agonies of that difficult no man’s land between childhood and adulthood, a literary genre know as bildungsroman. The intriguing thing is that no matter what era the author comes from, the same set pieces always seem to surface. It’s as though life’s little recipe for those last gasps of childhood contain certain indispensable ingredients.

Although ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ was published back in 1932, du Maurier’s evocation of the slow ebbing away of naivety is timeless – testament to her extraordinary storytelling ability. It was one of her first novels – she would go on to write her masterpiece, ‘Rebecca’, some six years later, which was eventually adapted for screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Neatly divided into two halves, ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ tells of the fumbling beginnings of a young man, Dick, as he tries to forge his identity in the shadows of his father’s fame. The first half takes him on a glorious journey through the wastes of Scandinavia, showcasing du Maurier’s talent for conjuring terrifically vast landscapes. Dick’s travels with his strange friend, Jake, are full of adventures, from their vagabond mountain treks on horseback, to gangster violence in back street bars, finally ending in shipwreck and death off the coast of France. Du Maurier has a strong masculine narrative voice that never falters throughout the novel, making her portrayal of boyhood adventures utterly convincing.

The second half of the book explores first love: an indispensable part of any bildungsroman. Dick catches sight of an orange beret in a Parisian café one day as he struggles to write his first novel, and from that moment is lost in the emotional pandemonium induced by its owner, a beautiful young musician, Hesta, which can only end in heartbreak. What surfaces from these neat plot pieces is the restless search for identity: an exploration of the formulating moments in Dick life. But du Maurier is also a mistress of suspense and a first rate storyteller, and it is Dick’s trepid adventures into emotional and physical wilderness that stay with the reader after the last page has been turned.