Jun 10, 2021
From childhood beatings to a pillow fight with Prince via ripping up a picture of the pope, the singer’s story of losing her way and finding herself
As a young woman starting out in music, Sinéad O’Connor rarely did what she was told. When Nigel Grainge, an executive at her label, asked her to stop wearing her hair short and dress more like a girl, she went straight out and got her head shaved. While recording her first album, she discovered she was pregnant, prompting Grainge to phone her doctor and tell him to warn her against having a baby. The doctor duly told her that women shouldn’t take babies on tour but neither should they go on tour without them. O’Connor ignored them both and had her son anyway.
Then, in 1992, during a performance on Saturday Night Live, she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II, and blew up her career. She knew exactly what she was doing. “Everyone wants a pop star, see?” she writes. “But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.” Continue reading...
Jun 04, 2021
A vivid and insightful portrait of sisterhood, art and a troubled and talented life cut short
Arifa Akbar’s memoir begins with the death of her sister from a mysterious illness. Before she died in 2016, aged 45, Fauzia had already been rushed to hospital twice, the cause of her symptoms unknown. She had complained of chest pains, shortness of breath and night sweats. Her face began to swell and her lungs became inflamed, but still doctors were clueless. Later, as her speech started to slur and her behaviour became erratic, she was put in an induced coma and subsequently had a brain haemorrhage. Eventually there was a diagnosis: she had died of tuberculosis.
Akbar was left with questions, among them: why hadn’t Fauzia been diagnosed earlier? How, in 2016, does a person contract TB? Her sister’s death also prompted a broader reflection on her life and the ways she had been failed by others. Along with telling the story of a sibling, Consumed is also a candid dissection of family with its complex bonds and rifts, and an acute portrait of grief and mental illness. “Life brought Fauzia pain,” Akbar writes. Continue reading...
Apr 21, 2021
Racial abuse prompts a hike across the Pennines and a heartfelt examination of identity and place in a memoir of rare power
In 2019, Anita Sethi was on the TransPennine Express train from Liverpool on her way to Newcastle when a man sitting near her began playing loud music. When Sethi asked if he could turn it down, he stood up and unleashed a torrent of vicious racist abuse that attacked her right to exist in the country of her birth. “Do you have a British passport?” he shouted. “Get back on the banana boat. Paki cunt. Fuck off!”
In a busy carriage, only one other passenger tried to intervene, telling the man to shut up. But Sethi decided not to let it pass. Having recorded some of his rant on her phone, she calmly walked past her abuser, through the train and to the door marked “Staff”. A guard appeared, accompanied her back to her seat and then quietly took down statements from other passengers about what they had witnessed. When the train arrived at Darlington, the police were waiting. Sethi’s abuser was removed and arrested. Later she learned he had pleaded guilty, though the knowledge that he had admitted his crimes in the face of overwhelming evidence did little to lift the depression that had descended. Continue reading...
Mar 25, 2021
A vivid and witty memoir of the friendship between Thorn and Lindy Morrison of the Go-Betweens, two women in a cultural world dominated by men
In March 1983, the singer and author Tracey Thorn was sitting in a dressing room at London’s Lyceum theatre when a woman strode in and asked to borrow a lipstick. Lindy Morrison, drummer in Brisbane art-rockers the Go-Betweens, made an instant impression on Thorn, who was in her second year at university and whose band, Marine Girls, were on the same bill. On the surface, the pair didn’t have much in common. By Thorn’s own admission – and despite her fledgling pop star status – she was shy, quiet and sensible; Morrison, who was 10 years her senior, was loud, full of confidence and sometimes reckless bravado. “It doesn’t occur to me,” Thorn explains, “that this woman who seems to be my opposite might in fact be my reflection, that she might have started out very like me – awkward, insecure, isolated – and has had to fight every step of the way to get to where she is now.”
My Rock’n’Roll Friend is both a biography of Morrison and a memoir of their friendship during which they bonded over books, films and being women in a world of men. In her next band, Everything But the Girl, Thorn would write the song “Blue Moon Rose” (“I have a friend and she taught me daring / Threw back the windows and let the air in”) about Morrison. “I am both inside and outside this story,” she observes. Continue reading...
Feb 13, 2021
The bestselling Chilean American novelist talks about her foundation for women, laughing too much to write romance - and what she’s learned from her grandchildren
The Chilean American author Isabel Allende was a feminist long before she knew what the word meant. At the age of three, she saw her mother, Panchita, abandoned by her father and left to raise their three small children alone. Panchita moved back to her parents’ house in Santiago, where her father immediately took control of her finances. Following the annulment of her marriage, she was excommunicated by the church. Observing her mother’s disempowerment, the young Isabel railed against male authority. In her new book, The Soul of a Woman, she recalls her resentment as “an aberration in my family, which considered itself intellectual and modern but according to today’s standards was frankly Paleolithic.” Such was her fury, her mother took her to a doctor, suspecting colic or perhaps a tapeworm.
Allende, now 78, says she was frustrated on Panchita’s behalf but also at her refusal to stand up for herself. “She thought you couldn’t change what God had made this way,” she tells me. “When she saw me so willing to go out there and fight, she was scared and thought I would be ostracised. She was also worried I would never catch a husband. In my generation in Chile, if you didn’t have a formal engagement by age 23, you were a spinster.” Continue reading...
Dec 24, 2020
Two books, one by Sarah Smarsh and a ‘life in lyrics’ by Parton, offer a reminder that the singer is a social unifier, a musical trailblazer and a business genius
In 1977, Dolly Parton was interviewed by Barbara Walters in a TV special. The singer was 31 and, having not long extricated herself from a professional partnership with the country singer Porter Wagoner, had conquered the pop charts with the album Here You Come Again. Walters asked if puberty came early for Parton and, gesturing to her breasts, inquired: “Is it all you?” She then invited Parton to stand up so viewers could inspect her figure, and asked why she bothered with the makeup, the wigs and the clothes. “You don’t have to look like this,” Walters said, wagging a finger at her.
Walters isn’t the only one to have treated Parton like a prize cow. Oprah Winfrey once ushered her on to her feet and invited everyone to take a closer look, as did the talk show host Phil Donahue, who added: “I know guys that wouldn’t let you out of the house.” Johnny Carson looked at her chest on national TV and said: “I would give about a year’s pay to peek under there.” Continue reading...
Nov 20, 2020
From Bowie to Cobain, heavy metal to Blade Runner – how the Naked Lunch author changed pop culture
The writer William Burroughs was a fringe figure until his 50s, too weird for popular tastes. Part of the original trio of Beat writers alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he was at once feted and condemned for his work – his 1959 novel Naked Lunch was briefly banned by the city of Boston following an obscenity trial; Norman Mailer testified in its defence. But in the late 60s and 70s, a new generation of musicians turned him into a countercultural hero, among them Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Richard Hell, Jimmy Page and Patti Smith. Later on, Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore would all declare themselves in Burroughs’ thrall.
Casey Rae surveys his impact on musicians and how his thumbprints can be found all over popular culture. The film Blade Runner took its title from a Burroughs novella, and the band Steely Dan was named after a dildo in Naked Lunch. The term “heavy metal” was taken from The Soft Machine, Burroughs’s 1961 book that also provided a jazz-folk fusion band from Canterbury with their name. His face looks stonily from the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he lent his creaky drawl to albums by Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Elsewhere, Burroughs’ “cut-up” methods – a literary technique where the text is randomly rearranged – were adopted by Bowie, McCartney and the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. Continue reading...
Oct 29, 2020
Juicy anecdotes, a huge amount of sex and stories of the Krays … but the photographer’s memoir reveals a narcissist and bully
“I think photography is all sex,” writes David Bailey. “That’s what happens when you’re close to somebody – you end up in bed with them.” He should know. Along with getting a good picture, “getting my leg across”, as he puts it, was his raison d’être throughout his career. In his memoir, he reveals how he bedded scores of young models and actors, as well as other people’s wives and girlfriends. There were relationships with the models Jean Shrimpton, who helped make his name, and Penelope Tree, who was 18 when they started dating. He had an affair with Anjelica Huston when she was with Jack Nicholson, and married Catherine Deneuve. Now he is married to the former model Catherine Dyer, with whom he has three children.
Bailey, who is now 82, professes to love women, but only if they’re thin and have small breasts – “I don’t like big udders,” he says. On meeting Deneuve, he wrote her off as too short and a “bit on the fat side”, though evidently revised his opinion later on. He grew apart from Tree at the same time that he perceived she was beginning to put on weight, and developed a skin condition that ended her career. In their final months together, he found consolation in the arms of a friend’s wife. Continue reading...
Oct 07, 2020
The ‘bargain-basement Baudelaire’ looks back at his life with an unflinching gaze, plus plenty of gags and mad anecdotes
When the teenage John Cooper Clarke announced he wanted to be a poet, his alarmed parents asked for examples of people who had made a living from it. “I discovered that most modern poets had to work as teachers, bank clerks, insurance salesmen, doctors, diplomats, railroad workers, tax collectors, publishers or postal clerks,” he recalls in his memoir. Even Philip Larkin “turned out to be a librarian by day”. His father’s feelings about these literary aspirations were summed up in three words: “Get a job.” So he did.
Before his beatification as “the Bard of Salford” (though he prefers “the bargain-basement Baudelaire”), Clarke was variously a bookie’s runner, an apprentice car mechanic, a cutter in the rag trade, a lab technician, a fire-watcher at a naval dockyard and a trainee printer. But at no point did he give up on his ambition to be a poet. Early on he realised that, in order to get paid, he would need to combine his way with words with live entertainment. In the early 1970s, he road-tested poems such as “Salome”, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” and “Kung Fu International” at local comedy clubs (Bernard Manning was an unlikely mentor). Continue reading...
Sep 10, 2020
In his fiercely honest memoir, the actor and comedian confronts the painful bereavement and abuse he endured as a child
Alan Davies’s first memoir, My Favourite People and Me 1978-1988 (later republished as Teenage Revolution), was a wry look at his suburban adolescence and early career in comedy. Each chapter was organised around one of his idols from the era, among them Paul Weller and Barry Sheene. While there were allusions to a difficult period prompted by his mother’s death when he was six, the tone was generally light-hearted and jolly.
Related: Alan Davies: 'I've become a huge enemy of silence and secrecy' Continue reading...
Aug 25, 2020
Superhero mums, big bums, married sex and Botox … the larky, and moving, follow-up to How to Be a Woman explores the thorny issues of middle age
At the start of her new book, Caitlin Moran is visited by the ghost of her future who gleefully informs her that while she may think that the most difficult parts of her life are behind her, she doesn’t know the half of it. This is because while your teens and 20s are about dealing with your own problems, your 30s, 40s and 50s find you taking on everyone else’s. “Mate, forget the AA, you’re just about to become the Fourth Emergency Service,” explains Moran’s future self. “Your life’s about to become a call centre for people who are exploding.”
Thus, in More Than a Woman – the sequel to the mega-selling 2011 book How to Be a Woman – Moran, now 45, takes a second look at womanhood, this time from the vantage point of middle age. Part memoir, part manifesto, it tackles such thorny issues as anal sex, smear tests, hangovers, teenagers, ageing parents, careers, the tyranny of the to-do list, big bums and the moment when your entire wardrobe seems to turn against you. Continue reading...
Jul 31, 2020
These sprightly told adventures of a single mother adapting to her new life have plenty of self-mocking humour but also moments of profundity
The journalist Sophie Heawood always assumed she would have a baby. In fact, in her imaginary future, there would be more than one. There would also be a dog, an Aga, a pretty farmhouse surrounded by verdant hills, and, of course, a man. But there’s a saying about a goal without a plan – ultimately, it’s just a wish.
Living a life of carefree chaos in a one-bed apartment off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and writing celebrity interviews for British magazines back home, Heawood had never been much of a planner. She definitely didn’t plan to get pregnant. Nor did she plan on moving back to London to be nearer her parents, on whom she would learn to rely all over again, or for the child’s father – whom she calls “the Musician” – to take fright and leave her to bring up their baby alone. Continue reading...
Jul 17, 2020
Addiction, poetry, flirting with Scientology: these candid memoirs and biographies reveal the inner lives of musicians
(Faber & Faber, 2014) Continue reading...
A no-nonsense sojourn through Albertine’s life as guitarist in the Slits and, later, as a film-maker, mother and divorcee, and during which she blithely chats about masturbation, catching crabs and giving Johnny Rotten a blowjob. It’s a terrific read and provides a corrective to the reigning punk narrative where men are the creative geniuses and women the bit-part players.
Jul 07, 2020
Tales of embarrassing injuries and moments of poignance, plus some poor efforts, in a revealing collection of essays
In 2018 Daisy May Cooper, who writes and stars in the BBC comedy This Country, was recovering in hospital after giving birth to her first baby, Pip, by emergency caesarean section. She was feeling emotional, although that had less to do with having brought forth new life than the fact that she had gone eight days without having a poo. “I forgot what it was to be human,” she writes, mournfully. “I had taken such a simple bodily function for granted – what I would give to have a dump.” Eventually, she burst into tears in front of a nurse, who rustled up some liquid laxatives and, half an hour later, gently led her to the nearest bathroom. “That angel in blue saved me,” she says. “I cried on the toilet in gratitude.”
Cooper’s story is one of many moments of thankfulness and extreme over-sharing in Dear NHS, a collection of essays by celebrities and writers hastily gathered together by Adam Kay, the former junior doctor and mega-selling author of This Is Going to Hurt. Few things unite the country in admiration and protectiveness as much as the NHS, so it’s no surprise that the book – the profits of which will go to NHS Charities Together and the Lullaby Trust – has quite the roll-call of contributors, among them Paul McCartney, Malala Yousafzai, Mary Beard, Andrew Marr, Naomie Harris, Rob Brydon, Kate Tempest, Johnny Vegas, Trevor McDonald, Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci. Continue reading...
Jun 30, 2020
A pleasingly sceptical investigation into the innovations that could change the way we eat, have sex and die
In a plain factory building in the San Marcos hills, north of San Diego in California, a technological revolution is under way. There, a team of AI experts are developing a new brand of woman that can smile, flutter her eyelids, make small-talk and remember the names of your siblings. Harmony – for that is her name – is a cut above your average sex doll. More than merely a masturbatory aid, she is a friend, lover and potential life partner.
In Sex Robots & Vegan Meat, Jenny Kleeman examines the innovations that promise to change the way we love, eat, reproduce and die in the future. “What you are about to read is not science fiction,” she warns in her preface. “We are on the brink of an age when technology will redefine … the fundamental elements of our existence.” First on her list of apocalyptic developments is the production of AI-enabled, animatronic sexbots, which, depending on your viewpoint, provide warmth and comfort to socially isolated men or allow misogynist incels to live out their rape fantasies. Her research takes her to Abyss Creations, the throbbing heart of the industry where hyperrealistic dolls are created complete with custom-made hair, nipples and vaginal inserts. Continue reading...
Jun 09, 2020
From a painful childhood to the LA high life with Jack Nicholson, Audrey Hepburn and Warren Beatty … darkness is never far from the surface of this entertaining memoir
On her first night in Los Angeles, the model-turned-author Susanna Moore slept in a broom cupboard. She was 21, and had been flown in by a producer to appear in the 1967 Dean Martin spy comedy, The Ambushers. Prior to this she had been working as a fashion model and was helping to put her husband, Bill, through college in Chicago. With barely a cent to her name, she arrived to find the hotel was not expecting her. The desk clerk took pity and sent her to the fourth floor where there was a tiny closet crammed with bleach, toilet brushes and mops. There Moore bedded down on a small rusty cot, the smell of ammonia in her nostrils. Despite this inauspicious start, she was “neither worried nor afraid”, and soon resolved to leave her husband and make LA her home.
Moore’s poignant and hugely entertaining memoir Miss Aluminium – the title refers to an early modelling job for the Aluminum Association where she was squeezed into a scratchy silver dress and made to carry a cardboard trident – covers her unconventional early years before she found her calling as a writer. (Moore’s first novel, My Old Sweetheart, a fictionalised version of her life, was published in 1982 while her bestselling 1995 novel, In the Cut, was made into a film by Jane Campion.) This memoir documents her childhood in Hawaii blighted by the death of her mother and the neglect of her philandering father; her escape to her grandmother’s home in Philadelphia aged 17; and her subsequent adventures in New York, Chicago and California. Continue reading...
May 20, 2020
Friendship with Kurt Cobain, spats with Liam Gallagher and a brutal chronicle of addiction … the Screaming Trees singer’s candid memoir
In 1992, on a tour bus heading to Canada, the American singer Mark Lanegan felt a tightness in the crook of his arm. By the time he reached Quebec, his arm had swollen to twice its normal size. Already an alcoholic, Lanegan – known to friends as “Old Scratch”, the pseudonym for the devil – had developed a ferocious heroin habit and would regularly share needles. In hospital he was diagnosed with a blood infection and given intravenous antibiotics. Using a pen, a doctor drew a line around the inflamed area which stretched from his shoulder to his wrist and told him: “I’m gonna come back in 12 hours. If the redness has gone outside the line, I’m afraid we’re going to have to amputate your arm at the shoulder.” Eight torturous days later, the swelling had subsided and Lanegan was discharged, his arm still intact. “Not for one moment did it cross my mind that I had done this to myself,” he writes in Sing Backwards and Weep. And so the next day he resumed shooting up.
Rock memoirs are traditionally full of myth-building and depravity, but Lanegan’s account of his tenure in the proto-grunge quartet Screaming Trees sidesteps the myth-building and rushes headlong into grand guignol scenes of degradation and self-abuse. Rare in its rawness and candour, the book is a brutal chronicle of addiction that began aged 12 when Lanegan was “reviled as a town drunk before I could even legally drink”, and continued into his 20s when he branched out into heroin and crack. Continue reading...
Apr 08, 2020
This controversial memoir displays the filmmaker’s self-deprecating wit, but his account of Mia Farrow and their family veers between sadness, fury and spite
In this memoir, Woody Allen is keen to clear up some misconceptions. He is not, as he has frequently been described, an intellectual. As a man who is practically “illiterate and uninterested in all things scholarly”, he dismisses the notion as being as “phony as the Loch Ness Monster”. He also explains that, contrary to appearances, he is no slouch on the sports field. In his youth he was a fast runner, “very fine” at baseball and a decent schoolyard basketball player who could also “catch a football and throw it a mile”.
Allen, 84, also wants it to be known that he is not a child molester, as claimed by his former partner, the actor Mia Farrow, and his alleged victim, their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, who is now 34. Throughout this complicated saga, which erupted in 1992, and was reignited in 2014 when Dylan wrote an open letter reasserting the alleged assault, many have had their say on the matter. Along with Dylan’s letter, there have been public missives from Allen’s son Ronan (who has stood firmly with his sister), Mia’s adopted son Moses (who has taken Allen’s side and whose letter is extensively quoted here), and Soon-Yi Previn (Mia and her ex-husband André Previn’s adopted daughter, who had an affair with Allen and later married him). Police investigators have twice found no legal case against Allen, a fact that is sometimes forgotten amid the public rush to judgment. While Allen quips that the main theme of Apropos of Nothing – which was controversially binned by its original publisher, Hachette, after staff staged a walkout – is “man’s search for god in a pointless, violent universe”, the 90-odd pages devoted to the Farrow “to-do” would suggest that, after remaining mostly quiet on the subject for 30 years, he has deemed it time to offer his version of events. Continue reading...