Memoir, Men and Madness

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence has sparked a million copycat narratives of the idyllic and sometimes riotous (only ever hilarious rather than destructive) life English ex-pats can un/reasonably expect if they decamp to la belle France. From time to time I am a sucker for this type of jolly escapism, but as a genre these stories often leave one with a curious feeling of jealous disillusionment: jealous of the vin, pain et campagne, disillusioned with the idea that this could ever be one’s own reality.

When I picked up Gully Wells’ The House in France (2011) from a charity shop in Penicuik for the princely sum of 50p, I was expecting just such a narrative. Gently seductive, a little mild lifestyle pornography: the word ‘memoir’ in the title bespoke as much as the subject matter. But Gully’s life, ramshackle and chaotic and tinged with anger and violence and love, certainly wasn’t cosy – though the vin and pain are copious, along with the bouillabaisse, ormandes and the huitres. Money must have been plentiful – the Wells/Ayers household certainly seemed to live like it was.

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The book, or Gully’s life – however you see it – has a stellar cast: Martin Amis as a first boyfriend, the philosopher Professor Sir A.J. Ayer as a step-father, politicians and diplomats and journalists and senators popping up all over the place. Almost everyone in the book is famous, or slept with someone famous, or famously didn’t sleep with someone famous. Affairs are commonplace; ‘fate’s chance-lings’ likewise: arguments and debates pepper the book like chilli truffles, tempting and mouth-burning in equal measure.

Gully herself comes across as something of a cipher: the outrages and actions of others are very much centre stage, and although she doesn’t self-censor – tales of lost virginity, affairs with married men and taking acid with Martin Amis are cheerily told – any deeper emotional analysis of her own motivations always lies at a cool remove. She obviously adores her mother and multiple father figures for the fun and daring and excitement they bring in to her life (boredom is the greatest sin in Gully-world), but any more dark and dangerous feelings seem to be sublimated, lurking so far beneath the surface that barely a turn of phrase betrays them. Maybe she simply didn’t feel them: but it is difficult to believe that a life so shaped by her mother’s furious rages that she ran away to New York did not contain anger, bitterness and hurt and all those other less-than-glamourous feelings which don’t make for such riveting tales.

Not that our narrator is disingenuous: the tone is upbeat even when the subject’s bleak, and it seems that Gully knows that she simply must be able to find and cherish the good in any given situation in order to survive. For example, her attitude towards men, for Gully: ‘men were created to amuse me, love me, tell me interesting things and generally give me pleasure’ (p.19). When she meets a friend who takes this to its next logical step, believing that ‘all men had been put on this earth to do things for her’ (p.109), it is clear that (even with hearts broken and bruised), this type of attitude buoys up Gully and her friends, and gives them the impetus to throw themselves into that social whirl with joyful abandon.

This is not something I’ve ever managed to achieve, but I have watched in open-mouthed amazement (and not a little hint of envy) as a friend from university effortlessly surrounded herself with a group of boys all desperate to help her, wine and dine her, and generally be willing acolytes in her entourage. A couple of years later, as she valiantly battled through the vicissitudes of law school with a young son in tow, I watched her do it again: crowds of men to go out for a drink with on any night of the week; always someone delectable (physically or intellectually) to have dinner with. Blonde, witty, petite, aristocratic – I shared with her only the first characteristic, and surmised that it must be my lack of the other three charms which excluded me from this kind of ménage. This may indeed be true, but reading this book made me realise that my own ideas on what men are for were entirely different (there to be impressed, compete with and make laugh), and that the idea of wanting someone to do something for me that I could easily do myself was anathema to me: independence is all very well, but people like to be needed, love to be useful, and above all need to feel like a welcome part of one’s life.

The book delights in its ability to pick out all the lovely, daring, funny stories without slavish adhering to the plodding chronological structure so common to life-writing. Although the book does – roughly – follow Gully’s life, the more tedious elements (like getting a job) are just tossed into the narrative whenever they are needed to provide the context for an interesting story. When we meet the dishevelled husband of an equally dishevelled friend (who turns out to be the author Alice Thomas Ellis), he declares ‘I’m not fucking George Weidenfeld, you know.’ And that is how we find out that Gully’s job is in the publicity department of this notable publisher. It is also a book about a particular social class of people: wealthy London-centric socialites of the mid-twentieth century, and reminded me of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans (2008) – full of jolly romps (in every sense of the word), long boozy London lunches, plenty of scandal, and people we recognise: authors, philosophers, politicians, the lot. Not quite the ‘escape to the country’ plot I had imagined, but a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle none the less.

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

In the Blood

In the Blood – A Memoir of My Childhood, Andrew Motion (Faber, 2006)

On a dreary January day I picked up this book, knowing virtually nothing about Andrew Motion except that he’d been the ‘safe choice’ Poet Laureate before Carol Ann Duffy, and that he’d once refused permission to use a recording of one of his poems in a small exhibition on classic poetry. I did not have the impression of him as someone who would write a particularly fascinating autobiography.

In the Blood (Faber, 2006)However, I was curiously drawn to it, not least because I had a long afternoon stretching out before me when my only task was to print and fold hundreds of letters, so anything was a welcome distraction. And as so often is the case with Faber, the book itself is an attractive book, with red thorns curling across the cover and the title and author’s name picked out in red and black tipsy capitals. Printed on textured paper, it felt slightly rough to the touch, but the spine seemed unbroken, the pages unthumbed. A bad omen?

As it turns out, no. In the Blood  is a bloody book: Motion’s family are upper middle-class and hunt, shoot and fish with their set, and Motion appears both smeared in fox blood and dripping with the blood of a recently-shot deer at various points. Although I am not an advocate of blood sports, this detail served as a particularly visceral metaphor for the vicissitudes of growing up, whilst placing Motion firmly in a recognisable social milieu .

Motion (and how fitting to have such a vibrant abstract noun as your surname) is a deft turner of phrase and tale. His autobiography opens with the description of one day in late adolescence. The themes of first love, or at least first lust, and burgeoning adulthood quickly shift towards the side of the lens through which we are looking at Motion’s life, as a far greater and darker event is about to overshadow his world. We then jump back to early childhood, and then further back into the half-remembered, half-mythologised world of older Motions and Bakewells.

However, when he gets to senior school (Radley College) time seems to slip from Motion’s grasp. He’s preparing for his O-levels, and then suddenly he’s 12 years old again, and mere paragraphs later he’s about to start his A-levels. Before long I’d lost track of the order of what happened during his teenage years; perhaps this was simply mimetic of the confusion that he felt during that time (although it seems to be the period in which Motion felt most comfortable and purposeful), but it struck me as slightly lazy writing, as if he almost couldn’t be bothered to write as carefully as he had done in earlier chapters.

However , as you might expect from a poet, the crafting of the words themselves is the book’s redeeming feature. Never mind poetry in motion, this Motion’s prose is as lively, vivid and dramatic as you could wish for in autobiographical writing. He inhabits the mind of his younger self with convincing ease, presenting conversations and memories in such a moving and authentic way that you have to remind yourself that these infant rememberings must be coloured with the filter of adult comprehension. Motion and his readers seem tragically drawn towards his mother, and the book is peppered with premonitions of her final illness and fragility. These hints always spurred me on to find out what would happen to her – and Motion himself. I began to care for them as a family, their struggles and actions seeming wholly real, sometimes sad and often endearing. It mixed pathos with humour and resilience, and made real and rounded characters of Motion’s family. And it made me want to read his poetry, in part to see if any of these episodes had crossed over from prosody into verse.

What’s next?  I am impatiently waiting for a delivery of Tove Jansson’s new biography Life, Art, Words so expect to see a review of it on here very soon!