As the seasonal glut of celebrity memoirs hits our shelves, Euan Ferguson finds out if they’re any good
In the publishing industry, they’ve started to call it “Super Thursday”, as if it was a conglomeration of midwest primaries acting as harbinger for the future of the free world, rather than British folk publishing autobiographies written by – or “written by” – celebrities in a bid to storm the Christmas market. It takes place this coming week, not sure which day.
There are anxious people out there. Not the authors, for goodness’ sake: all rich enough really not to care. A few out of this year’s batch honestly question why they’re even doing it, Simon Pegg (Nerd Do Well, Century, £18.99) doing so with particularly good humour. The publishers, however, have returned anxiously to their gamblings, despite a good many high-profile turnips over the past few years – David Blunkett, Peter Kay – and, in truth, the 2010 batch is fine, fine, better than usual, each one of the five I’ve had the chance to speed-read in four days having something, somewhere, to lift it above the meh. For various embargo/contractual reasons, we couldn’t get Michael McIntyre, Robbie Williams (only available through Tesco, apparently), nor Gok Wan, for which three reasons, particularly the last, I tearfully thank the great god Embargo.
Russell Brand‘s second volume, Booky Wook 2 (HarperCollins, £20), was the one I found myself forcing myself happiest to read all the way through: a revelation. Cards on the table: I used to loathe the man, partly because he once named me by name on stage after a snitty TV review, boasting that he was having more sex than me, but mainly because I just didn’t find him funny, ever. Not really his fault, and actually I probably just didn’t like the kind of people who thought him funny: a generation of youngsters thinking that a tall, good-looking chap who knew big words because he’d read big books, even if sometimes not quite where to place them, was a shivery throwback to my own teens.
So: not on-stage funny, Mr Brand, sorry, I know I’m in a minority. But this book is. His follow-up to his I’m-told-pretty-good first memoir, called, I think, My Cocky-Wock, is not only funny – it’s wise and insightful and pervaded by great honesty. He’s a big pussycat really, with a great and justifiably logical (and very funny) anger at the hypocrisies of our newspapers, and a sweet intent, ever. And he’s been driven not just by priapism but a genuine love of women, their smells and their softness and their bits. The explanations for Sachsgate sum up his past decade and make great reading: he is detailed and angry, not least at himself, and rueful and quite willing to take a smack in the face for it all. For a bit you soften and hear a genuine human, with an inner demon baying for fame equal to the greed-monster unveiled so recently in Stephen Fry’s recent second memoir (surely the winner this year). And then you remember the thing about Sachsgate, which was not that it was offensive, barbarous, intrusive, crass, all of which can be fine – it just wasn’t funny.
Susan Boyle‘s The Woman I Was Born to Be (Bantam Press, £18.99) is right up there with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. These are the only two books I have ever flung with disgust through an open window in the middle of page eight. Susan wins, though: I went and retrieved her, through guilt and patriotism (H James remains, I hope, in his school library editionin damp nettles in Ravelston Terrace, ever-mouldering), and forgave her or her ghost-writer for the page eight bit where she talks up Piers Morgan: “And I did a wiggle, which was aimed at Piers, because I like Piers.” But I got the book back, from the rain, I read on and it’s sweet. Actually incredibly touching, and nice enoughly done, with a couple of genuine insights. A couple. Two, two, count them, two.
Best of the lot, I think, is Paul O’Grady‘s The Devil Rides Out (Bantam Press, £20). Delightfully well-written if a little plodding – they all are, especially the comedians, whose jokes work grandly if said, always less well if written. O’Grady’s first memoir was one of the hits of the year when it came out, and presumably deservedly so, even though I haven’t read it and won’t now, what with this one in my hand.
What intrigues about this having five “celeb” books to read in my bag is the locations, the timing. Just pre-fame. Mid-90s. To know that Simon Pegg was sitting there in the Shepherd in Highgate, north London, trying to stoke up the quiz night, the same night Paul O’Grady was a mile away down the hill in Camden’s Black Cap, yearning to do drag, and Susan Boyle was in the pub in Blackburn, wondering what her father had been about and why he’d stopped her ever seeing men, the unspoken subtext of course being his knowledge of her brief oxygen deprivation at birth, and Russell diddling some willingstress in Croydon, and Harry Hill doing… well, he doesn’t really tell us.
Harry Hill is fine, funny I’m told by an ex who adored his Saturday night thing while she dressed the tresses before we steamed out until 3am; I think he used to talk about cats getting stuck in sewers or some such. As a memoir, Livin’ the Dreem (Faber, £18.99) is rubbish. He does the shtick, learned from Goons and Hancock and Pythons and beyond, of introducing a surreal noun and making it sound funny and that’s it.
Four comedians. One troubled singer. Four true books. I think Susan Boyle is as honest and mad as the whole of Scotland. Personally, comedy-wise, I will never quite understand why it’s funny to “say long words as if you know them, for a shag”, nor why it’s OK to say, a la Harry Hill, “shrubbery” or “buboe” or rip the mick out of some juxtaposition of the Queen and suppositories or whatever, without inwardly cringeing at not quite being Dudley Moore.
O’Grady’s the deepest, Pegg’s the most easy, especially for the untroubled middle class, Brand’s the most infuriatingly enjoyable, Boyle’s the most easy if you’re a wee bit slow, Hill’s the most easy if you’re having a crap, Henry James is still the most easy if you have a window needing broken.