All the truth a reader can learn from a writer

thornI’m not a great one for books on music, but I randomly followed Tracey Thorn on Twitter some time ago and enjoyed her tweets.

Not that I’m a particular fan of Everything But the Girl beyond a nodding acquaintance with the better known songs, but I loved her writing and presence. Even in 140 characters there’s a lovely dry humour and transcendent warmth.

So passing by way of her New Statesman column, I was pleased to find she’d written a book, “Bedsit Disco Queen”, and instantly bought it. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, funny and touching, flowing and lucid, and I read the book in one sitting, chuckling, scrabbling around to find songs on Youtube to remind myself what they sounded like, and eventually coming out moist eyed and moved.

Of course the account of her career covers somewhat the same period as Prefab Sprout traversed and within spitting distance of the same trajectory, albeit that Paddy never had the massive hits and consequent financial boost in the 1990s Thorn and Watt enjoyed. There is the same backdrop of peculiar promotional engagements, of losing control day to day as the dark satanic mill of the industry machine grinds and rotates inexorably, of being pressed by record companies to compromise in manners corrosive to their intentions. The rises and inevitable declines in popularity and critical regard. The occasional hits connecting them to a wider but less connected and comprehending audience. The Faustian pacts (can a pop career ever truly be founded on anything more than such transitory magic?) And of course the undertow from the close personal relationship at the core of the band and all that brought.

Different breeds of exotic fish swimming in the same water as it were. Change a few names and outcomes and proper nouns and I’m sure much of it could apply to Prefab Sprout.

For me though, the overwhelming realisation was the impossibility of anyone from outside telling this story, and how wonderful a story it was when told properly.

Now there have been fine works of musical biography, and they can be very interesting in collating and delineating facts, finding and recounting forgotten stories, or reaching for interpretations – I could think of Graeme Thompson’s “Under the Ivy” as a prime example – but no external voice can ever show much more than the outer shell of a fa├žade. Only autobiography can choose to be truly revelatory. The more I read the the book, the more convinced I was of that. “A mere recital of the facts would miss/the poetry….”, to borrow from Paddy’s lyrics.

From that I’m drawn back to Paddy’s words on T. S. Eliot: “…in time, all personal details will fall away, leaving only the words on the page. Which is surely all the truth a reader can learn from a writer.” And he’s quite right: however accurate a chronology, however piquant and incisive the analysis, however interesting the unheard anecdotes drawn out from the various Guildensterns and Rozencrantz’ may be, what really matters to the truth of the entire story is how it all felt.

And who can know that besides those who lived it?

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