Memoir

A celebration of the music of Jamaica

In Jamaica, music is the vital expression. Night and day, amid the heat and narrow lanes of the capital, Kingston, rap, reggae, ska, dub, rocksteady, gospel and mento-calypso boom from giant loudspeaker cabinets: a joyous musical beat. Deejay-based dancehall – a digitalised reggae that Jamaicans sometimes call ragga or Yardcore – dominates the club scene and it conceivably influenced hip-hop with its turn-table-styles of delivery known as ‘toasting’ (scatting and talking over records while moving the crowds). But old-time reggae remains the musical voice of Jamaica, just as rai in the musical voice of Algeria and flamenco that of Spain. It is a trance-inducing music out of Africa. In festively

The man who hired himself out to do next to nothing

Have you ever dreamed of just giving up? Doing nothing? Shoji Morimoto went ahead and did it: so much so that he didn’t even write the memoir that bears his name. Rental Person Who Does Nothing is the story of how he stopped working as a freelance writer and offered himself – just his basic presence, no extras – to strangers in Tokyo, being paid only travel expenses to do nothing, or more accurately next-to-nothing, from waiting in queues to watching people work. The book, he explains in the foreword, is the fruit of conversations with a writer, S (‘not a particular fan of Rental Person’), and an editor, T.

Nostalgia for old, rundown coastal Sussex

Sally Bayley’s The Green Lady is a beguiling, experimental mixture of biography, fiction and family history. In her excellent memoir Girl with Dove (2018), she wrote about her neglected childhood in the coastal Sussex town of Littlehampton. Here she returns to the same locality, but considers her forebears, embroidering episodes from her own rackety childhood into the lives of her ancestors and local people. The title refers to a hostel on the corner of the lane where Bayley grew up. Its owner, Mary Neal, opened it up to factory girls from London. This is the central image of the book, encapsulating themes of wealth and poverty, town and country, the

A 1,000-mile trek through the Caucasus finally clears the mind

It takes a brave writer, even in an age transfixed by the workings of our inner woo, to bare their soul on the page. Tom Parfitt, a former Moscow correspondent, was scarred by the horrifying Beslan school siege and massacre which he saw unfold in North Ossetia in 2004. For years he was haunted by a recurring dream of ‘endless purgatory’ in which a grief-stricken woman, who has just learnt that her child has been killed in the terrorist attack, falls through the air, groaning like a wounded animal. There are scrapes and scares – how could there not be? Wolves, bears and dogs are regular worries An outdoors type

Ireland’s most notorious murderer still casts a disturbing spell

Mark O’Connell was three years old when Malcolm Macarthur – a silken-tongued toff in a bow tie – went on his killing rampage in 1982, and 33 when he was released from prison in 2012. Eight years later, when he began this book, O’Connell describes stalking Macarthur around Dublin in the hope of securing the kind of interview that would cause Ireland’s most famous murderer to ‘tremble in terror and awe at the moral magnitude of his iniquity. I wanted to witness the breaking down of his ego defences, the revelation of some terrible emotional truth within’. His ambition recalls that of the Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey, in relation

M. John Harrison’s ‘anti-memoir’ is a masterpiece

It would be hard to categorise M. John Harrison as a novelist, and that is just the way he would like it. He may definitely have a foot in the camps of science fiction and fantasy – with fans including Neil Gaiman and the late Iain Banks – but he is not one for being pinned down, whether he steps outside those genres or not. Of his 1989 novel Climbers, he said: It isn’t about somebody who ‘finds himself’ through climbing, or who ‘becomes a climber’. It’s precisely the opposite of that: it’s about someone who in failing to become a climber also fails to find a self. And so

Dominic Green

The Anne Frank story continues

The first time a friend told me that Hitler had the right idea about the Jews I was six. Most of my classmates agreed, and quoted their parents in evidence – from which I conclude that anyone who suggests that they don’t understand how the Holocaust happened is either a fool or a liar. It was a team effort by popular demand. If the Germans had won the war, no one would have felt bad about it. But the Germans lost. How awkward. Anne was freezing, starving and dressed in rags. ‘They took my hair,’ she said. Then she disappeared It became necessary to convince non-Jewish Europeans that mass-murdering Jewish

Labour of love? What women need to know about childbirth

‘The birthing mother is surrounded by the dusts of death,’ reads an inscription on a 3,000-year-old clay tablet, thought to be an ancient Assyrian incantation to ward off death in childbirth. There have been pressings of beads into clay, writings on vellum or cave walls and singing and making art about childbirth and motherhood for as long as small humans have been emerging from women’s bodies. Yet contemporary depictions of the process of becoming a mother – known as ‘matrescence’ – can be misleading or simply absent. As Katie Vigos, who set up the online Empowered Birth Project for women to share their birthing experiences, has said: The female body

A shocking claim about the Baghdad bombings of 1950 and 1951

Avi Shlaim’s family led the good life in Baghdad. Prosperous and distinguished members of Iraq’s Jewish minority, a community which could trace its presence in Babylon back more than 2,500 years, they had a large house with servants and nannies, went to the best schools, rubbed shoulders with the great and the good and sashayed elegantly from one glittering party to the next. Shlaim’s father was a successful businessman who counted ministers as friends. His much younger mother was a socially ambitious beauty who attracted admirers, from Egypt’s King Farouk to a Mossad recruiter. For this privileged section of Iraqi society, it was a rich, cosmopolitan and generally harmonious milieu.

A last-minute escape from the Holocaust

At the beginning of his profoundly moving memoir of his grandparents, parents, the Holocaust and the Gulag, Daniel Finkelstein writes: This the story of how my family took a journey which ended happily in Hendon, eating crusty bread rolls with butter in the café near the M1, but on the way took a detour through hell. Who would have guessed what those people, tucking into rolls at the newly-opened Brent Cross shopping centre in the mid-1970s, had been through? There was Finkelstein’s elegant Polish-Jewish grandmother, Lusia Finkelstein, known locally as ‘the Lady of Hendon Central’ in her hat; his German-born Jewish mother, née Mirjam Wiener, a maths teacher, who particularly

How many black or Asian Britons feel a strong sense of European identity?

Though wokeness is a vile thing, it has contributed to our culture in one fortunate way – by inspiring brilliant books which refute it. The woeful lack of anything passing for analysis (probably a colonial tool of oppression, like brunch) on the SJW side has thrown into gloriously sharp relief the difference in the intellectual firepower between those who believe in free speech and those who resemble Veruca Salt after joining the Stasi. We have Andrew Doyle’s The New Puritans and Remi Adekoya’s Biracial Britain; they have Laurie Penny’s Sexual Revolution and Jolyon Maugham’s Bringing Down Goliath – the latter category comprising unintentionally hilarious scribblings which will soon be up

Polly Toynbee searches in vain for one working-class ancestor

Polly Toynbee’s fascinating, multi-generational memoir comes with a caveat to a Spectator reviewer. While her book is written with ‘self-conscious awareness’, Toynbee predicts, with a cautionary wag of the finger, that it will be reviewed in publications where ‘introspection is inconvenient’. Not a page goes by without a reference to the iniquities of class, accent, snobbery or patriarchal dominance Of course, introspection drives her narrative. Toynbee, a self-confessed ‘silver-spooner’, was born into a family of towering academic and literary influencers who, while enjoying connections and lifestyles as posh as they come, almost consistently resisted and campaigned against conservative elitism and privilege. As with all families, these ‘crusty old relations’ contain

Laughing in the face of cancer

A much cited statistic of the modern era reminds us time and again that at some point in our lives one in two of us will get cancer. So routinely is this doled out that its repetition must surely have dulled the threat somewhat – until, of course, we become the one in the two. When chemotherapy leads to virulent mouth ulcers, Patterson reaches for onomatopoeia: ‘Aieeoo’ In 2019, this statistic took on new emphasis for Sylvia Patterson. Then a 54-year-old pop music journalist clinging on for dear life in an industry going the way of the dodo, she discovered a curious leakage around her right nipple. Doctors confirmed Google’s

Cindy Yu

Caught between conflicting desires – for liberty and belonging

A friend recently moved back to the UK after living in China for ten years. Being English, he was always going to be an outsider in China, but what surprises him now is how foreign he feels in England too. He asked me whether this feeling ever ended. I told him that I suspect people like us will never fully belong anywhere again. The novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo articulates this sense of alienation exquisitely, knowing exactly what it’s like: ‘Part of me is always in exile.’ She left China in her late twenties when she was already a published author. In Radical, she tries to come to terms with

Literary charades: The Writing School, by Miranda France, reviewed

A recent YouGov survey found that 60 per cent of Britons dream of being writers, compared with 31 per cent who dream of being film stars. Although the chances of success, or even subsistence, are equally remote in both professions, aspirant authors flock to the country’s ever-proliferating creative writing courses. Miranda France’s splendid third book, blending fact and fiction, is set on one such course: a week-long residency in a rural retreat house, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Arvon Foundation at which France has taught. The unnamed narrator, a Spanish translator and travel writer with two novels to her name, leads an eclectic group of 12

Andrew Motion pays tribute to his poetic mentors

Andrew Motion has previously published a memoir of childhood, In the Blood (2006), but this new book focuses on his becoming a poet, his search for mentors and subsequent writing life. Motion, a country boy, has a Words-worthian bent, and talks about the pull of evocative recollections, already hardening when he entered adulthood, as ‘equivalent to the songs of the Sirens’, explicitly ‘spots of time’. He is, as one might expect, good on poetry’s general appeal – ‘ it prizes compression and distillation in a world of deliquescence’ – and perceptive on the root cause of its lure for him. The appeal of ‘falling in love with a dead man’

A magpie proves a troublesome pet

With his swashbuckling gait, ominous associations and garrulous demeanour, the magpie is the dandified razor boy of our avifauna and provokes ambivalent feelings (the ‘pie’ part signifies many a mixture). His pilfering reputation has inspired work from Rossini to the prog-rock band Marillion, and in lab tests he’s one of the few creatures brainy enough to recognise his own image in a mirror – even some Marillion fans can’t do that. But it’s hard to see how this corvid could be truly lovable. The artist and poet Frieda Hughes, however, fell for a little foundling Pica pica back in May 2007 when she was refurbishing her ramshackle new home. He

Britain’s churches need us to survive – but do we still need them?

In the summer of 1992, Gloria Davey came upon a ruined church near Swaffham in Norfolk. It had no roof, no windows and no door. Satanists were using it for their rites; a grave had been opened, giving up its bones. Gloria’s husband Bob felt obliged to act. He disrupted their rituals, and when they threatened to kill him, he called in the local Territorial Army. They didn’t bother him again. Bob Davey was 73 when Gloria found the late 11th-century church of St Mary, in Houghton on the Hill; he died, aged 91, having visited it every day thereafter. He and a small group of friends built a mile-long

The farming year in 18th-century Sussex

You may (or may not) already know this, but researching the long 18th century in 2023 is rarely a life-affirming, paradigm-shifting conversation over wine with Plato in the groves of academe. It is seldom, even, a couple of tins of warm lager on the train home after guesting on an episode of Start the Week. It is sometimes, though, sitting in an archive transcribing the traces of long-vanished lives, conscious of the passing of time, quietly excited but still wondering if any of this actually matters, whether the partial recovery of someone else’s life really is the fullest way of living your own. Reading Ian Marchant’s deeply moving new book

Blake Morrison mourns the sister he lost to alcoholism

Blake Morrison’s previous memoirsAnd When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993) and Things My Mother Never Told Me (2002) examined his parents with the clear-eyed appraisal that only adulthood brings. In the first, he evoked the vigour of his father, Arthur: his sense of fun when rule-breaking for thrills, and the selfish entitlement which allowed him to follow his whims, oblivious of the feelings of others. The contrast between his energy when fit and his frailty when ill were stark – a dichotomy many face when a beloved parent ages and dies. The second memoir examined the life of his mother, Kim, who, like Arthur, was a doctor, but