Thursday, 20 August 2009

Peter Bagge - Everybody is Stupid Except for Me

Peter Bagge is an interesting proposition, a political satirist for Reason magazine for many years, railing against wars and oppression and corruption and at the same time railing against the railers, the protestors, the anti-oppressors, the anti-war, the anti-corruption and these uneasy cartoons floating in the murky middle ground between righteously right wing and liberally left-wing are collected in the amusingly titled ‘Everybody is Stupid Except Me.’ His style is frenetic, usually using a representation of him, the sweaty nervous nervous, as the crux of all his points. The stories are like pictoral articles, investigating scenes and issues and presenting both sides of the argument, sometimes through vox pop or illustrations of a diagrammatic nature to bolster the reportage. It’s impressive stuff and he certainly knows his bones when talking about the homeless crisis in San Francisco or the hypocrisies behind the abstinence movement. His drawings are busy and curt, always cutting and always railing against most forms of authority. It’s in his work that we find ourselves questioning our liberal attitudes. Are we right? Are we patronisingly right? Are we peacenik commies? Unfortunately, Bagge himself comes across as ambivalent about some areas himself and leaves us guessing as to his political sentiments. Is this good journalism? Is it the direct confusion of a man unable to place himself on one side of the fence? Or is it just liberal-baiting hectoring from a man who ‘mostly’ disagreed with the Bush government. It’s probably a mixture of all three. These are good comics, fun to read and definitely funny, definitely searing and when he hits a target he gets it right. Also there’s something to be said for the journalist tone of the writing and the structure of the strips would translate well into a proper newspaper, were he so inclined. Is everyone stupid except for Peter Bagge? Well, we’ll never quite be sure. But then, neither will he.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Sathnam Sanghera - The Boy with the Topknot (Penguin 2009)

Sathnam Sanghera’s debut book, The Boy with the Topknot (published in hardback as If You Don’t Know Me By Now) is a worthy piece of work despite it revealing him to have a clawingly bad taste in pop music. It’s bittersweet and funny but over-archingly triumphant in the face of adversity. It seeks to debunk the misery memoir myth by being self-referential and unreliant on tugging our heartstrings unnecessarily, instead using memory and a nice narrative juxtaposition of past and present to reveal its inner depths. Despite all the references to George Michael obsessions and some chapter titles taken from some of my worst enemy pop songs, it’s a beautiful piece of work.

When successful journalist and materialist Sathnam Sanghera, living the high life of Prada and loft flats, dinner parties and celebrity interviews, was 24 he discovered for the first time his father and sister were both suffering from a severe mental illness he hadn’t been aware of. As he researched their conditions and how they had come to be hidden (through a lack of understanding of schizophrenia and through family guilty secrets) he moved to Wolverhampton and started to piece together his family history and the history of his parents. Each member of his family is a character, from his silent father obsessed with BBC Parliament despite his illiteracy and lack of English; his mother, neurotic and obsessed with tradition, with finding him a wife of equal caste and culture holding the family together; his brother with his growing obsessions with fashion icons of the times and his two sisters, funny and nasty in equal measure. Sathnam was the baby and through the flit between past and present reveals how he learnt English on the fly at his school, became obsessed with being a good boy (a symptom of a schizophrenia family member) and went from his mum’s favourite to her biggest disappointment as he sought to escape Wolverhampton and her over-bearing clutches, all for the sake of dalliances with girls. The book closes with a letter he writes to his mother, emotionally explaining the choices he has made in his life and the secret life of dating white girls he leads and the amount of panic and depression it causes him, bordering on inflicting a mental illness of its own on his neuroses. The book isn’t all misery and family repression though. It’s warm about his family at times and funny at others, especially on a chapter dedicated to cutting his hair for the first time, a big Sikh no-no. The book, torn between his present feelings of ineptitude, helplessness and confusion as well as the process of trying to write the book while being scared of scratching too far under the surface and warm/bitter feelings about Wolverhampton, moves along quickly, never boring, always interesting, always painting an interesting picture of a family dealing with mental illness and a family dealing with the cultural differences of old and new, East and West. While this is a worn out subject, Sanghera’s literal, funny and unearnest take on his Asian identity makes for hilarious scenes when he goes out to meet potential brides at meetings set up with his sister, when he describes his family set up in Wolverhampton. However, it does go into horrific detail about domestic violence in the Sikh community and the pain and suffering his mum went through before his dad was finally diagnosed with a mental illness.

As a misery memoir, it fails, because it never plays with your emotions. Sathnam breaks the fourth wall, describing the process of writing the book, always in his head but dealing with enough factoids and studies and quotes to keep his feelings on the side of reality and recognised research. It’s warm and funny but bitter and painful and the final denouement with his mother and the letter is a poignant finale to a life-affirming book.

Simon Armitage - Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Fantasist (Penguin 2009)

Gig is the second memoir from indie enthusiast, writer, rock journalist and would-be poet laureate Simon Armitage. Told in a charmingly self-effacing way and full of bright and sparky anecdotes about the life of a jobbing poet who makes more than adequate time in his busy schedule to attend as many gigs as possible, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, breezy and poignant. Running through Armitage’s experiences in interviewing Feltham young offenders and sex workers for films ‘Feltham Sings’ and ‘Pornography: the musical’ respectively (don’t mix those two up), he reveals the behind the scenes process of writing all the lyrics for these films as well as anecdotes on the research process and subsequent careers and lives of the subjects. He writes about his time up North, getting into the New Romantics while his dad, a stoic manly man, took every opportunity to mock his girly hair and foppish demeanour. There’s a hilarious story about his time studying home economics and having to live a flat on school premises for a week and cook his teachers’ lunches. Only in the North, only in the seventies. There’s also the music. Armitage uses every other chapter to visit a gig in the last 3 years and have it spiral off into memories of getting into the artists in his teens (Morrissey, the Fall, Stiff Little Fingers), how they have related to parts of his life, stories about the bands and artists themselves and an overriding sense that he wishes it was him up on stage, rocking socks off. Alas, he’s confined to the role of bard, travelling the world reading his work and enthusing about British rock history. Every chapter is peppered with memory, charm and hilarity and the book ends with Armitage setting up his band The Scaremongers, and their fraught attempt to lay down some tracks in the studio, despite both being in their mid forties. A charming book that makes you want to go and seek out his poetry. Also, be sure to read Armitage’s £33.33 column in the Observer Music Magazine, where he spends said amount in charity shops each month and recounts his experiences of the albums he finds.