No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, January 04, 2008

#2: The Importance of Music to Girls -- Lavinia Greenlaw

Essex, though flat, is not straightforward ... single fields as broad as the view ... you see your destination long before you reach it. The back lanes through those fields are all hairpin bends and humpback bridges. Hedgerows tower and trees throw out awkward branches. Roads twist round copses, paths are eroded or overgrown, and fields either brim with crops or erupt under the plow. I felt so perpetually thwarted that if I came across open ground i would run for the sake of it. I never got anywhere even then.

A memoir of the author's teenage years in a sleepy Essex village in the late Seventies. From ballet classes in Hampstead ("ballet teaches you that each step or gesture is the outcome of another, a lesson I had already absorbed from Greek myth -- the tumble of lover into foe, child into mother, girl into tree, god into swan") to piano lessons and the Moonlight Sonata (sheet music notes that emphasise the cumulative effect of the triplets: "in other words this moonlight was also a concrete mixer, which made sense when I thought about the lunar effects on the tides and the tides' effects on a stony beach") to Essex itself (see above), Lavinia Greenlaw's life was full of music and thinking about music. Spotting the same phrase in Chopin and in Donna Summer, country dancing, school reports ... oh yes I remember it well. Though there are significant differences (a three-year age gap makes a lot of difference in your teens, and Ms Greenlaw's teen rebellion had a different soundtrack to mine) there's a great deal that's familiar.

It's likely to be familiar, more or less, to anyone (especially any female) who grew up obsessed by music. Girls only? I'm not so sure. A lot of the experiences here (first encounter with the police, first gigs, ambience of local record shop, standing in the kitchen at parties talking about music because you couldn't take over the stereo) are unisex. But there's a distinct sense of being different to the other girls. Greenlaw asks plenty of questions about why music wasn't that important to the girls she knew, but doesn't present easy answers.

Sophie and Julia each had a few records but they didn't get upset or excited about bands. I was thrilled by discovery, crushed by disappointment and mortified by any misplaced enthusiasm I had shown. I declared my allegiance, took a position and always had a view, not noticing that girls were bemused and boys found me boring. Was a girl not supposed to feel so strongly, let alone want so much to possess and know something for her own sake?

Greenlaw writes of the rise of punk, and of going to see the Damned in a field in Suffolk (they never showed): of getting her hair cut by the local hairdresser, who was thrilled because it was her first punk cut: of getting the ultimate geek accolade, an insult that's really a compliment. Some kid on the street yells "Punk!". "I was thrilled ... 'Punk' had nothing to do with being a girl. It neutralised, rejected and released me."

This book does what it says on the tin: it focusses on Greenlaw's love of, reaction to, self-definition through music. Sometimes we're surprised to be reminded that she has siblings, parents. ("My father left six months after I did. There was much I had refused to notice or had been told but would not hear.") In a lot of ways hers is a privileged upbringing: there are hints, towards the end of the book, that she'll have to deal with the tension between bourgeous comfort and sharp-edged rebellion at some stage. But the way she feels about music doesn't come from the ballet lessons or the sheet music or remembering when 'All the Young Dudes' was in the charts: it comes from inside.

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