Fran Lock reviews Charlie Hill's new memoir
Charlie Hill's memoir, I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, is told in a series of linked poetic vignettes. 'Vignettes' is definitely the right word too: each memory comes to the reader as a distinct and self-contained portrait, distilled with great clarity and precision. This is not the discursive 'anecdotal' memoir so beloved of celebrities. Hill writes with a pleasing economy of expression, and the deft arrangement of judiciously selected details. The book refuses to impose an explicit narrative trajectory onto events, but allows for the organic accumulation of small though significant moments, creating a sense of life as it is lived, without the heavy-handed interventions of authorial hindsight. In fact, Hill eschews a number of well-worn autobiographical manoeuvres, skilfully avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality, painfully obvious foreshadowing, and – my personal bête noire – nostalgia-by-numbers.
This last matters enormously, and is crucial to an understanding of Hill's work as an important contribution to working-class life writing. Too often literary memoirs fall back on or into generalisations to create and sustain their sense of time and place: what was playing on the radio, what was happening in the news, what people were driving, smoking, wearing. Hill doesn't do this, and it is a relief. The effect is local, intimate, and compelling. There is no attempt, witting or unwitting, to homogenise the complexities of lived experience into a soup of what Peter Davidson has called 'benign pastness'. Hill's vignettes are particular and attentive, adroitly dancing between the subjective and the social. For this reason, the memoir calls our attention to the English class system in all its subtle and maddening gradations. Two passages stand out as especially well-realised in this regard. In the first, Hill is describing the persistent insecurity that surrounded his own and his family's class identity. Writing about his mother, a vicar's daughter, Hill states:
“We were poor,” she said once at a family do, “so poor we couldn’t even afford a television.” And then, “I’ll always remember the vicarage at Taddington. It had this enormous staircase with these great sweeping banisters that we used to slide down. (p.2)
In another memorable section, Hill begins an ultimately doomed career at the local grammar school, where he 'opens a book' on a fight between two of his peers, 'the cock' of his junior school, and a 'kid from Alum Rock'. For those not in the know – as Hill was not – Alum Rock was and is a notoriously deprived inner city suburb of Birmingham:
The fight lasted as long as it took for the kid from Alum Rock (look it up) to walk up to my man and drop the nut on him... (p.5)
There's a self-deprecating humour at play here, Hill making fun of himself and his own socially unaware naivety, but there's also something painful, an anxiety and a confusion about the grim social realities that drive and underpin such scenes. Although the loser is rather genteelly described as Hill's 'man', use of the vernacular 'drop the nut on him' signals at least a desire to identify with the other boy, the material conditions of whose life were shaped by forces literally unknown and unimagined by Hill. Elsewhere in the book, Hill describes his removal from the grammar to the local 'comp' where his father teaches, and where he comes under fire for being 'posh' (p.6). Taking on some of the poshness attributed to him, Hill describes himself as 'frequently involved in fisticuffs', a stoically understated way of talking about an experience few would covet. There is much to say here, about Hill's dexterity in playing with the slips and switches of code required of a child in his situation. Other writers might have eked this section of the memoir out for page after page of hand-wringing analysis, but a good part of Hill's characteristic skill is in leaving these unspoken tensions unspoken, by not applying an adult understanding to a child's intense experiences Rather, Hill uses language to signal the ever-present interplay of class dynamics: showing, not telling, in the best tradition.
It is also striking that Hill doesn't take a position on events, nor does he attempt to coerce or cajole his readers into taking one. He is not preoccupied with presenting an image of himself, either as valorous, victimised, or villainous. He is not adopting a pose, but presenting a series of experiences for us to make of what we will. Again, this feels invigoratingly fresh. The image of Hill that emerges from the book is likeable, clear-sighted and astute, and – most unusually – without pretence or vanity. Not that Hill doesn't signal his own vanity and pretentiousness, but when he does, he does so with a redeeming self-awareness that reads as genuine and comfortable. Speaking about his early adolescent activism Hill writes 'I was, I suspect, insufferable on the quiet.' (p.7)
Later, describing his literary ambitions he makes the somewhat deflationary statement, 'I finish my novel about books. It has taken me a long time. I try to get it published and am buoyed by the responses of publishers who don’t publish it.' (p.86) What connects Hill's writing about both his politics and his career is his ability to laugh at himself without sneering at the causes or vocations that have mattered most to him. This is not Portrait of the Writer as a World Weary Cynic. No sense of 'knowing better' now haunts Hill's descriptions of idealism, excess or ambition. Rather, we see our humble narrator in a constant state of development or change, alert and open to new possibilities. In an era where neoliberal identity politics holds sway, and writers in particular are under persistent pressure to crystallise and calcify their image or their 'brand', Hill's approach comes across not only as zesty but potentially radical.
The form Hill deploys seems to emphasise this sense of openness and change: a hybrid form, somewhere between poetry and prose, where the lines of each short paragraph are often connected and propelled by their sonic properties, for example: 'shinning up lampposts and schlepping round the council estates of Northfield espousing unilateral nuclear disarmament...' (p.7) or, from later in the book, 'We enjoyed particularly sensual, soft-focus sex but irked each other too and the mid-term prognosis was underwhelming; shortly after I dallied with an ex...' (p.62). Alliteration and half-rhyme abound, and Hill has the poet's knack for linking unusual and sonorous phrases; this provides each scene with momentum and texture, and lifts them from a mere recitation of stuff that happened. There's intricate work going on here, on the level of lexis and the level of sound, and this work leads us from moment to moment, creating a porousness between memories so that they bleed and blur like real life.
And in the midst of the bleed and blur there are the moments that stop you cold, either in their tenderness and beauty or their unblinking witness to misery. Midway through the memoir, there is this description, baldly concrete in its abjection:
A low point. It seemed everyone I knew was poor. The DSS office in Highgate overlooked two abattoirs. It had reinforced glass windows and the staff were suicidal. (p.44)
There's a kind of socialist realism to such descriptions, and this is where Hill's memoir resonates the most for me, when he conjures the peculiarly embattled feeling that saturated left-wing and working-class politics in the eighties and nineties. There was the sense of being on the cusp of change, of living in and through a time of ferment, of something about to happen. This feeling seems composed of equal parts vitality and futility. It produced a kind of hedonism, led by the optimism that just by living you could change things, and the suspicion that nothing you did made any difference at all. It was, is – and I find myself using this word a lot about Hill's memoir – nuanced. Hill seems at home with this ambivalence, and it brings to his writing a real complexity and truthfulness.
Other writers, myself included, would – and have – dwelt at length on the disillusionments and failures that marked Blair's election and tenure, and the collapse of a credible left into excess, apathy and liberalism, but Hill is not judgemental or moralising, and however bleak things get, there is always humour, and on occasions, arresting glimpses of beauty:
Now a baby girl, another never-ending new. Soon there is a photograph that will be forever in my head, of son and daughter leaping into the air above a meadow, waving sticks, suspended between sky and earth (p.89)
Reading the word 'suspension' makes me think of Albert Camus, and a quote that seems very applicable to Hill's writing. 'To correct a natural indifference', writes Camus, 'I was placed half-way between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn't everything.' Hill will undercut any notion of the memoir as a vehicle for individual exceptionalism by humorously downplaying his achievements into 'a defeat of many colours' (p.95), but also rejects the typical trajectories of misery memoir with moments of solidarity and love, 'I have a family and I love it with a love that is no part of any of this, a love that lives where all else vanishes or is unreal.' (p.84) Here, I think, is the real triumph of this work: its commitment to the ambiguities and contradictions of lived experience, in a way that is unique to the life it portrays while being deeply resonant with and for its readers.
Reading the book one afternoon, I sprayed coffee down myself while laughing at the following passage:
I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine (p.94)
I laughed, a lot. Because not in spite of the fact it really isn't funny. My laughter was a kind of resistance, a belligerence, in the face of a world where contracting Lyme disease might provide a welcome respite from precarity, tedium, and the soul-numbing effects of late-stage capitalism. Hill's book invites and summons that laughter, laughter which is a true expression of solidarity.
The book is available here.