Saturday, 7 November 2009


A bit of a break with traditional reading patterns this time: a biography - indeed, an autobiography. For reasons I can't entirely pin down, I've never been interested in reading anything beyond fiction or popular treatments of science, etc. Although I've enjoyed the occasional biographical asides in the latter, and the veiled hint that the former are partially biography, I've not felt the need to read formal biography. Unsurprisingly then, I'm only coming to it now because of a birthday present from C. Knowing of my great love for the UK band Blur, she bought me the autobiography of its bassist, Alex James.

That said, I suspect it's not the most typical of introductions to the literary genre for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's written (rather than ghostwritten) by someone with an atypical job relative to most public figures who come to my attention, namely one in popular music. Secondly, although the subject is an artist, the book contains practically nothing about his art. This came as something of a surprise, and I suspect some readers might feel a bit cheated to find the book's pages bereft of anything about their favourite music beyond vague, passing remarks.

This latter point certainly undercut my expectations for this book. I'd expected, probably hoped, to find out interesting points about particular songs and albums, but the book stays well away from this sort of dissection. To the extent that it's at times difficult to work out when the author is talking about since he doesn't even use his band's discography for temporal stratigraphy.

Instead, the book is a rambling overview of James' childhood and his life during the Blur years, that finishes up with him settling down with a wife (and, inexplicably, a pig farm). He skips the music to focus instead on the everyday, and increasingly less-everyday, aspects of his rock star life. Large quantities of drugs are consumed, wall-to-wall sexual adventures are passingly alluded to, but the book does find time to fill in some unexpected details.

These include a walk-on part for the artist Damien Hirst who, contrary to my expectations, comes off as a talented and entertaining friend to James. Also, James waxes lyrical about his infatuation with astronomy, which ultimately led to the (ultimately) unsuccessful Beagle 2 mission to Mars. And, along the way, James becomes a qualified pilot, and gets quite poetic about his flying around Europe and Africa.

So, though it has a near-total lack of any backstory or discussion of Blur's hits, the book does make for an interesting read. But it's safe to say that James is not the most natural or fluid of writers. His prose frequently reads like conversation, with a repetitive patter that works in speech but less in print. And he has something of a bad habit of being overenthusiastic about everything. The reader is breathlessly introduced to some arbitrary subject (flying, touring, cheese shops) that is then described as James' favourite and the best-ever. Although it would have distorted his style, I did often think that James' editor could have stepped in and earned their keep more (or perhaps they did!).

One uneasy aspect to the book is James' treatment of his long-term girlfriend, Justine. She never really features much in the book, despite playing an ostensibly significant part for a long stretch (although this could be said about most of James' friends and family). Furthermore, although constantly apologetic towards her in his writing, James really didn't treat her very well during his ride with Blur. As success kicks in, tours quickly become an opportunity for (multiple) infidelity, and though James appears regretful about this, he still strung her along for a considerable period of time. And while it's difficult to be sure given the book's rather fluid chronology, it reads like she left him because of his lack of commitment, only for him to commit to his current wife in pretty short order.

Anyway, overall it's an interesting peek into contemporary rock star life, one that does contain a few nice surprises, but I can't say that it's won me over to biography as a form. It's doubtless far from the best introduction, but I'm still not particularly convinced that I want to take such a specific interest in the detail of the lives of others. I'm going to stick to novels.

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