Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Caitlin Moran is basically Dickens.

I’m going to start this review by getting all hipster – bear with me one moment while I put on my oversized specs and dig out some ironic vinyl records – and say that I loved Caitlin Moran before it was cool to love Caitlin Moran. Granted, I don’t buy a newspaper myself, or subscribe to The Times online, but my father and brother regard The Times as second only to Scripture and I flick through it when I visit either of them. More specifically, I have read Caitlin Moran’s columns for years. I don’t always agree with her, but I always find her brilliantly, ingeniously funny. The sort of funny that makes reading a newspaper actually fun.

Following on from the success of How To Be A Woman, which I have borrowed but have yet to read, a selection of her columns has been published under the title Moranthology. Geddit? Good. Her topics are widespread – a lot of celebrity-culture and arts & entertainment, but also just the world around her, from new dresses to Gregg’s pasties to tax (she’s pro.) Here’s how she glosses her inspirations in the introduction:
The motto I have Biro’d on my knuckles is that this is the best world we have – because it’s the only world we have. It’s the simplest maths ever. However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the Moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or forward to, with joy. There is always a moment when you boggle at the world – at yourself – at the whole, unlikely, precarious business of being alive – and then start laughing.
And that’s usually when I make a cup of tea, and start typing.
Caitlin Moran and I are unlikely ever to be friends. This is largely – though not entirely – because all her friendships seem to be assessed on the willingness with which said friend will breakdance, drunk out of their minds, in seedy clubs at four in the morning – or how much they admire Ghostbusters, which I’ve never seen. But, should our paths ever cross – at, say, 7.30 am, as she is stumbling back from a faux-Victorian strip club with Lady Gaga, and I am blearily crawling to the corner shop to get milk for my morning tea, not wearing any glasses because for some reason that only feels like a viable option in a post-caffeine world – should we meet, perhaps we would bond a little. Bond about our love of books (she champions libraries wonderfully; ‘A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival’) and our distrust of the Tory Party. Maybe even about how great Modern Family is, although that’s not mentioned here. But that might be it. I’ve never seen Sherlock, and I don’t much care for Doctor Who - these admissions are probably enough for Moran to cement-bag me to the bottom of the Thames, a la Mack the Knife. The columns where she reviews or goes behind the scenes of these shows are near-pathological in their adoration.

And, of course, there are plenty of other things we don’t agree about, or enthusiasms we don’t share. That’s beside the point. Moran could write about how much she likes dead-heading roses to make bonnets for foxes, and she’d make the hobby seem not only amusing, but rather bohemian and cool. Because Moran just is cool, without seeming to try at all. The sort of cool which entirely embraces self-deprecation and wears absurd foibles as badges of honour – and makes everything she writes seem adorable and awesome. (The only time I felt disappointed by Moran was when she referred to the ‘anti-choice’ movement. However strongly people may disagree over the issue of abortion, I’ve always deeply admired the almost-universal respectful use of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ by those who oppose either one. Because, Moran – as well you know – absolutely nobody takes an anti-life or an anti-choice stance. That is never their objective.) But, that aside, she doesn’t put a foot wrong. She can babble about Downton Abbey, declare her hatred of children’s book/TV character Lola, or opine on her holidays to Wales, and it’s all just brilliant. And it’s brilliant because she has her tone down pat – a way with simile that is always innovative and hilarious (she, for instance, describes X Factor alum Frankie Cocozza as having ‘a voice like a goose being kicked down a slide’) and a clever mix of high and low registers which is positively Dickensian – throwing slang in with perfect judgement. Because (see above) she’s so cool.

And that mention of Dickens isn’t careless. Caitlin Moran is basically a 21st-century Dickens, with crazy awesome hair. In amongst all the hilarious columns on the ugliness of fish names or how someone stole her hairstyle, Moran gets in some serious social politics. So, like Dickens, she is incredibly funny – but uses the humour to slip in social commentary; the difference being that Dickens would give us a plucky urchin at the mercy of Sir Starvethechild. It would be glorious, but his point would be rather lost in a thicket of the grotesque. Moran, give or take some emotive wording, just tells it as it is.

Moran grew up on a council estate with eight siblings and parents who were on disability benefits. As she says, ‘I’ve spent twenty years clawing my way out of a council house in Wolverhampton, to reach a point where I can now afford a Nigella Lawson breadbin.’ But she still knows what poverty was like firsthand, and writes movingly, sensibly, and brilliantly about various issues to do with cutting benefits or alienating the poor.
All through history, those who can’t earn money have had to rely on mercy: fearful, changeable mercy, that can dissolve overnight if circumstances change, or opinions alter. Parish handouts, workhouses, almshouses – ad-hoc, makeshift solutions that make the helpless constantly re-audition in front of their benefactors; exhaustingly trying to re-invoke pity for a lifetime of bread and cheese.

That’s why the invention of the Welfare State is one of the most glorious events in history: the moral equivalency of the Moon Landings. Something not fearful or changeable, like mercy, but certain and constant – a right. Correct and efficient: disability benefit fraud is just 0.5 per cent. A system that allows dignity and certainty to lives otherwise chaotic with poverty and illness.
Who but Moran could write about her hatred of creating party-bags, her love of David Attenborough and her friend with schizophrenia who has to move cities in order to retain state-given accommodation? Not in the same column, you understand, but I wouldn’t put it past her. Moran has won all sorts of awards, I believe, and I would say that she deserves them – but, quite frankly, she is the only columnist I ever read. I’ve been enjoying her columns for years (some in this book are, naturally, revisits for me) and I’m so delighted that they’re now available as a book. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another, since this can only represent a small percentage of her output. But I’ll count my blessings with this one (thanks Colin for giving it to me!) and urge you to seek it out. Like I said, Moran is basically Dickens. Hilariously funny, socially conscious, rocks some impressive sideburns. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

53 comments:

  1. I have been on the library hold list for How to be a Woman for six months and it looks like it will probably be another six months before my turn comes so this sounds like an excellent book to pick up in the meantime. And, honestly, one I might even enjoy more.

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    1. What a waiting list! Gracious. I'm lucky my friend lent it to me... I really adored this week, whipping through it very quickly

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  2. Off topic, but in the horrid morass that is the United States battle over reproductive issues there are anti-choice groups. Yes, anti choice in the case of entopic pregnancies, let alone rape and incest. Against any form of hormonal birth control, and how they deal with condoms is to say they don't work.

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    1. Hmm... I'd still argue that their *aim* is pro-life, rather than inherently and primarily opposing the idea of choice. That's my problem with saying anti-choice or anti-life. But controversial issue, of course, and maybe we should now leave it off topic!

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  3. I've felt that Caitlin Moran is so cool that I've been too daunted and in awe of her to actually read her books. But you've made her sound nice as well as cool. I'm off to the library later and I'll see if they've got this one in.

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    1. Oh, I think I'd be terrified to meet her, but she's certainly nice and lovely and utterly friendly in her writing.

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  4. Thank you Simon - I will now read Moranathology! I was a little unsure about how a collection of newspaper columns would stand up as a book. Last Christmas I read How to be Woman on a very long train journey and kept laughing uncontrollably - to the extent that I cried and had to keep blowing my nose. And if that's not a recommendation I don't know what is.

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    1. Definitely an excellent recommendation, Erica! I'm going to read it asap... but might avoid reading it on public transport.

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  5. Oh Simon, I adore Caitlin Moran too. I hadn't really read anything of hers until I bought How To Be A Woman in summer 2011, but that was so down-to-earth and frank and funny that I couldn't read it on public transport for fear of getting odd looks on account of my laughing. I've seen Moranthology a few times in the shops but I think you've just pushed it onto my 'absolutely must read' list. Though it's unlikely that I am ever going to run into Moran either, I have a sort of imaginary bar in my mind where we drink gin together and put the world to rights... She's awesome.

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    1. You have to get it, Leander! And I'm coming to your imaginary bar. But I'm not a big fan of gin... make mine a big glass of white wine, okay? See you there!

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  6. I could not get past some of the things I did not agree with in How to Be a Woman. Moran basically throws intersectionality of any kind under the bus in that book. But then, it was funny when I was able to look past that.

    To be honest, I think I might like this one more, since it's not exclusively one topic so might not frustrate me as much when I feel we disagree.

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    1. I think it would definitely be less of a problem here, Iris, because if you disagree with any one issue, the article is over in a page or two.

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  7. I love your title for this post, Simon (and, of course, your review!). I also loved How to be a Woman, so this is a definite-must-read-soon for me.

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    1. Thanks Vicki! It struck me suddenly, whilst reading, that she really *is* the 21st century Dickens in some respects.

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  8. I haven’t read anything of Moran, but “How To Be A Woman” is on my TBR list and I will definitely add Moranthology to it. And what a wonderful review!

    “But, should our paths ever cross – at, say, 7.30 am, as she is stumbling back from a faux-Victorian strip club with Lady Gaga, and I am blearily crawling to the corner shop to get milk for my morning tea, not wearing any glasses because for some reason that only feels like a viable option in a post-caffeine world – should we meet, perhaps we would bond a little.” – this is absolutely brilliant, Simon.

    Wow, what a start of Reading Presently project!

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    1. Thanks so much, Agnieszka, that's so nice of you! I did have great fun writing this one, and was especially pleased with that bit ;)

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  9. I love Caitlin Moran and have only recently read 'How to be a Woman'. I too often disagree with her point of view but she's never less than thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny!I love the image of her as a modern-day Dickens too - Moranthology is definitely one for my wishlist

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    1. I'm really looking forward to How To Be A Woman now - although worried that I'll have nothing else from Moran to read once I've read that... she might be worth the online subscription all by herself!

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  10. I got out of bed and immediately ordered both books from the library. I think "Moran could write about how much she likes dead-heading roses to make bonnets for foxes..." is one of the funniest sentences you've ever written.

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    1. Thanks so much! I love it when commenters pick out their favourite bits, it's so flattering :)

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    2. There's always lots of bits to choose from in your posts! ;)

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  11. Maybe it's an age thing - I can remember her as a precocious teenage writer - but I can't stand her. Even if I'm agreeing with her, I feel put off by the casual coarseness.
    And now, of course, I realise that I have turned into my own father!

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    1. Oh, Mary! What a shame. Pro-Jean-Benoit, anti-Caitlin... what am I going to do with you!

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    2. Simon, the thought of the Frenchman has quite perked me up!

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  12. Great post. I've read her columns since she started as a teenager. She's so funny on the page. You may not always agree with her (I love Lola), but you'll laugh a lot and think a bit. When I've seen her on the tellybox though, she tended to come across as a bit ranty. Won't stop me reading her though. (Incidentally I still miss Zoe Heller's Sunday Times columns too).

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    1. Thanks Annabel :)
      I hadn't heard her speak until I looked her up on YouTube the other day, and was really surprised by how posh she was. And also think I'll stick to reading her writing, which is so wonderful.

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  13. Back in the day when I could read The Times online for free, I always enjoyed Ms. Moran's humor. Now it looks as if I can read her once again. I am astonished that my library has copies of her book and that I am first in line for 'Moranthology'. Thanks for this wonderful review, Simon.

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    1. Thanks Belle!
      I used to read her online too, but... well, I'd happily pay to read her articles, but I'm not paying the whole pay wall fee.

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  14. A very entertaining post, Simon. It deserves more than this utterly bland comment from me, but bearing in mind your post about commenting a few weeks back, I did not wish to leave the party without saying hello.

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  15. I've been going back and forth on reading Moran for a while now, but this post pushed me over to the 'yes' side! I downloaded How to be a Woman to my iPad last night and have been sneaking paragraphs in at work all day today. She really is quite funny and provocative - and fresh to us here in the States.

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    1. Lovely! I'm very keen to read it - I wonder if I'll be able to cope with provocative nature of her writing... we'll see!

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  16. Oh, dear, Simon. I've never read Moran because I won't pay for The Times online, but made curious by all that's been said here I googled a New Yorker interview with her. And it was a lot of ranting about abortion (I disagree with her in a lot of ways) and about how empowering it is for women to write about their vaginas. Honestly I hate all this sort of thing however jokey and witty the writer may be, and am therefore exercising my feminist right not to read her! (And when she can write fiction like Dickens I'll admit the comparison. At the moment she's "reading his entire works in chronological order, in order to steal every single move he makes", and that's not how to do it!) All that cursing does not genius make, either.

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    1. I think that might be closer to what she does in How To Be A Woman (which does make me a bit nervous) but in this book she definitely isn't ranty - or hardly at all anyway. But feel free to exercise your feminist right not to read her, as you say!

      I'm being tongue-in-cheek about Dickens comparison, of course, but... funny and socially conscious is an all too rare combination.

      And why oh why, Diana, do all your lovely comments go to spam??

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  17. Having read your review I really must request this book from my library. I hadn't realised that a Nigella Lawson bread bin was the epitome of success. Thanks for a great start to Reading Presently.

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    1. I'm still some steps away from Nigella levels, it seems... *sigh* (but I do keep bread in a Daunt Books canvas bag, so that's got to be worth something, right?)

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  18. What a great review! She sounds like my cup of tea so I'm off to check out what my library has. Thanks so much.

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    1. thanks Michele! Hope you can track something down.

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  19. Simon, You made my day! Read your review, got the book on my Kindle and laughed for hours. What a writer she is. What could be better than laughing in the New Year, thank you. Ginny

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    1. What lovely news, Ginny! It's always wonderful to pass on a tip about a brilliant book, and especially wonderful when it's as quick as this :D

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  20. I can't remember now how I stumbled upon your blog, but how glad I am that I did. You are SO entertaining and amusing - and this review is brilliant! Because of you Simon, I have been introduced to authors I would never have heard of, and books I have enjoyed SO much. Thank you, and keep up the good work. I think I'll start with How to be a woman. Jean.

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    1. What a lovely comment, Jean, thanks so much! That really means a lot :) I hope you enjoy Moran's writing.

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  21. A lovely review of this awesome book. I love Caitlin Moran too, after seeing her on a couple of interviews and reading both her books, it suddenly can seem cool to be forty, smart, entertaining and as you say still with great hair.

    Especially now, when the entertainment industry, television, papers and magazines seem to filled with women and girls whose only job is to look pretty no matter how dim they may be.

    I have enjoyed discovering your blog.

    Julie Q

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    1. Thanks so much Poppy! She is definitely a refreshing break from the 'empowered women' the entertainment industry proffers... she seems much happier than most of them, for a start!

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  22. Moran seems to elicit a lot of mixed responses and I've heard a lot of criticism about her brand of feminism. However, I do have How to be a Woman on my shelf and I plan to read it this year and make my own mind up about her.

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    1. I think it probably matters more whether or not you agree with her for How To Be A Woman, whereas with this one each column is so short that you can just go onto the next one!

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  23. What a brilliant review of this book. I loved it, the review - I haven't read the book yet though it is on my hardback TBR shelf and How To Be a Woman is also somewhere lurking though I think I will read this one first. I like Moran in the main, and like you I have liked her a while, but when Woman came out I started to get Moran overload and when she was on Woman's Hour I went right off her. I have got over that now, so maybe I am ready to read this.

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    1. Thanks so much, Simon! You'll love this book, I feel sure. I can hear you laughing at it already!

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  24. I just finished this and absolutely loved it! I've now started following her on Twitter and hope to (ahem) find a way around The Times's firewall so I can read more of her columns. I am also going to buy several copies to give to friends. What a great recommendation.

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    1. Oh, fantastic news! Thanks for coming back and reporting the success :)

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  25. Starting this book right now, great review!

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