Alan Cumming (2021) Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.

I was vaguely aware who Alan Cumming is. For independent film consortiums, Miriam Margolyes seems to be the pensioner of choice to go on adventures and sell the results to BBC, ITV or Channel 4. She’s been sent to America a few times and to Australia. The latest wheeze is Scotland. Yes, Bonnie old Scotland. Who’d have thought of that? Monopoly money for old rope. They flung in Alan Cummings as a guide, and driver of their motorhome. He’s Scottish, I didn’t know that. Stanley Kubrick though he was American, so I’m in good company. I wouldn’t know a good actor from a ham. But my partner who watched bits of the scenery in the Grand Tour said Cumming’s dad was bad to him. That piqued my interest. Now is the time to fling in some quotes about happy families being all the same. We’re off to a flyer. Cumming’s da was a sadistic cunt.

The book starts with discord. He’s in a marriage, I wouldn’t call it unhappy. They’re trying for a child. She’s an old acquaintance from drama school. A few years older. She’s the star turn with the operatic voice. The diva.  He’s the man with a childish face that gets parts playing adolescents. I thought Cumming was gay. So being married to a woman (he later marries a man) was the done thing. And if you’re going to do the done thing, you might as well do it early.

Before he went from the West End of Glasgow (the snobby bit) to Drama school he worked for D.C. Thompson and Company near Dundee, and near his home. He wrote the Astrology bits and pieces. You will find a stranger in Uranus. Not quite, but similar. The Fiction department. A Thompson clone was on ever floor.  When we grew up, Cummings being much the same age as me, they produced The Beano and Dandy, but also The Sunday Post, with Oor Wullie in it, a true Scottish legend. Cummings points out D.C.Thompson had a London address to give their publishing empire legitimacy. No unions, but Unionism and no Catholics were a given. Cummings ticked all the right boxes. Gay men or women, of course, didn’t exist and were too risqué for even the Fictional department.

I knew he’d done the MC in Cabaret. I hadn’t seen him in that, but watched (I suppose like everybody else) the film version with Liza Minelli. I’d read the Christopher Isherwood books, Mr Norris Changes Train and Goodbye to Berlin on which the musical is based. Cumming suggests that Isherwood and W.H. Auden et al weren’t there to fight fascism or do anything highbrow, but simply wanting to escape England and sample cock. No big surprise.

Authenticity:

‘It’s hard to be your authentic self when you don’t know who you really are.’

Cummings was in New York, close enough in his apartment to witness 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers. He acknowledges the fear and mistrust of Muslims and those of non-white, pasty, Scottish skin colour that ensued. The finding of a scapegoat and the invasion of Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. And how this all fed into the moron moron’s Trumpism (maybe I’m reading too much into a general observation).

Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Faye Dunaway, Tina Turner, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Halley Berry, Gore Vidal…they’re all here (apart from Rod Stewart and Elton John). The book was five years late. Too early for a chapter on Miriam Margolyes and her observations on bowel movements and the howls of laughter that ensures. Ho-hum. Read on.    

Elizabeth Strout (2016) My Name is Lucy Barton.

I’ve a tendency to read short books like this quickly. I should have reviewed it quickly too, when it was fresh baked in my mind. I thought the last line in the book was ‘My name is Lucy Barton.’

Wrong. On the same page, (three from the end). ‘But this is my story.’ A first-person account of her life.

‘And yet it is the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s. It may be the story of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Mommy, Mom!’

The last line reads, ‘All life amazes me.’

The narrator is an oddity, everywoman, who tells the stories of every women. Lucy Barton is not a closed book the reader finds, but a successful author. What makes her successful is the attention, the love, she gives to other people’s stories. She models herself on an author she meets in New York, Sarah Payne (get it pain).

Payne offers Lucy Barton (and other would-be writers) nuggets of wisdom about writing. If I were to use a big, little, word I’d call it subtext.

Issues of class and gender are woven into other people’s stories. Virginia Woolf’s maxim that every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to write pretty much covers it. Money matters. Lack of it leaves the narrator terrified she might need to go home.

‘This is the 1980s’ she tells us. And in some ways it’s also the story of New York, up until the planes crash into the Twin Towers. It touches, for example, on issues of Vietnam and on the AIDs epidemic. But it might well be early twentieth century, her mum had never been on a plane until she visits Lucy and her father fixed farm machinery. Dirt poor, they were isolated by poverty and they smelled. Even locals looked down on them. Her father, a former second world war soldier, we come to recognise, suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Sins of the father passed to the sons. Her brother took to sleeping in a barn and reading to pigs awaiting slaughter and her sister married, unhappily, it seems, as quickly as she could. Lucy escaped that aching loneliness that writing found a way of filling.

The book begins with Lucy confined to a hospital for nine weeks. ‘A simple story, to get her appendix out.’  

Coherence and the backwards and forwards motion of time are difficult for any writer to master. The Man Booker Prize 2016 nominee, written by Elizabeth Strout makes it seem easy. Read on.