By Lavinia Greenlaw
I adore books that cover musical memories from the 1970s and 1980s, the formative years of my teens and twenties. The 1970s in particular, despite all the horrors they’ve thrown up since, are my musical heartland.
Lavinia Greenlaw is a poet and author and is just a couple of years younger than me, growing up in London then Essex. This book was first published in 2007, but hadn’t had a paperback issue until this spring. I was drawn to its cover in the bookshop – and the moment I found it was a book of teenage memoir inspired by the music of the 70s, I had to have it. Greenlaw’s first novel, Mary George of Allnorthover (2001) was also about the 1970s and the coming of punk, and she writes a lot about music in other media, wining the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for her soundwork Audio Obscura. I thus had high hopes for this book, and it didn’t disappoint.
Each of the 56 short chapters, most of which are three or four pages long, is prefaced by an epigraph – a snatch from song lyrics, poems, books or other quotations, carefully selected to highlight the section’s theme. A favourite was one by Roland Barthes… “plastic…is in essence the stuff of alchemy…” which could only lead to memories of seven inch singles, stacked high on a dansette; the decisions over which side to play first of a double A-sided single and the like.
We start though, with Lavinia still in primary school in Camden. In this section, she is having country dancing lessons – but not the dancing of wild Ceilidhs or Scottish reels we graduate to later – this was basic English country dancing with no Celtic roots in sight:
If this English dancing had any virtue, it was that it tried to be nice. It might have been dancing for people embarrassed about dancing. This was my national dance? Other people’s involved smashing glasses or plates; they wore sashes, hats, tassels, scarves and swirling skirts; they made noise. We were simply being conditioned, as in our sports days and Brownie troops, to join in.
I remember it well – we did it in South London too, but I remember it more fondly than Lavinia, possibly because Mr Godwin was our caller and he genuinely loved teaching the Circassian Circle and other dances to us. From country dancing to picking up one’s first instrument – the first line of the chapter entitled ‘Ventages’ made me laugh (ventages by the way are fingerholes on whistle, flute etc):
We started with recorders, the practice instrument on which one makes practice music.
Greenlaw graduated to the violin, particularly liking holding and carrying it in its crushed velvet-lined case. She muses over how the instrument is uncomfortable to hold, and how Orpheous had his lyre grafted onto his body….
Recently, I was watching a chamber orchestra and thought that, more so than with any other instrument, the violin becomes part of the body.
Finally, on page 42, we get to a chapter called ‘Crush’ prefaced with a quote from Anna Karenina describing Vronsky. I was so glad that Lavinia dropped Donny Osmond and went (like me) for David Cassidy!
He was older, more complicated, more fashionable […] These American boys were feminine and masculine in ways which did not ironise each other. Like the Spartans Herodotus describes combing their long hair before the battle of Thermopylae, these boys clearly knew how to handle a blow-dryer as well as a fight.
This book is just so quotable. It’s not long before punk will make its first appearance, but this memoir continued to carve a parallel course to that of the charts as well. When she describes how she saw the film The Sting and went out to buy a book of Scott Joplin piano music, falling in love with some of the other pieces in the book rather than The Entertainer. “Me too!” I exclaimed to myself. We could be musical twins – me and thousands of other middle-class girls raised on a similar variety of music.
The thirteen-year-old Lavinia and her sister also had a poster-tearing-down moment. Did you have one of those? I certainly did, replacing David Cassidy with Bowie and Bolan amongst others. We (that’s Lavinia and me) then replaced pop stars with Roger Dean posters (even though we didn’t listen to Yes, whose album covers he designed) – another musical twin moment. It was with punk, that our paths diverged, Greenlaw embracing it. whereas I stayed fascinatedly watching from the sidelines.
Greenlaw may not have tried very hard at school, but she read an awful lot having a home full of great books. This memoir brims with mentions from novels and other tomes, complementing all the stories of school, Top of the Pops, Radio Luxembourg, comics, gigs, discos, shopping, first love, first booze and all the other preoccupations of teenaged girls. Greenlaw’s writing brings it all to life so vividly, it took me right back as you’ve seen. Even if you didn’t live through the 1970s, I believe that her style would take you there. Literate and totally engaging, The Importance of Music to Girls is a quirky, off-beat memoir, written with a poet’s ear – I loved it. (10/10)
Source: Own copy.
Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (Faber & Faber, 2007), paperback, 208 pages.