NOT the Wellcome Book Prize
Firstly, I was absolutely delighted that Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson (reviewed here) won the vote for the ‘NOT the Wellcome Book Prize’. It’s an outstanding book, and I was relieved that it did win by a country mile.
The shadow panel (Rebecca of Bookish Beck, Clare of A Little Blog of Books, Laura of Dr. Laura Tisdall, Paul of Halfman, Halfbook and I) enjoyed the process very much once again, but hope that the real prize will be back from hiatus next year – I’ve already mentally noted a pair of possibles for the longlist – I’m currently reading Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, and have You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy on the shelf.
A huge shout-out to Rebecca – Bookish Beck though, as she did so much work to compile potential books to be longlisted, and to get this off the ground and tirelessly promoted via Twitter etc. Thank you!
Becoming by Michelle Obama
What an interesting memoir this proved to be, albeit a little long, but it was never not fascinating. Regardless of having had help to write it, and I don’t judge her for that at all, her voice comes through loud and clear. If Barack is the thinker, Michelle is the doer in their partnership, something that was reinforced by watching the Netflix documentary about her book tour (it was lovely to see her mother and beloved brother, Craig in the documentary too).
Michelle’s account of their first meeting at the Chicago law firm where they both worked one summer was so sweet – he was late on his first day! Their personalities may be chalk and cheese, but they shared the propensity for hard work that lawyering required. Later, once Michelle realised that what she really wanted to do was to work in supporting women and children to get the opportunities they deserved rather than looking after the IP of Barney the Dinosaur, she worked even harder, while supporting Barack’s growing political role. Motherhood and politics took over for a while, but all through her time in the White House she took every chance to work on similar projects as FLOTUS. She also brought a mother’s touch to the East Wing, reducing formality and getting to know all the staff who would now have to cope with children’s sleepover parties.
A particularly interesting part was when she was knocked for six the first time the media took issue with an unscripted comment in one of her campaign speeches for Barack. Being taken out of context like that really hurt and seemed to rather take the fun out of it for a while, a rare show of vulnerability.
This was our book group choice for the month, those who listened to the audiobook which she read really enjoyed that. We were all inspired by this her – and wished she’d take up politics properly and run for President. (8.5/10).
The Sixties by Jenny Diski
This was my first encounter with Jenny Diski, I’m sure it won’t be my last after reading her account of this particular decade. I was born in 1960, so was at primary school during its heyday, although for Diski, the sixties began a little later than Larkin’s 1963, and continued until about 1974. I won’t quibble with her personal interpretation, she was there in the middle of it.
I do remember being shown the pink and yellow paving slabs of Carnaby Street though in the mid-sixties and being given a flower and a little bell on a string by hippie types while in London that day with my parents; doubtless, my mum would have been wearing a mini(ish) dress. That was my first experience of Diski’s ‘Sixties’; my last came with my only visit to the Big Biba shop in Kensington, shortly before it closed in 1975 with school friends – I bought a nail varnish. But enough about me…
Diski has divided her experience into six roughly chronological essays, each with a different emphasis – covering essentially clothes, drugs, sex, politics, education and therapy. First though, she introduces her concept of the sixties and the themes she will explore, acknowledging that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but ‘the music, however, was undeniably as great as we thought it was.’ She describes her memoir as very personal:
I’m qualified only to speak about the Sixties then and now as I lived them then and now. I lived in London during that period, regretting the Beats, buying clothes, going to movies, dropping out, reading, taking drugs, spending time in mental hospitals, demonstrating, having sex, teaching. America was very far away.
I’ll admit, I found the first four sections compulsive reading, the later part about her early teaching at a free school she helped set up much less so, and the last section about mental illness which detoured into the theories of RD Laing not so interesting. Diski had a troubled childhood with several spells as a teenager in hospitals for mental health issues and overdoses, but once she’d escaped to London, she took her drugs very seriously. She notes that the culture was less mercenary, less greedy than the eighties would become, “we didn’t take drugs to get by, we took drugs to see the world entirely differently,” – but recreational wasn’t in their lexicon. In the chapter on politics, she goes on the Aldermaston marches, and we hear about the underground press and the Oz obscenity trial.
The chapter on sex, called ‘Body Work’ puts paid to the myth of the permissive society. Communes may have been cheap, but they had complicated (male-driven) rules. The truth is shocking:
It was uncool to say no. It was easier to say yes than to explain. It was difficult to come up with a justification for refusing to have sex with someone that didn’t seem selfish. The idea that rape was having sex with someone who didn’t want to do it didn’t apply very much in the late Sixties. On the basis that no means no, I was raped several times by men who arrived in my bed and wouldn’t take no for an answer. But not wanting wasn’t the main thing. It doesn’t sound so exciting, this sexual revolution, does it? Mostly it wasn’t.
Her’s is a very honest account that dispels many myths, but not all of them – remember the music was great – but hang on, that bit’s absolutely true! It’s frankly amazing that Diski survived into the ’70s to become a teacher (she was rescued by Doris Lessing and resided with her for several years at the end of the ’60s into the ’70s, but that isn’t covered here). She may have dropped out but her writing is full of literary and other cultural references, cogently explained and I’m keen to read more of her work, although it’s sad that she died of cancer some years ago.
Everyone tends to see the 60s as only being exciting in London – Diski makes it clear that there were moments, but her view is far from rose-tinted. Just don’t forget, the music was great though! (8.5/10)