Monday, 30 June 2008

Don't read it, just read all about it

I don't read very many books nowadays (TV, shortened attention span, laziness, etc.) but I do read a lot of reviews. This gives me the feeling that I am not completely out of the cultural swim (I was going to say zeitgeist, but thought I'd better check, and found that I have used it five times in the last four years: that is already too many), and enables me to avoid feeling ignorant when people are talking about books.

Not that I pretend to have read books that I haven't (except sometimes when I know that everyone else in the conversation is doing it); it's merely that being able to quote from something I have read about a book, with or without attribution, stops me from being thought a complete stranger to modern literature.

And, of course reading a book review can often provide a better experience than its subject ever could; a perceptive and witty review of a rubbishy biography of a rubbishy person can be thoroughly enjoyable. Here are some snippets from Catherine Bennett's delicious review of Snowdon: The Biography, by Anne De Courcy, which tell you all you could possibly want to know about the book and the man:

What has worked for Lord Snowdon all his life almost works in this hagiography. In a little world populated by England's most ghastly and dim, he again appears to enormous advantage: abrim with style (of a sort), charm (if you like that kind of thing) and energy (mainly for sex). It is worth remembering, of course, that in this context the same would apply to the average tomcat.
....When, to his enormous satisfaction, the priapic photographer (then called Antony Armstrong-Jones) made it into the royal family, it was easy for this spoiled little pixie, with his extra-tight drainpipes and mesmerising bouffant, to be mistaken for a much-needed corrective to the snobbery, stupidity, and stolid sybaritism of the nation's top inbreds. Simply by being a society photographer, as opposed to a titled nothing, Snowdon was able to portray himself as an arty free spirit, almost an intellectual, under whose tonic tutelage, it was imagined, the Windsor troupe might evolve into a more acceptable, near-human subspecies.
...The most iconoclastic thing he ever did, as a royal, was to wear polo necks instead of ties, a level of democratic endeavour that proved eminently acceptable to his in-laws, who soon discovered that they preferred the dashing, yet reliably subservient, Tony to foul-tempered Princess Margaret.
...The exact nature of the qualities that captivated Princess Margaret, her family, Snowdon's legions of ill-treated lovers and, most recently, the author of this dazzled tribute, remains, even after 400 pages, obscure. Loyal De Courcy passes on reports of an extremely large penis, but that can hardly account for Snowdon's effect on Prince Philip. Or, later, on Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, who said Snowdon was "the best provost we ever had".
Was it wit? None is recorded here. Young Snowdon's speciality was nasty practical jokes, such as putting dead fish in girls' beds. It was the grown-up Snowdon's, too: "they would sortie out to the houses of neighbours they knew to be out or away", De Courcy hilariously reports, of the earl and his chums, "and rearrange all the furniture".
...Looks, then? As irresistible as Snowdon may have been in the 50s and 60s, and even the 70s and 80s, it hardly accounts for the posh old shagger's continuing appeal, not only to the author of this homage, but, incredibly, to an attractive young journalist, Melanie Cable-Alexander (by whom he fathered a child)
....Although De Courcy tries valiantly to generate admiration for various artistic and charitable triumphs, her efforts are continually nullified, not by her obvious partiality, but by yet more evidence of Snowdon's awfulness, as volunteered to her, exclusively, by himself. There are reasons, De Courcy shows, why Snowdon should have emerged so deceitful, manipulative and cruel; so mean, boastful and silly. His father sounds silly too. His mother more or less ignored him until he bagged Margaret. He had polio as a child, leaving him with a dodgy leg. Then again, you'd think that half a century of adulation, plus a family, experience and a bit of maturity would eventually even things out. On the contrary. It is only, one suspects, because he is using a wheelchair that Snowdon does not, even now, creep out of a night to plant dead fish or rearrange people's furniture.

I suppose I've taken rather more than snippets, but it's still worth following the link and reading the article, if only to learn about the wedding present for him and Margaret for which British servicemen's pay was docked by sixpence apiece, and why his mother was called Tugboat Annie. It was published in the Guardian, which tells you, perhaps rather optimistically, that you can buy De Courcy's drivel from their book service for £18 with free UK p&p.

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