Tag Archives: autobiography

Book Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the story of Jeanette Winterson’s childhood up to her writing Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and it then skips 25 years to pick up what happened with her life when she was much older (though this part connects with the earlier bit!). In other words, it’s not about her success as a famous author. It’s brilliantly moving and gives you a magnificent portrait of life in a northern English town in the 1960s (spoiler alert: it is grim!)


I decided to read this because next week I’m going to see Rebecca Solnit being interviewed by Jeanette Winterson as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. I love Rebecca Solnit (as previously documented here and here), but I haven’t ever read any Jeanette Winterson, though I am aware of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I decided I needed to read a Jeanette Winterson book, and couldn’t resist this one – I was drawn by the picture of Blackpool on the cover (my home town) and really wanted to read about her childhood in Accrington. Basically, set a book in North West England to guarantee I want to read it. That feeling where you recognise the landscape or place in the description is irresistible (it last happened for me in The Loney – set around the Morecambe coast, but hasn’t happened very often).

Jeanette was adopted. She is reminded daily by her mother that she could have chosen a different baby – she is compared to the mysterious Paul, who would have been a much better child than she was, and less possessed by demons.  The family are poor. Her Dad works long hours and leaves the parenting to her mum (though is called upon to dish out regular physical punishment). Her mother is a Christian who believes the Apocalypse is due any day. We are all doomed to die and we must spend all day reminding everybody. The house is full of biblical quotes on pieces of paper taped around the place. Oh, but books aren’t allowed. Education should be minimal, lest you stray from the teachings of God, and don’t you dare try and expand your horizons.

To say Jeanette had a miserable upbringing is the biggest understatement. Her own family life is so wildly bizarre, that would be enough to make this a fascinating book, but we also get an incredible portrait of general life in 1960s working class Accrington. It’s like an old episode of Coronation Street on steroids.

Just one example is the story of Auntie Nellie. It totally broke me reading about Auntie Nellie. Auntie Nellie who gave onion or potato soup to all the neighbourhood kids a few times a week. They would be 30 or 40 in a queue at her door, all hungry because they never had enough food at home. Auntie Nellie would fill up their cup with soup. Auntie Nellie who never took off her coat. Aunt Nellie who they discovered didn’t own any clothes after she died, when they were preparing her body for burial.

When Jeanette reaches college age, she finally leaves home. She lives in her car, while studying for her A levels, until she is taken in by a teacher. This isn’t much of a hardship for her as she is used to either sleeping on her doorstep, after her mother locks her out of the house, or being locked in the coal shed.

Somehow, miraculously, despite her upbringing, she gains a place at Oxford University. I cried buckets when this happens in the story! I know this is partly because my job involves trying to persuade working class kids, from a grim northern English town, to raise their aspirations and apply to Oxford or Cambridge for University. And it’s tough, there’s such low confidence in so many of them that they won’t even try because they are terrified of not making it. I was so happy for Jeanette. Her drive and determination to succeed is so inspiring. It doesn’t spoil the book to know this is what happens in advance – how she gets to this point is the magic of her story.

When she arrives at Oxford, she is immediately told by her tutor that she is the ‘working-class experiment’ and her friend is ‘the black experiment’. So things are not plain sailing even from this point.

I haven’t even mentioned another incredible part of her story. Jeanette is a lesbian. Her mother and her church attempt to perform an exorcism on her. It’s just disgusting what they put teenage Jeanette through. Utterly vile.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is one of the best autobiographies I’ve read. It’s written in a quite rambling style – where the narrative is linear in time, but there are frequent departures into interesting stories that aren’t specifically connected with the main text. It gives it you a feeling like you are in conversation with the author yourself. It follows that conversational style and feels very natural when you read it. I can’t wait to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit now! I’m really looking forward to the Manchester Literature Festival event next week.





Book Review: Anger is an Energy – John Lydon

I like John Lydon. He is straight to the point and I agree with a lot of his core attitudes and beliefs. That’s not to say I agree with everything he says, and boy, does he have a lot to say. At almost 520 pages this is no quick read. Still, I loved every minute of it. You are fully getting his no holds barred opinions here. Or if he is holding back, you certainly can’t tell!

If you stand up for whatever it is you really believe in, if you really stand up, and be accounted for, people will rate you highly.


Anger is an Energy on the kindle with some other punk books!

His account of the Sex Pistols days is fascinating and quite sad. He felt alone and disregarded and/or ignored by the rest of the band most of the time. It comes across that the other three (Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook) never really accepted him fully into the band, as they already formed the band before John came along. I have no doubt that John, as he freely admits, isn’t the easiest person to get along with! and he just rubbed them up the wrong way (a theme throughout the book). I would definitely like to read some other accounts of that time period to get some other perspectives on what happened. As you can see from the picture above, I have Steve Jones’ book ready to go.


L-R Glen Matlock, John Lydon, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook.


It is fascinating though. That band were truly at the heart of an amazing moment in history. It probably helps that I’m a fan of punk rock. I love his scorn of the majority of punk bands. I share a lot of the same views. So many identikit bands trying to out macho each other. Repulsive. The bands he praises are all stand out bands like the Buzzcocks. He hates that punk quickly became very narrow in its definition: there’s a certain uniform, a haircut, a way of treating people, a sound – and woe betide anyone who doesn’t conform. John refuses to be narrowly defined – especially musically, but actually in every aspect of his life, and so he gets constant abuse in his life beyond the Sex Pistols. A constant minority who seek him out and are angry because he ‘sold out’. In other words, he dared to move on and try new things that musically interest him.

Being open-minded to all kinds of music was Lesson One in punk, but that didn’t seem to be understood by many of the alleged punk bands that followed on after, who seemed to be waving this idea of a punk manifesto. I’m sorry, but I never did this for the narrow-minded. I was horrified by the cliche that punk was turning into.


The Sex Pistols after Sid Vicious had replace Glen Matlock. L-R Steve Jones, Sid Vicious, John Lydon, Paul Cook. 

Earlier in the book we get some of his home life growing up. He’s from a very working class London background. His descriptions of himself at school were great and really clear – I know EXACTLY what sort of student he would have been in my classroom – one of those cheeky, annoying but lovable ones! Frustrated with their lack of effort because you can’t follow their particular interest all the time. Full of questions that are related, but are a distraction to what you actually need to teach that day. Oh, sorry, just having high school teaching flash backs there!

His move from a school to basically a technical college for naughty kids chucked out of school is interesting and there he meets Sid. I love this quote about his time at the technical college. The idea that he still wore his school uniform is absurd, and says so much about his personality!

It was basically just school by any stretch, so I wore my William of York uniform still, because I didn’t want to wear anything that I liked. But it was a bit of a fashion parade. Sidney certainly used it as a catwalk.

After Glen Matlock leaves the Sex Pistols, Sid is brought in and the break up of the band seems almost inevitable at this point. It’s such a dysfunctional relationship they all have.


Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten (aka John Ritchie and John Lydon)

After the Sex Pistols you get a lot of details about line up and management changes for Public Image Limited (PiL). I’m not familiar with the musicians from this band, and didn’t know any of the many people discussed. It’s still interesting, but in more of a vague way of seeing how all over the place the band and John’s life was. This continues up until the later 90s where you get a Sex Pistols reunion tour. Then in the 2000s there is I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here – which I remember watching because Lydon was on it. Followed by a few nature programs he makes. And of course the infamous butter commercials!


John Lydon by Paul Heartfield from http://www.clashmusic.com/features/in-conversation-john-lydon

At this stage you discover that Lydon, and his wife Nora, begin to parent Nora’s grandchildren. It’s a sweet part of the book where he explains how they had to change their lives to give everything they could to these wild teenagers that they were suddenly responsible for. All the parts of the book where he describes his love for Nora are quite beautiful. They fell in love when they met during the Sex Pistols time, in 1975, and they are still together today.

Overall, this is a great book. It possibly helps if you have some interest in Lydon to begin with, but I imagine you must if you are considering reading 520 pages about him! It’s glorious that there is a note from the publisher at the beginning basically begging you to not sent in grammatical errors from the text – Lydon has his own way of using English and the ‘mistakes’ are just how he is talking!


‘Don’t let tiffles cause fraction’

Lydon is upfront, unapologetic, harsh, and uncompromising. But he’s also a family man, loyal, a supporter of education, and interested in everything the world has to offer. There’s a place for him at the table of my imaginary perfect dinner party anyway.