Monday, July 28, 2014

How To Build A Girl Readalong III: He looked like Richard Burton, full of song.

Another week, another instalment in the How To Build A Girl readalong and as always immense thank you's to Emily, Harper Collins, Caitlin Moran and everyone else taking part being so witty and interesting.

As this is the third week, obviously there will be spoilers for this week and the content from weeks before. But if you're also reading along, or have already read the book and are interested in checking out everyone's opinion then head over to Emily's blog to get the links to all the participant posts. And if you're in the US and want to pre-order the book, then head right over here.

The more of this book I read, the more I love it. And I'm actually really grateful that I'm reading it during a readalong because I'm forcing myself to only read the required chapters and savouring all the beautiful moments of sass, exploration and social observation. It's a beautiful thing, actually.

So before I get into this week's events, can I just point out something I meant to mention last week but completely forgot? Johanna has been stressing about her slip of the tongue for TWO YEARS. For two years she's snapped up the mail before her parents can, because she's terrified that she'll be the cause of the family's ruin. And that is just so utterly heartbreaking I can't even handle it. No child should have to go through that sort of stress.

Which actually leads into the rather large and important point of the week. Namely, that being poor sucks and that Caitlin Moran is brilliant at teasing out a point without pointing fingers and turning people into villains and saints. First through Johanna and then through her musician love, John Kite, Caitlin cuts down to the core of the issue of wealth. Namely that losing 11% of benefits doesn't sound like a lot (especially to a 16 year old with no real tangible concept of money) but 11% of basically nothing can be world ending.
There are no investments to cash in, to tide you over this 11 percent dip - no bonds, savings, or shares. There are no "little luxuries" to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. We cut our own hair, and read magazines in the library. There are no grand plans we can temporary shelve during this cash lull - like replacing our caar, or decorating the front room. We were never going to replace our car, or decorate our front room. 
When you already have a tight budget that accounts for every cent in and out of the house, 11% is HUGE. You can harp on about how the parents are irresponsible for bringing children into this situation, but in 1993 Britain was in a recession. Hundreds and thousands of families who hadn't been struggling were finding themselves scribbling budgets on the back of envelopes and worrying desperately about how to feed their kids, keep them clothed and set them up for a chance at a better life. Johanna's parents might be struggling, but they know where they went wrong and they want their kids to succeed where they failed. They may have let Johanna quit school, but they aren't going to let her take a spot beside them as they scramble together as many pennies as they can. Johanna is, bless her, like most young people (myself included) completely blind to the realities of life. She's at the start of her career and moving upwards. She's seen the world at 30,000 feet, she knows it's always sunny above the clouds - what rainy day does she possibly need to fear and squirrel money away for? So whatever you want to say about her parents, and I sure know they aren't perfect, it's clear that they are at least somewhat self-aware and do love their kids.

Which leads us to John Kite, the musician Johanna/Dolly/Duchess has fallen head over heels in love with. He acts as this perfect conduit between Johanna and Dolly. He knows what it means to be from a poor family but he's broken through to become something more. When she's around him, she's not the girl who embarrassed herself on television nor is she the girl who had to be created to be able to climb out of Wolverhampton. She's this perfect, ideal mix of the two.
John Kite was the first person I'd ever met who made me feel normal. That when I talked "too much," it was not the point where you walked away, going, "you're weird, Johanna," or "shut up, Johanna" - but that was when the conversation actually got good. The more ridiculous things I said - the more astonishing things I confessed - the more he roared with laughter, or slapped the table and said: "That is exactly how it is, you outrageous item."
From the talks I've had with a lot of you I think most of us fall into the introvert category, and I imagine we all know how it is to find that friend we don't have to try with. There's no awkward getting to know each other period, it just clicks. It doesn't happen often but when it does..... *sighs happily*

But perhaps more importantly this "filthy, ugly, loquacious man in a fur coat" opens her eyes to things that Johanna hasn't experienced and can also act as a conduit for us. Johanna may have grown up poor, but she's also quite insular in her life. She isn't particularly aware of what's going on in the world at large, so while Caitlin can write insightful discussions about surviving an 11% cut to a family budget through Johanna, she needs Kite to expand upon that and take it further.

Through an interview with Kite, both Johanna and the readers can ponder the position of the wealthy in society. As someone who has seen more than Johanna, he can tell us that in his experience rich people are not evil or malicious, they're blithe.
They believe nothing can ever really be so bad. They are born with the lovely, velvety coating of blitheness - like lanugo, on a baby - and it is never rubbed off by a bill that can't be paid, a child that can't be educated, a home that must be left for a hostel when rent becomes too much.
What I really loved about the interview with Kite though, is his perspective of politics and wealth. It touched on a lot of things I had thought about in the past but had never managed to accurately put into words. This post is becoming a big ol' quote-a-thon, but it's all just so good. 
Politics will always mean more to the poor. Always. That's why we strike and march, and despair when our young say they won't vote. That's why the poor are seen as more vital, and animalistic. No classical music for us - no walking around National Trust properties or buying reclaimed flooring. We don't have nostalgia. We don't do yesterday. We can't bear it. We don't want to be reminded of our past, because it was awful: dying in mines and slums without literacy or the vote. Without dignity. It was all so desperate then. That's why the present and the future is for the poor - that's the place in time for us: surviving now, hoping for better later. We live now - for our own instant hot, fast treats, to pep us up: sugar, a cigarette, a new fast song on the radio. 

On the surface this talk is so tangentially related to the plot. But it's also completely intertwined to the fundamental point of the book. Johanna might have built Dolly through a collage of pictures and quotes and songs and maps of London, but she also builds herself through her interactions with the world around her. She's grown up with an intimate relationship with poverty, with a family which requires the kids to grow up before their time and find their own, free, entertainment. She's come of age hearing her dad and uncles screaming at Margaret Thatcher on the TV, knowing that people are gossips who will banish a family to ruin because they don't care about what happens past their own garden fence. Perhaps that's why she gravitates towards John Kite, because he's basically the male embodiment of everything she knew and everything she's decided she wants to be. He's creative and funny and talks a lot, he's seen his family succumb to poverty and mental illness and worked out a way to make a career from that. He's proof that you aren't contained by your bad postcode, that being poor isn't a disability. He's hope. He's the Johanna's personal instant, hot, fast treat.

 This has been a pretty serious post, and it is a fairly serious section. Johanna has to deal with potentially losing her new job, her family losing their benefits, Krissi catching her...scratching her itch to demon fantasies. But it's also hilarious and fun. Playing Twin Peaks with Lupin wrapped in plastic, discovering that the buffet is a girls best friend at a party where she knows no one, discussing whether or not Mary Poppins would be filthy and sleeping in a musicians bathtub wrapped in his fur coat. Wonderful.


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