[1968: the opening night of the musical Hair. Dennis and Sophie are attending together]
The audience for Hair was a surprisingly typical first-night crowd: lots of men in suits and their nervous-looking wives. Dennis was both disappointed and relieved. He would have enjoyed telling his mother that he’d spent the evening sitting amidst long-haired, bare-chested men and kohl-eyed, bare-breasted women, but many of the men looked as though they’d come straight from the City, and their wives straight off the 5.20 from Godalming. The men had a gleam in their eyes that might not have been there if they were about to sit through three hours of The Cherry Orchard, and there was a loud, and somewhat self-congratulatory, hum of anticipation before the curtain came up. But – and here was the relief – Dennis didn’t look out of place. He would go so far as to say that he looked rather young and bohemian compared to a lot of the people there – he’d decided, at the last moment and as a concession to the winds of change, to wear an open-necked shirt and a striped blazer.
Sophie looked extraordinary in a canary-yellow minidress and white boots, and the photographers in the foyer surrounded her.
commentary: Half the features in Funny Girl are tropes I regularly object to. The heroine has two names, Barbara and Sophie, and – she's an actress and comedienne – her role of a lifetime over several years involves playing a woman called Barbara. I can just hear myself: ‘how dare he assume the reader can be bothered to keep track of that?’ The viewpoint shifts all over the place – there’ll be a scene involving several characters, and we go into it with one of them and leave with another. Real-life incidents, such as this, the opening night of Hair, and people – Jimmy Page, Terence Stamp – are pushed into the book in minor roles. There are real black and white photos from the era as illustrations. (Actually I never mind that, no objections at all.)
And in fact I loved the book without hesitation or reservation. The name business is perfectly reasonable, and one of the strands of the book is the parallels and confusion between a TV series, the cast and crew, a fictional family and a real family – so the name confusion is perfect. He does the changes of POV beautifully, and I liked the glimpses of real people.
Nick Hornby is one of my favourite writers anyway (see his books and mentions of him all over the blog) – but that wouldn’t necessarily mean I loved this: many of his fans were very disappointed by it. Reading the reviews on amazon was fascinating, because they were evenly distributed. You can always ignore a lot of the reviews (‘arrived in good condition’ ‘this is a really terrible book so I only read 30 pages of it’) but the thoughtful bad comments were particularly intriguing because the criticism were of the features of the book that I most enjoyed.
Hornby is an incredibly literate, well-educated and well-read person, but there are two ways in which his books are unusual: he writes as though he has heard novels described but has never read one, so he tells a story in strikingly unusual ways (it is no wonder he likes Nina Stibbe, of whom I said something similar); and he has overtly said he likes books, his included, to be entertaining and interesting and funny, no matter how serious and literary their purpose. He says: all books can (and perhaps should) be all those things. And he lives by what he says – his books are exactly that.
There is a certain inconsequentiality, a vagueness about it, and I loved that. It’s a book that will float over months and many events in a short time, then zero in on a short meeting or event and give it in great detail. He made that work very well, along with the characters moving in and out and being followed by the authorial eye.
The reviews I could not get on with for a moment were those (often from people saying that they were previously fans of Hornby) that said this book wasn’t funny. I thought it was hilarious, always witty and at times hysterically funny. There were pages and pages of incredible dialogue, that had me falling about – but at the same time those pages were wonderfully informative and convincing about the process of writing, the process of trying to be funny, about being part of a team trying to create something.
‘Where are you from, Sophie?’ said Dennis.Nick Hornby writes about being a reader better than almost anyone I know – he did a regular column for the magazine The Believer called ‘Stuff I’ve been Reading’, and they were collected into books that are a great read (although you end up with a list of books to find). Some of my favourite books have come from these collections. He wrote a wonderful description of that rare feeling of finishing a book and of loving it so much you can’t read anything else, you are still lost in the world of the book. I was so glad that he described that – I have had it with a very few books, including Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell books. And although I didn’t feel Funny Girl was my favourite book ever, it didn’t change my world – but still, I was so lost in the book that I had to read through my favourite bits again rather than starting something new. I am certain this book is one I will re-read more than once.
‘I’m from Blackpool.’
‘You see, that’s interesting,’ said Dennis.
‘Is it?’ Sophie was genuinely surprised.
‘Coming from Blackpool is more interesting than being a vicar’s daughter.’
‘Couldn’t she be a vicar’s daughter from Blackpool?’ said Tony.
‘She’s no vicar’s daughter,’ said Clive. ‘
I’m assuming that’s rude,’ said Sophie.
There was something in the room, Dennis thought.
An absolute topclass book – though not for everyone.
The pictures show Girl in a Yellow Dress by Wayne Thiebaud, and the singer Diana Ross in Courreges from a website pleasingly called c PleasurePhoto