It’s a dainty little excursion through the author’s childhood via the sounds (music especially) and sensations that accompanied and fashioned her. One reason to like the book is that, er, Greenlaw writes extremely well. There’s sometimes a kind of gossamer fragility to her prose and her subject matter, and it’s nearly always carefully expressed and well thought out. This is her description of a photograph of herself aged seven on a family holiday in Wales:
“My dresses are simple shifts, nothing more than rectangles. This dress is a kind of reward, or perhaps a reminder. I am a girl, my blonde hair is scraped back beneath a clumpy black wig which comes complete with a lace veil I want to call a mantilla but it is no more than a nylon shiver, a shadow across my face.”
There’s a lot that’s well done - fragments of memories, quotations from major writers (Yeats, Woolf, Goethe, Homer, Barthes, Mandelstam, Wilde, Martin Hannett (!)), anecdotes about her liberal, borderline-hippy middle-class parents which often let me a little envious, and, fundamentally, a delicate, bitter-sweet account of her complicated family life and its attendant growing pains (which groups to belong to at school, all the usual acceptance-rejection dynamics, teen angst).
Greenlaw is so agitated
This is all readable enough in its own right. But she threads in a lot about music (more and more as the book goes on) and these parts are especially interesting. Because? Well, partly because she’s fairly skilled at talking about music in the first place (not the easiest task in the world). And also I’d venture to say she has pretty decent taste in music (which helps). Just as usefully (in fact most interestingly of all) she has some fresh insights into what music could mean to a thoughtful, insecure person growing up in nasty old 1970s Britain.
So, OK, the music. She name-checks Joy Division quite a lot, and went to see them a few times in London venues like the Electric Ballroom. It’s new wave that really lights her fire, the aftershock of punk as it (sort of) swept through her backwoods village in Essex in 1976-77. It seems she dropped her dalliance with disco and mid-70s hippy-rock when she was about 14 (already precociously music-receptive), cut her hair, got some drainpipe trousers and … started travelling to see bands like Adam And the Ants, Wire, The Human League, The Pop Group, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Vibrators … There were The Clash and others at the famous Rock Against Racism Victoria Park extravaganza (she was too far away to actually hear the music), and also lesser-name (but no less good) bands like Swell Maps, A Certain Ratio, and Modern English.
Mostly she doesn’t dwell on the bands or their recordings, just as she doesn’t dwell on anything for long in her light-touch book. But I think the Guardian reviewer Polly Samson’s wrong to say The Importance is “not particularly for music buffs” (whatever a music buff* is!) because this is precisely a book for people who are serious about music, albeit here it’s the emotions that matter rather than the tracklistings.
So she talks about the psychological-emotional effect of seeing Ian Curtis’ freaky dancing or being at a 1978 Vibrators gig where (as she puts it) “most of the other girls there were wearing bin-liners” instead of boring old jeans and sweatshirts. Haircuts are transformatory and she starts trying out DIY styles:
“In the spirit of appropriation, adaption and do-it-yourself, I was constantly on the look-out for something that could be cut up, ripped apart, dyed, bleached, and pinned back together.”
And I also liked her appreciation of colour:
“The colours of punk, like its rumour, set off a vibration and cracks began to appear - orange socks, blue hair, lime-green nails, pink trousers … With punk, it was more as if an old image of the world had been broken down to the four components of colour printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These are dead colours.”
There you go - Greenlaw’s Courtauld’s training’s not been wasted, it appears. She says punk “altered her aesthetic sense completely” and it also seems to have filtered deeply into her subconscious, affecting the way she related to the world. (Surely not?, you’re thinking - but why not? This is the sort of deep engagement that fellow travellers like Julie Burchill or Tony Parsons could only imitate).
So it’s really good stuff. While I wouldn’t want to do without Jon Savage, Greil Marcus et al for the expert commentator’s perspective, I don’t think I’ve come across a book before that gets as firmly under the skin of how punk might make a young fan feel. And that’s what it's all about, right?
And Greenlaw does another thing I found quite impressive. She takes us through her early life, from infancy to college days (as well as a peek at herself aged 24), and instead of the usual “oh, but I’ve outgrown all that now” finale, she leaves us with the impression that she still cares about this music (she was about 45 when the book was published).
Yes, she does something that lesser writers (Giles Smith for example) don’t do: she reminds us why it’s sometimes important to be earnest about music.
*My own music buffery means I can't resist quibbling with a chapter in which Greenlaw talks about an adventurous teenage jaunt to the USA, where she stays with a pen-pal in Columbus, Ohio. Here she marvels at the non-punk teenage straights who seem to be from a shopping mall-dominated alternative universe ("Ohio was not the America I had envisaged from Velvet Underground albums and Jack Nicholson films"). Yet if she'd taken a two-hour trip north on Highway 71 to Cleveland she could have checked out the amazing local scene there (Pere Ubu, Devo, etc). We're so agitated ...