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leyla

Nothing

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When Paul Morley's memoir about his father's suicide, Nothing, came out in 2000, I bought it immediately, but couldn't bring myself to read it, despite having been an avid fan of Paul's writing since my teens. (I'll call him Paul rather than Morley; the latter brings back memories for him of his disciplinarian grammar school.) The reasons that I couldn't face reading the book were complex, combining a reluctance to face up to the act of suicide since my own sister had killed herself when she was 22 and I was 21 in circumstances that combined horror with soap opera implausibility; a subsequent general hiding from anything that would conjure analysis of my family past ( a mindset that also stopped me following the area of medicine which fascinated me most, psychiatry, instead choosing the less introspective specialties of general medicine and then anaesthetics); and, to a lesser extent, an unwillingness to evoke the inevitable painful nostalgia for the days when I worked with Paul at the NME: I loved the thrill and fulfilment of being a receiving physician, sorting the emergencies of acutely ill patients, and enjoyed the camaraderie of anaesthetics, but a part of me has never found a job I loved as much as freelancing for the NME, which I did mainly between 1981 and 1983. However exciting and satisfying medicine could be, working an obligatory 90 - 130 hours a week and, for much of that time, being paid at half rates for all hours above 40 so that most of your week was spent earning a lower hourly rate than the cleaners inevitably took the shine off. (Trainee doctors are paid decently for their overtime now, deservedly.)

 

So I forgot about Nothing for nine years, although 'forgot' is probably the wrong term. I watched it warily on my shelf and it watched me back, ruefully, silently accusing me of neglect. Whenever Paul popped up on the TV or in print, I'd remember how much I'd liked him (he was a bit of a mentor to me) and his writing, but I thought it would bring back too many awful memories of my own to read about his coming to terms with his father's suicide.

 

Then Kevin Cummins's book Manchester Looking for the Light Through the Pouring Rain came out a couple of months ago. My review of it is elsewhere in this blog. It was fabulous to see those beautiful, iconic images of timelessly wonderful Manchester bands collected together, and the essays were all superb too. Paul's contribution touched on the suicide of his father and his own embarrassment at embarrassing people by having to mention it. This tallied with my own experience - not wanting to mention it to people for fear of putting a blight on their day and therefore either keeping it secret (very few of my medical colleagues ever knew about my strange family), or disclosing the information in an airy, matter-of-fact way as if it meant nothing to me . And reading of Paul's father's death just made me wish I'd known about it when I worked with Paul.

 

Then I went to see Cummins and Morley talk about the book in London. It was the first time I'd seen Paul since around 1982, and spurred me to read Nothing.

 

I couldn't put it down. I fear that the first chapter may have put some readers off, plunging as it does into the unsettling terrain of Paul viewing a dead body for the first and only time in his life. The reader, knowing the subject of the book, assumes that the body belongs to Paul's father, but it transpires it's actually Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who killed himself on the eve of the band's US tour in May 1980. Tony Wilson wanted Paul to see the body because Wilson, with either shameless opportunism or ultimate, obsessional loyalty, or possibly both, wanted the band to live on in people's memories and figured asking their most enthusiastic supporter in the music press to see Curtis's broken body would help propel the band to the superstardom they never enjoyed in life.

 

This opener is disturbing and frank, and, in typical fashion, Paul embarks on a stream-of-consciousness monologue on death and the number of dead bodies he's seen on TV, and the methods used to embalm the dead, and so on. I can say from experience that this ability to think factually is one of the more jarring aspects of sudden, shocking bereavement. Of course Curtis is not related to Paul, but in a way he lets himself think the thoughts that he held back when his father died a few years previously when Paul was twenty.

 

From here, the book sweeps back over Paul's early life, growing up as the oldest child with his parents and two sisters, first in the Isle of Wight and later in various homes in Stockport just outside Manchester. Anyone fearing this may be a morbid read should assuage those worries now, Nothing is charming, thoughtful, interesting, intelligent and often hilarious. It is also painful in parts but painful in a good way if that's not a paradox; insightful, sensitive, searching for answers and making do with fragments. My first reaction on reading it was to want to give Paul a hug. My second reaction was amazement at how insightfully he captures the sequelae of a suicide in the family. I had assumed the memory gaps for much of the year of my own family trauma were an idiosyncratic thing (people recall meeting me that year, I have only blanks), but Paul suffered them too. The same with those dreams where the dead person is alive again, having been dead or perhaps just in a coma and now brought back to life. The grasping at the shards of memory on waking and their dissolving into nothing while realisation dawns is also skillfully portrayed. And Nothing is also scouringly perceptive about the unreliability of memory - like Coetzee's recent novel Summertime, Nothing shows how convinced people can be that their version of memory is the correct one.

 

There are many delightful sections in this memoir. Paul's coming of age, his growing passion about music, his burgeoning interest in girls coupled with his shyness, his first kiss, his tactics to avoid washing his hair (!), his humiliations at his loathed grammar school, are all documented with acute self deprecating wit. I laughed out loud at so much of it that far from being the sombre read I feared, it was actually soaring and uplifting in many parts. Paul manages to bring surreal humour to the most unlikely items and events - the monstrous settee in their living room, an unwanted present from his father's frightening mother; his hellish first day at Stockport Grammar where he gets on the wrong bus (embarrassment seems to be an occupational hazerd for day dreamers - I missed my own first day of secondary school as my mother 'forgot', so had to turn up on day two wearing an ill-fitting sack as the school uniform provider had run out of non tent-like sizes. Twenty years later, despite waking up neurotically early, I turned up late for a new registrar job in Falkirk because I was so busy reciting 'get off at Falkirk' on the train that I forgot to get off at Falkirk.)

 

Many sections combine humour with an almost unbearable poignancy. The pages dealing with the settee, for example, made me laugh uproariously at one point and then almost cry the next:

 

'He sat on a second-hand settee and he had the look of a man who had outlived certain desires. The settee wasn't entirely responsible for this, but it didn't help. It smelt old, as if it spent a large amount of the day belching out stale wind. It was bloated enough for you to feel that it had a problem with gas, not necessarily the kind of gas you find swirling enigmatically through the fibres of the universe, but the gas you get from eating too many baked beans. The settee had experienced years and years of intimate human touching, it had been crushed by selfish arse after wriggling arse, undermined by an eternity of fatigue and laziness. It was silent but if it had been able to make a noise it would have been a very tired noise, a sad, sighing noise, a noise that never ended.'

 

There are many such moments of delicious humour. Another noteable one is when Paul persuades his mother to buy him a pair of enormously flared trousers, waving aside the fact that their adherence to the school uniform code is besmirched by ostentatious white stitching. The geography master accosts him ('He boomed with devil-winged scorn: Are those trousers that you are wearing?') and he is sent home in disgrace under orders to cut his hair and obtain regulation trousers. But money is very tight, Paul doesn't dare admit this setback to his parents, and the Long Night of the Trousers ensues, in which he seriously contemplates whether death would be a preferable option to life as it stands.

 

The sad picture of Paul's father that emerges is of a man who married and had children too early, possibly as a means of escaping his ferocious mother whose love for her son was always tinged by distrust of men, her own husband having run off with another woman. Paul's father never knew his own father and was led by his mother to believe for many years that his father had died. His mother (with what one imagines to be fairly brutal frankness) finally tells him that his father was living for all these years but has now died. The opportunity lost plunges Paul's father into fresh despair.

 

Nothing is excellent at conveying how the warped, abnormal dysfunction of a family is seen as normal by the children. Throughout Paul's childhood, his father would disappear for days at a time, once with another woman but more usually on his own. He would return deflated and desperate. On one occasion he is kept in a psychiatric hospital and given ECT because he is in such a catatonic stupor that he can't even say who he is. Paul's mother is convinced that some of the spark leaves her husband after the ECT which is perfectly plausible - who can say if this literally shocking treatment blunts emotions and dulls memories of good times as well as helping a proportion of those who receive it. What is most heartbreaking is that treatment for depression in those days was so lamentably poor. The GP tells Paul's father sharply to 'snap out of it'. Anti-depressants of that era were laden with unpleasant side effects. Nowadays the talking therapies and drugs are far superior, and of course, long overdue, it's now not shameful or stigmatising to admit to depression. It makes me shiver to think that not long ago it was so different.

 

And of course, Paul's father's death is not the only one haunting this book. Paul has never made a secret of the fact that Joy Division is his favourite band of all time. The tragedy of Ian Curtis's life and death lurks in the background as Paul searches for answers to his own father's suicide, another waste of a young life only partly lived, another question seeking resolution which it will never find.

 

Overall, the picture of Paul that emerges from this book is a far more complete one than that which his other writing paints. His journalism and appearances on TV have always attested to his enthusiasm and passion about music and popular culture as well as his intelligence and eloquence, but Nothing shows a human side, a side that is warm and that loves his family, a side that is heartbreakingly sensitive but not (like his father) in a self destructive way.

 

In the end, Paul and his family finally talk about the suicide. This helps, although no amount of talking will answer all the questions or resolve the kernel of raw pain buried in them all.

 

Did Nothing help me face up to my own sister's suicide? I'm not sure yet. The circumstances were very different. My parents fought day and night, often physically; my sister went off the rails pretty early, taking all sorts of drugs and triggering a schizophreniform psychosis. Even before she developed delusions she had alienated some of those she knew by spinning bizarre, attention-seeking untruths. The family reaction was very dysfunctional. My father judged his children on their academic ability so he never praised my sister's brilliant art or talent in piano (I was crap but she effortlessly obtained grade 9 and played Chopin gorgeously), or her passionate writing (she wrote for Sounds while I wrote for NME). My mother defended my sister dysfunctionally, reacting against my father by having screaming fights with him and allowing her to stay out all night in her early teens. My mother seemed to hate me for being the quiet shy academic one; she sneered when I got good O and A levels, went ballistic when I started writing for the NME (she saw it as my sister's territory) and, when my by then psychotic sister sent me a death threat at uni for having a 'telepathic affair' with some boy she liked and I'd never met, my mother screamed at me. My sister jumped in front of a tube train in July '85 when I was 21 after years of taking heroin in a squat . Despite not having talked for years, when he heard the news my father had a heart attack and stroke. They lay comatose in different wards in the Royal Free and both died within six months. I took a year off uni and spent the year in a depersonalised daze in a room in London on the dole while my mother paid for my brother (on a pre-uni year off) to spend most of it living life up abroad. After that kind of family life, anything else is easy to cope with, which is why I've been very happy as an adult, despite an auto-immune illness. Friends become the family you can choose, nothing - physical pain, illness, etc - is ever going to be as bad as that again, especially because nothing needs to be as secret and shrouded in shame. In a way the death of my sister and father was the first time I could express the abnormality of that family life - simply bleating 'my mother doesn't like me' never quite conveyed it.

 

I hope Paul has found peace. From the book, it appears that he still gets low sometimes when he remembers (how can you forget?), but his keys to recovery are the love of his wife, daughter and remaining family as well as adequate sleep. (Sleep deprivation worsens depression as well as predisposing to overeating of sugary food) For all its pondering of heavy philosophical subjects like life and death, Nothing is strangely uplifting, and the most emotionally honest book I've read for years.

 

*****

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