I can't help but love Caitlin Moran, she was home educated after all (we are awaiting a further season on the wonderful 'Raised by Wolves' that she and her sister have written about their childhood in Wolverhampton) and I remember being so delighted by her book 'The Chronicles of Narmo' because it presented home education as this slightly wild and chaotic thing rather than 'kids round the kitchen table with textbooks' that is the image most peddled by the mainstream media. Mum sent me 'How to Build a Girl', again to entertain me during my recuperation, and it has been wildly entertaining. Its story is so far from my own teenage years as to imagine I am a different species but there are still things that ring true about how young people try to make sense of growing up. It is a story of self-invention and re-invention, but of course having to learn the hard way. I also admire the way she gets the politics in there too, without ever feeling like she is lecturing, it is just part of life.
Two quotes, one from the beginning, one from the end. The first is Joanna describing her home town, and you are certain this is Caitlin Moran at her most autobiographical:
"The town centre is always quiet - as if half the people who should be here had left some time ago. Buddleia grows through the top windows of Victorian blocks. The canal basin is solid with old washing machines. Whole roads of factories have closed down: the ironworks, the steelworks, all the locksmiths, save Chubb. The bicycle factories: Percy Stallard, Marston Sunbeam, Star, Wulfruna and Rudge. The steel jewellery and japanned-ware workshops. The coal merchants. The trolleybus system - once the largest in the world - is just a series of dreamlike veins left on old maps.
Growing up during the Cold War, and the persistent threat of nuclear apocalypse, I have always vaguely presumed that the nuclear apocalypse had, in fact, already happened - here. Wolverhampton feels like the ruined citadel of Charn in The Magician's Nephew (C.S. Lewis, Bodley Head, 1958). A city that suffered obvious, massive trauma when I was very small, but to which no one refers now. The city died on their watch, and there is a communal sense of misplaced culpability about it. This is what dying industrial cities smell of: guilt and fear. The older people silently apologising to their children." (p.23)
Secondly when Joanna is finally brought up short and forced to think about the way she is both behaving and writing. It is not something I personally felt that the character was capable of grasping and articulating so succinctly, and so again felt that maybe it was Caitlin reflecting back on her own growing understanding of teenage cynicism. A young man, the morning after a party, asks her why she doesn't write about music she likes:
"Because I am the weakest, youngest one in the gang at the D&ME, and need to kill to prove my loyalty. Because I am still learning to walk and talk, and it is a million times easier to be cynical, and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don't know what I really think or feel, and i'm throwing grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven't yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
At the time, I think of my own, new pugilist air as utterly righteous. I am a lone gunslinger, come to town. I am Travis Bickle, taking the scum off the streets. If someone has the right to do something, then I have the right to try and undo it. Every time I shoot down some no-hoper band, I leave a little more room for the new David Bowie to appear.
Of course, the thing about Travis Bickle, and lone gunslingers, is that they're not really the kind of people you want to invite to parties. For if your self-appointed role is coming into the party, late, dressed in black, and shooting over everyone's heads towards the stage, the party will begin to ... sour. People who have quieter voices, or who aren't so sure of themselves, do not want to speak up any more. They will not take to the stage. Only the more confident, and boisterous, will want to address the crowd.
The atmosphere changes - for now, it's just the extroverts left, shouting each other down. The introverts have gone back underground - taking with them the quieter notes, the minor chords. The playlist constricts, stultifies: people only play old favourites. Everyone is too scared to stand up and risk something new, that might sound odd to impatient ears." (p.260-261)
The two pages where she waxes lyrical about the size of Big Cock Al's cock was just hysterical, mocking by hyperbole is always the best kind, but the sex and the drinking and the drugs were balanced beautifully by Joanna's relationships with her brothers Krissi and Lupin and this remain her strongest redeeming feature. I am not sure I would have wanted her for a friend, I would probably have watched from the corner in terrified fascination.