I’m going to start this review by getting all hipster – bear with me one moment while I put on my oversized specs and dig out some ironic vinyl records – and say that I loved Caitlin Moran before it was cool to love Caitlin Moran. Granted, I don’t buy a newspaper myself, or subscribe to The Times online, but my father and brother regard The Times as second only to Scripture and I flick through it when I visit either of them. More specifically, I have read Caitlin Moran’s columns for years. I don’t always agree with her, but I always find her brilliantly, ingeniously funny. The sort of funny that makes reading a newspaper actually fun.
Following on from the success of How To Be A Woman, which I have borrowed but have yet to read, a selection of her columns has been published under the title Moranthology. Geddit? Good. Her topics are widespread – a lot of celebrity-culture and arts & entertainment, but also just the world around her, from new dresses to Gregg’s pasties to tax (she’s pro.) Here’s how she glosses her inspirations in the introduction:
The motto I have Biro’d on my knuckles is that this is the best world we have – because it’s the only world we have. It’s the simplest maths ever. However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the Moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or forward to, with joy. There is always a moment when you boggle at the world – at yourself – at the whole, unlikely, precarious business of being alive – and then start laughing.
And that’s usually when I make a cup of tea, and start typing.
Caitlin Moran and I are unlikely ever to be friends. This is largely – though not entirely – because all her friendships seem to be assessed on the willingness with which said friend will breakdance, drunk out of their minds, in seedy clubs at four in the morning – or how much they admire Ghostbusters, which I’ve never seen. But, should our paths ever cross – at, say, 7.30 am, as she is stumbling back from a faux-Victorian strip club with Lady Gaga, and I am blearily crawling to the corner shop to get milk for my morning tea, not wearing any glasses because for some reason that only feels like a viable option in a post-caffeine world – should we meet, perhaps we would bond a little. Bond about our love of books (she champions libraries wonderfully; ‘A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival’) and our distrust of the Tory Party. Maybe even about how great Modern Family is, although that’s not mentioned here. But that might be it. I’ve never seen Sherlock, and I don’t much care for Doctor Who – these admissions are probably enough for Moran to cement-bag me to the bottom of the Thames, a la Mack the Knife. The columns where she reviews or goes behind the scenes of these shows are near-pathological in their adoration.
And, of course, there are plenty of other things we don’t agree about, or enthusiasms we don’t share. That’s beside the point. Moran could write about how much she likes dead-heading roses to make bonnets for foxes, and she’d make the hobby seem not only amusing, but rather bohemian and cool. Because Moran just is cool, without seeming to try at all. The sort of cool which entirely embraces self-deprecation and wears absurd foibles as badges of honour – and makes everything she writes seem adorable and awesome. (The only time I felt disappointed by Moran was when she referred to the ‘anti-choice’ movement. However strongly people may disagree over the issue of abortion, I’ve always deeply admired the almost-universal respectful use of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ by those who oppose either one. Because, Moran – as well you know – absolutely nobody takes an anti-life or an anti-choice stance. That is never their objective.) But, that aside, she doesn’t put a foot wrong. She can babble about Downton Abbey, declare her hatred of children’s book/TV character Lola, or opine on her holidays to Wales, and it’s all just brilliant. And it’s brilliant because she has her tone down pat – a way with simile that is always innovative and hilarious (she, for instance, describes X Factor alum Frankie Cocozza as having ‘a voice like a goose being kicked down a slide’) and a clever mix of high and low registers which is positively Dickensian – throwing slang in with perfect judgement. Because (see above) she’s so cool.
And that mention of Dickens isn’t careless. Caitlin Moran is basically a 21st-century Dickens, with crazy awesome hair. In amongst all the hilarious columns on the ugliness of fish names or how someone stole her hairstyle, Moran gets in some serious social politics. So, like Dickens, she is incredibly funny – but uses the humour to slip in social commentary; the difference being that Dickens would give us a plucky urchin at the mercy of Sir Starvethechild. It would be glorious, but his point would be rather lost in a thicket of the grotesque. Moran, give or take some emotive wording, just tells it as it is.
Moran grew up on a council estate with eight siblings and parents who were on disability benefits. As she says, ‘I’ve spent twenty years clawing my way out of a council house in Wolverhampton, to reach a point where I can now afford a Nigella Lawson breadbin.’ But she still knows what poverty was like firsthand, and writes movingly, sensibly, and brilliantly about various issues to do with cutting benefits or alienating the poor.
All through history, those who can’t earn money have had to rely on mercy: fearful, changeable mercy, that can dissolve overnight if circumstances change, or opinions alter. Parish handouts, workhouses, almshouses – ad-hoc, makeshift solutions that make the helpless constantly re-audition in front of their benefactors; exhaustingly trying to re-invoke pity for a lifetime of bread and cheese.
That’s why the invention of the Welfare State is one of the most glorious events in history: the moral equivalency of the Moon Landings. Something not fearful or changeable, like mercy, but certain and constant – a right. Correct and efficient: disability benefit fraud is just 0.5 per cent. A system that allows dignity and certainty to lives otherwise chaotic with poverty and illness.
Who but Moran could write about her hatred of creating party-bags, her love of David Attenborough and her friend with schizophrenia who has to move cities in order to retain state-given accommodation? Not in the same column, you understand, but I wouldn’t put it past her. Moran has won all sorts of awards, I believe, and I would say that she deserves them – but, quite frankly, she is the only columnist I ever read. I’ve been enjoying her columns for years (some in this book are, naturally, revisits for me) and I’m so delighted that they’re now available as a book. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another, since this can only represent a small percentage of her output. But I’ll count my blessings with this one (thanks Colin for giving it to me!) and urge you to seek it out. Like I said, Moran is basically Dickens. Hilariously funny, socially conscious, rocks some impressive sideburns. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.