One Great Reader, Series 3, No. 10: Paul Gorman
I don't think I know of another family whose love of books eclipses Paul Gorman's. Three of his brothers became librarians (!) and you'll quickly see in this week's interview how deeply enamored of books Paul is. I'd eagerly read anything he wanted to write about books' and reading's impact on his family and I hope this prompts him to think about doing so. I also think he has a unique memoir in him through the lens of his memories interacting with cultures of the cool variety, but in order to do so he'd have to take his intense attention off of the lives and works of others. Paul's latest book is a massive (880 pages, see, intense attention...) biography on Malcolm McLaren, which should be the definitive word on him for a long time to come. Before that he authored The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture (2017)—that subtitle is a bit of an understatement, for does any magazine from the past 40 years get mentioned more frequently as influential to so many creative people? He's also got under his belt rich books on Barney Bubbles, Derek Boshier, Tommy Roberts, and other British subjects that reside and overlap in Paul's sweet spots of fashion, music, and design.
I know no one blogs anymore—yes of course they do, they just now call them newsletters—but Paul has been doing so regularly since 2011 and there's a wealth of his writing on paulgormanis.com. As he tells you on the homepage, Paul Gorman is about all of this: art, books, conversation, cults, dancing, design, encounters, environments, events, film, galleries, groups, individuals, invitations, magazines, music, opinions, performance, photography, places, press, privacy, spaces, style, thoughts + views. You're about to get a fine taste of most of these right now as from the very first question on Paul took them and covered a lot of ground! See, intense attention... -Wes Del Val
WDV: Who got the majority of your pounds spent on reading anything last year? Physical, digital, newspaper, book/magazine publisher, one writer, etc, doesn't matter.
PG: When lockdown isn’t in force, a couple who live in one of the houses in our square set up a book stall against their railings at 7am every Saturday. There is a wide range—fiction, non-fiction, children’s, art, design, cookery, etc—priced 50p or £1, and an honesty box with a place to leave books for resale there.
When I walk our dog first thing at the weekend I make sure I have some change and always return with something interesting: The Bizarre Affair, a large-size illustrated book of Clarice Cliff’s work; a first edition of Alan Moore’s Watchmen; the Architectural Digest’s International Interiors; Paris & The Surrealists with photographs by Michael Woods and text by one of my favourite writers, the late George Melly.
Second-hand books have been my life-blood since my early teens in north London in the early 1970s. For years I haunted jumble sales (flea markets where the takings go to a cause, a local church fund or charity) for clothes, radiograms and gewgaws for my room and books, gathering together hauls which I have in my library to this day—a run of 15 or so of Richmal Crompton’s William Brown stories in the 50s George Newnes editions complete with illustrated dust covers, a tray of 30 orange spine Penguins for £1 including authors whose work I have investigated ever since: Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Edna O’Brien, Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene, John Updike, Saul Bellow and Anthony Burgess.
One time I came across an illustrated first edition of James Stephens’ magical comic novel The Crock of Gold; this resonated with me since I had been visiting Ireland with my family every summer since the age of five and was over-identifying with our Irish roots. The Crock of Gold led me to seek out such writers as Flann O’Brien and James Joyce, and, in the latter’s case, biographies of those figures who seemed important.
When I was 15 I found rummaging at a jumble sale Richard Ellman’s towering 1959 biography of Joyce, and on another stall Ross Russell’s relatively recently published Charlie Parker bio Bird Lives!. This in turn led me to Charles Mingus’s Beneath The Underdog. Non-fiction, memoirs and biography have remained a focal point ever since that time when I was an isolated teenager.
Meanwhile, back in the 70s and early 80s the Compendium bookshop in Camden, which sold beat and outsider literature, brought me up to speed on Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Bukowski.
But I digress. Apart from our neighbour’s book stall, my acquisitions these days are pretty evenly spread across the universe: digitally I subscribe to the New York Times and Washington Post and pay a monthly amount to The Guardian and read the coverage of all three papers daily online. Between us, my wife—a voracious reader who has educated me in the worlds of art, fashion, architecture and design—and I subscribe to physical copies of apartamento, Private Eye, World Of Interiors, the FT Weekend and the London Review of Books.
We also pick up irregularly such magazines as the New Statesman and Literary Review and I scan her purchases such as Paris Vogue. I have a British friend who has been stranded in Texas since the pandemic hit so I send him copies of some of the above as well as mags he will not be able to obtain there which give him a flavour of the old country, such as The Oldie.
I also collect one-off issues of publications when they cross my radar—recent examples include the excellent punkgirldiaries Blogzine 5 and the very touching special issue of Jockey Slut dedicated to the late musical alchemist Andrew Weatherall, who died suddenly last year.
Since I am currently writing a book about the music press 1950-2000 I have been acquiring particular back issues of Rolling Stone, Black Echoes, Black Music, Vibe and Melody Maker—I have a copy of the very first issue from 1926; it’s a revelation in the way that it dealt with race and identity—and the NME to fanzines such from Shout (about soul music in the 60s) and Ben Is Dead, the great US feminist punkzine in the 90s.
I also top up my archive with issues of what used to be described as ‘little’ magazines that I don’t already have such as the literally tiny The Fred, which covered vanguard British art and literature in the 1980s, and WET, the LA design and music magazine of the late 70s/early 80s. There are also those activist/radical titles, copies of which I am constantly adding to—Friends and its successor Frendz, my favourites of the British underground press, and Spare Rib, the pioneering feminist magazine which ran for 21 years from the early 70s. I have loaned examples of many of these to Subscribe, an exhibition about lifestyle magazines currently being planned by the Art Institute of Chicago.
Having written a book about The Face (Thames & Hudson, 2017) I already have a big collection of that title and others which set it in context, including i-D, Details and Blitz.
I have a library of books about magazines, and what with my music press book, have recently added Boys Own: The Complete Fanzines 1986-92, about the humorous zine which grew out of football and style culture to foreshadow the rise of acid-house and club/dance culture.
And I have many volumes on writers; some of these are coming in handy for my music press book, which aims to redress the balance of the earlier version, published as the oral history In Their Own Write in 2001. While I included female and minority writers in that edition, it was overbalanced in favour of entitled white men and I’ve felt guilty about that ever since. Now Val Wilmer’s Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, the Ellen Willis compendium Out Of The Vinyl Deeps, Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers’ Rock She Wrote, Sue Steward and Sheryl Garratt’s Signed, Sealed and Delivered and others are helping me gain a much more rounded perspective.
Whew, all that from the question of what did you spend your money on last year! I gladly welcome the enthusiasm, but therefore no follow-ups, moving on.
How much of each day do you choose and/or get to read for pleasure?
My life and work are indivisible, so what I am currently reading usually pertains to what I am writing, and it’s almost always non-fiction. But one of the strategies I have adopted for dealing with the anxieties arising out of the pandemic is to read fiction before I sleep. I find that this cools me out and stops me thinking about work/worldwide despair. Recently I’ve read Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Mayflies and, for the umpteenth time, Raymond Chandler’s last published novel, Playback, which was based on an unfilmed screenplay. It’s a melancholic book; I constantly cast and recast the characters as I read it. I have never written a screenplay but if I did it would be to return this to its rightful place. It’s not fiction, but I also can’t recommend Tabitha Lasley’s extraordinary Sea State enough (though it makes for a tough read if you’re a man). Her crystalline writing about experiences with the men who work on the North Sea oil-rigs blends reportage with personal memoir really effectively.
I also like reading books by people I know; it cheers me that they have made the effort and obtained the ultimate reward in getting the damned things published. I really liked Fayette Hauser’s recent investigation into the wonderfully deviant world of The Cockettes (Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy 1969-72) and love the British cultural commentator Peter York’s well-timed diatribe The War Against The BBC. This is a pamphlet style book, another Orange Penguin concisely pinpointing the interests of the dark forces which are now gathered: since they are anti-public service they are not only anti-BBC but pro the privatisation of the National Health Service. Add to that they will also simultaneously be Brexiters and climate change deniers and you begin to understand what we’re up against.
Who are your favorite people to see blurbing, where if you see they added their name and praise to a book you’re nearly guaranteed to like it?
As an insider I know that that stuff is all a bit of a racket but still I’m very grateful to Andrew O’Hagan for supplying the following for the paperback edition of my Malcolm McLaren biography:
"Paul Gorman’s book is the Citizen Kane of rock biography. It’s a brilliant story, an unforgettable tour of art, culture and British eccentricity. Just a terrific read. My advice is this: If you go to someone’s house and they fail to have a copy of The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren on their bookshelves, don’t sleep with them.”
Pretty good variation there on John Waters’ famous quote.
Don’t disagree about the quid pro quo nature of plenty of blurbing, but are there in fact some names that do pack some persuasive weight for you if seen on the cover of a book?
I guess John Waters would be a good example but honestly can’t think of anyone else.
What three subjects do you own the most books about?
I guess these are focused on the three major preoccupations of my life: music, popular culture and biography.
In regard to music and popular culture, a story: when I was at school in the 1970s we took O (for Ordinary)-Level examinations at the age of 16. The number you attained determined the direction of your studies for the next two years before you left or went into further education. A minimum of five O-Level passes was required in subjects including English language or literature, a foreign language, maths and a science. Academically already a failure, for the latter I chose Biology.
But the consumption of music and the culture around popular music consumed me to such an extent that I pored over every issue of the weekly New Musical Express - which at the time took its cue from the New Journalism and was as interested in covering phenomena such as Evel Knievel and Kenneth Anger movies as it was the latest releases by David Bowie et al - to the exclusion of pretty much all else.
On the report to my parents before I took my O-Level exams, a teacher wrote:
“If Paul is as familiar with DG Mackean’s Introduction To Biology (the set text of the period) as he is with the New Musical Express, he will pass his O-Level. As it is, he isn’t, so I fear he won’t.”
And his fears were confirmed. I didn’t. My academic career ended soon thereafter when my father’s ill-health forced a drastic change in circumstances leaving me to throw myself into all that the city had to offer that was judged bad for you, at the expense of school attendance.
As for biography and memoir, I am obsessed with the minutiae of other peoples’ lives. This was very helpful during my years as a journalist on unglamorous weekly trade papers. By the time I was 23 I had won the country’s leading prize for investigative reporting (about monopolistic practices in the food processing industry). It was presented to me at a swishy awards ceremony by Tina Brown. She soon left for the US and Vanity Fair. I stayed and became news editor of The Grocer…
This facility has also been helpful in assembling material for the 12 non-fiction books I have published. But I wonder whether this over-emphasis on facts and detail hasn’t painted me into a corner creatively. We shall see.
I think you should stay on the course you’ve established, but I’m biased as I share many of your same interests. However your last point is an intriguing one.
Speaking of minutiae, regarding details it’s a fine line when telling your own or another person’s story. What are some exemplary memoirs or biographies where you finished completely satiated on that front?
There are so many. Matthew Sturgis’s lives of Walter Sickert and Oscar Wilde are benchmarks for me, and Benjamin Moser’s recent life of Susan Sontag is masterful. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, Bob Collacello’s Warhol, George Plimpton’s Edie, Rachel Roberts’ No Bells On Sunday, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, John Lahr’s Orton, George Melly’s run of memoirs which began with Owning Up and included the immortally-titled Rum Bum & Concertina, Jonathan Meades’ An Encyclopedia of Myself and most recently Rupert Everett’s To The End Of The World—it’s a tale of film industry deceit which also made me laugh out loud.
Can you share memorable stories of people older than you putting certain books in your hands which permanently altered your life?
I’ve been wondering recently whether my (and my brothers’ and sisters’) facility for reading and writing at very early ages was a result of our strict Catholic upbringing.
The Church loomed large in our lives. We were not only there every Sunday but high days and holidays revolved around the Catholic calendar. Add to that the fact that two of my uncles were priests, one the chaplain at Strangeways prison in Manchester (as celebrated by The Smiths) for several years before retiring to the Vatican, and you can see how infused we were with the texts and the rituals. Words like catechism, confession, communion were our lingua franca, and the readings and prayers were inculcated in us.
Books were abundant in the house where I grew up; those on the shelves were mainly second-hand and either WW2 memoirs of the likes of Churchill or Field Marshal Montgomery, under whom my father served in the Africa Campaign in the combined British forces as a “Desert Rat,” or works by such long-forgotten writers as Ngaio Marsh.
There was no intellectual framework in which literature was discussed; in fact, to express critical cultural opinions in possibly high-falutin terms (“Big words like marmalade,” my mother would crow) was to run the risk of all-round mickey-taking. I liked that. It kept you on your toes. My mother was well-born but left school when she was 14 and worked in a card shop when I was growing up, my father was a net curtain salesman and had departed formal education even earlier and travelled the world with the armed forces before settling down with her and producing six children (I am the youngest).
We didn’t have a lot of money and it was a crowded, sometimes fractious household—though there were also parties and music and huge family gatherings—but my parents and siblings absorbed written material voraciously: as well as the above there would be on loan from the local library novels, detective fiction, travel writing, cookery books, books by popular columnists. And then there were the papers, which included London’s two evening publications printed each day in several editions, the sports and racing pages scanned assiduously by my Dad.
It was my siblings, and in particular my eldest brother Michael, who actively stoked the household appetite for literature. No coincidence that he and my other two brothers became librarians. After working at the British Library, Michael moved to the US and co-wrote the bibliographers’ bible Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules 2. His career took in oversight of libraries at university campuses in Illinois and California and he also served as president of the American Library Association. He thrives at 80, with a considerable library of his own built up over 70 years, including a full set of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanacks and the complete PG Wodehouse first editions.
I’m the youngest by eight years so benefited from the cumulative effect of this atmosphere—there was a feeling that I should be educated along the right lines: for Christmas and birthdays I not only received the latest rock, reggae and soul records, but also such books as Diary Of A Nobody, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and, at the age of eight from my sister Joanna, a beautifully illustrated volume of Greek myths and legends published by Paul Hamlyn which I have in front of me now, inscribed in her dramatic italic handwriting “December 1968.”
Another brother, Timothy, instructed me directly by giving me Animal Farm and 1984 to read at the age of 12 and then quizzed me on what I understood about them. He also led me to the works of the Bloomsbury set, particularly Virginia Woolf, and also Colette, Jean Rhys and Angus Wilson, while my late brother David’s interest in pop culture and politics took me to such books as Robert Greenfield's Stones Touring Party and Scandal 63, produced by the Sunday Times’ Insight team about the Christine Keeler affair 10 years earlier.
As I absorbed these influences and directions, I developed my own taste, for the pared-down work of Raymond Chandler but also for highly-stylised writing, in particular Nabokov, Borges and Burgess, whose books I return to again and again. The two volumes of AB’s memoir Little Wilson & Big God and You’ve Had Your Time are my desert island reads. It’s meaningless, but I take something from the fact that he died in the hospital where I was born…
Three brothers who became librarians! I bet the church thought they were going to get at least one for the priesthood… That’s really a lovely tiny memoir of your family’s influence on shaping your reading tastes.
Who are your heroes who you know were, or strongly suspect had to be, great readers?
There are many I greatly admire and I know for a fact that they were all prodigious readers. But I’m like Burgess’s F.X. Enderby, in that I envy no-one except “the great proved dead”.
When you look at your shelves can you remember where you bought and/or how you acquired most, if not all, of your books?
Yers, down to the location of the particular jumble sales and junk shops. There was one such which specialised in literature in Finchley Road close to my school where I picked up many paperbacks. I particularly remember that place because of its name: Reedmore Books.
Cute, I wonder if just a coincidence.
What are books that taught you about that generic term “style” (however you define it, whether in film, music, literature, etc) which you can’t ever see yourself not looking through at least once a year for years to come?
The book to which I return most on this subject is out-of-print. This confirms, to me at least, the general stupidity of those that run book publishing. Today There Are No Gentlemen was published in 1971 by Nik Cohn who was 26 at the time. It remains a formidable analysis of the importance of visual identity and is available in a compendium of Cohn’s work but the original slim volume deserves resurrecting, not least because copies now change hands in excess of £500 each. I’m glad to say I have a pristine copy.
What are some oral histories you most wish existed?
Hmm. Having written one I believe there are too many anyway. They are the lazy writer’s option unless you are Studs Terkel, George Plimpton or Jonathan Green. And which of us is? Answer: only Jonathan these days and he’s focusing his work as one of the great slang dictionary compilers of all time..
If you owned a bookstore what five titles would you make sure were never out of stock?
All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook
A Bit Off The Map and Other Stories by Angus Wilson
Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
Once In A Lifetime: The Crazy World of Acid House and Afterwards by Jane Bussman
Rated SavX: The Savage Pencil Scratchbook
What are your most prized books you acquired for free because you found them or acquired them for ridiculously low prices used?
The tray of 30 orange spine Penguin paperbacks, each one a stone classic that sent me off onto multiple trails and which I paid £1 for at that jumble sale in St John’s Wood in 1972, takes some beating, but over the last few years I have completed at minimal cost my collection of the Raymond Chandler novels and short stories published in Penguin’s crime series (green spine) in the early 70s. Each has a cover by the designer James Tormey customising film noir stills with extreme colour effects. I bought two for 5p each in my early teens and now I have all eight, gradually picked up online for next to nix.
If anything can beat the feeling of completing a meaningful collection, it’s doing it on the cheap. Thanks Paul!
Paul Gorman via Thames & Hudson