BOOK REVIEW: Carol Grimes – The Singer’s Tale

Carol Grimes – The Singer’s Tale
(Gottahavebooks, 336pp., £16.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)

“A musical, political and social history […] a ringside seat in our singer’s imagined, and real, theatrical circus …” This is what we are promised by poet/counsellor Cheryl Moskowitz in her Preface to Carol Grimes’s autobiography, and The Singer’s Tale does indeed deliver all these things, in spades.

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Grimes’s account begins (Verse 1) in 2000, with a photograph sent to her from New Zealand by her sister, Jennifer. It shows Carol (then four) and baby Jennifer at home in Lewisham in 1948, and – like Proust’s madeleine – it triggers the memories that inform the following 300-odd pages. It also establishes the emotional temperature of the account: “‘Well, that’s kind of her,’ I said to myself, trying to remember what she looked like. It had been a long time of not knowing each other. I had experienced more intimate conversations with complete strangers at bus stops.” Such frank, unflinching honesty characterises all that follows: Grimes’s troubled childhood in Lewisham, Weymouth and Lowestoft is vividly evoked, courtesy of her poet’s eye for the telling period detail, and her description of her relationship with her mother – an awkward affair full of suppressed hostility, impatience and mutual incomprehension – ranks alongside (for its sheer power and perceptiveness) Jeanette Winterson’s in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Her account of her entry into the musical world, via life in 1960s/1970s London (a world of Afghan coats, patchouli oil, acid-dropping and joint-smoking, seedy bedsits and squats, of – in Quintessence’s immortal line – “getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate”), is equally memorable. This is partly because she was a clear-eyed witness to era-defining events (the beginning of the slow and painful transformation of London into the multicultural capital it is today, the rise of rock music via the blues boom, the brief flowering of “alternative” culture epitomised by Oz and IT etc.), but mainly because she is consistently pungent and unsparing in her views of male attitudes and behaviour.

As is the case regarding her account of her somewhat dysfunctional family, however, Grimes’s relating of the many vicissitudes of her musical career is clearly the consequence of a simple desire to tell the unvarnished truth in all its complexity, nuances intact, rather than an exercise in score-settling or self-pity. As such, at its best, her approach is reminiscent of the best blues songs: unsentimental, hard-hitting, truthful, authentic, tinged with poetry.

It is all the more irritating, then, given the power and honesty of her writing, to report that Grimes has been badly let down by her publishers in the production of this memoir: it shows no sign whatever of having passed through even the most rudimentary editorial process. The good news, though, is that she is currently working on a second volume (this one finishes at the end of the 1970s).

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