If you had asked me after I read the introduction to Moranthology by Caitlin Moran if I was going to enjoy the book, I would probably have said no. If you had asked me halfway through (when I was clearly enjoying it) if I liked Moran, I would have certainly said no. But if you ask me now, with the finished book sitting beside me, my answer would be a resounding yes. Simon was right (obviously): Caitlin Moran is basically Dickens, though probably a lot cooler than he ever was. I feel like Dickens would have never been asked to go to a sex club with Lady Gaga or be drinking buddies with one of the stars of Downton Abbey. Then again, I could be selling him short.
Living far, far beyond of the reach of The Times, I had never read any of Moran’s articles for the paper before. I have never read her bestseller How to Be a Woman, either (though not for lack of trying: I am currently number 26 on the library wait list). This was my introduction to her writing and what an introduction it is. Moran’s topics are diverse but she is just as capable of making the case for why Ghostbusters is the greatest movie of all time as she is of drawing on her own personal experiences to explain, simply and powerfully, what social benefits mean to the families that rely on them.
It took me a while to warm up to Moran, I will admit it. The first fifty pages were a little too “smart-aleck columnist with not a lot to say but nevertheless able to say it in a mildly amusing way” for my taste, with Moran chatting about her discovery of caffeine, her tardiness when going to interview the Prime Minister, and her misguided decision to join a charity marathon walk. But then she reminded me of the genius of Ghostbusters and I started to soften towards her personally because, really, how can you hate someone with such excellent taste? Immediately after that, there was a shockingly good interview with Keith Richards followed by two wonderfully light and enthusiastic reviews of Sherlock. After that, I was hooked.
I had the most fun reading the pop culture pieces, like Moran’s reviews of popular shows like Sherlock (which she adores) and Downton Abbey (which she does not). She is almost giddy over the absurdities of Downton Abbey:
Honestly, Downton is off its chanks. Sometimes it plays as if writer Julian Fellowes sits at his writing bureau – overlooking his extensive lands, including three rivers – sucking on a helium balloon, and giggling as he starts bashing at his typewriter. This is, after all, the drama where an evil, chain-smoking maid caused her mistress to miscarry by deliberately leaving lilac-scented soap on the floor, which she slipped on. Yeah, that’s right. She killed the unborn Earl of Downton with soap. This is a plot twist not even Dynasty, at its most gibbering, considered.
Moran proves that she is able to do more than just glibly gush over or deride television shows (talented at that as she is) with more lengthy feature articles and interviews. There is a piece about her visit to the Doctor Who set in Cardiff and another about her “Day with Paul McCartney. From the Beatles.” Her interviews with Keith Richards and Lady Gaga were surprisingly fascinating; I know next to nothing about either performer but Moran’s pieces made for compelling (if, in the case of Richards, slightly horrifying) reading. That is the mark of a good journalist: making the inaccessible accessible. Her obituaries for Elizabeth Taylor and Amy Winehouse are also both excellent.
There are plenty of personal, family-focused articles littered throughout the book, her children getting frequent mentions but little direct attention and each section beginning with a piece in which she harasses her husband. These can grate at times (especially the needy bedtime conversations with her husband – just let the man sleep!) but they give way to more enjoyable, relatable pieces on her hatred of a children’s television character, the necessity of alcohol in a parent’s life, and her refusal to make party bags.
While I enjoyed myself from page 50 onwards, it took a while for me to warm to Moran herself. She is opinionated and I loved that but her glibness, though thoroughly entertaining, can create a distance between her and the reader. When she finally got serious, it brought me up short. She mentions her large family and impoverished youth in Wolverhampton frequently but generally handles the subject humourously. It is not until she addresses proposed benefits cuts by the Coalition government that she discusses the sober realities of growing up poor:
What’s it like, being on benefits? Being on Disability Benefits – ‘I’ve had a hard day’s limping, to put that tea on the table!’ my dad would say, as we sat down to eat something based around a lot of potatoes, and ketchup. Well, mainly, you’re scared. You’re scared that the benefits will be frozen, or cut, or done away with completely. I don’t remember an age where I wasn’t scared our benefits would be taken away. It was an anxiety that felt like a physical presence, in my chest – a small, black, eyeless inset that hung off my ribs. Every Tory budget that announced a freezing of benefits – new means-testing, new grading – made the insect drill its face into the bone. They froze benefits for four years in a row, as I recall: ‘freezing’ being the news’s way of telling you that you – already poor – will be at the checkout, apologizing as you take jam and squash out of your bag, put them back on the shelves, and ask them to add it up again. Every week you fear that this is the week the pennies won’t stretch any further, and something will disappear: gas, food. Your home.
As much as I enjoy fun, chatty, informal Caitlin and am impressed by slightly serious Caitlin, resolutely serious Caitlin is formidable.
Despite a hesitant beginning, I loved this collection. It was a wonderfully thorough introduction to Moran – both as a person and as a writer – and the articles that touched on feminist topics have only made me more excited to read How to Be a Woman.