"Rock Me a Little While" by Kim Weston, a northern soul classic. Photo: Michael Sveikutis/Flickr
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Tracey Thorn: With music, we often only hear the side of the story told by men

When it comes to music such as northern soul, there is a tendency to regard men as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there to the status of anecdote.

I settled down the other night to watch a TV documentary on northern soul. It was interesting in many ways, if a little predictable in its format, which mostly consisted of a series of talking heads. But as it went by I couldn’t help noticing that all the talking heads were men. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed and not a single woman had spoken.

Meanwhile, in the photos and footage of the era that rolled by on the screen, I spied lots of them. There they were, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, dressed up to the nines, heading out for the night or on some dance floor, living for the weekend. And on the soundtrack there they were again, singing at me, the voices to much of the music. The story unfolded, the girls danced and sang, and they looked and sounded glorious. And still the guys did all the talking.

Eventually three women were interviewed in the hour-long programme, for about five minutes in total. I took to Twitter and complained – not furiously, more wearily – and met with a barrage of agreement, a lot of it from women confirming that they, or their older sister, their mum or their aunt, had loved going out dancing at the Twisted Wheel and Wigan Casino, had been part of the northern soul scene while it was happening.

All those girls in the photos and the films, they were real, and I wished that someone had taken the trouble to find them. I wanted to know why they went, what they wore, which records they loved, but no one had thought to ask them.

Admittedly, there’s a lot about the northern soul phenomenon that embodies what we regard as a “male” way of perceiving and interpreting culture. As a music scene, it is as much about rareties, and collecting, and obsessiveness, and the acquiring of esoteric knowledge, as it is about dancing. It seems to represent a particular mindset: that unless you own all the correct records and have them arranged in alphabetical order, your opinion doesn’t count. And as it is often men who catalogue the history of musical genres in such painstaking detail, there is a tendency to regard them as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there, what it meant, to the status of anecdote. Men have expertise, while women have experiences.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by that. When I was writing my book, Bedsit Disco Queen, I had moments of worrying that I wasn’t sufficiently well informed; that I might get a fact wrong, muddle up a release date or a B-side of some obscure single I claimed to have bought. I feared that my own direct, lived experience of the period and music I was documenting might not be enough.

When most of the voices you hear talking about music are those of men, you can start to doubt your own authority. I had to keep reminding myself that I was trying to write the kind of book that I wanted to read, and that if I was going to complain about there not being enough female versions of pop history, then I couldn’t very well shy away from writing one myself. Too often, women get the message that they are not the experts on any of these things, and that’s a pain.

So it matters, partly because balance and representation always matter, but also because it means that as things stand we often hear only half the story, and miss a wealth of detail, of difference, of variety. If Elaine Constantine, who has just directed a feature film called Northern Soul, had been given more screen time than, say, Peter Stringfellow, or if Kiki Dee had been asked what it felt like to hear your vocals become the soundtrack to a generation’s experience of clubland, the programme would have been enriched.

Most of all, if we had seen Levanna Mclean, whom you may know as the northern soul girl dancer whose videos have gone viral in the past year or so, we would have got an insight into the enduring power of a genre of music and its style. Check her out now on YouTube, as over a million people have done, dancing down the street to a mash-up of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” and Velvet Hammer’s obscure late-Seventies song, also titled “Happy”, and feel the joy – and you’ll know what I mean about what is so often missing. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era