"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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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