Not everyone’s Christmas looks like this. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
Show Hide image

Suzanne Moore: I never learned exactly what my mother put in the buckets brewing under the bed

Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed.

You always knew it was Christmas in our house because my mum would start on the Baileys. Not just drinking it, but making it. It was one of her proudest achievements. She had the “secret recipe” for Baileys. She made it in buckets stored under the bed.

“What’s in it, Mum?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she used to say as she decanted the beigey cream into real Baileys bottles to flog to our neighbours.

Another of her sayings was, “One of these days I’ll be gone for a soldier,” which really terrified me. What did it mean? She never answered that either.

The fake Baileys, a concoction of condensed milk and knock-off scotch, was a big hit, even though the Christmas dinner itself was often fraught.

“Here you are, you bunch of gannets,” she would say as she slapped it down on the table, refusing to eat any herself.

She sat smoking while we ate and would talk about how her life was “a fight against dirt”, a fight to feed us, the gannets. For as with so many women of her generation, she had glimpsed a better life and could never settle for the one she had.

She tried upgrading it the only way she knew how. Men. Getting different ones. Husbands, boyfriends, lovers, all initially promising something different. All somehow ending up much the same. That is why we were surprised when she suddenly announced, “This year we’re having a lesbian for Christmas.”

Jay the Lesbian would be arriving soon from New York. This was exotic beyond belief. My mother had met her when she was married to my father. The main thing about Jay, my mum said, was she was fat and needed to lose weight. She arrived in shocking pink tights and heavy-rimmed glasses. She ignored us children almost completely, except for once telling me that “Shakespeare is worth the effort, honey”. By this I understood she had a life of the mind.

She was always making some vile soup thing in the kitchen which I now see was a proto cabbage-soup diet.

“It’s ridiculous,” my mum said. “I know she sneaks down in the night and stuffs herself out of the fridge. She’s a gannet just like the rest of you.”

Yet Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed. It was the only time I ever saw my mum enjoying the festivities. The house was a castle of tinsel and smoking and cabbagey smells. Then, just like that, Jay was gone and another man who would make Mum cry was installed.

Many years later I asked her about Jay. “Oh yes, she did try to interfere with me,” she said. She often referred to sex as “interference”. “It’s not my cup of tea but as it was Christmas I thought I should get on with it for a bit of peace.”

Oh, the sacrifices we women make for our children.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

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

0800 7318496