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5 November 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 2:41pm

Life as a rock’n’roll biographer, a return ticket to Ryde and watching Paxman get it wrong

When I started in journalism in the 1960s, only the top tabloid stars of old Fleet Street rated a photograph above their work. Now everyone has a mugshot.

By Philip Norman

I’ve spent the past three years writing a biography of Paul McCartney. Compared with John Richardson’s multi-volume life of Picasso (still ongoing after 35-odd years), mine hasn’t been a particularly long haul. Nevertheless, I feel like someone just released from prison and struggling to re­adjust to normal life.

In Britain, pop music is not generally considered a subject for “serious” biography. McCartney’s career, like those of my previous subjects John Lennon and Mick Jagger, is historically and sociologically fascinating – the story of an authentic genius and an epic journey, both high comedy and harrowing tragedy. It also involves a mass
of tedious, repetitive stuff about record sales and chart placings, which somehow have to be given a sheen of literateness. Each book I write makes me wonder if this really is a job for a grown-up.

Frank Zappa once defined rock journalists as people who can’t write, producing articles about people who can’t think, for people who can’t read. However, the most eminent writers often falter in this particular field, losing all objectivity and dissolving into fan-babble (see Salman Rushdie’s cringe-making encounter with U2).

In America, unlike here, rock biographers such as Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick receive disproportionate reverence. The more turgid their prose, the more profound it is considered. Marcus and Guralnick were trumped by their compatriot Timothy White in a study of reggae’s greatest talent. “This book,” he began, “gives itself over in an atmospheric fashion to the confluence of belief systems that informed Bob Marley.”

Dying of the light

Luxuriating in my new freedom, I take the catamaran across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, disembarking at Ryde Pier Head. During the 1950s, my father was the end-of-the-pier showman, operating a roller skating rink, a pinball arcade, a ballroom, restaurants and bars. I used to help him during my school holidays, giving change in the arcade, blowing up balloons for his carnival dances and selling refreshments from a trolley. Present-day Ryde is a bit threadbare but in Victorian times it was the island’s grandest town, frequently visited by the monarch from her holiday home, Osborne House. Ryde’s Royal Victoria Arcade, modelled on Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly, contained the studios of four royal photographers and a supplier of turtle soup made from turtles kept on the premises.

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I’m here for the funeral of Tony Packer, who worked for my father at the end of the pier. The service is followed by drinks at the heritage centre Tony co-founded in the Royal Victoria Arcade. When I last saw him, he was hugely excited about a discovery underneath the arcade – a brick-lined ice well once used by the turtle soup shop.

I take the catamaran back to Portsmouth, feeling desperately sad. My wretched pier-bound childhood had few bright spots. Small, shy and formidably intelligent Tony Packer was one of the brightest.

Mangy meerkats

If Britain has a growth industry left, it must be the making of television commercials. The mass of satellite channels and ad-bearing websites has opened up a vast new market, while on terrestrial ITV and Channel 4, demand has been increased by American-style programme sponsorship. Yet, far from showing competitive originality, most TV ads come in two basic categories, both psychologically revealing of our times.

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The first derives from a national climate of worry and insecurity. During the recession, commercials for faceless utilities, banks and insurance companies took to portraying them as friendly neighbourhood businesses, staffed by people whose only desire was to “help”. Almost all had warm, compassionate-sounding voice-overs with the same verbal formula: “At British Gas, we . . . At HSBC, we . . . At the Halifax, we . . .” That “corner-shop syndrome” has spread to everything from DIY to online dating: “At B&Q, we . . . At eHarmony, we . . .”

The other reassuring fantasy world in TV ads is that of second childhood. A vast number of adult products are pitched as though to small children, aided by menageries of animated dogs, cats, bears, monkeys, elephants, donkeys, budgerigars, sloths and duck-billed platypuses. The weirdest example of such infantilisation must be those mangy Russian-accented meerkats from the price comparison site (market/meerkat – geddit?). They are regarded as a great success and have now acquired Arnold Schwarzenegger as a co-star. In TV adland, success is measured by the number of people you infuriate.

Muso mugshot

When I started in journalism in the 1960s, only the top tabloid stars of old Fleet Street, such as the Daily Mirror’s agony aunt Marjorie Proops, rated a photograph above their work. Modern newspapers, by contrast, are full of picture bylines, not just showing what columnists look like but giving a flavour of their personalities. The Guardian’s pop writer Alexis Petridis, for instance, manages to project rock’n’roll loucheness from a mugshot smaller than a stamp.

In many cases, mugshots have been superseded by full-length portraits of writers towering, Godzilla-like, over their copy. Ironically, it’s most prevalent in the Times, where bylines of any kind used to be banned. Now they can’t splash enough pictures of Caitlin Moran, with her crazy hair and teenagery denim shorts, grimacing to signal what we’re about to read is funny.

Dangled up in blue

For many years, my favourite TV programme has been University Challenge. Its only weak link is Jeremy Paxman, whose introduction of contestants almost always has the same dangling modifier: “With an average age of 21, let’s meet the team.” I have sent Paxman a remonstrative email, to which he replied: “Mea culpa – JP.” But the dangler is still unrectified. Maxima, Jeremy, maxima.

Philip Norman is a novelist and biographer

This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?