Reviewed by Denise Kong
In 2007 Lilian Pizzichini “had it all”. She’d worked at The Times Literary Supplement and The Literary Review, won the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger for non-fiction with her first book, and had so much review work coming in from newspapers that she was “drowning in publishers’ blurbs.”
She was also addicted to heroin.
It was this addiction that drove her to flee the problems she’d had keeping up with the bills “cascading” through the letterbox of her old flat in Kensal Green for life aboard a narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal near Southall.
How did this talented writer get to such a place, with “nowhere left to go”? The answer lies tangled in the triple strands of this book: the dark and day-glo of present day Southall; the family’s rough struggle for survival in early twentieth century London; and the thin silver line of Pizzichini’s own childhood.
The family’s story begins in the 1900s, when Pizzichini’s great-grandmother, Emily-Elsie, is ejected from the parental home for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, which results in the birth of Pizzichini’s Great-Aunt Dolly. What follows is a family history of attempts to rise back out of poverty. Pizzichini is admiring when she describes Emily-Elsie’s uncomplaining drudgery, ironic when she describes Dolly’s attempts at passing on her elocutional wisdom, and indulgent when she describes Dolly’s brother Danny’s brief reign, via extortion and firearms, as the King of Southall.
Above all, Pizzichini is tender. She swoops through decades of family escapades like the bird she compares herself with in the opening pages “through the woods to her mother’s childhood home” but lands each time and rests, inhabiting the minds of her forebears with detailed sensitivity. She watches through their eyes, worries through their hearts and calculates ahead of their enemies. She imagines Great-Uncle Danny surveying his 1970s Empire shaking his head “before the thought could occur that Southall had grown too big for him”.
Pizzichini is ever conscious of the fact that she is returning to the place where the family once rested. By the twenty-first century, Great-Uncle Danny’s territory has been divided up between the Somalis and the Punjabis. The Somalis have one estate, the Punjabis another, and Pizzichini buys drugs off both sides as she busies herself making new friends and blending into this new landscape, where her life choice is described straight away by her new boyfriend, addict and ex-burglar Pete, as “middle class… slumming”.
Pete’s perception of his girlfriend’s class hides a lifetime of her not belonging. Not belonging begins for Pizzichini in a childhood of embarrassment over her mother Greta’s too loud, too-desperate-to-belong behaviour in the bourgeois settings of her choice. It follows her through being a “twelve-year old schoolgirl learning the violin and how to smoke,” (smoking won) and into her working life at the TLS and The Literary Review, where her default state of mind is “overawed”. Ironically, when the 1990s zeitgeist shifts towards Trainspotting chic and Pizzichini’s own natural territory, she hesitates and is beaten to exploiting it by the appropriations of an Old Etonian (I can’t work out who she is referring to – I would love to know!), and is left with nothing but class resentment in “the wake of his striding confidence.”
Not belonging is an uncomfortable place to be, but the edge and energy of it are what gives Pizzichini her voice. I have no experience of Pizzichini’s world, being a lifelong inhabitant instead of the world of “books by women… written by a certain kind of woman speaking a certain kind of language” that Pizzichini finds it so hard to identify with, but I felt totally drawn into and included in Pizzichini’s vision of beauty, vibrancy, violence and survival.
To return to the central question: why was it that Pizzichini “always returned to my self, and an aching feeling of being empty”? Why did she need to choose smoking over the violin, because it was “more effective at stifling feelings that music stirred”?
Relaxed rather than strained, seemingly random rather than plotted, the three plots drift inexorably closer to Pizzichini’s absent father, whose “side of the family drew a blank” when she started to investigate the branches of her family tree. Pizzichini doesn’t indulge in drawn out reasonings for her behaviour. You have to look for the reasons in the ambiguous echoes, as in the description of an eight year old girl who “had it all” basking in her father’s fleeting attention, and that of a forty something year old woman on a journey up the canal, looking back at what she has made of her life.
You might argue that this minimalist style shows Pizzichini to be not quite healed, that there are things she wants to hide from herself, in the same way she imagines Great-Uncle Danny trying to hide from his impending decline. However, I find this style to be honest about the stultifying effect of all the drugs Pizzichini took on her ability to think and feel.
Pizzichini’s style also respects the stoic tradition of her family and chimes with their time, a time when nobody thought to hit you in the face with a soap opera- style revelation every time you opened a newspaper or magazine. Towards the end of the book, she revisits with great tenderness her Great-Aunt Cecilia’s death, as if she could return to her ancestor’s side and relieve her of those last moments of aloneness. In dying, Cecilia saved her. Pizzichini feels that she owes her survival to the search for her family and this is what she has to give back in return. If you blink, you might miss it. But that’s OK; fascinated by this memoir, I wasn’t inclined to blink.
Denise tries to make sense of life at Listen Watch Read Share. She has no experience of slumming, middle class or otherwise.
Lilian Pizzichini, Music Night at the Apollo: A Memoir of Drifting (Bloomsbury Circus: London, 2014). 978-1-4088-1599-1, 214pp, paperback.