Review by Eleanor Updegraff
It can be difficult to get other people interested in your life. Many authors have tried, many have failed – often simply by taking themselves too seriously. This pitfall of autobiography seems to be something of which Charlie Hill is almost hyper-aware in his recent memoir, I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, a book that succeeds where many others disappoint in large part due to its refreshing brevity and self-effacing humour. Hill, we get the feeling, doesn’t take himself too seriously – and happily for the reader, neither should we. The result is, of course, that he only becomes more likeable, and his memoir a brief but genuine pleasure to read.
Charlie Hill, as the title may suggest, is a Birmingham boy through and through – a fact he makes clear in an early episode in which his dad takes him and his siblings walking on the Honister Pass in February: ‘[the map] dissolved in the wind and the sleet, and although he fed us a tin of sardines, we continued to cry.’ His deep-rooted love of the city – and an urban landscape in general, I suspect – shines through on almost every page of his memoir, which reads as much as anything as a love song to this often unfairly maligned metropolis. Brief flashes of its character, glimpsed on buses, in school playgrounds, on the beats a teenage Hill worked whilst campaigning for the Labour Party and later the Young Socialists, paint an honest portrait of a city both gritty and warm-hearted, the kind of place that knows how to look after itself but will still welcome you in with open arms. It’s a particular type of character that seems to be shared by Hill himself and, in language and structure, is mirrored perfectly by his memoir.
Unusually for a memoir – people do, after all, like to go on – I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is comprised as a series of vignettes: one-paragraph or two-page scenes composed in admirably spare yet engaging prose, which flits between the past and more immediate present tense. There are the Sunday-evening pilchard sandwiches of childhood, fights in the school playground followed by a job at the fish market, first love and first publication (‘At the first time of asking!’), cricket matches and nights in the pub, trips to India and New Orleans. Life throws a series of curveballs at Hill – some random, some rather more self-inflicted – and it is for this very reason that his fragmented structure is so effective. Though he allows us to see him at his lowest points, he avoids the temptation to indulge in either wallowing or over-analysis. Instead, a couple of paragraphs later, we move on. Because isn’t this, after all, what life does? The clock just keeps ticking.
The relentless quality to this short but pacey memoir is undoubtedly effective at keeping the reader turning pages, but another captivating quality is the author’s perfectly pitched sense of humour. This, too, is something difficult to transport in writing – particularly humour of the darkly sarcastic variety – but Hill manages it with aplomb, often mixing rather high-flown vocabulary with the most everyday of events, and lacing every vignette with a healthy pinch of irony. Although his self-effacing attitude at times runs the risk of seeming a little forced, it remains on the whole absorbing and keeps the reader’s sympathy.
Relationships can be a difficult subject to manage in memoir, particularly when there have been several, but here they are treated with great sensitivity that buries names and all the painful ins and outs, but does allow glimpses of Hill’s true emotions. At times he becomes philosophical – ‘I think it was the idea of her that I loved,’ he muses of an ex-girlfriend. ‘I mean if we were in a film or a book or a song we would have been perfect for each other’ – and at others is downright blunt – ‘the mid-term prognosis was underwhelming’ – but it is when he comes to write of his family that his craftsmanship really shines through. In a four-line vignette that comes towards the end of the book, describing a photograph of his son and daughter that ‘will be forever in my head’, Hill manages to sum up in the smallest number of words the overwhelming, unwriteable love a father feels for his children. This is typical of his entire memoir, which proves how, used wisely, words can convey so much more than they seem to on the surface.
Though brevity is admirable, particularly in a book like this, there were some scenes that left me wanting a little more. Certain subjects are touched on and then go unremarked for the remainder of the book – Hill’s ambiguous relationship with his parents and siblings, for example – and while I thoroughly enjoyed his amusing, spot-on observations on India, I put down the book with an important question: did he or did he not end up going to the Taj Mahal? Though perhaps unimportant (or, if so, then not my place as a reader to know) I felt I had learned just enough about Charlie over the course of his memoir to wish to have the answers to these questions. It may be slightly frustrating, but it has to be said that this is also a good sign. After all, how often do we put down a memoir and feel we could have read more?
I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is not a long book, but it contains a lot of heart. Humorous, incisive and bold in structure, it conveys a sharply focused snapshot of one individual life, with all its grubby, gratifying and downright bizarre moments. On the final page, Hill explains his belief that ‘we write against death’ – and, in this very human chronicle, I think we can safely say that he has.
Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking.
Charlie Hill, I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal: Stories of a Birmingham Boy (Repeater Books, 2020). 978-1912248988, 98pp., paperback.