Thursday, 2 June 2016

Fingers in the sparkle jar: a rant or a review

I’ve been reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, Chris Packham’s remarkable memoir. It’s a hard book to review so maybe I won’t. But I will have a rant.

There’s a story in the book about the young Chris going to see One Million Years BC at the pictures, and getting annoyed because of the anachronisms. The Pteranodon lived 85 million years BC, not 1 million.

When I’d finished reading the book, I read the back cover blurb. Then it was my turn to get annoyed.

It says: “armed with boundless curiosity and a Raleigh Chopper, free to roam sixties suburbia and gawp in wonder at pet shops and spin beneath the ginormous skeletons of dinosaurs to the tunes of T Rex…”

Yes, more anachronisms. Raleigh Choppers weren’t around in the 60s. And neither was T Rex. They both appeared in 1970.

We know from the book that Chris has a Chopper bike, but that’s in 1972. As for T Rex, Marc Bolan is mentioned once, when a kestrel shits on his face. Well, Chris uses a Marc Bolan poster to line the box his kestrel is kept in. That’s in 1975.

It feels as if someone has just dipped into an old I Love The 60s programme and come up with something from I Love The 70s by mistake. They probably don’t know the difference. They were probably born in the 1990s.

It reminds me of Sean O’Brien’s quote: 'One of the mixed benefits of ageing is reading accounts of your lifetime by people who weren't there.' But Chris Packham was there, so why didn’t they stick to his story?

Does it make me geeky that I care about this stuff? If it does, I’m in good company because this book is about the uber-geek.

And I wonder if this copywriter actually read the book at all. Because that’s what else is wrong about this marketing blurb. It pretends that the book is some kind of nostalgia fest, a romantic romp through the 1960s and ‘70s.

That’s exactly what it isn’t. Chris Packham’s 1960s and 1970s were, it seems from this, deeply unhappy. That’s what makes it hard to review, because it is so personal and emotionally raw.

It's the story of a misfit. First, the  obsessive, lonely small boy, unable to communicate with people but able to commune with wildlife. Then the isolated, bullied schoolboy, out of step with the world but in love with a kestrel. And finally, the teenager who finds validation in punk and claims his identity as an outsider.

There’s also (in flash-forwards) the suicidal adult, struggling with depression, seen fleetingly in short conversations with his therapist. I told you it was raw.

It makes some sense of the person we see on Springwatch, but it makes more sense if you read the interviews about the book and find that Packham wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until he was in his thirties.

You want to hear about punk, though, don’t you? There’s not much – if you want that, go to Desert Island Discs. But what’s there is powerful.

His experience wasn’t my experience, but I remember feeling something very similar to this: “I hated them, I hated it, I hated me. Really hated, to the point where for the first time I felt physically violent, like I wanted to hurt everything, break it, burn it, smash it up.”

And then – “in the nick of time” – he discovers the Damned and the Clash…

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