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The Sylvia Plath (Sort Of) of the Tabloids
on 14 April 2014
I first came across Liz Jones when as a second-year student I started buying 'Marie Claire'. For what it's worth, I thought she was a brilliant editor. OK, there may have been too many articles about anorexia (I once fainted on a train reading a particularly hard-hitting one about anorexic ballet dancers) and I didn't share all her interests (Sadie Frost, All Saints etc) but the magazine was well put-together, beautiful to look at, and full of variety. I learnt a lot about current affairs and even quite a bit about culture both popular and higher from it, as well as enjoying the fashion pages. I was very sorry when she left the magazine and felt it wasn't quite so enjoyable under the next editor. I haven't followed Jones's career in detail since then, though I gathered she'd become a 'confessional' journalist and writer, describing her life difficulties in columns for the Daily Mail and two books. I bought this (second hand) partly out of curiosity to learn about Jones's life and why she left Marie Claire, partly because Jones (like me) is a cat fanatic, and partly because of the wonderful Jenny Diski's splendid defence of the book in the LRB. I also wanted to see what it was in Jones's life that has given her such a dark view of herself.
Jones didn't have an easy time from the start. She was the seventh child in her family, born to a father who'd left the army and never been able to get a particularly interesting or well-paid job since, and a mother who'd trained as a ballet dancer, but found herself increasingly trapped by domestica and childcare. By the time Liz was born she was suffering from arthritis, bad dental problems and other ailments. Jones's parents were very much in love, but had exhausted a lot of their paternal energies by the time she was born. They paid for her to have riding lessons, but otherwise seem to have expected little of her other than that she didn't get run over, and didn't cause trouble like her volatile siblings. Liz was a fearful child, and though she enjoyed reading, books didn't quite provide the escape from her daily life that they do for some shy children - they reminded her too much of what she didn't have. She was a bright girl, but had the hard luck never to find a teacher or other adult who wanted to encourage her talents (particularly with English) or suggest she go to university. As an eleven-year-old, believing that 'nothing I do works out', she developed anorexia - her weight was something she definitely COULD control - and she continues to suffer problems with food to this day. At school, she went fairly unnoticed. In her late teens, she discovered Vogue, and decided that her ambition was to follow its rules for living absolutely, and to work for the magazine. She studied journalism at the London College of Printing, where she was unhappy, and where her anorexia got to a level where she was hospitalized for six months. With impressive single-mindedness, she managed to eat enough to at least keep her functioning, and embarked on a series of sub-editing jobs, gradually working her way up to writing jobs at the short-lived 'Mirabella' and 'The Sunday Times', and thus to become editor of 'Marie Claire'. Unfortunately - as one can tell from the blurb on the back of the book - this wasn't a happy end, and after she left the magazine, things didn't take a turn for the better. Her marriage to a younger journalist was unhappy (and both she and her husband seem to have used each other for publicity), her attempts to get her older sister (who had anger problems) on the property ladder ended in disaster, and despite prestigious jobs at The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, she's had persistent money problems. Her move to the country to run a farm and care for rescue horses doesn't seem to have worked either.
So why is this book not completely depressing? Well, it's partly because Jones (silly though some of her opinions may be at times) is actually a very good writer: lively, darkly humorous, very good at describing places and people. Her accounts of working in journalism are fascinating, her anecdotes from the fashion world sometimes very funny (I loved the description of the celebrity who needed a full-length mirror to check out his poses before he was photographed). She writes well about her parents' relationship, and clearly adores her pets. I also admire Jones's courage in writing about how it is to live with a depressive illness - anyone reading this book who suffers from panic attacks or feelings of inadequacy will recognize some of the emotions described by Jones, and both sympathize and feel less alone. Maybe that is Jones's appeal - she doesn't go for 'feel good', and her readiness to admit that life can be very difficult makes readers not feel inadequate that they're not in a state of perpetual happiness!
Admittedly, there are times where Jones does seem to ladle on the misery in a slightly over-the-top way. At times I was reminded of the writer Caroline Blackwood, who apparently 'saw a terrible accident round every bend' and would laugh herself silly at stories of misfortune. There are some tasteless moments, as when Jones recounts how she resented her grandfather for getting killed in a road accident on a night where she could have gone to a party with a boy she fancied, and in her later descriptions of her failed romances and her relationship with her husband. And there are times when I felt exasperated with Jones for not trying harder to sort herself out - in a way, she seems to cling on to some of the things that make her miserable, even though she's intelligent enough to know that they're bad for her. For example, she clearly isn't that happy living with a man (her reaction to her husband is not a million miles from Saga Noren's to her boyfriend Jakob in 'The Bridge) but rather than admit that she might be happier on her own with her pets, she constantly berates herself for being single. She claims to despise the superficial glamour of the celebrity and fashion worlds, but on sleepless nights, rather than read a good book she watches programmes like 'Sex and the City' or the Bridget Jones films or 'Ab Fab' - the sort of things that will only reinforce her feelings that she's failed and isn't glamorous or lovable enough. She is proud of her extreme thinness and writes rather scathingly about overweight people, at the same time that she admits that anorexia has to some degree ruined her life. In short, she's rather a bundle of contradictions, and someone who seems to still compulsively need the media world that she dislikes (for example, she was delighted to be selected for 'Celebrity Big Brother'). This can make some of her writing infuriating, but at the same time her ironic wit and (for much of the time at least) honesty stops one feeling cross for long!
In the end, I was uncertain how much Jones in a bizarre way almost needed her misery in order to produce her work. Although she and the hugely talented (and food-loving!) Sylvia Plath are very different in so many ways, I couldn't help feeling that there were some strange similarities between them. Like Plath, Jones clearly suffers from depression of some kind, and like Plath in her late poems, she's taken to using her misery and confused feelings as her main inspiration (in her case for Mail on Sunday columns rather than poems). Some critics have suggested that in Plath's case her focus on her 'demons' may have contributed to her tragically successful suicide. In Jones's case she seems to be trapped in a repetitive cycle: she writes about her miserable experiences, gets paid, relies on having another miserable experience for her next article, etc. I do wonder at times whether life is always as bleak for her as she claims in this book - or whether writing almost exclusively about the sad things in her life has made her feel sadder (she claims to have never had a happy day - but surely, surrounded by purring cats and rescue dogs that she adores, she must have a few happy hours?). I came to rather like Jones while reading this book, and for her sake I hope that she can come to terms with her solitude, stop needing to please the media, and maybe get some pleasure out of some of the things that she does have - nice furniture, pets, recognition as a writer - in her life.
Not a cheery read, but ultimately a brave recounting of a not very happy life, with lots of good writing and interesting anecdotes to enjoy on the way. I may well be buying one or more of Jones's other books next.