Self Portrait is part one of a two-part autobiography, and covers the first 30 eventful years. We see Anneke escape from a houseboat, and an eccentric, boho mum with abusive boyfriends, for a scholarship at RADA. This leads to her mixing with all kinds of slebs just as the 60s get going, and there’s raucous parties in Chelsea and all kinds of the wildest clothes.
Always, there’s a breathless, wide-eyed joie de vivre, a delight in name-dropping friends like Peter Cook and Sammie Davies Jnr and all the fab nights out. She’s also surprisingly frank about her days thieving coffee and school uniform, and about clumsy first sexual experience.
As the book progresses, there’s an acknowledgement that being a pretty girl is not in all ways a blessing. There’s accounts of people who won’t take no for an answer, of a respected actor following her home one night, and even of a bloke wanking behind his paper on the train.
“Men in the street, men on the buses, in the tubes, men at work, women’s envious glances. All this had led me to feel very self-conscious. Being pretty can be a lonely place. The men do numbers around you and so do the women.”
Anneke Wills, Self Portrait, p. 298.I’m rather hoping times have changed. And Anneke herself speaks of how her own perspective was changed by The Female Eunuch. But she’s also funny about Germaine Greer, who she sees storming off a croquet pitch, muttering about the proper rules.
The sparkling narrative style also extends to the more horrific incidents. She’s frank about her abortion and the mess Anthony Newley left her in, and vividly, concisely depicts the sudden anger in her husband Michael Gough, when he pushes her off a balcony.
It’d be wrong to say Anneke recounts these events fondly, but part of the appeal of the book is how at peace she seems now about the things that have befallen her. Mostly. One event – which I won’t spoil – is particularly striking, and Anneke’s sudden switch to the second person to address the person in question really gave me shivers.
The chief appeal, then, is how much it feels like Anneke addresses you directly, like you’re sat with her in a cosy pub, and the stories get wilder and more confessional the more you get through your drinks. It’s intimate, lively and fun so it’s like you’ve been best mates with her for years. Which is probably why I’m chummily calling her “Anneke” here, when I only spoke to her for moments as she scribbled in my book.
Droo fans may complain that the book only covers Droo in one chapter, but each of Polly’s stories gets a mention (though not that very fine short story where post-Doctor Polly goes for a new job). I think the book really benefits from putting that one role in the context of her other work and life.
Another criticism is the copy editing, or lack thereof. This is the first effort from the small-press Hirst Books, and it’s a beautiful production (fantastic cover, by the way) and packed full of exclusive photos. Yet it could really have done with someone agreeing a format for paragraphs and italics, and checking some of the spellings. Every now and then there were asides and paragraphs that could have been snipped out.
This, though, is a minor quibble because it’s such an engaging read. Far more important that it’s an engaging story than the n- and m-dashes are consistent. I hared through it on a train and then couldn’t put it down later that evening.
My chief complaint, then, is that the end comes so quickly, just as she seems to be turning her life around. I am very eager to hear more.