- A Nice Girl like Me: A Story of the Seventies by Rosie Boycott
Chatto, 250 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2665 5
On her fourth day in a London alcoholic clinic Rosie Boycott’s doctor suggested that she should write the story of her life. Her book is an expanded version of that exercise: a memoir of her life between the ages of 12 and 31, between her arrival at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 1963 and her renunciation of alcohol in 1982. We learn very little of the tastes or opinions of the character who is meant to hold the book together. What we do learn is that Rosie is eager to please, easily impressed and unsure of herself. She plies us with bits of gossip which she thinks we would like. She tells us tales of knicker-checks, tampax lessons, crushes and lesbian teachers at Cheltenham. She walks along the ‘fashionable terraces of Eaton Square’ and enters ‘one of London’s more fashionable mental homes’. We hear of the Harley Street shrink who probes ‘at great expense’ into her reasons for drinking, suggests that she should have more orgasms, and asks whether she saw her father in the bath when she was a baby. When she gives a party in London ‘the champagne flowed and smoked salmon was served up by neatly attired waitresses.’ When she goes to Colorado, in 1975, she makes sure we know that it is the poets, Ginsburg, Burroughs, Corso and Anne Waldman, who give the smartest parties. She tells us twice that ‘aboard an almost empty 747 home from New York I joined the mile-high club’ – presumably made up of those who, having already seen the in-flight movie, make love in planes. The press parties which she attends in London are ‘unrivalled in their lavishness and cost’. At the end of the book Rosie admits that she found the chapter on Cheltenham ‘glib’. She visits an old school-friend who reminds her of many things which she had forgotten: that Rosie had been disliked, thought stupid, suspected of stealing and victimised in petty ways. Her nickname, ‘Oozy’, had not just come from the similarity with ‘Rosie’: she was ‘oozy’ – obsequious. No wonder Rosie prefers to remember the trivia.
Rosie leaves Kent University after two terms and comes to London; she is 20 and impressionable. We would like some examples of ‘the witty and highbrow artistic references’ which her friends, David and Jeremy, bandied about. But all we hear of Jeremy’s thoughts, when he and Rosie ‘tumble’ into bed, is that he thinks ‘fate had brought them together and they’d met in another lifetime.’ Jeremy is respectfully described as a ‘Cambridge graduate’ and Jonathon, her boyfriend, is an ‘Oxford graduate’. Rosie works for Frendz magazine for just under a year and in May 1972 she and Marsha Rowe co-edit the first issue of Spare Rib. Rosie is now 21 and still impressed by names. She is ‘staggered when Germaine Greer arrives uninvited to her party’. ‘Uninvited’, she hastens to add, because she had been ‘too nervous to ask her’. She is less impressed by the older ‘hangers-on of the youth movement’: ‘their hair was shorter, their jeans were too tight but their cheque books were solid ... the Angry Young Men had become Dirty Old Men.’ Despite this scorn, she goes out with them and Marsha begins to complain that Rosie’s social life is too active. Obviously Marsha found it easier to turn up at the office the next day after feminist group meetings than Rosie did ‘after being tied up to a hotwater pipe and covered in butter, drinking champagne with three others in a marble bath in Amsterdam’. (It is not clear whether the pipe, the butter and the champagne were all on the same occasion – but it gives you some idea of what Marsha was up against.)
Nor is Rosie having much fun in bed. She is distinctly lukewarm about her affair with Sue and is half-heartedly joining threesomes: partly ‘because the men found it fascinating’ and partly because ‘to refuse was as old-fashioned as refusing sex altogether.’ She does not seem to enjoy taking LSD either: it had ‘provided a non-stop joust with God’ and ‘Rosie liked the sense of survival, though she was never sure she really liked taking acid.’ (Presumably this was God’s way of winning the joust.) In fact, she seems to derive remarkably little pleasure from any of her excesses: sex, drugs or drink. She maintains, stoutly, that ‘if you were young and especially if you were female – then the sky was the limit,’ yet she remains as ‘frightened of independence as any other woman’. She ‘never suggested dates for fear of rejection, never suggested sex for the same reason. Everyone worried like hell about everyone else’s orgasms. It was often simpler to fake it, leaving macho pride intact.’
After she has worked for a year on Spare Rib feminist journalism begins to pall. Marsha has been making the magazine ‘politically correct’ but ‘undeniably duller’ and the fact that John, who is John Steinbeck’s son, ‘does not know the difference between a liberationist and a liberal’ and doesn’t ‘give a hoot’ is a point much in his favour. John, with whom Rosie lives for the next three years, is described as someone ‘who tucked adventures and experiences under his belt the way other people’(what people?) ‘collect labels from fancy hotels’ – which doesn’t quite do justice to the good nature he showed when he received a month-long jail sentence in Thailand as a result of her idea of smuggling grass across the border: ‘You can never again say I’m not a gentleman.’ The two travelled together through India and Nepal in 1973 and 1974, but their relationship had little chance to develop:
Smack ran their lives like an hourglass, dominating the times when they went sightseeing, the hours they slept ... They never made love. Their relationship danced Morpheus’s tune. There was only one reason to touch – to look for unbutchered veins.
Rosie’s descriptions of the places she visits – America, India, Nepal, Kuwait – are unnervingly brief. The Indian countryside is ‘just dirty, dusty and dull’; in Nepal ‘the countryside is relentlessly beautiful.’ The tidiness of the Nepalese villages makes Rosie irritated with the Indian ones. ‘How the fuck did we ever think we’d change India, let alone own it? I don’t feel sorry for the poverty anymore.’ She tries to tell an innkeeper’s son who wants to go to England that he is better-off in Nepal. She is swiftly upbraided by a Nepalese who bursts out: ‘Hippies like you are the worst of the lot; at least the capitalists understand why we had to bring industry to the Kathmandu valley. Half of us are starving, others are trying to make livings from people like you. Selling drugs and false antiques.’ Rosie does not tell us whether this conversation changed her opinion or, indeed, why she had held her opinion in the first place. We have not learnt her taste in books, movies, boyfriends, or even what she looks like: it’s not surprising that we don’t learn about her attitude to places. She asks, ingenuously: ‘Shouldn’t the fact that she was spending the first of God knows how many nights lying in a dusty Indian field be the product of some careful reasoning?’ But the reader has long since given up being so demanding.
Her facts are not always accurate: William Sloane Coffin, who is described in an early chapter as running for the Senate and as being Dean of Harvard Theological College, has never run for public office and was chaplain at Yale University at the time. Her writing is trite and vague. She compares a dead friend with heroin: ‘the first companion died, the second was easily bought in Freak Street.’ When John has an affair with someone else ‘the jealousy felt like a surgeon’s knife’ and when they leave Hong Kong she wonders ‘what extra dimension they would find to keep their relationship on the boil’. Don MacLean’s song ‘American Pie’ is quoted three times: once in a bar in Nepal with absolutely no clue as to its significance. Some of her least-forced images remain endearingly true to her upbringing: someone carries an old set of bedsprings into the offices of Frendz ‘like a Harrods man delivering a new kingsize’; Sheikh Ahmed lies in bed, ‘black and shiny like a leather hunting boot’. Bereft of drugs in the Thai jail where she spends 18 days in August 1974, she is able to produce a more informative chapter. She keeps a diary and is obviously moved by the kindness the other women prisoners show her. But later, when she tries to get a story about these women published, the editor of MS in New York writes that it was ‘too much of a hippy saga’. Rosie fails to understand this comment.
In 1977 she takes a job in Kuwait. Her first impression is of wrecked cars littering the highway. ‘Houses rose like ghosts out of the flat desert. Trees huddled in clumps, growing well in the clement weather.’ But we do not get any second impressions. We do hear that the brief spring brought dust storms, but one suspects that Rosie notes this because ‘if she didn’t wash her hair every day her head itched.’ She writes cursorily about Fauzi, her boss; and of her affair with Faisal, whose intensity worried her so much that she left him to go out instead with two Arabs, two Englishmen and one Corsican. It would, for example, have been interesting to learn more about the Mouhagadah movement – which is concerned with ‘the wearing of a headcover’: ten out of fifteen of the girls whom her friend teaches at the university wear the veil because ‘in one sense wearing the veil says treat me as a person not as a sex object.’ Her stay in Kuwait comes to an end after a particularly rough night with Sheikh Ahmed. Rosie has been there for two years.
It is part of Rosie’s naivety and ‘niceness’ that she is surprised at finding herself ‘a 30-year-old lush in a loony bin’. But she can only be said to be in a ‘loony bin’ in the sense that there are mental patients on another floor. It is hard to determine whether the constant references to the clinic as a ‘nuthouse’ and a ‘loony bin’ are meant to put the reader at ease or are simply a way of exaggerating her situation for the sake of a good story. In either case, the terms jar. Because the book is arranged in a series of flashbacks inserted between the chapters dealing with her life in the clinic, we keep wondering why she is to end up there as an alcoholic. Was she one? She more nearly dies of drugs than she does of drink. We never hear of her finding it difficult to stay away from alcohol after she leaves the clinic, or craving it while she is there. She does not try to account for this, even though she is surrounded by others who find it impossible to give it up. After she leaves, at all events, everything goes right for her. ‘The past sloughed off like snakeskin ... I sewed on buttons and opened and answered letters ... My cupboards were ordered.’