Well, no, this is not a sociology book, but as the French (see what I did there?) saying goes, une fois n’est pas coutume. Also, I am a die-hard French and Saunders fan, Vicar of Dibley fan, so, of course I decided to read Dawn French‘s Dear Fatty. And once I started, I could not put the cocking thing down. Can’t help it. I loved Dawn French before reading the book. But reading it made her more awesome.
The book is a series of letters (fake or real, who cares) to a variety of people (Fatty, for those of you ignorant of all things French and Saunders – a shameful category to be in, to be sure – is her nickname for Jennifer Saunders, her comedy partner of 30 years) that roughly follow chronological order, and the main milestones of her life.
The book might as well be titled “Letter from a free woman” because that is truly what comes through from the book. Also, sex. Geebuz, lots of it. But that goes with the free woman thing. Dawn French is a lefty, a feminist, a gay supporter, virulently anti-racist, having been on the receiving end of quite a bit of that when she married Lenny Henry:
“Knowing you has shown me a whole raft of mainly insidious, quiet racism that I had no knowledge of before. Those tiny, constant snidey jokes at industry gatherings, like ‘I know the invite said black tie, Lenny, but that’s taking it too far, sonny’ from a much respected older comedian. Strange how the reference to you as ‘sonny’ is the more painful dart in that jibe. I remember you being interviewed on radio by a presenter who consistently referred to you as ‘this little black boy from Dudley’ throughout. Stealth racism. Fast and low and quiet. And always present. The references to me in the papers as ‘his blonde girlfriend’. I’ve only ever been blonde once, for three weeks. It meant ‘his white girlfriend’. Of course, we have had the big showy stuff too, the excrement smeared on the front door, the scratching of racist names on every panel of the car, the lit petrol-soaked rag through the letter box, starting a fire on our doormat at 3am. Luckily, I smelt it in time. The many letters with lurid racist obscenities sent to both of us. The most memorable of which came to you at a gig, threatening to kill you after the show because ‘you are a filthy cone’. Racists can’t spell so well, it seems. Remember when a Jiffy bag dropped through our door and it contained a broken tile with the image of a knight on one side and on the reverse it said, ‘You have been visited by the Ku Klux Klan’? No we hadn’t. We hadn’t been visited. Visitors make themselves known. And stop for tea and cake. People who drop something hateful through your letter box and scurry off into the night aren’t called visitors. They’re called cowards.” (Loc. 4053)
The whole freedom and independence also comes across loud and clear in the self-deprecating way in which she addresses the weight thing (kinda moot now that she’s lot a big chunk of it), and the corresponding clothing line she developed with Helen Teague.
The book covers most of her life and career (up to now, that is) as a series of encounters. For her, it’s the people that matter and make the milestones, rather than the milestones themselves. But most of all, the book is guided by her relationship to her father who committed suicide when she was 19. So, as fun as the book is (and it really is, just the writing is a riot), there is a constant underlying element of sadness (but not self-pity).
The writing is, of course, witty and a delight and I learned quite a few new words and expressions that I plan on using liberally, such as “anyroadup” or “doobonkerslally”. No, seriously.
Also, I did not know that she almost got the part that Julie Walters ended up playing in Mamma Mia, the movie. Apparently, it did not work out because she can’t sing and because she didn’t like the story that was made up around the ABBA songs (me neither, it was stupid but I love ABBA, so, I tolerated it).
I say, it’s a good thing, because, otherwise, this little piece of awesomeness would not have been possible:
The random shaking of the scarf gets me every time.
But this not-working-out thing because Dawn can’t sing also led to this:
“In defiance, and an effort to reclaim some self-esteem, we decided to sing ‘Thank You for the Music’ at the end of our show on tour every night. We sang it loud and proud and I was gradually, nightly, clawing my way back out of the pit of zero confidence voice-wise and was really enjoying performing it with gusto until someone told me there was a reference to the song in a review which said we were ‘hilariously out of tune’.” (Loc. 4352)
This is what she is referring to (and it’s great, of course):
This is the end of their last tour. It’s all there: the pop culture “détournement”, the classic pattern of Dawn ruining Jennifer’s song, and the trademark punch. But, from the book, you get a lot more of the depth of their friendship (I seem to remember Dawn calling Jennifer her soul sister on the Graham Norton show). I love this description of Jennifer:
“Fatty is a consummate daydreamer. Unlike most of us amateur daydreamers though, she doesn’t visit woolly, blurry places where your mind can have a little dance and a rest, or if she does, it’s only for a short time. No, her mind whisks her off to vivid, fresh places where she can live at the pace her brain is constantly working at, which is quite a lot quicker than most mortals. She is constantly running a cynical, internal parallel tape of her real life, what she sees, hears, reads, eats, loves and hates, and it never ceases to amuse her. It’s this sharp skill of observation that gives her the comedy spurs she uses to jolt her mind on from a trot to a canter when she is improvising or writing. On the surface, though, all is calm. Calm to the point of catatonia, while she floats in a warm sea of procrastination until the moment the urgency kicks in. It’s usually a deadline that provides the fear and that is the cue for her to switch to shark mode. It’s as if she has smelt the blood in the water, her eyes focus and she swims very fast, very skilfully towards the target, using all the muscle of a new idea that’s been slow-cooking during her reveries, as the power to thrust her forward. It’s an awesome talent to witness. Back then, though, I thought she was a snobby git.” (Loc. 2971)
And another thing I didn’t know (what with not living in London and all) is that Dawn was cast in a speaking part (she can’t sing, remember?) in the opera La Fille Du Régiment (in French!):
She’s a woman, hear her roar as she leaves the stage.
Which led to this wonderful moment:
“During the run, I kept complaining that I would finish my time at the opera house having never sung a note. Surely, I ought to be entitled to one note?! Then I’d be able to claim for ever that I had sung onstage at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. My final exit each night from the stage was a big huffy flounce off, accompanied by a loud angry roar because my character had been thwarted. It comes about three minutes from the end. So, on the very last night, instead of roaring I decided to sing that last moment of fury. I waited, I waited. The moment came, and I sang out loudly, one note, one word, ‘Merde! ’ – and exited.” (Loc. 4391)
Is there anything the gal can’t do? Well, she’s in a new kinda-sitcom with Alfred Molina, that she wrote.
A remarkable indeed.
I just have one regret though: I wish the !@#$ Kardashians had gotten the French and Saunders treatment.
Anyroadup (told ya), read the book.