Inside VS Naipaul’s life of slap and tickle (and more slaps)
Plus new shades put on history and Jimmy Page’s soiled back pages from when Led Zeppelin ruled rock ’n’ roll
There has been a flood of tributes and career appraisals following the death at the weekend of VS Naipaul, arguably the greatest and most infuriating figure in post-colonial literature. For more than five decades he gave his readers often searing and withering portraits of societies in the developing world.
That honesty earned him severe criticism – and not just for his particular point of view on the colonialism and post-colonialism so unequivocally detailed in his novels and travel writing. He was just as brutal when it came to his own failings as a man, so much so that his violent behaviour threatened to overwhelm his literary reputation.
He spared his biographer, Patrick French, nothing – so much so that the latter’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul (Vintage, 2009) is a gobsmacking page-turner.Naipaul was fairly open about the humiliation he caused his first wife, Patricia Hale, and the 20-year affair he conducted with Margaret Gooding, a women he regularly assaulted. When the affair began, his editor Diana Athill rebuked him for his behaviour. He told her: “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?”
Pleasure meant degrading Gooding in bed. As Naipaul told French: “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt … She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”
What to read, though, of the 29 books that Naipaul produced? His first collection of short stories, Miguel Street (1959), details the lives of ordinary Trinidadians in a run-down corner of Port of Spain. The novels A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Mimic Men (1967) and A Bend in the River (1978) are pretty much essential. Of his non-fiction work I recommend The Loss of El Dorado (1969), his India travelogues, An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998).
He was particularly scathing about South Africans in The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). An uncomfortable experience, you could say.
The latest big deal in non-fiction is The Colour of Time: A New History of the World: 1850-1960 (Head of Zeus), which, according to the publisher’s bumf, “spans more than a hundred years of world history from the reign of Queen Victoria and the US Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and beginning of the Space Age. It charts the rise and fall of empires, the achievements of science, industry and the arts, the tragedies of war and the politics of peace, and the lives of men and women who made history.”So far, so good. But what has drawn the almost universal acclaim from the critics has not been the writing so much as the pictures. Here, author Dan Jones, an award-award-winning journalist and historian whose bestselling books include Summer of Blood and The Hollow Crown, serves merely as a glorified caption writer for the 23-year-old Brazilian artist Marina Amaral, who has digitally colourised 200 historic black and white images for this collaboration. The results are stunning, and offer a unique and often startlingly beautiful perspective on the past.
ROCK ’N’ ROLL
The sex, drugs and all-round bad behaviour are laid on pretty thick in Chris Salewicz’s Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography (HarperCollins). No stone is left unturned in this warts and all (but mainly warts) rummage through the Led Zeppelin guitarist’s soiled back pages.
Most of it has been told before, how the group’s first five albums, released in an astonishingly productive four-year period to 1973, changed the course of hard rock and earned them a reputation as “the biggest band in the world”. As such, the band’s image also changed during this time, with Page taking the lead in flamboyance and ostentation.The stories of debauchery were legion, although often greatly exaggerated – not that the band minded. One incident forever associated with them took place in a Seattle motel room, where they allegedly tied a groupie to a bed and sexually assaulted her with a fish. Frank Zappa even wrote a song about it, Mudshark, but as the lyrics make clear the men involved were not members of Led Zeppelin, but of another group, Vanilla Fudge. Both groups were staying at the same motel. Salewicz nevertheless repeats the story for salacious good measure then adds that Page wasn’t even at the motel at the time, having travelled on to inspect a venue in Santa Barbara, California.
A more credible story concerns the 2014 launch in Los Angeles of Page’s photographic autobiography, Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page (Genesis Publications). It was a celebrity-stuffed affair and Page, who “signed” copies of his book with a rubber stamp, had invited one of his former girlfriends, Lori Mattix. Looking at the prints of the group in their heyday, Page surprised her when he sighed: “Oh, Lori: we were so young then.” To which she replied: “Well, I was!” Which was no understatement: she was 14 when she took up with the guitarist, having just lost her virginity to David Bowie.
Mattix was a cause for concern in the Led Zeppelin camp, considering the criminal implications of sex with a minor. But Page dumped her when she was 16 for another groupie, Bebe Buell, which took care of that problem.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“They are our longest-serving domestic animals, which since the beginning have tilled our soil, borne our burdens, fed us, clothed us and been our uncomplaining servants in the work of taming the wilderness and wresting a living from it.” – Till The Cows Come Home: The Story of Our Eternal Dependence by Phillip Walling (Atlantic)