REVIEW by Steven Lovatt

NWR Issue 97

Knock ’em Cold, Kid

by Elaine Morgan

In an age of premature idolatry it is refreshing to find someone who has waited until the age of ninety one before embarking on their autobiography.

Elaine Morgan’s Knock ’em Cold, Kid charts the author’s life from its beginning in Depression-era Pontypridd to an active present as one of Wales’ most prominent cultural figures. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to an account of her childhood and education. She switches with economy and skill between anecdotes of family life and references to wider social and economic conditions, interweaving personal and social history to create a strong sense of a society that, although not so very remote in time, is in many ways unimaginably different from our own. In these early chapters, Morgan often directs her memories into luminous and evocative miniatures:

The colliery was practically at the top of our street. Very little greenery survived in its vicinity. Where it did, you could pick a leaf and then find your fingers black with coal dust. The children, like the miners, nearly all had blue scars – mostly on the knees, where they’d fallen down and the scars had healed up over a lining of coal dust.


Later on, such vignettes occur more rarely, and the narrative accordingly loses some of its colour.

Morgan’s public life is unusual for having involved her in realms – television scriptwriting, academia and evolutionary science – that are not often considered together. Having thrived on the opportunities available to talented ‘amateurs’ in the early decades of television, she is astutely aware of the cultural, commercial and technological forces that have driven the process by which British public life has been simultaneously professionalised and ‘dumbed down’ since 1945. The worlds that Morgan has known (the Pontypridd coalfield, Oxford University, the BBC, popular science), despite the differences between them, were and are alike in being dominated by men, and many of her choices and successes have been won in the face of patriarchal opposition. Morgan is admirably forgiving of some of the more unreconstructed dinosaurs she has encountered, whose attitudes may have been responsible in part for instilling the feminist consciousness that makes itself felt throughout the book in wry and sometimes witty asides.

The author’s cultural amphibiousness seems to have left its mark on her language, which is an odd and sometimes discordant mix of the colloquial and the literary. Her chatty tone often seems to usher in some questionable narrative digression (‘On the subject of nuns, I once met Mother Teresa…’) but is at any rate less jarring than the frequent Americanisms (‘those guys were seriously headhunting,’ ‘goddam picky”, Would I? “You bet I would [be interested in that]’).

Morgan will be known to many of her readers as a leading proponent of the Aquatic Ape Theory, which posits that in an early phase of its evolution, mankind lived in and partially adapted to a semi-aquatic environment. The formal language of science cannot readily be assimilated to the looser style of autobiography, and Morgan’s solution to this problem is to deal with the impact of the theory upon her life in the autobiography proper while relegating more technical discussion to a postscript. The slight structural awkwardness that this occasions is paralleled by the sense emerging from the book that Morgan has been more troubled than she admits by the hostility that her advocacy of the Aquatic Ape Theory has incurred from some quarters. Her postscript is defensively subtitled ‘for those who may still be interested’, and in the light of the somewhat rancorous debates that she has been involved in, it is tempting to reread more as protestations than neutral statements the sentences from earlier in the book that confess her general willingness to being proven wrong.

Towards the end of Knock ’em Cold, Kid, Morgan reflects that ‘One way and another I’ve had a fortunate life, full of interest and full of surprises.’ This is surely justification enough for setting down one’s life in autobiography. However, while it is true that the book contains a great deal of interest from the perspective of social history, readers who hope to get closer to Morgan herself may be disconcerted by the way in which the brisk, descriptive narrative all but precludes any more searching engagement with its author. Morgan’s remarkable success in overcoming barriers of class, national and gender discrimination, and her willingness to polemicise on behalf of the Aquatic Ape Theory, suggest a degree of travail and a steely side to her character that her book stops short of ever quite revealing. While it is refreshing to encounter a memoir so undemonstrative of ego and commendably free of the modern impulse to be ‘confessional’, there remains a sense that below this account of a life which ‘flowed along like a song’ there exists a vehement world of feeling and argument. Rather as visitors to a grand house are kept behind red velvet ropes, readers of these memories are encouraged to find interesting only what their curator has thought worthy of exhibition. The vaults with their curiosities remain unseen.


Buy this book at gwales.com



       


previous review: Leaving the Atocha Station
next review: Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn



 
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