How famous is Caitlin Moran? It’s not a rhetorical question: the answer, in the subject’s own estimation, is ’17 per cent famous’.
‘In a vegetarian café, in a library, in a gay club, I will get recognised,’ says Moran. ‘Walking around Chigwell? Not a sausage. In a bookshop, I’m famous. If I go down the road to LK Bennett… nothing.’
Weekend doesn’t entirely buy this. As a multi-award-winning newspaper columnist, bestselling author and screenwriter, occasional broadcaster and – let’s not be coy – feminist icon (not to mention, according to Woman’s Hour, one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain), she’s not exactly flying under the radar. And besides, we’re meeting in a bookshop café so, for the purposes of this interview at least, we can agree that Caitlin Moran is Really Quite Famous Indeed.
She has also just written a book called How to be Famous, but it’s not, she stresses, a self-help manual. Rather, it’s the sequel to her hugely successful coming-of-age novel, How to Build a Girl (which is currently being made into a film, for release next year). This one finds our hero, Johanna, making a name for herself as a music journalist in London during the white heat of the 90s Britpop explosion. In other words, despite the opening disclaimer that ‘this is a novel and it is all fictitious’, it is, like its predecessor, clearly semi-autobiographical.
‘That’s a legal thing to say, otherwise certain people will sue me,’ admits Moran. ‘I mean, it’s very noticeable that all my projects are about fat, working-class girls from Wolverhampton who want to go on an amazing sex quest, but are also trying to change the world in some way. That fictional apple is not falling far from the factual tree.’
It’s a book bursting at the stitches with her trademark wit, one that makes room for frequent, enjoyable digressions on everything from the Brontës to the Wombles. Being a novel, it is obviously less of a manifesto than previous books like… well, Moranifesto. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have plenty to say.
‘I had a list of useful things that I wanted to do in the book,’ she says. ‘About sex, about politics, about feminism, about how you construct yourself, your inner voice, the joy of swimming in cold water. And they’re all in there, so job done.’
Whatever Moran’s own fame ranking, in the course of her journalism career (where her many baubles include Interviewer of the Year, Critic of the Year and six Columnist of the Year titles) she’s rubbed shoulders – and occasionally a bit more than that – with some of the world’s most exalted superstars, from Paul McCartney (she burst into tears) to Lady Gaga (she watched her have a wee in the toilets of a sex club). Despite this, she insists that ‘every single tactic I’ve had for talking to famous people has singularly and abjectly failed’.
‘I’ve tried being their friend by telling them loads of personal details about my life, and they just sat there going, “Why are you just talking about yourself?” Then I tried to have sex with some of them, because I thought maybe the talent would be in their penis, but it turns out there is no such thing as ‘penius’. Then I ignored them. I would meet heroes and be like, “the best thing I can do to show them my love is to ignore them”.’
She recalls co-hosting a radio show with John Peel, and playing it cool to the point of rudeness. ‘In my head I thought, “he will appreciate that the first time I did not try and grab his attention, and the next time I meet him we can have a proper conversation. This is how you do this, I’ve cracked this.” He died two months later.’
More recently, she was asked out to lunch by Bono. ‘I said, “Well, Love Island’s on at the moment, so I’m kind of rammed…” Not surprisingly, he has not called me.’
Famous people are always the first to tell you they have never courted fame, but Moran has at least been consistent: aged 16 (and already a writer for Melody Maker, with an Observer Young Reporter of the Year award also under her belt), she turned down the chance to go on Wogan to publicise her children’s novel, The Chronicles of Narmo, preferring to let her writing to speak for itself.
The book was her first fictional pass at her famously chaotic upbringing. The eldest of eight children born to an Irish-Liverpudlian father – described by Moran as ‘a Marxist trade unionist drug dealer hippie and former psychedelic rock drummer’ – and college dropout mother, she was largely left to raise herself (and her siblings) in a crowded three-bedroom council house in Wolverhampton, denied such luxuries as underwear (her mother didn’t believe in bras), deodorant, birthday presents and, on occasion, food.
Over the years, Moran has spun all this – what she’s previously called a West Midlands version of The Hunger Games – into rich comedy gold, not least in two series of Raised by Wolves, the boisterous Channel 4 sitcom she wrote with her sister Caz. But does she not nurse even a tiny bit of resentment over her parents’ casual abdication of responsibility?
‘Well, it’s given me… I mean, it’s a philosophical viewpoint,’ she considers. ‘You just sort of go, if I’d had a really boring, middle class, supportive upbringing, I’d have absolutely f*** all to write about.’
Even so, did she never sit down with her parents and…
‘We didn’t have any sofas,’ she cuts in. ‘That was a very classist presumption. There was nowhere to sit in our house – we just hovered by the front door until the ice cream van came, and then ran out and split a Mars bar between 10 people.’
She hasn’t entirely made light of it: she’s written about being sad and lonely, and bullied, with kids literally throwing stones at her in the street and calling her a weirdo. She’s also talked about suffering panic attacks, but now she puts that down to drinking too many espressos, and the fact ‘all my family are very anxious – that’s just part of our DNA, along with our flat feet and a tendency for our hair to be triangular’.
Her gift for writing – Moran wields words like a superpower – she puts down to her parents (‘My dad’s very Celtic – when you’re poor, often all you’ve got is words; they’re endless and luxurious and free’) and to the fact she was home-schooled – or, for the most part, not schooled at all – and so spent her days reading ‘every book in the library’ instead.
‘We read a lot, we watched a lot of TV. We were surrounded by funny women – people like Victoria Wood, French and Saunders, Sue Townsend. It’s all about the placement of words. Which is one of the things that makes me sad about the current educational system, where kids are just having grammar driven into them.
‘Apparently I’m on the curriculum for GCSE and A-level. My children are quite bitter about this: “I’m having to study you, Mum!” The questions they ask about how I’ve written this stuff… I’ve got no f***ing idea! I literally don’t know what a past participle is. The best thing to do if you want to be a writer is just to read. It’s like a big poo – you need to put the words in and then you will poo the words out.’
She landed a columnist’s job at The Times when she was 18, but doesn’t think someone with her background would get that opportunity today.
‘There are fewer working class kids coming through now than at any time since the 1950s. We’d inadvertently created this brilliant media escalator, where you could start off on the regional press or on the music papers – you didn’t need to have any contacts, you just needed to be able to write. And that’s all gone now. Now if you’re working class and you want to write, you can blog, but you’re not getting paid for that, so you’ve got to go out there and earn your rent, whereas the middle class kids who are being subsidised by their parents can just blog away all day.
‘In every single statistic that comes through for class representation across the media, and every part of culture, we can see that the working class proportion is going down all the time.’
Of course, at 43, Moran has what might be considered a very comfortable middle-class life: she and her husband, the rock critic Pete Paphides, and their two teenage daughters live in a nice house in a nice part of London, with nice Farrow and Ball-painted walls. Culturally, though, she feels she’ll be ‘working class ‘til I die’.
‘One thing I’ve noticed is that, with all my working class friends who’ve come into money or been successful, we just spend the money,’ she observes. ‘Whereas the middle classes, they know people who do investments, they do these stocks and shares and stuff. I have simply no idea how to do that.’
Food is another class battleground. ‘Carbohydrates will always be my god of choice, and that’s a real working class thing,’ she says. ‘You eat till your belly’s full. Lovely, soporific carbohydrates – they are our Valium.
‘It’s a physical thing, too. I’ve been styled and given really expensive designer clothes, and there’s just something about coming from proper sturdy peasant stock – the kind of person who could carry a pig under each arm, that’s my DNA – that you put me in some fabulous dress and it just looks terrible. It’s kind of like: I need to dress like a peasant. These are my things, these are my people.’
If class is a theme that runs through Moran’s work like a watermark, then that goes double for gender politics – most explicitly in the global success of her 2011 book How to be a Woman, a feminist rallying cry that’s as funny as it is furious.
‘Anger is the start of the process,’ she explains. ‘It’s great to be angry, but that’s just a fuel. I don’t want to spray petrol on people – I’m going to use that to drive my car to take people to where I want them to go. If you communicate in humour, if you try to write something beautiful, then people will read what you’re saying, instead of just having a big argument. And that is how you change minds.’
In fact, from teenage trauma to the frontline of identity politics, Moran’s modus operandi has been to channel a giddy, joyful optimism wherever humanly possible.
‘And that’s not a front,’ she says. ‘I just am an insane optimist. We’re here for this. I don’t believe that we were anywhere before we were born, we will not be anywhere when we die. This is it, and we need to be as joyful as possible, because it makes you strong.
‘I was raised on musicals. If Judy Garland is always optimistic at the beginning of a film, then I should be too. She always ended on a fantastic musical number, and that’s how I wish to end.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 28, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend