Sex & love & rock ’n’ rollby Stephen Jewell
Jane Cornwell chronicles a lifetime of love affairs and the soundtrack to them.
"Initially I wanted to write something that was like a world-music version of 50 Shades,” says Jane Cornwell, laughing. Told through the prism of the various men she encounters along the way, the Australian-born journalist’s memoir, The Whirl, doesn’t actually have all that much in common with EL James’s bestselling bonk-buster. Designed as a female equivalent to the work of male authors such as Nick Hornby, Barney Hoskyns and Charles Shaar Murray, it presents a female perspective on what is traditionally a male-dominated industry.
“It’s a book about music written by a woman, and there aren’t so many of those,” she says. “The music world is sort of the province of men, but women also have music as a soundtrack to their lives. It’s just that it’s not usually written about.”
With each chapter titled after either a boyfriend or sexual partner she met at the time, Cornwell charts her journey from being a naive teenager living in Melbourne’s western suburbs to her move to London in the late 80s. It tells of her exploits as a freelance reporter for such publications as the Evening Standard and the Australian who regularly travelled to far-flung places such as Cuba, the Solomon Islands and Morocco. Describing it as “a great learning curve”, she worked as a press officer at avant-garde London arts institution the ICA for five years before landing a job at Peter Gabriel’s Womad organisation in 1997.
“I’d been writing about rock music for the Independent and I just got sick of that feeling that it just sounded so much better the first time around,” she says, insisting that the colourful tales of the everyday men and women that feature in The Whirl are much more fascinating than most of the famous figures she’s crossed paths with over the past two decades.
“I’ve got some great stories of hanging out with Clive James and Nick Cave,” she says, before mentioning several non-Australians, including Dolly Parton, Björk and Martin Scorsese. “But the people I’ve met and interviewed that I’ve got on well with, and who I’d want to be mates and have a drink with, aren’t the celebs. I’ve always been interested in people, and I love their stories. You sit down with somebody and everybody has their own stories with their own trajectories.”
Despite having changed the names of her partners in the book and shifted some to different locations, Cornwell is still nervous about how the colourful tales she tells might be perceived by those involved. “Writing the book was like some weird alchemical thing, as the person I was writing about would either suddenly get in touch or I’d hear them on the radio,” she says, admitting it was often a difficult process. “The hardest thing was that I was writing about real stuff that was very exposing. It’s one thing telling my friends about it and them saying, ‘You’ve got to write all this down’, and another to actually do it. But after I started writing, I found that the only way to write the sexual stuff was to make it funny and fictionalise it slightly, so it’s kind of me going off but it’s not me.”
Cornwell grew up in the 1970s, her formative years coinciding with feminism’s so-called second wave, which reached a tipping point with the publication of fellow Melbourne native Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1970. “When I was coming of age, feminism at Monash University was really incredibly optimistic,” she recalls. “We really felt like we were going to change things, as there was this kind of beautiful idealism, which we sometimes took to extremes. I remember calling up a vacuum cleaning company to ask why they had a woman advertising a vacuum cleaner in a bikini.”
Cornwell doesn’t believe that much has changed in the intervening years. “It’s started coming around again. What happened with feminism is that it got misappropriated, and then it went into the whole ladette thing in the 90s. But my point with this book is that what happened with this second wave in the 80s is that we wanted men to be able to be like us and to wash the dishes and cry. We wanted Snags – sensitive New Age guys – but when we got these guys, stronger women like me didn’t fancy them any more, as they were suddenly emasculated. There are a lot of women of a certain age who end up going for more unreconstructed macho guys because there’s something nice about feeling acquiescent and that someone else is in control,” she says, alluding to her relationship with a black South London-based DJ 15 years her senior, whom she calls Derek. “But you then knock up against these problems, because it’s cultural.”
Rather than some homogenous level playing field between the sexes, Cornwell now champions defined gender roles. “People think I’m being un-PC when I say this, but I’d much rather be traditionally female, which doesn’t mean subservient. But men should be allowed to be men.”
She also believes that the sizeable demographic of child-free women in their forties and fifties shouldn’t be prejudiced against. “There’s that notion that there’s something the matter with you if you don’t have children. I wanted kids, but I didn’t end up having them. But that’s okay because you end up moving on and you have a nice life. That’s why I ended the book on a positive note, as in ‘Let’s see what’s next’.”
The Whirl: Men, music & misadventures, by Jane Cornwell (HarperCollins, $34.99).
by Sam Hunt
A minute after
A minute after hearing car
turn from gravel road to drive –
low gear down to the house –
I catch a glimpse of light:
reflection of sun on chrome.
It stops where I am –
the boy home safe.
I find myself blessing myself:
knowing well could be
this never was happening.
Something different, entirely,
bring back, bring back,
please, bring back that
young son to me.
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