BOOK REVIEW / Sit and watch as smears go by: Faithfull - Marianne Faithfull & David Dalton: Michael Joseph, pounds 15.99

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THIS IS not an entertaining read. In fact, it's a while since I enjoyed a book as little as this one. It is quite absorbing, though, in a tabloid sort of way - sensational and, on its subject's own admission, unreliable.

Marianne Faithfull attributes some of her troubles to having attended a convent school. That may be, but with a spoilt, manipulative mother (whose great-uncle had put masochism in the psychological lexicon) and a 'nutty' father (whose own father had invented a 'Frigidity Machine' - something like Reich's Orgone Box, we're told) it may also be that the convent schooling came a poor third. She tells us that her mother spoiled her, too (or brought her up expecting to be treated like a princess) but later repeatedly denies it.

Then comes Sixties London. It was cooked up, it seems, in Marianne's presence, by John Dunbar (who was to become her first husband), Barry Miles of Indica Gallery and a man called Paolo Leone, in a coffee bar in 1963, with Marianne present: 'free love, psychedelic drugs, fashion, Zen, Nietzsche, tribal trinkets, customised Existentialism, hedonism and rock 'n' roll'. And we're still only up to page 18.

On page 19 Mick Jagger appears (having a row with Chrissie Shrimpton, whose false eyelashes can't stand the pace), closely followed by the manager of the Rolling Stones, Andrew Loog Oldham, exuding 'razor-blade hipness' - at which point I recalled a pianist friend I had at the time, who used to say: 'Some of these people have a curious idea of what constitutes Hip.' A few days after their first meeting, Oldham summoned her to a recording studio, they made 'As Tears Go By', and in a matter of weeks she was a pop star.

Much of the book is ripe for inclusion in 'Pseuds' Corner'. When Bob Dylan turned up in London, 'the Zeitgeist streamed through him like electricity . . . my existential hero . . . Jangling Rimbaud of rock . . . I was somehow absorbing by osmosis buried layers of meaning. I knew there was more to this than me sitting at the feet of the master, absorbing the arcana of Bob.'

When the reporting is more down- to-earth, it's much better. John Lennon goes backstage at the Dylan concert to compliment him, but Dylan is upset.

'They didn't dig 'It's All Right Ma'.'

'Maybe they didn't get it,' said John, 'it's the price of being ahead of your time, you know.'

To which Dylan replied: 'Maybe, but I'm only about 20 minutes ahead as it is.'

The glow of Sixties London seems to have paled quite rapidly. Within a year of becoming Mrs Dunbar, Marianne found herself trying to get the baby's bottle organised in a kitchen cluttered with hypodermic needles and their contents. At this time she wasn't doing drugs herself, she says; 'shopping was my addiction'. The marriage started to fall apart, doomed from the start, apparently, by her having carried May blossom on her wedding day - it belongs to Pan, you see.

The first man to whom I remarked that I was reading this book immediately asked:

'And is the Mars Bar story true?'

'Who cares?' I said.

'Oh, come, on]' he replied. 'Nearly everyone.'

It's hard not to feel sorry for Marianne: a bit of malicious gossip which, she points out, is not only untrue but unworthy of most of those who spread it, is none the less the first thing many people attach to her name. But she rejects such sympathy; of all the things you can do to anger her, the greatest is to cast her in the role of victim - of anybody or anything. Unless, that is, a good conspiracy theory is involved.

I suppose that when drugs have somewhat loosened one's vice-like grip on reality, vagueness and paranoia both step into the gap; but even as autobiographies go, this one sets new standards in the distance between the shallowness of the subject's apparent life-style and the importance she attaches to it. If officers of the law turn up at a house where laws are being broken, you don't really need to believe in a conspiracy involving MI5 and Fleet Street to explain it. The tone of self-righteousness with which she describes these episodes doesn't quite tally with the many other stories she tells of deception, casual and deviant sexual adventures, and drugs (including offering them to her own teenage son). Every now and then a welcome irony distances her a bit from all the vapid Sixties 'philosophising', but the clouds always descend again.

There's nothing in the book that pinpoints the cause of Faithfull's problems - indeed, there's nothing that plainly states that she even consents to their being so described. She became a junkie living against a wall in Soho because that was what she wanted to do. It may be unfair that the undoubted songwriting and recording achievements of her recent years are sidelined in favour of more infamous tales, but at least that will bring extra sales; and if one is looking for something to admire, a sort of resilient defiance is the obvious candidate. 'The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones' is not really her. She's more 'I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.'

(Photograph omitted)