Wednesday's Book: Waterloo Sunset (Viking, pounds 14.99)

Ian Thomson
Tuesday 16 September 1997 23:02

A very English group, the Kinks were a hybrid of music hall and Noel Coward on electric guitar. At first they sounded like a garage band. Their three-chord smash hit "You Really Got Me" showed no sign of the mordant, world-weary melancholy to come. But in 1966 Ray Davies gave us "Waterloo Sunset", one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written. It's a perfect vignette, a classic English weepy.

Ray Davies is in his early 50s now and much revered by a younger generation of popsters. He wrote a song called "House in the Country" 30 years before Blur. Davies was born in Muswell Hill and his excellent autobiography, X-Ray, offered tales of drunkenness and cruelty spiced with rock `n' roll scandal. Waterloo Sunset is a collection of familiar kitchen-sink stories, film scripts and oddball London sketches.

As always, Davies writes of social pretension and the pathos of human failure. In this collection, a no-hope pop star lives in a squat off Regent's Park; another tale describes the shabby-genteel existence of an old woman in a mansion flat. The uncharted boondocks of English suburbia are also lovingly described. One story, narrated by a murderous commuter, takes us on a train journey from Guildford to Waterloo, passing Effingham Junction, Cobham, Claygate and other desolate places.

Sadly,Waterloo Sunset does not live up to the glorious song. The prose is clumsy at times and there's an oddly outmoded, nostalgic air to the London portrayed by Davies. Nevertheless, the collection has a quirky fascination of its own. It is held together by several stories about the pop impresario Richard Tennant, and his attempts to resurrect the rock `n' roll has-been Les Mulligan. Tennant sounds like the self-opinionated Jonathan King, while Mulligan, presumably, is Ray Davies with his personal life ravaged by drugs and booze.

Memorable, too, are the wry observations about the English class system and our nostalgia for the village green that no longer exists. Davies likes to mock those who lie about their humble origins, or wear Hilditch & Key shirts and dine at Claridge's to maintain social standing. Yet rock stars might also be ridiculed for their literary pretensions. Pete Townshend's collection of short prose, Horse's Neck, got some sniffy reviews in 1985. Waterloo Sunset is strictly for Kinkophiles. One day, Ray Davies may write a book worthy of his immortal songs.

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