Rhona Cameron – 1979: A Big Year in a Small Town (Book Review)

The story  begins at nine minutes to twelve on New Years Eve 1978, ends at zero hours 1980 and for the most part is kept within the boundaries of that year. In the prologue, Rhona sketches an outline of her early years and the shape of her life up until 1979, which she calls, “the year that changed my life forever.” She still has a childhood diary and throughout the book she reveals excerpts from it and expands on them. She notes that on the inner sleeve she has written; “Private and Confidential. What is written in this diary is the whole truth and the way I feel on occasions in life”. As might be expected, these diary entries provide some of the funniest moments in the book; often solemn and pompous, unintentionally funny, yet incredibly vulnerable, they will chime with anyone who looks back on things they said, wrote and did in their teens that now make them cringe, (that’s all of us then).

Because they were so funny, I thought she must have made some of the diary entries up, but she says she has copied them in the book exactly as they appeared in the diary, and as she even goes so far as to mention what’s been crossed out and replaced, it does seem that they are genuine. Rhona seems to write much as she speaks and I felt at times that I could hear her voice telling the story. Much of the content may seem outrageous to a fourteen year old; she keeps ‘fact files’ on girls she has crushes on and she follows them around and spies on them, but from the point of view of an adult all this is actually fairly normal teenage behaviour. Reading it made me think about my own teenage years and helped me put a few things in perspective. I think a lot of people get ‘stuck’ emotionally during adolescence which is why this might be a good book for teenage girls, (and boys – though I doubt they would), to read, particularly anyone who feels bullied at school. It must have been cathartic for Rhona to write.

I had made the assumption that, given her age and sexuality, the reason for this being such a pivotal year would be down to some sort of sexual awakening, but Rhona doesn’t deal with any huge realisations about her sexuality, rather it’s just a normal part of who she is, albeit a part of her identity that causes trouble for her and is the source of much angst, something she feels she must keep secret, for most of the time, despite the fact that a lot of people just seem to ‘know’ anyway. She does mention the politician Jeremy Thorpe who was on trial that year – she is sure that this was the first time she had ever heard the word ‘homosexuality’, and she knew it applied to her. She mentions the compulsory reading for girls at the time; ‘Jackie’ magazine, which I used to read myself, and the letters often featured on the pages from young people struggling with their sexual identity. Rhona knew there was no point in writing to them about her own situation as she already knew the answer would contain the words ‘a phase’. She writes about how she made efforts to move into a ‘boy phase’, it’s heartbreaking to see  the ways in which she tries to talk herself into being heterosexual, (“We met a nice boy….I think I like boys more now!!!!!”).  

1979 is about a lot more than sexual identity though; being a teenager, fitting in, coping with bullying, family ties. Adolescence is a lot to deal with on it’s own. Add to the mix the fact that you’re gay in a small town in the seventies, adopted, worried about your Dad’s ill health and have become a target of abuse by local lads and you can understand why the teenage Cameron had a rich fantasy life. Imaginary scenes and conversations also form a significant part of the book, but I didn’t think Rhona’s discussions about imaginary heists with imaginary gangsters added much to the reading experience, I thought them a bit self indulgent. Other teenage fantasies such as being a hero who saves a baby from drowning,(the baby happens to be the sibling of a crush), were funnier. The teenage Rhona hated anyone being funnier than her, humour was an area where she felt safely able to outshine boys, maybe a part of the reason she later turned up on the comedy circuit.

The cover blurb made me think this would be something of a nostalgia trip for anyone growing up in the UK during that period, but although some things chimed with me – rides on the back of a Chopper, ‘dolly birds’ on the side of lager cans – it’s a uniquely personal story which covered less familiar ground than I realised I’d expected it to. Still, it is more about being a teenager than it is about being Rhona Cameron and is at it’s best when conjuring up those excruciating teenage emotions that seem uniquely personal at the time but actually everyone can relate to. Occasionally very funny, more often wry or mildly amusing, it deals with real tragedy as well as more light hearted moments. ‘1979’ isn’t always the most gripping of memoirs, but it’s intelligently written and well worth a read.

Details: Paperback; 320 pages, Publisher; Ebury Press (3 Jun 2004), (also published as ‘nineteen seventy-nine’).

(adapted from a review I originally published on dooyoo.co.uk)

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About tricialo

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