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Tony Wilson biography reviewed

Phil Griffin appreciates David Nolan's attempt to put Mr Manchester's life into order

Published on August 20th 2009.

There will be bigger books about Wilson than this. Poetic insight from Morley, hefty contextual analysis from Savage, say. But none, I would guess, will be much more enjoyable than this one by David Nolan. He has hit the ground first with You’re Entitled to an Opinion – a straight chronological biography of the Salford boy who became Mr Manchester.

How right he got us, we random, suggestible, dreamy small town folk. He came down from Cambridge to be our dope-smoking, fast-talking, sweary big brother.

Wilson’s life is related through a number of interviews that Nolan has conducted with key people, including extant Factory partner Peter Saville, son Oliver and Yvette Livesey, Tony’s partner through his last 17 years. Other witness words are quoted from various newspapers and magazines, notably the Manchester Evening News. Nolan nods this along in his own gently bantering way.

How much of it didn’t we know? That Tony’s father Sydney was gay, that his mother Doris was 20 years older than her husband, that her German father, Herman Knupfer was a successful Salford jeweller, and that she was 46 when Tony was born, is all pretty well known.

So too is Tony’s childhood idyll in the Goyt valley, near to his home in Marple where he moved with mum, dad and bachelor uncle Edgar when he was five. We know these things because Tony himself wrote and spoke about them. His was, after all, an unsheltered life. Nolan lays each item out like polished cutlery from the posh draw. It is a pleasure to have them correctly ordered and placed before you.

Tony’s school, De La Salle, makes a good read with Anthony Burgess-like hints of sadistic slipperings by spooky Christian Brothers in long black robes (a look that Tony himself espoused in later life). And here’s our boy cutting rugger with Proust tucked under his arm. There’s some, but not much Cambridge stuff, which is probably in balance for a man who was not overly proud of his own 2:2, but who would have walked on air to see his daughter Isabel go up to his old college to read medicine. Which he very probably is.

The Steve Coogan-like images kick in when Tony arrives at Granada TV. This is strange and a little discomforting. 24 Hour Party People (well extolled in Nolan’s book) may be comedy but it actually fixes the life of Manchester’s greatest broadcaster and cultural catalyst with nonchalant ease. They got it right, if not in historical detail then in mood, atmosphere and colour.

What Nolan is able to add to the picture is independent eyewitness analysis. Ray Fitzwalter, Tony’s editor in his short and colourful stint as a World in Action reporter, proffers this: “He had almost no real research ability. He was a person who would throw out thoughts and ideas that were very insubstantial”. Fitzwalter’s polar opposite, in fact, if you discount the word 'insubstantial'.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, screenwriter of 24 Hour Party People nails another Tony trait: “Tony was massively more interesting than any musicians he worked with. I know he worked with geniuses. I’m sure Ian Curtis was an amazingly charismatic person and Shaun Ryder as well, but utterly boring compared to Tony.” He goes on to describe Wilson as “psychotically generous”.

How right he got us, we random, suggestible, dreamy small town folk. He came down from Cambridge to be our dope-smoking, fast-talking, sweary big brother. He loved us all, on both sides of the camera and the stage lights. He loved us in the bar and box office, on CD and download. He loved us as we called him wanker. He loved New York and LA because, unlike London, they didn’t challenge his roots and question his credentials. Tony strode down Deansgate and Quay Street a Made Man. Nobody ever took Manchester this way: took it and made it better.

David Nolan spins all this out in easy, guileless prose. He plays his hand a touch self-consciously towards the end, but why shouldn’t he? It is his book. Plainly, he loved spending time in Wilson’s company. More time than was allotted him when Tony was alive. His analysis of the life and times of the Granadaland that lies below Winter Hill is spot on. As are the loving Wilson impersonations by Bob Greaves, uncannily well reproduced on the page.

He brings his book to its all too familiar and painful conclusion with near poetry and even-handed skill (though I suspect that a race to meet a publication date close to the second anniversary of Tony’s death on 10 August has led to some sloppy editing). He very properly leaves the last words to Yvette Livesey, and I shall leave them for you to find in the pages of this warm, colourful, hugely entertaining book.

Except to add a summation from Frank Cottrell Boyce: “We underestimated him when he was alive. It’s time to start overestimating him [now].” Impossible Frank, as you and thousands of damp-eyed Mancunians very well know.

You're Entitled to an Opinion....The high times and many lives of Tony Wilson, Factory Records and The Hacienda by David Nolan is published by John Blake and costs £18.99

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