In which High Fidelity makes Netty’s all-time top five list of favourite books …

December 27, 2010

At the end of the day, it’s a list thing. You know, you prefer cats to dogs. You like sweet things more than savoury things. You make lists or you don’t.

I’m a list person. Andy isn’t.

Rob Fleming, the narrator of British author Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity most definitely is a list person. Rob’s also a music nuffy, in the best sense of the term.

I’ve heard it said, many, many times, that High Fidelity is a guy book, chockers full of characters with which guys can most clearly identify. To which I say poppycock. What, you think girls don’t have desert island favourites (mine are Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, U2’s The Joshua Tree, REM’s Murmur, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation), or that they never make lists of their all-time top five Elvis Costello songs (Oliver’s Army, It’s Been A Good Year For The Roses (I don’t care that it’s a cover – I like Elvis’s version best), Accidents Will Happen, Everyday I Write The Book, Tokyo Storm Warning)? Poppycock, poppycock, poppycock.

Let’s take Fever Pitch, Hornby’s impassioned memoir of being an Arsenal supporter. Now, that’s a guy book, and not just because it’s about soccer. Sorry, football. High Fidelity is ultimately a book about relationships between guys and girls, the whole Mars and Venus she-bang, but to me it’s always been a simultaneous love letter from a guy to his record collection (“See, records have helped me to fall in love, no question. I hear something new, with a chord change that melts my guts, and before I know it I’m looking for someone, and before I know it I’ve found her”). With a character who, in the throes of a painful break-up, decides to recatalogue his record collection in the order in which he bought them (“Is it so wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection?” he opines at one stage). It’s possibly my favourite passage – amongst so many, many – in the whole book, alongside another character’s put-down of a record shop customer looking for a copy of Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called To Say I Love You. Allow me to truncate the passage in question:

Customer: “Could I have it then?”

Barry: “No, I’m sorry but you can’t.”

Customer: “Why not?”

Barry: “Because it’s sentimental, tacky crap, that’s why not. Do we look like the sort of shop that sells fucking I Just Called To Say I Love You, eh? Now be off with you, and don’t waste our time.”

Heh, heh. I love the Barry character. He’s my kinda guy. Working in my kinda record shop.

But I digress.

High Fidelity opens with the aforementioned narrator Rob, in the wake of his break-up with his lawyer girlfriend Laura, listing his top five most memorable split-ups. Mid-thirtysomething Rob, a former DJ, owns a North London record shop called Championship Vinyl, where he and his employees, fellow music aficionados (and, yes, musical snobs – for which they make no apology) Barry and Dick, make up lists (five best side-ones, track-ones anybody? How about top five bands/musicians who will have to be shot come the musical revolution?), try and outdo each other with their musical knowledge, oh, and sell the occasional record or two. While Laura moves in with her new boyfriend Ian (“Ray”) Raymond, Rob tries to make sense of the relationship’s failure by sleeping with American folk singer Marie LaSalle and tracking down the ex-girlfriends who constitute his top five most memorable split-ups.

Rob and Laura continue to meander in and out of each other’s orbit, until Laura’s father dies and the goalposts in their relationship abruptly shift, with ensuing forced re-evaluations on both sides. (In a blackly comic aside, Rob, Barry and Dick debate the best five pop songs about death before the funeral. The Shangri-Las’ Leader Of The Pack? You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones? Madness’s One Step Beyond?).

The renegotiation of Rob and Laura’s relationship doesn’t run smoothly, of course – and is almost derailed by Rob’s short-lived crush on journalism student Caroline. But by the book’s end, the reader gets a sense that there will be a happy ending for Rob and Laura. There is the overarching feeling that Rob is finally going to overcome the emotional immaturity that has stunted his personal growth for so long and make a commitment to the woman he discovers he really does love after all.

Of course, there was always going to be a movie – and there was much chest-beating among fans of the book when it was first revealed the plot was going to be transplanted from North London to Chicago. As a rule, I have always found the turning of my favourite books into films to suck, big-time. Happily, the Stephen Frears-directed movie, which came out in 2000, proved a very welcome exception to the rule (and extra brownie points for casting Gen X girl favourite John Cusack in the lead role, renamed, for whatever reason, Rob Gordon, although Jack Black as Barry pretty much steals the show in his every scene).

OK, well, I could write more about High Fidelity, but if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’ve already read and loved the book too. And anyway, I suddenly have the pressing urge to go and recatalogue my CD collection (my precious vinyl is in storage). I’m sure I can come up with something far more original than alphabetical order, although it’s gonna be pretty hard to beat the order in which they were bought (First CD in alphabetical order: A Small Good Thing’s Slim Westerns Vols I and II. Last CD in alphabetical order: the Zoo’s Shakin’ The Cage (a Mick Fleetwood – ahem – side project). First CD bought: Kate Bush’s The Sensual World. Last (most recent) CD bought: Jay-Z’s The Hits Collection Volume I. Maybe I could do this after all!) Such is the lot of the music pedant. Happy reading … and listening …

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