Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Farah Damji: Try Me: Just give this princess a cross
There are many reasons why the journalist and convicted fraudster Farah Damji won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
For me, there’s a very personal one. In Arcatiland she was the first herald of Michael Jackson’s death. She emailed the news to a posting here and I said to myself: Oh no, is she making this up? Then Sky confirmed it later. Proustian memory has now locked Damji and Jacko together over an eternal keyboard late one summer night.
And the infamous two do have one big thing in common: both, for different reasons, move us to ask of their lives - what am I to believe?
This is the question many readers will ask as they rocket through Damji’s enthralling autobiography Try Me. Critics expecting a string of self-serving excuses written in throwaway tabloidese will be disconcerted. As a piece of writing Try Me is a nuanced, self-punishing, sometimes lyrical, always compelling and an all-too-revealing performance. It's a beaut.
What’s she like? Put simply, if you gave this girl a life-size cross she’d probably have herself nailed to it just to see how it feels. That’s the kind of person who emerges from these pages.
Try Me seethes at times with a fury that’s not always easy to understand. “My temper was like a genie which possessed me…” she writes. If the heavy pall of fraud convictions, prison spells and recent criminality hangs low over her then this book may serve some kind of purpose in helping to get into the head of the inscrutable, “Chanel-clad” rich girl-socialite-magazine editor-brothel madam-fashion designer who simply can’t keep out of trouble.
Farah Damji was born in Uganda in 1966 to South Asian parents. She thinks her mother loved the extended family more than her own kids while her wealthy father’s side “were Dallas-like in their aspirations and the depths of their deviancy” with one or two involved in “semi-criminal shenanigans.” Damji haters will make much of that.
Via Tramp’s, Annabel’s and other London glory spots she soared into adulthood. At 21 she drank a whole bottle of gin just to see what would happen (think of the cross) and in New York sex, too, got the cross treatment - “I fucked frenetically for a place in the fornicators’ Hall of Fame.” In the Big Apple, she soon gravitated towards the sleb-serving glitz-dreck where nightclub managers could fix meets between the Pope and Monegasque royalty, and drugs and whoring bankrolled a world glammed up by crime movies. A collision with law enforcers was inevitable.
“Life was a game I played. I made up or changed the rules as I went along,” she writes. Later she regularly stole cash from a lover - “I never felt bad about stealing from him, it was payback in the transactional game of our relationship.” “Game” is a motif Damji word.
“Should I tell you I am a thief, that I will steal your soul?” she teases the reader. “I took people and things, the way I’m taking you now, with my long brown fingers, with the Pied Piper’s tune of distance and dreams. You know all about me. Yet still you follow.” Is this book another game?
Back in the Cool Britannia of the Noughties, Damji launches the short-lived magazine Indobrit and is immersed in controversies and the London media scene: two major affairs with married media men add to the profile. The infamy. And the in-for-me.
Then a wonderful chapter on India offers respite and a clue to her true gifts: as an explorer and observer. “India is about erasing, taking away preconceptions,” she writes. “Just the stark juxtaposition of wealth and scarcity – the tuk-tuk ride from Malabar Hill mansions to the slum dog hovels, though a short one, is hard to grasp.”
The final part of the book is a depressing litany of cops and frauds and did-she-didn’t-shes?, culminating in a long jail term. Now she has time to outline Try Me and discover Kabbalah but still she jumps prison leave and while on the run writes a blog - a first of a kind that tickles the media. The papers love it because she's an errant princess of sorts, dirty Diana-lite, but one who eats, not kisses, frogs.
I could have lived without the love affairs with the named marrieds - I’m only thinking of their aggrieved wives - and I think Damji has turned many of her crimes into abstractions so that she has lost sight of those she has harmed: you won’t find a big unambiguous sorry. Or, I didn’t find it.
Instead, you’ll encounter a gifted, highly intelligent woman observing herself in mirrors, scrutinising the different perspectives amorally, no matter the light or unflattering murk. Try Me is a trove of insights on types and experiences well outside Acacia Avenue so that reading it is an adventure in itself. A game, even.
And she's not the first princess of darkness who can write like an angel.
Try Me, click here to buy.
(For another perspective on Try Me, read the New Statesman review)