Caitlin Moran: The making of a myth

When do you stop being working class? And does that matter when the money keeps rolling in?

In May 1994, I was 10 years old. I was 11 years away from becoming a journalist. Meanwhile, Caitlin Moran, 9 years my senior, was already a star. A blazingly good writer from a preternaturally young age, Moran was, by 1994, a superstar in print and a slightly less shining star on TV. She had the world at her feet and a dictionary on her tongue. That’s the picture painted by an Independent profile published in that month in 1994, of a young woman with talents as messy as her flat:

She's not very tidy. Just look at the state of her basement flat in Hampstead, best part. More like a squat. She herself is squatting, on the floor in front of her Apple Mac laptop, price pounds 4,000. There is no furniture, not even a sofa or chair. The floor is totally covered - dirty clothes, books, CDs, records, mugs, dishes, half-empty bottles, messages, notes, tickets, photos and dead ashtrays, full to the brim.

Somewhere, amid all this debris, are three large cheques. She remembers them coming, she remembers opening the envelopes, but now she can't find them. Her boyfriend, Taylor, is searching for them. They have run out of cash, even though these days Caitlin is earning around pounds 50,000 a year.

The writer of this profile is Hunter Davies, a veteran hack who cut his teeth writing about The Beatles, by 1994, he is also a big deal. So it means something to have his byline over this profile of Caitlin Moran — she has thoroughly arrived. The boyfriend, who doesn’t get a surname, is Taylor Parkes, who had met Moran at Melody Maker, the music paper where she also met her future husband (who she is still with) Pete Paphides. But while Taylor is a viscerally talented writer himself, he doesn’t get more than that reference. He was (unfairly) tangential to the Caitlin Moran story.

The origin story of Caitlin Moran — a nom de plume and nom de guerre in equal measure — is laid out starkly in the profile:

She comes from Wolverhampton, eldest of eight children, brought up in a three-bedroom council house. Her father is a musician, Irish-Liverpudlian extraction, who did session work with many well-known bands in the Sixties. Her mother went to Sussex University and has a middle-class background, hence Caitlin's rather proper tones, though she is fond of saying she is just a fat tart from the Midlands. Catholic-sounding father, hence all the kids? 'No, I was brought up Zen Buddhist.'

She was christened Catherine but later changed it to Caitlin. 'I have two stories. One is that I was studying numerology at the time, which gives numbers for letters and you work out how lucky you are going to be in life by the numbers, and I found Caitlin is luckier than Catherine. The other is that I was reading Jilly Cooper's Riders. She has a pretty girl called Caitlin who gets all the boys with names like Hugo and Archie.'

Like great popstars, Caitlin Moran has a habit of burnishing and reshaping her myths. She grew up the eldest of eight children — an experience she turned, along with her sister Caroline, into the funny and frank Raised By Wolves — in a household where money was unsurprisingly tight.

But her parents’ artistic and middle-class backgrounds tend to get smoothed away in the telling of a working-class background. Her undoubtedly stellar rise first through music journalism and onto columnist fame then up into the stratosphere of scriptwriting, TV, and filmmaking has been given an extra sheen by the idea that she dragged herself out of the mire.

The truth is that there is poverty and poverty. But the story is a good story, and Caitlin Moran knows how to tell a good story.

On the Hamilton mixtape, Nas raps — channelling Alexander Hamilton — that:

I wrote my way out
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation

That is the origin story of the superhero CaitMo. And there’s obviously some truth to it. Her talent and drive are undeniable. But after decades at the top table of British media, her frequent suggestions that she is an outsider have become ludicrous.

Her 16-year-old’s band was played on 6Music — with no explanation — by her close friend Lauren Laverne, and the producer of her new film How to Build a Girl is the BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated Alison Owen. Owen’s son Alfie Allen has a role in the movie, and Moran co-wrote the screenplay with another friend, the highly-successful novelist John Niven. The girl done good a long time ago, but the woman still wants to make out that it’s a struggle that leaves dirt under her fingernails.

2020 Caitlin Moran tells her stories rather differently to 1994 Caitlin Moran. That’s only to be expected. In 1994, she operated in a world before social media pile-ons, and while an operator at 19, was less guile-filled than she is after decades behind a byline. Here’s how the current iteration of Caitlin Moran sees her working-class background:

Yes—I was that pioneer girl, a fat, teenaged journalist in London, and so is Johanna. But a lot of the penises she encounters were not ones that I myself encountered; they were penises that friends encountered. A lot of mistakes that she makes are things I stole from other people’s lives. There’s a really famous journalist in our country called Julie Burchill, who started working for the NME when she was 16. She was a hot working-class girl from Bristol with a flash of lipstick and dark hair, who wrote these really rebarbative pieces and became more famous than most of the bands that she interviewed, and was the center of this gang. When I was writing about Johanna, I thought it’d be far more fun to make her like Julie Burchill than me. Because when I was a teenage music journalist, I’d just stand in the corner of the magazine, really shy, going, “I really like Crowded House, would anyone like to be my friend?” I certainly wasn’t part of a great gang. It was far more fun to make up a really interesting character than the sad lump of my own teenage years.

It’s interesting that Caitlin Moran says she lifted from the life of Julie Burchill to write the book and film. Burchill does not try to get people to like her in the way that Moran does. Burchill is acid undiluted. Her career has been a succession of burning bridges, which she speed away from, cigarette clasped between her lips, laughing uproariously at how fast the kerosene went up. For Moran, the journey has been more considered, softer at the edges, a combination of exaggerated working-class grit and middle-class whimsy. If you accused Julie Burchill of whimsy, she would hurt you.

Like the popstars she idolised — and still idolises, I suppose — Caitlin Moran has built a character for herself, a bag of tricks that she uses with accomplished skill. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth saying that the truth is less grim, more complicated, and doesn’t read as well on the page or play as well on the screen.

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How to Build a Girl is out now on Amazon Prime.