Book Review: Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life, by Alan Cumming

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Alan cumming

It was in the spring of 1985 that I first laid eyes on the phenomenon that is Alan Cumming. The location was St Andrews, the location of that year’s Scottish Student Drama Festival; and a group from RSAMD – now the Royal Scottish Conservatory – performed a play about the Battle of Flodden and the sad passing of King James IV of Scotland.

Cumming played the king; and although I can’t remember almost anything from the show, I do remember about ten lines in Cumming’s first speech, I turned to the person next to me – Jenny Killick, then director of the Traverse – to find her looking at me, with the same look of astonished gratitude and pleasure.

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What did we see? This thing called star quality, of course, impossible to miss, notoriously difficult to define; the same quality that had already propelled Cumming from an incredibly painful childhood in a sports arena in Angus – a story of physical and emotional abuse already explored in his powerful 2014 memoir Not My Father’s Son – into a place at the first music school and Scottish Theater.

Alan cumming

And 36 years later, that same quality still drives Cumming, through a career that has led him to international stardom and a sometimes almost equally spectacular private life. In his new memoir, Baggage, he seeks to explore his evolution from the young man who graduated in 1985 and quickly married – to actress Hilary Lyon – which gave him a sense of security in those early years. , through a series of relationships. , “divorces” and experiences, to eventual happiness in New York with Greg Shaffer, her partner of 15 years, and now her husband.

Part of Cumming’s message in Baggage, however, is that we should always be wary of the sharpness of this happy narrative forever, and aware that the messy emotional baggage we carry in life can never be entirely dismissed. Mercurial is a word often used for Cumming; and the vivid quality of his personality and career is fully and sometimes brilliantly reflected in this memoir, which traces the ups and downs of his private life in the context of a breathtaking and varied professional life, which leads from Hollywood to Edinburgh, Rome and Berlin on the drop of a first-class airfare, spans genres from blockbuster films to arthouse films and serious Fringe theater, and the propels into a kind of easy intimacy with other superstars – Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Liza Minnelli, Lauren Bacall – it seems to come naturally to him, and yet still thrills him.

The truth about Cumming, however, is that this surface of his fun-seeking life is only part of the story; and his mercurial energy also embraces journeys to a deeper and more authoritative place, where he writes in a fascinating way, and in a much more organized and energetic style, about the intellectual and moral journeys involved in the best of his work, especially his life-changing starring MC role in Sam Mendes’ legendary late 1990s Cabaret production, which made him a star in London and New York, and also led to his emergence as the Mighty gay rights activist in the United States.

At 56, in other words, Alan Cumming appears as a man of real intellectual and moral substance, who often – for his own good reasons – presents himself a bit like a showbiz airhead. We caught a glimpse of the background man 35 years ago in St Andrews, when he stepped so easily and with authority into the role of King. We see it in the finest chapters of this book, and in the quality of their prose. And if the next phase of Cummings’ journey is to work this substantial self into an ever more harmonious union with its qualities of lightness and wit, that will be good news for his readers; and for his millions of fans around the world.

Luggage: Tales of a Busy Life, by Alan Cumming, Cannongate, 288pp, £ 18.99

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