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

Alan Cumming’s star quality belies a man and a writer of substance, who unpacks his life in this powerful memoir, writes Joyce McMillan

Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming

It was in the spring of 1985 that I first set eyes on the phenomenon that is Alan Cumming. The place was St Andrews, the venue for that year’s Scottish Student Drama Festival; and a group from the RSAMD – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – were performing a play about the Battle of Flodden, and the sad demise there of King James IV of Scotland.

Cumming was playing the king; and although I remember almost nothing about the show, I do recall that about ten lines into Cumming’s first speech, I turned to the person next to me – Jenny Killick, then director of the Traverse – to find her looking back at me, with the same look of amazed recognition and delight.

What had we seen? That thing called star quality, of course, impossible to miss, notoriously difficult to define; the same quality that had already propelled Cumming from a shockingly painful childhood on a sporting estate 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 Scotland’s premier school of music and drama.

Alan Cumming

And 36 years on, that same quality is driving Cumming still, through a career that has taken him to international stardom, and a private life at times almost as spectacular. In his new memoir, Baggage, he seeks to explore his evolution from the young man who graduated in 1985 and moved quickly into a marriage – with actress Hilary Lyon – that gave him a sense of security in those early years, through a series of relationships, “divorces” and experiments, to eventual happiness in New York with Grant Shaffer, his partner for the last 15 years, and now his husband.

Part of Cumming’s message in Baggage, though, is that we should always be wary of the neatness of that happy-ever-after narrative, and conscious that the messy emotional baggage we carry through life can never be entirely discarded. Mercurial is a word often used of Cumming; and the quicksilver quality of his personality and career is fully and sometimes brilliantly reflected in this memoir, which charts the ups and downs of his private life against the backdrop of a breathtakingly successful and varied working life, which takes him from Hollywood to Edinburgh, Rome and Berlin at the drop of a first-class air-ticket, ranges across genres from blockbuster movies to art-house films and serious Fringe theatre, and propels him into a kind of easy intimacy with other superstars – Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Liza Minnelli, Lauren Bacall – that seems to come naturally to him, and yet still thrills him to bits.

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

At 56, in other words, Alan Cumming, comes across as a man of real intellectual and moral substance, who often – for his own good reasons – presents himself as a bit of a showbiz airhead. We glimpsed the man of substance 35 years ago in St Andrews, when he stepped so easily and authoritatively into the role of the king. We see him in the finest chapters of this book, and in the quality of their prose. And if the next phase of Cummings’s journey involves working that substantial self into an ever more harmonious union with his trademark qualities of lightness and wit, that will be good news for his readers; and for his millions of fans around the globe.

Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life, by Alan Cumming, Cannongate, 288pp, £18.99

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