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‘Motherwell’, by Deborah Orr

  • Published at 07:02 pm January 11th, 2020
'Motherwell' by Deborah Orr

Nicholas Lezard’s Choice

Editors tend not to write books. A writer who has been an editor is another matter, but Deborah Orr was primarily an editor, and when an editor writes it is with a clear, pure flawlessness, a style that is itself stylish, but that does not draw attention to itself. (Cf. William Maxwell. Or a well-cut suit. “Elegant” might be another way to describe it; but also “scrupulous”.) That said, in this memoir, completed shortly before her death last year (from cancer and associated complications), there are a few moments when her own voice comes through clearly: such as when she casually says “one fine day” while telling an anecdote about breaking a fountain pen she won as a schoolgirl; or her gently scornful “I dare say” in “I dare say you can actually buy it”, referring to wild garlic, which she knows properly as ransoms, and can recognize and pick in the wild. Also, her italicized “Honestly” when telling us how the local Chinese restaurant was called the Sha Tin and was situated above the local Job center. (For the full force of that syzygy, you have to bear in mind that “job” or “jobbie” is Scottish kid-slang for a turd.)

But well may Orr choose her words carefully. This memoir, subtitled “a girlhood”, is about her coming to terms with the legacy of her parents, and the way they brought her up. For Orr was unusual in the world of the London-centered and -based media. She was the first female editor of the Guardian’s Saturday magazine, Weekend, at the strikingly young age of 30, but, more importantly, she was, at the time at least, one of the very few editorial employees of that paper who had a working class background. When she went to St Andrews university, very much against the wishes of her parents, she saw a sign that said that only 0.03% of students there were the children of manual workers. As she puts it: “I know that it was there to point out a social wrong. But sometimes it seemed to be saying: ‘Go home, children of manual workers. You don’t belong here.’”

At this point I should declare an interest: Orr was both my editor, and a friend. Not a close friend, but close enough that we would chat together for a good while when we ran into each other; close enough for me to visit her in hospital without her raising an eyebrow. For she was a very good eyebrow-raiser, someone who was fearless in her observations, unafraid, one felt, of calling a fool a fool, even if she did so far less than you thought she did, or feared she might; her thick Lanarkshire accent not only unusual in itself in London circles, but somehow lending her reputation for being formidable an extra heft.

This a remarkable memoir, but it describes a childhood unremarkable insofar as it is one that has been experienced, with not too many significant differences, by millions in the UK alone. But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Orr’s telling of the story is necessary, both for her peace of mind (to “put down on paper the book I’d been writing every day”) and as a social record. This might sound appalling but a middle-class person like myself would be fascinated by it even if I had never heard of her; if you knew her a bit, like I did, then it is almost shocking. For this account of a childhood in the 1960s and 1970s describes a shy, even traumatized, insecure, bullied child. She loved her parents but, goodness me, they could be difficult. This is a book that, while at pains to point out that for most of the time they were loving, caring, and attentive, there were times that they were far too much so. Her mother, she comes to realize, was a narcissist, a word that is bandied about much these days; not the worst kind of narcissist, for she could feel empathy, but enough of one to make every problem about herself. Her control over her daughter seems to have been absolute: even when she was nearly nineteen, her mother saw nothing wrong in opening her mail – both incoming and outgoing. (The fact that the very title of the book, which is also the name of the town she grew up in, contains the word “Mother”, and that her mother was, in crucial respects, not well at all, is, unless I’ve missed it, not alluded to.)

“Is memoir therapy? Or is it vengeance?” Orr asks. It is clearly more the former, but there are certainly elements of the latter; especially towards the ingrained assumptions that she had to put up with from the establishment. Presenting a careers adviser with perfect exam results at O-level (usually taken when around 15 or 16 years old) she is told that with these, she can do “anything. Nursing OR teaching.” That these were the only options considered available to her, despite her obvious intelligence, is scandalous. She also notes that her parents were smart, too, her father especially so, but in the post-war era in which they grew up, the idea of their being allowed to fulfil the potential their minds promised didn’t exist even in fantasy.

I could, if I had the space, say much more about this book: its insightfulness, its honesty, the almost effortless way it incorporates themes of history, social and sexual pressure, of personal agency or lack thereof; the very important fact that all lives are precious and worth deep consideration however simple they may appear from without. But my main grievance with this book is that it did not appear in time for me to tell Deborah what a wonderful, wise and ultimately moving work she has written. But then I suppose that’s not the book’s fault. 

 

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.

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