The crushing weight of mother love: Writer Deborah Orr’s raw account of escaping her stifling childhood is both shocking and triumphant
- Deborah Orr who died last October of cancer aged 57, left behind a memoir
- Leading Fleet street columnist recalled her childhood spent in Lanarkshire
- Her mother hated her for being ‘a career girl’ and fleeing to university
- Deborah later married a writer who seemed to repeat her parents attitudes
MOTHERWELL: A GIRLHOOD
by Deborah Orr (Weidenfeld £16.99, 304 pp)
Deborah Orr, a leading Fleet Street columnist who died of breast cancer last October aged 57, has left behind this memoir of growing up in Lanarkshire that is searing, candid, magnificently perceptive and lingeringly tragic — tragic because the story is full of conflict, with no reconciliation.
Initially, the descriptions of life in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steel mill, which made girders for bridges and power stations, have a macabre beauty. The ‘slightly hell-like, hyper-mechanised landscape’ comes with skies like bruises and feral, grassless garden plots.
Soon enough, however, the town of Motherwell, in the Clyde valley, is a scene only of desolation. Decent 19th century housing is flattened ‘in a fake spirit of do-gooding modernism’, and terrible high-rise flats are constructed. The architects made no attempt to ‘create a place where you might want to hang out’ — and once the steel mills closed down, Motherwell was ‘a town without a purpose’.
Deborah Orr (pictured as a child) documented her childhood in Lanarkshire in a fascinating memoir, before her death last October
Orr evokes with relish the broken glass underfoot, redundancies, boredom, teenage criminal gangs, bins full of rain and rats. There was nothing much to do except look forward to becoming a heroin addict. We hear about uncaught mass murderers, and Orr assures us that ‘Gloucester serial killer Fred West . . . was in Scotland at that time’.
Motherwell was a heart of darkness, even before the economy shrank in the Eighties. In the Sixties and Seventies, when Orr was a little lass, hardly anyone owned a telephone or a washing machine: ‘A lot of steaming and sponging went on then, because otherwise it was the washboard and the mangle.’ People stank, and they also smoked.
Parents and teachers were physically violent towards children, ‘a normal punishment back then’. Everyone wore bottle-thick NHS glasses, cumbersome hearing aids and callipers.
But if this seems Dickensian, or out of a Thomas Hardy novel, Orr is unabashed.
We are told that what looked like people’s pride was really shame — there were plenty of cover- ups about bailiffs, domestic abuse, divorce and illegitimate babies. Such was the craving for respectability, ‘the mortifying arrival of a red bill was not to be countenanced’.
Orr’s mother, Win, had moved from rural Essex to industrial Scotland when she got married in 1961.
She never fully settled, was never fully happy — indeed, the core of Motherwell is Win’s rage and discontent, her choked-back madness and passive-aggressive sulks. She’d sulk for days if you ate a meal out, as she interpreted this as criticism of her cooking, which in fact was terrible. Spaghetti hoops from a can was the height of exotic dining.
Win kept the council house immaculate. ‘My mother had been a brilliant housewife, skilled, dedicated, unwavering.’ But is this all there was to life, the washing-up and Hoovering?
Deborah (pictured), a leading Fleet Street columnist, said her younger years were ‘like growing up in a religious cult without the religion’
She could knit, sew, darn, cut a dress pattern, put in a zip, make jam and pastry, perm hair. Win could ‘rule the staff at Downton Abbey’ — but she was trapped, by being a woman in that era.
Orr’s parents (like mine) were part of that post-war generation, too early for the liberations of the Sixties, and scarred for life by the cramped, pinched needs of make-do-and-mend, which were psychological as much as practical.
Orr’s father, John, worked in the steel plant, dealing with fiery furnaces and coal-cutting machines. In that world, men were never allowed to show emotion, ‘losing your nerve, getting the fears’. People had to conform. It was tribal.
‘People forget’, says Orr, ‘how much women colluded in the perpetration of macho culture’, by being scathing about nervous breakdowns, looking down on spinsters and openly sneering at men with well-kept fingernails wearing suede shoes.
Number employed in Motherwell’s steel industry at its height in the 1970s
The wife’s job, says Orr, ‘was to keep the husband happy’, not the other way around. Win’s existence, for example, was ordered by the choices of the menfolk. ‘Their attention, their validation. That was everything to Win.’
She had shown promise as an artist, though destroyed her work — ‘old nonsense, taking up space’. Her ambitions were ‘stuffed down and denied’, and instead of being pleased her daughter could be different, she hated Orr for being ‘a career girl’, as this went against the prevailing working-class philosophy: ‘Don’t embarrass us all by striving for something different.’
Such was the small-mindedness and xenophobia, Orr’s parents ‘died without passports’, barely venturing beyond Lanarkshire, in time or space.
Orr evidently had a battle on her hands. Claiming that her girlhood was ‘like growing up in a religious cult without the religion’, the chief tenet of the faith was the inferiority of women.
Angela Rippon, for example, was mocked and questioned for lacking the ‘gravitas and authority’ to read the news bulletins. Popular television comedians got into drag to show how silly and grotesque ladies were. Girls at best were the crumpet to simper over Jimmy Savile on Top Of The Pops. Orr’s parents never respected or admired their daughter for wanting to flee from this and go to St Andrews university.
MOTHERWELL: A GIRLHOOD by Deborah Orr (Weidenfeld £16.99, 304 pp)
‘Your problems, Deborah, are all of your own making’, said Win with satisfaction.
In 1997 Orr married writer Will Self, gravitating towards a man who seems to have repeated the behaviour and attitudes of her mother and her father, emptying her of self-respect. It is ever thus. People seek what they are used to, like the children of alcoholics marrying alcoholics.
In a domestic environment where Orr ‘constantly felt undereducated’, Self told her early in their marriage ‘I’m jealous of your thoughts, because they are inside you’ — a remark chiming with one of Win’s creepy, claustrophobic sayings: ‘What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is my own.’
Win went on to die from kidney and bone cancer in 2013, turning into ‘this little white-headed woman, with ghostly hair’, more demanding than ever.
Orr’s father had been seen off six years earlier by oesophageal and liver cancer. His chief contribution to the tale was to call Deborah ‘no better than a common whore’ for having had sex before she was married.
Win’s powerful influence over her daughter was entirely negative: ‘I didn’t want to be like her, didn’t want to be married, didn’t want to live through my husband, didn’t want to force my kids into being my subservient companions.’
So how did she end up falling into so many of these traps, despite her best efforts? The answer is that they really do muck us up, our mums and dads.
Motherwell is a vivid narrative of disaster, boldly and challengingly conveyed. A modern
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