Jenny Colgan

Deborah Orr rages against her small-town upbringing

Her bleak posthumous memoir of Scottish girlhood spills with regret and anger on page after page

Deborah Orr rages against her small-town upbringing
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Motherwell: A Girlhood

Deborah Orr

Weidenfeld, pp. 279, £16.99

Unlike a lot of people in the media, I didn’t personally know Deborah Orr, but I know many who did, and the intensity of their love for her burned very bright after her death in October. They spoke of her wild beauty, her fierce passions and smoky laughter; what great company she was; how every room was more exciting with Deborah in it. Her Twitter feed (until it mysteriously vanished) was intensely funny and beautifully written, and it is heartbreaking that she didn’t live to see her first book published.

Motherwell: A Girlhood, about growing up in a dying Scottish steel town on the cusp of the women’s movement, is a furious book.  It is filled with a deep and keening sadness: a howl from the depths, spilling with regret and anger, page after page. Resolution is late and bittersweet when it comes. You wait and wait for the tiniest touch of absolution, for a spark of fun in the incredibly successful trail she blazed through London society; through the media elite; her friends, her own sons. But for all its excellence there is little joy in it (except for a snooker-playing dog that appears right at the end). It is not that kind of book.

We begin with Deborah packing up her mother’s ‘bureau’ — ‘the place where the evidence of our family’s transactions with officialdom was filed’. Every rosette and certificate she comes across jogs memories, almost all bad, but which recreate a swathe of working- and lower-middle-class Scottish life with extraordinary accuracy.

As someone of the same generation, from the same neck of the woods, I can tell you right now: this is exactly what it was like. (You can also find it related excellently in Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me and Kerry Hudson’s superb Lowborn — it’s rather nice to see the central belt having a bit of a moment.) But — as I am Catholic and Deborah was Protestant — it is ironic that even if we’d been next-door neighbours, we would never have mixed, barely have spoken to one another, attended the same school or Brownie troupe or Christmas party.

It is an outstanding memoir of the optimistic postwar settlement — where people begged to be put high up in tower blocks ‘so we can breathe the fresh air’, with the whole new promise of an indoor lavatory and separate bedrooms for the children — slowly and forever crumbling away with the industry and the jobs and the future. It may be as foreign a land to many people as Anne Glenconner’s (terrific) memoir was to me, but it is no less well drawn for that.

Overlaid on this is a mother and daughter story that will be piquantly familiar to many: the generation of mothers who were a year, or five minutes, or half a decade too late for the women’s movement, and their ambivalence towards their clever daughters who were born into it. Suddenly there were more horizons than marriage or the ‘wee job’ —secretarial, nursing, home economics — you left as soon as you got married.

The seismic rupture of the 20th century of feminism is mostly a positive one. But like all change it frightened and divided many caught in its wake, not least Deborah’s mother Win. Hard though it is, you have to forgive that generation of women who were horrified by the choices their daughters had, and made — choices that often turned the daughters into hideous snobs, appalled in their turn by their parents’ petty bourgeois tastes and attitudes. In exchange for being taken to the library, we left our mothers far behind, just as they thought they wanted, and the fallout was hard on everyone. One of the funniest scenes in the book is Deborah trying, and repeatedly failing, to get her mother to read The Women’s Room.

Add to this the heightened sensitivity of all natural-born writers. There are few of us who, as parents, will read without wincing Win’s take on a picture Deborah had painted, aged about eight, of Jesus posting a letter, idly observing: ‘They wouldn’t have had stamps then, silly!’ — a remark that stung small Deborah so deeply she carried it around for the rest of her life as a gaping psychic wound.

But every time you start to feel sorry for Win, and that great generational divide, Orr pulls you up sharpish. There’s her mother shouting ‘At least I’m not plain and ugly like you’; or a horrifying moment when her parents read her mail and start calling her a whore. The conspiracy of small-town shame is so toxic, it is both extraordinary and depressingly believable that, when Orr escapes to St Andrew’s University, her first three sexual experiences are all rape.

Very late on, she reflects sadly: ‘There is no baddie in this story, not really... the baddie is human fear, passed down in doleful paralysis from generation to generation.’ And it is doleful: in Motherwell, a relationship that might have been simply never was, and now mother and daughter are both dead and all that beauty and talent and money was never enjoyed and is all gone, and there is no help for it.

As, slowly, remnants of her childhood poetry, certificates and rosettes emerge from the desk, Deborah complains: ‘There was nothing in the bureau that would have given a clue that Win and John’s daughter had moved... had travelled...’ But that turns out to be ‘...because there was far, far too much of it to fit in the bureau. It was all in a cupboard. I’d absolutely no idea.’ Everything she had ever written was there: piles and piles of it, vast stacks of pride in the little council housein Motherwell.

The writing is powerful and muscular; the bitterness raw and furious. Is it worth reading? Absolutely; it is excellent. Might you need a little Sue Townsend afterwards as a palate cleanser? Quite possibly.

The final tragedy of Motherwell, piled up amid the wreckage, is that clearly Orr was gearing up to write a book about her divorce from the writer Will Self. From some tantalising glimpses, it would have undoubtedly ranked with Nora Ephron among the classics, and it is heartbreaking we shall never have it.

But as a legacy, this book will stand at least as long as Ravenscraig.