Wynn Wheldon

My mother, my self

John de St Jorre's Darling Baby Mine is a fascinating hybrid of memoir, detective story and novel

My mother, my self
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Darling Baby Mine: A Son’s Extraordinary Search for His Mother

John de St Jorre

Quartet, pp. 268, £

To tell this story of his search for a mother lost to mystery in early infancy, its author uses the techniques of documentary drama. He describes past scenes and conversations in extreme, atmospheric detail: a particular dream on a particular night in the 1940s, a conversation in the 1950s. Perhaps his work as a screenwriter has helped in this, but it is the clarity of his prose and the emotional significance of his search that ensure an entirely plausible imaginative reconstruction.

As one would in reviewing a novel, the characters may be described in the present tense. So George, the author’s father, Anglo-French, hailing from the Seychelles, Catholic, a keen gardener (he grows his own pipe tobacco), is a kindly, concerned parent who has slipped in the social hierarchy but is doing his best for his children. Despite his exotic background there is something familiarly English in his reserve, shyness and concern with the social proprieties. This is even more true of his wife, Edith, who is prim, organised and compassionate; Olive, an aunt, talks too much, but generally in a good way. The author’s upbringing is unusual but social conventions are observed.

De St Jorre is adept at evoking that weird mental blancmange of childhood, in which all decisions are made for you, and what happens happens. As motherless children, John and his brother Maurice are moved from pillar to post. During the war, they are sent to a boarding school run by bullying nuns. Before and after, they are shuttled around to various guardians in the suburbs of London. While the book takes us all over the world (the author worked as a foreign correspondent for the Observer), from the Far East to New York by way of Kenya, Biafra, Iran, Mallorca and Scotland, the setting is fundamentally suburban London: Ealing, Morden, Epping Forest, tracking south as far as Bournemouth and Brighton, east to Chatham and north as far as Hertfordshire.

There are ironies and serendipities and coincidences and turnings-up aplenty. Death is often waiting in the next paragraph. Throughout John’s childhood, and into his adult life, his mother ‘remains a taboo subject’ about which his father will not speak. The sons do not talk about her even with each another. One of the richest of the ironies is that George’s first mention of John’s mother, Grace Rose Islip, is when his son has to fill in a form for employment with the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. The embarrassment seems shared and John never does find ‘the right moment’ to broach the subject again.

His search is a haphazard business, conducted between overseas postings in the foreign service, work as a newspaper correspondent and writing books. Important information often comes unbidden, so that ‘the past seemed to be stirring even though I had done nothing to stir it’. The book is a detective story wrapped up in autobiography, and while the former provides the theme, the latter takes up the bulk of the text. The ratios alter as discoveries lead to more discoveries and the author accelerates towards final knowledge of his mother’s fate.

Darling Baby Mine provides plenty to provoke thought, and often to disturb (a transorbital lobotomy is to be avoided), but I do not wish to spoil the read. The publishers have done it a well-intentioned disservice in allowing colour photographs from the author’s life and providing an over-informative blurb. The characters are so well evoked that their actual appearance threatens a cognitive dissonance, which is a shame because this is a touching and well told tale (the author’s own word).