“As a Roman arch survives the luxury of departed empire”

The title quote is taken from Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, an epic novel of 1908 whose essence can be distilled as the disastrous attempt of a lower middle class family to hold onto former Victorian glories while the structures that supported them are being swept from under their feet. This idea of the tenacity with which people try to preserve a residual culture and its tragic effects on human relationships is also the subject of Deborah Orr’s memoir, Motherwell, which I’ve been reading this month.

My routines have not altered drastically since May. I’m reading, updating social media pages and running around Harray every other day. Happily, I’ve been able to do some socially distant visiting, which is very welcome after the stagnancy of the household’s closed system.

I’ve moved on from the totemic political analysis of Hannah Arendt and made a return to the Scottish childhood memoir genre, which I suppose I first encountered with Amy Liptrot’s Outrun. My current interest though was piqued in February this year by the redbrick cover of Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me standing out from the crowd on the local library’s “featured” shelf.

A great and nuanced take on the Thatcher era from a child’s perspective.

It was at times a difficult read as it tells of the author’s neglect and his abuse at the hands of his stepdad. But despite all that it manages to evolve into something uplifting and even inspirational. One of the book’s great strengths is how it seems to capture the historical moment i.e. Thatcher’s Britain without retrospective over-analysis. Through a child’s eyes this hostile epoch, rooted in uprooted-ness, becomes all the more vivid.

I’ve just finished Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, which I picked because for some reason, at the beginning of the year, I decided to make a list of all the “most anticipated” books coming out and write them in my diary according to the month they were projected to be published. Most I skipped over, and most have been delayed for a couple of months, but circumstances conspired to make me order this one in.

To be honest, I had never heard of Deborah Orr until she died, and the tributes started. All I knew was that people who I respected admired her and that was enough really. She was a journalist, working in print mainly, and seems to have skipped the reporter stage and gone more or less straight to becoming an editor. I can certainly relate to her stories of writers falling through on articles or interviews and her having to take on the job last minute.

The only prior connection I have with Orr is through her ex-husband Will Self, who only gets a couple of sentences mention in this book, which, to be fair, is devoted to her hometown, Motherwell, as the title suggests. I went through a phase at about 15-16 of reading his novels, which I did get some pleasure out of in their exotic vocabulary and absurd plots, despite their general sneering and sordidness. Self’s righteousness and pessimism held an attraction for me at that time, which was also coincidently my Christopher Hitchens YouTube compilation phase, and you can see it just oozing from in that exquisitely cantankerous clip that did the rounds on Twitter last year with the equally cartoonish Brexiteer, Mark Francois.

Orr’s memoir is less direct than Barr’s, less immediate. It seems that she had a revelation about her childhood relatively late in life and is using this as a key to retroactively interpret memories.

Barr’s childhood was truly horrible, but his story is a path to redemption. Orr’s, on the other hand, was ostensibly loving but the psychological seeds were sown there for a toxic relationship to emerge after she left Motherwell for university.

What each book has in common is the working-class experience; in Barr’s case of precariousness and poverty, and in Orr’s of the limitations it placed on the worldview of her parents. These are the mind-forged manacles whereby non-believers were filled with puritanical disgust and outraged that she had written “semi-skilled manual worker” as her father’s occupation on her marriage certificate instead of engineer, which he wasn’t.

The contempt that Orr’s Thatcher-voting parents had for their own class reminded me of Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale (1908), which I had to read for my Edwardian literature class in my fourth year of uni. It’s a depressingly familiar story where the father of the house is tragicomically venerated beyond all logic despite the mother’s total control of the household. In the Old Wives’ Tale one daughter, Sophia, rebels and runs away to Paris with a travelling salesman lover living beyond his means to start a new life; she comes to the brink of ruin on account of his lifestyle and then turns it all around by stealing his money and becoming an extremely successful businesswoman. The other, elder daughter, Constance, languishes in her hometown, never leaving, never marrying, watching the world she considered insoluble dissolve before her eyes.

Orr is mostly Sophia. She more or less severed her ties with the restrictive, repressive environment in which she grew up and achieved great success. But, as the final chapter and epilogue make clear, there is still a Constance lurking deep below the surface.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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