Like mother, like daughter
Baggage: my childhood
Janet Street-Porter Headline, 288pp, £16.99
Baggage? By her own account, she certainly is. I cannot remember when I last read such a sad little book as Janet Street-Porter's memoir of childhood. The most depressing thing about this story is that it takes us through only the first 21 years of her life. It has "sequel" written all over it.
First, let me say that I have always been a big JSP fan, both from a distance, when she was at her most brilliant producing yoof TV in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and up close when I worked with her at the Mirror Group. David Montgomery employed her alongside Kelvin MacKenzie to deliver the new L!ve TV channel. Though they were an impossible and ill-conceived pairing, I admired her style and her flamboyance, her gritty humour and gutsiness.
Little did I know then that her working-class background, upon which she has made her name and fortune, was the thing she despised most - except perhaps for her parents.
Street-Porter begins Baggage by describing her parents' courtship. She might just as well be describing a row of shelves in Asda, for all the compassion and colour she brings to what appears to have been a tempestuous, sometimes violent, yet passionate marriage. One of the odd things about the book (and there are many) is that you never know for certain if her parents were violent towards her. Her father hit her once, and was menacing, but was there more going on? Her self-confessed snobbishness does not seem enough to explain her hatred of her parents.
Her moment of triumph and freedom came when she screamed at her mother: "Shut the fuck up . . . I can't stand being with you one fucking minute longer, you miserable old cow." And clearly she considers this one of her finest moments.
Again and again, Street-Porter says she loathes her parents, their lack of education and sophistication. They embarrass her, they hold her back, she deserves better. Yet from her description, they appear no different from many parents of that generation, working hard to provide for their family, worrying what people thought, desperate for their own children to get a better shot at life than they had. They did not marry until years after Street-Porter was born. So what? That was commonplace after the Second World War.
"I was in total despair, I had to escape from the prison that was my family," Street-Porter writes. She prayed that she had been adopted, and imagined that her real parents lived in "a detached villa in Epsom" and "were well-educated professionals who read the Guardian over breakfast and listened to chamber music . . . in the evening".
She despised her parents for trying to better themselves by moving from a shared house in Fulham to a semi in Perivale, Middlesex, near Hanger Lane. She despised her school friends because they wanted to become mums or hairdressers. When her mother was ill in hospital after an accident, with a scar that stretched right around her neck, she wished the doctors had chopped her head off. I guess this anecdote, like many she tells, is an attempt at black humour - but it is just black.
I lost count of the abortions she had. The Pill was not readily available and condoms took the spontaneity out of things, she says. She describes the abortions with all the emotion of someone changing a spare tyre. Sex was like junk food - cheap, quick and plentiful, but never really satisfying.
Baggage only truly comes alive when Street-Porter recalls London in the Swinging Sixties - the fabulous clothes, chasing the Beatles down the street, going to Rolling Stones concerts and listening to Jimi Hendrix for the first time. But everything else is dragged down by her hatred of her family.
Most teenage girls hate their mums, but most grow out of it. There is something particularly tragic about a vibrant, successful and intelligent woman such as Street-Porter hating her mother, especially given that they are so similar.
"My mother never failed to tell me just how exactly like her I was," she writes, "although I never quite understood what she meant. Perhaps she meant quick and intelligent." No, that's not what she meant. Her mother, Cherrie, loved clothes and loved to look her best, like her daughter. She wanted to improve herself and escape from her bleak background, like her daughter. She was ambitious, passionate and flighty, like her daughter. If only Street-Porter could see it.
Amanda Platell is a former editor of the Sunday Express