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Deborah Orr’s Motherwell: a memoir of family insights and dark asides

Motherwell is a beautifully written – if frustrating – portrait of a quintessential Seventies working-class childhood.

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This is a very difficult review to write. Deborah died before her memoir was published and, although I didn’t know her well, we have many mutual friends. In truth, I found her terrifying: she was my senior in the sorority of women newspaper columnists, and had a reputation for – heedless of social niceties or even the feelings of those who adored her – saying devastating things. But Deborah was always honest: so I will be too.

Motherwell is a frustrating book that raises as many questions as it answers. It recounts Orr’s upbringing in Motherwell, a flinty Scottish town – “I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do” – raised by a steelworker father, John, and a fierce, house-proud mother, Win. The book also purports to examine whether Win “mothered well” and how her flaws shaped Orr’s own mothering, although the latter is not discussed at all.

Yet another presence glows radioactive on the page, interfering with nostalgic accounts of terrible 1970s food or sharp analysis of how dire municipal architecture fractured working-class communities. He is seldom mentioned but always there: Orr’s ex-husband, the novelist Will Self.

According to Orr, who died in October, she was denied the chance to celebrate the publication of her only book because it was delayed for an unfathomable reason: to avoid clashing with Self’s drug memoir Will. Their divorce, which Orr – once her cancer was terminal and she had no fucks left to give – tweeted about with eye-popping frankness, was absolutely bloody.

I raise Will Self not to imply that Orr was interesting only because she was married to a famous man, but to offer explanation to potential readers who may puzzle why, amid a sweet account of bagging Girl Guide badges or an erudite passage on Scottish flora, she starts banging on about narcissism.

“Until I was 55 I knew next to nothing of narcissism,” she writes. Or: “It has lately become an intellectual habit for me, parsing humanity to reveal its narcissistic components…” And: “Narcissists can be compelling people, talented people. But some of the biggest, baddest shits who have ever walked the earth will also have been narcissists… Look inside the mind of any ruthless bastard and you’ll find narcissism there in the mix.”

“Once you know how to spot it,” she says, “narcissism is everywhere.” Donald Trump is a narcissist, so is “Bible John”, an infamous Scottish serial killer of women. Orr evaluates whether her own parents are narcissists. John, a steel mill Stakhanovite, with his gentle dad jokes (if you asked where your pyjamas were, for example, he’d say “in the pyjamerie”) is not guilty. Win is not a narcissist “strictly speaking”, but a member of a narcissistic “gender cult” called “femininity”.

None of these dark asides are ever explained; sometimes they make Orr sound quite deranged. But who wouldn’t be, dying of cancer while dividing her marital spoils, holding her tongue about the one thing she couldn’t be honest about, at least – to avoid libel actions or to protect the sons she will leave behind – in her memoir. So who is this narcissist?

Occasionally, Self reveals himself. When they move in together, he raids her books and squirrels the ones he wants away in his office. While she is pregnant with their first son, he is discovered during the election taking heroin on John Major’s plane. “I’d had to have my honeymoon in fucking Scotland, because the smack incident had left my new husband afraid of flying!” Orr writes. These misdemeanours read like specimen charges. Over and over, she states her theory on narcissists, but not the practice.

Instead, each flare-up subsides and we are back in Motherwell, with Orr and her brother raking through the bureau in their childhood home, evaluating how their late parents viewed them by what remains in this family archive.

This is a beautifully written portrait of a quintessential Seventies working-class childhood, a decade which, Orr reminds us, with its prime-time paedophiles and hollow Sundays, looks bizarre now. Orr was the try-hard, clever girl, who craved approval and, very quickly, knew she must leave the narrow life allotted to her in Motherwell.

Win’s tragedy was in accepting her lot. A talented artist – like Deborah who was set to study at Glasgow – Win nevertheless destroyed a cache of her old drawings, shrugging them off as worthless. She was an Essex girl, raised in the grounds of a stately home where her father, who was the estate manager, rebelled against the aristocratic owner who had tried to ban his children from walking down the grand driveway to school. (Her ancestry gives several clues to Orr’s lacerating tongue.)

Win, a beauty with an 18-inch waist, was “accomplished, resourceful, vivacious, terrifyingly well organised”; she fell for gentle, Scottish John, who had temporarily fled Ravenscraig, in Motherwell, spooked by a near-miss industrial accident, for Essex. Much later, Orr describes attending the steel plant’s open day and understanding the hell of her father’s working life: “the heavy, insistent, physical, pressing force of the noise… No wonder John came home every night grey-faced, with a pounding headache.”

Although handsome and charismatic, John was barely literate, with little sense of his worth. When dying, he says to Win of his weeping adult children, “I never knew how much they loved me.”

When the couple marry, it is Win who follows him to Scotland, where she becomes an uppity foreigner, disdainful of indigenous “mince and tatties” cooking. She is her family’s engine of social mobility, tramping the streets to find a vacant council house in a better area. When Orr puts her father’s occupation on her wedding certificate as “semi-skilled labourer”, Win is incandescent that she didn’t put “engineer”.

So did Win “mother well”? Orr tries to build a case that she is controlling, spiteful and strict. When, as a child, she rummages for better letters at Scrabble, her mother makes her wear a badge saying “I am a cheat”. When she says Win has put on weight, she lashes back that at least she’s not “plain and ugly” like her daughter. But Orr concedes: “My mother was not a bad person and never became one. She was just inhibited by her choices, so inhibited that they deformed her.”

To a close observer (and Orr’s background mirrors my own), Win and John simply lived by the rules and restrictions of their class. They toiled, conformed, feared social shame, and were worried they’d lose their daughter forever if she went to university (they did) and that this adventure would end badly (it didn’t: Orr was a dazzling, daring editor of the Guardian Saturday magazine, before that publication became as dry, unappetising and virtuous as spelt). They were sexually repressed; her mother once saying accusingly to her clearly libidinous daughter, “You like IT, don’t you?”

But the bureau is a testament to parental love, containing every birthday card, present, school report and magazine article. That Orr never felt she fitted into the London media establishment – which made her lash out in Win-like ways – was a product of her parents but not their fault.

Towards the end of this book, with its throbbing, seething subtext, Deborah Orr asks “Is memoir therapy? Or is it vengeance?” Motherwell was certainly therapy, but – in what she omitted – it wasn’t vengeance enough. 

Janice Turner writes for the Times

Motherwell
Deborah Orr
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 304pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 24 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people