There are plenty of admirable memoirs which chart their authors' traumatic childhoods and the after-effects thereof. But far fewer grapple with the kind of upbringings that perhaps far more of us had: a complex and tangled mixture of light and shade; with parent-child relationships that were loving but which—as Philip Larkin famously wrote—also left us with character traits and hang-ups that remain with us all our lives. This is what this utterly riveting, often darkly comic, and astonishingly honest debut memoir by award-winning journalist Deborah Orr attempts to do, and she succeeds so brilliantly that for me it ranks with Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's go to the Dogs Tonight—one of my favourite memoirs of all time—in its understanding of how the places and people we come from make us who we are. While this takes in all her family bonds, centre stage is Orr's relationship with her mother, Win, a woman who, when young, had very little agency about the course her life would take. When at 18 years old Orr left Motherwell—the Scottish town where she was raised and a place she both loved and despised—to go to university, her mother railed against the idea that she could ever want to leave her orbit. The decision set in motion Orr's stellar career and a very different life in London. But of course, she never really got away. None of us do.
Orr is tremendously vivid on the cultural and actual texture of the 1960s and 1970s. John and Win, with their making and doing, lived at a time when stuff meant something, when it was Brasso-ed, polished, repaired, looked after and preserved, when you couldn’t drift round shops all day and night accumulating more things because they were closed on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. She describes the ‘slabbed emptiness’ of the created communities of the new tower blocks, with their concrete benches on which nobody ever sat. Her mother’s bureau was a testament to order, to lives ruled by the daily bureaucracy of domestic life. Everyone knew where they fitted in: the Orrs were Protestant, respectable, hardworking, though the values associated with these attributes were starting to be questioned (Orr is particularly interesting on how the publisher D C Thomson, based in Dundee, exercised a ‘soft cultural power’ over her generation, using magazines like Jackie and The People’s Friend to promote an insidious cultural conformity). ‘I just wanted a little bit of meaningless anarchy,’ writes Orr, understandably.
“Is memoir therapy?” Orr asks. “Or is it vengeance?” It can be both, but never more evidently than in this painful book. Pride, grief, rage and hope fuel these vivid pages, but so, too, does a sense of homesickness. “I miss it,” she writes of Motherwell on the closing pages. “I still walk the countryside of my childhood, so often, in my thoughts, still feel a thrill when I see a wood anemone, some ransoms, a sloe tree, the plants I discovered on that land and looked up in my Ladybird books.” She was planning, right to the end, her return home.
Motherwell is artful and authentic, a hugely accomplished debut that feels as if there was much more to come. Orr didn’t make it back to Motherwell, as her breast cancer returned, and she died last October – but not before she’d held the proof of this book in her hand. Her journalism career had been stellar and her time as a writer was just beginning. What a high – even though we mourn – to end on.
As a seasoned columnist, Orr moves easily from the particular to the general: “People forget how much women colluded in the perpetuation of macho culture, and how much we still do”. “The 1980’s really were just another fucking awful decade for young women. For everyone, really.” Inclusive and even celebratory, in spite of the abject stories she tells, Orr conveys more than she perhaps intended of the strength it took for her to escape from Motherwell, from Win and finally from the constraints of a columnist’s word count to this compelling memoir: “to take charge, to take complete control, of my own family, in my own words”.
Deborah Orr, a leading Fleet Street columnist who died of breast cancer last October aged 57, has left behind this memoir of growing up in Lanarkshire that is searing, candid, magnificently perceptive and lingeringly tragic — tragic because the story is full of conflict, with no reconciliation... Motherwell is a vivid narrative of disaster, boldly and challengingly conveyed.
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.
This is a harshly honest book. It is one that casts a cold, yet understanding eye on Scotland, the Scotland of her youth certainly, but also the Scotland that has emerged from the world she grew up in: a Scotland that uneasily combines self-approval with self-distrust, self-assertion with resentment. It is a Scotland formed in what Orr would call a macho culture, but also one in which the machismo has outlasted the culture. There were, she writes, no sink housing schemes in Motherwell when she was young; there are such schemes in towns and cities throughout Scotland now.
In a book that alternates between passages of beautifully crafted recollections, some of which you can almost smell, and long passages of psychological speculation, Orr says that her mother was a classic narcissist. And she ends up thinking that this relationship presaged her encounters with other malignant narcissists long after she left home. She says enough to let readers know that her marriage to the novelist Will Self was, in her eyes, a sort of continuation of the relationship with her mother. This is interesting and helps to make the book something more than an account of times and places gone because it becomes about how any of us are shaped for life by our early experiences.
All great truth, all great writing, all great humour is detail: the blue velvet jacket of the Rexard doll that Orr’s mother refused to hand over to her only daughter, the burning potatoes as a young Orr paints a triangle of clear nail varnish on a treasured pebble, the joke by her father as the dog coughed up part of a sparrow at his feet (“Birdshead Regurgitated”), the turquoise border on her grandmother’s copy of The People’s Friend, the crate of milk sitting tepid in a sink of water in the primary school classroom, the noise inside a steelworks.
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.
Motherwell has a generosity of tone that means as you read it you experience sudden flashes from your own past: slights, plights, triumphs, mad asides. I admired Deborah Orr from afar for a decade or two and then I got to know her a bit and was alarmed and enchanted in equal measure. I certainly never met anyone cleverer. It is wonderful and awful to be able to engage with a book so crammed with intelligence, wit and strong feeling by someone who is no longer alive and ought to be. You forget a little as you go along but when Orr writes in the present tense or refers to her future things darken as you come up hard against the facts.
The Orr speaking here is the one that her many friends and admirers recognise: forthright and fabulous, prepared to face death’s darkness with a hard-won honesty and the tartest of quips. Yet one of the most fascinating things about Motherwell is the difference between the adult Deborah Orr and the awkward, sometimes bullied girl she once was. “[My parents] for a long time, didn’t know about the bullying. I was too ashamed to tell them. I knew it was bad to have enemies instead of friends, to be unable to get on with others". That childhood sense of otherhood is arguably what made Orr such an inventive editor.
In the present climate, this book should be given out on the NHS. It should also be dangled in the faces of one-nation opportunists, for whom working-class communities only become real when they vote Conservative. Motherwell shows, chapter and verse, the ravages of individualism, yet it also has the guts to demonstrate how working-class identity may be weaponised for intolerance, and snared by eager bigots into voting for its own dissolution. Great books forge a connection between the movement of single minds and the fate of nations, and Deborah, by looking at her own Scottish family and herself, put her finger on the anger and narcissism of the current political moment... On reading it, I thought again of how Kenneth Tynan once said he could never really love anybody who didn’t like Look Back in Anger. Well, let me put if differently, and say I shall feel sorry for those who dislike Motherwell, before admitting that feeling sorry comes all too easily.
This book is not perfect. Other people’s childhoods are not as endlessly fascinating to other people as our own are to ourselves, and despite her finely tuned antennae for diagnosing narcissistic behaviour in others, Orr often seems oddly unable to spot it in herself. But this is a fascinating look into the childhood of one of our most important journalists and an attempt after what she describes as “a decade of crisis” in her personal life to regain control of the narrative that shaped her.