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Motherwell - Deborah Orr 2020 - Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Deborah Orr was a true product of her generation. Only history will bestow any importance on that "70s" generation and by "70s", I mean those kids whose formative teenage years spanned that decade. They had it all and yet perhaps they had nothing. "No Future" as the punk era liked to predict.

But maybe the one thing they did have was honesty and whatever you may think about her portrayal of her life you must applaud her honesty in this no holds barred analysis of her childhood.

Deborah Orr's autobiography focuses on her childhood

(Girlhood as she describes it in her subtitle)

- those long and hopeful days. Her detailed account of her growing up in Motherwell (there is a pun in there too) will be very recognisable to many of her contemporaries reading this book - "working class" or whatever class. The backdrop to her childhood was a withering UK, a fading, archaic patriarchal(as she continually refers to it) structure and a clash of cultures. The passing of the old and the arrival of the new with no survival manual for the new era kids.

Her relationship with her parents - John & Win(she identifies them by their names and not Dad or Mum) - is dissected in a way that only that generation know how to do. As the social engineering of the 60's and 70's began to unshackle the chains of the patriarchy and the world suddenly became more upwardly mobile, the "kids" were weened off their parents as fast as possible. But they were presented with a different world vision from the one their parents had experienced and the resulting dislocation produced a generation lost in a barren psychological wilderness with little understanding of their parents past which they have decided to conveniently white wash away with political correctness. There has rarely been such a social dislocation of generations than that of the war generation(the children whose formative years occurred during WW2) and the 70s kids. The gloves have always been off between them.

And Deborah is brutal - her parents are the reasons for so much of her mental instability. Her Scottish father and English mother bring her - the eldest daughter - into a narcissistic society where the only thing that binds it together is its stumbling from one social disaster to another - the not so distant memories of Hitler and the holocaust, Aberfan mining disaster, grim 60s housing projects, decaying industry and serial killers. It is all grey and you are drawn into this rottenness with no relief. Only her innocent discovering of nature at the nearby to her home marshlands, offer some relief from the oppressive gloom. The external disasters are mirrored within her claustrophobic family unit, grim housing, injury to her father at work, car breakdowns, family squabbles, bullying and by the end rape. But to her credit Orr begins to understand the "patterns" - maybe it is with hindsight(she is after all writing this with a fading memory some 30- 40 years later) and it is only as the book progresses through her childhood and the memories become less distant & clearer and the catalysts better understood, that a lighter tone and more uplifting moments - her father's betting and the resulting M&S coat for her mother - are described.

She is a clever girl - good at school. She can create artistically and above all she seems to be able to navigate a path through the quagmire of post industrial Britain. She cannot expect any help from her parents and as she enters adolescence and then early adulthood she understands that she will never be able communicate many if not all of her trials and tribulation to her parents for fear of rebuke and ridicule. To be able to still love them she will always have to hide her life from them. And that is also the paradox that she clearly reveals towards the end - they are not to blame and that it is simply the human condition:

"There's no baddie in this story, not really. The baddie is patriarchy. The baddie is narcissism.

The baddie is trauma.. The baddie is human fear, passed down in its doleful paralysis from generation to generation."

Her initial adulthood is haunted by a series of wrong choices, sexual partners, drug taking and shoplifting all of course hidden from her parents. London and social mobility are the ticket out.

She challenges, us, the reader not to judge her and to understand her failings and her own narcissism. This is hardcore self-analysis and as she has no shame and seeks no pity. She doesn't pretend to have all the answers however she does want to be heard out.

By the end of her life she had become a renowned journalism and a feminist with strong progressive convictions. she had been married to a national literary icon Will Self and lived and worked in cosmopolitan London - far from Lanarkshire and perhaps even further detached from the childhood she writes about than her parents had been '. How the world hasn't changed!

RIP - Deborah Orr

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1 Comment

Apr 29, 2020

I read this the week it was released. I'm born and bred in Motherwell, and lived there until I was 26. My parents still live there. I know all the places she talks of and had a very, very similar upbringing and still-relationship with both parents as she describes. I grew up in the 80s and 90s where some families (mine) saw no value in University education and a woman's place is to be married, make babies, work and take care of a home. I could wax lyrical about this book, huge chunks of it accurately described my own childhood. I absolutely believe the mentality/belief system is a-typical of the reverse-snobbery, 'know your place' mindset of so many people of…

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