One of my current aims is to read more memoirs, largely prompted by some critically-acclaimed releases such as Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, a book that made my end-of-year highlights in 2019. Motherwell: A Girlhood is a memoir by the late Deborah Orr, the esteemed Guardian journalist who died from breast cancer last year. Rather than documenting Orr’s career in journalism, Motherwell focuses on the author’s childhood, mostly spanning the period from the mid-1960s through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, a time of significant social change in some regions of the UK. Moreover, the book’s title has a dual meaning, representing both the Scottish town near Glasgow where Orr grew up – Motherwell – and the nature of the relationship between Orr and her mother, Win – the latter prompting the question as to whether Win was able to ‘mother well’ when caring for Deborah and her brother, David.
Ostensibly, this memoir is an exploration of Orr’s fractured relationship with Win, the formidable woman who held the reins of power within the Orr household, much to the frustration of Deborah if not the rest of the family. A series of memories and reflections emerge, several of which are connected to ‘the bureau’ an imposing cabinet housing various objects and documents controlled by Win, a serial hoarder. (It is a highly symbolic object, an heirloom ultimately inherited by Deborah and installed in her London home.)
The bureau, like all three of my childhood homes, was the unchallenged domain of my mother, scrupulously well organised and governed by a surprisingly complex web of boundaries. […]
John [Deborah’s father] never delved behind the flap in the bureau. Win handled all the household’s paperwork, writing in her neat, cursive script or her neat block capitals. He would add his impressive signature where she told him to put it.
The rules were Win’s – and the power – but John tended to be their enforcer. (pp. 4-5, W&N)
As the book unfolds, the subtle nuances of Deborah’s relationship with Win become increasingly apparent. For the most part, Win is tenacious and terrifying, a woman obsessed with the need to keep up appearances; and yet she is also spirited and sociable, hailing from a large, working-class family with traditions of its own.
Having moved to Scotland from Essex at the time of her marriage to John, Win has experienced much suffering during her life, a point that becomes clear as her backstory is revealed. Furthermore, there is the sense that Win is unable to break that pattern of hardship with her own daughter, thereby implying that Deborah must bear a similar burden and conform to the expectations of the local community and society as a whole. The principle of conformity looms large in Motherwell, a town with the power to crush individuality and aspiration, notions it considers to be either shameful or fanciful.
Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places I was a chimerical beast, an oddity. (p.43)
Unsurprisingly, Deborah longs to break free from the restrictions imposed by Win and by the town of Motherwell itself. In truth, Win would like nothing better than to keep Deborah with her in Motherwell, almost as an extension of herself – like an extra limb or appendage, the removal of which would lead to major trauma and grief.
Nevertheless, for all her pride, prejudices and other faults, Win is capable of occasional moments tenderness where a more loving relationship emerges between mother and daughter. There are recollections of shared experiences, instances of Win and Deborah lying in bed together, just like the members of any ‘normal’ family might do.
John, too, is anything but black and white. Initially seen as the more playful and supportive of the two parents (the young Deborah idolises him), John has his own demons in the form of drink, gambling and a capacity for occasional violence – factors that prompt a reassessment of his personality over time. As with other sections of the book, there is a striking sense of honesty in the way Orr writes about these aspects of family life, the gradual process of realisation that someone close to you may not be quite so perfect after all.
Alongside the author’s reflections on the nature of motherhood and family, there is another, equally compelling side to Motherwell, one of broader significance. In writing this remarkable book, Orr has given us a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the decimation of the steel industry – particularly on Motherwell and the surrounding community. At its peak, the steelworks employed more than half of Motherwell’s adults, many of them stationed at Ravenscraig, the beating heart of the local manufacturing trade. After years of financial starvation, Ravenscraig closed in 1992, with the demolition of its the iconic cooling towers following in 1996 – an eerie event witnessed by Deborah and her immediate family.
Motherwell is the town I was born and bred in, a coal and steel town on the lip of the Clyde Valley. By the time I was thirty years old, it wasn’t a coal and steel town any more. Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do. (pp. 1-2)
Also running through the book is the theme of narcissism, acting as a kind of lens or filter through which several elements are viewed. The spectre of narcissism is present in many aspects of Deborah’s life, from the relationship with ex-husband, Will Self, to the politics within the Orr household during childhood, to some of the ongoing failings of wider society itself.
Because here’s the thing. Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you, whether in a family, a group or in the whole wide world, is a need that many people feel, especially in this age of individualism. (p. 208)
In short, Motherwell is a remarkable memoir – poignant, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. (I couldn’t help but feel some element of compassion for Win despite her terrible failings.) Orr weaves together all the different strands so brilliantly, moving seamlessly from memories of her upbringing to expressions of anger about the devastation of the steel industry to pertinent asides on the toxic nature of narcissism and its power to destroy. She is so candid in her analysis of a difficult childhood, unsparing in the visceral act of self-exploration. This is a powerful, humane and beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.
Motherwell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.
Fantastic review, Jacqui. I’ve been thinking I should read this; I assumed there would be similarities between Deborah’s story and my childhood, albeit slightly further south and a decade or so later, and your review’s confirmed there’s much I recognise there. Might have to steel myself (pun intended) to read it though.
Ha, yes – having to steel yourself is a very apt way of putting it. I think you would find this so interesting on a number of different levels. Not only the nature of Deborah’s childhood and the social context of Motherwell, but the way the memoir is written too. She flits around from one aspect of her life to another and yet it all seems to flow so naturally with all the different strands coming together to form a coherent whole. It really is a very impressive piece of work. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Having enjoyed Orr’s writing in the Guardian for years I was keen to read this and enjoyed it as much as you. A real and sad loss.
Yes, and she was still relatively young at the time of her death. I think I found it particularly poignant as we not too far apart in age. I’m slightly younger than Deborah, but not very much…
Great review, Jacqui. Orr’s newspaper columns were among the few I sought out for their sense and compassion.
Oddly enough, I never really followed her columns in The Guardian, which is a source of regret to me now. I wish I’d *known* her a little better through her work before she died, particularly given how I responded to Motherwell.
You do the book far more justice than I did – I focused more on the social side of things, but I love the way you put it as ‘reassessment’ over time of the parents’ qualities and their parenting abilities.
I think this is the kind of book where each reader will take something different from it depending on the particular aspects that resonate most strongly with them. There are so many different facets to Deborah’s story, and many of them are quite nuanced as opposed to being cut and dried. I suppose that’s what I was trying to get at with the point about reassessment. There is, I think, some sense of shifting perceptions of each of the two parents as the story unfolds, a feeling that the personalities and family dynamics are more complex than they might appear at first sight.
Nice job, Jacqui! Looking forward to more from your Memoir Year! This is such a great break from everything going on now. Cheers to you! “Moe”
Thanks, Maureen. I won’t be spending the whole year reading memoirs, just adding a few more to my usual selection of fiction over the next few months. That still leavers plenty of room for authors like Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark. Well, that’s the plan anyway… :)
Excellent review as ever, Jacqui. I do want to read this, though I’m afraid of finding the sadness too much. Orr was an inspiring woman and writer, and as someone of a vaguely similar age who grew up in Scotland I imagine I might find some resonances. Although I don’t think the baggage I have with my mother is going to be quite so severe as hers! ;s
Yes, I think you would find much that resonates with you here, especially in Orr’s reflections on the decimation of the local steel industry. The fact that I also grew up during the ’60s and ’70s made it a particularly interesting read for me. Plus my father worked in the shipping industry — admittedly right down on the South Coast of England, but some of the characteristics of the community seem so relatable. I know my mother felt like an outsider when she moved from Ireland to Southampton at the time of her marriage, but that gradually became a little easier for her to deal with over time.. Luckily my parents were very loving, so I never experienced the kind difficulties that Deborah had to cope with at home. It must have been so tough for her, especially given Win’s tendency to try to control everything…
That *would* resonate, then, because I had family in the steel industry who moved from Scotland to Corby and then struggled when the industry died. It was a hard time. And my mother struggled terribly initially when we moved to Hampshire from Edinburgh – she hated being uprooted.
It must have been quite a culture shock for your mother – I know Southampton and liked it but it was no doubt very different from Ireland. And having that kind of relationship with your parents is definitely lovely. Mine were generally good parents, if a little hands off and distant – but nothing like it sounds like Deborah’s were…
Oh, I think you’d find it fascinating, particularly given your family’s involvement in the steel industry. I’d love to hear what you think of it…
And you’re right, it was a massive culture shock for my mother. Her life in Ireland had been very sheltered – that was just the way things were back then — so she found England very lonely and bewildering at first, especially as my dad was away from home a fair bit with work. She missed her sister and father terribly, but things got easier over time as she settled in. I feel for your mother having to move from Edinburgh to Hampshire. What an upheaval that must have been for her at the time. As you say, these moves throw up so many practical difficulties and anxieties, irrespective of how sensible they might appear to be in theory.
I have seen quite a bit about this book on Twitter, especially around the time Deborah Orr died. It sounds wonderful, poignant and revealing and beautifully written. It’s definitely going on my list. Fabulous review.
Thanks! I’m glad you like the sound of it as it’s a book I would definitely recommend to you. Revealing is a great way of describing it. As a reader, you really feel that there was a lot Orr needed to get out of her system before the time ran out.
Lovely review Jacqui. I heard this one being read on Radio 4 and found it so powerful.
Yes, I was pleased to see that it got a slot on Radio 4’s Book of the Week. It’s very well suited to that forum.
Pleased to read your review of this as I’m very much up for reading it, particularly as Orr was only a little older than me. As you enjoyed it, you might like Janice Galloway’s two memoirs, This Is Not About Me and All Made Up.
I keep hearing great things about the Galloway memoirs (and her writing in general), so I’ll have to give her a try at some point. (So many writers, so little time…the eternal challenge.) As for Motherwell, I’m very pleased to hear that you’re keen to read it. The closeness in age is part of the attraction for me too; Like Orr, I also grew up in the late ’60s and 70s, so the social and political context of her story really resonates with me. Hopefully it will strike a chord with you as well, particularly given your experiences of Scottish life.
Thanks for this review Jacqui. As you know I love memoir and will definitely be seeking out this book. How interesting that she was married to Will Self. I’d read it for that alone.
Ah, you’re very welcome. It’s definitely a book I would recommend to you, no doubt about it. There’s a particularly creepy passage about the time when Orr and Will Self first move in together. You’ll know when you get to it. All I’m going to say at this stage is that it’s to do with her possessions – more specifically, books.
Have reserved at my library. Will watch out for the passage you mention.
Cool. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think…
Had heard about this. Wondering if it will get US release. Worried not.
I hope it does get a US release; then you’ll get a chance to read it. Fingers crossed…
Sounds very good. And seems to offer a lot. Possibly something g different for everyone. Narcissism is ubiquitous. Not always easy to detect though.
I think some reviewers found the sections on narcissism a bit jarring, almost as if this element took them out of the main thrust of Orr’s story. To me, it seemed more integral, like a lens or standpoint through which she viewed various elements of her world. I suspect the nature of her relationship with Will Self may have acted as a catalyst for some of that, but there’s a sense of it being a wider issue too, something that has infiltrated several aspects of society as a whole. It’s a thought-provoking view…
Having grown up with q narcissistic mother, I read a lot about it and also sense it quickly in people. So this would interest me. The most successful people are best at hiding it as my recent unpleasant Twitter exchange with a well-known author showed once again.
Oh, no. That doesn’t sound great…Sorry to hear that you’ve encountered some unpleasantness on Twitter. It seems to be a growing issue, particularly in the current climate which is very tense.
Thanks. It wasn’t great.
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This sounds a remarkable memoir, encompassing so much. Orr was a great journalist, such a compelling writer. I’m not a big memoir reader but this was one I thought I would try.
I would wholeheartedly recommend it – not only to fans of Orr’s journalism but to any reader with an interest in Britain’s social history in the 1960s and ’70s. I think that’s one of the reasons I found it so compelling…the fact that we had grown up at around the same time made it all the more heartbreaking.
This isn’t a memoir that I’ve noted, and I’ve really enjoyed your response to it and the comments here too. I’ve had some experience with narcissism myself, and I agree with Caroline’s observation that once you’ve teased out the situation with an individual in your own life it’s awfully handy to be able to spot it rearing its head in the wider world; I can appreciate your analysis of this part of her story as being a lens through which to view the rest of the story – I think that would be true. Memoirs are more prominent in my reading this year, too, as part of a desire to increase my non-fiction overall and I do love the works which focus on childhood. I feel like the biographies and memoirs we grew up reading never spent enough time on childhood and the subject’s younger years: these are so much more interesting to me! (I’ve recently finished Rumer and Jon Godden’s Two Under the Indian Sun, about their childhood memories of India – also very satisfying.)
Chiming in to second the point about the value of being able to recognize narcissism. There’s really quite a lot of it around! Trouble is, narcissists (especially the grandiose kind) are so hard to deal with. Really dangerous personality types. (Too bad one is “leading” the US just now.)
Anyway, hooray for memoirs. Nice point about how they tend to emphasize childhood. Have you all read Educated?
It’s a toxic quality, for sure, I have some experience of trying to deal with that personality type myself, but thankfully that’s well in the past now!
I have read Educated! A friend chose it for our book group last year, and lots of others linked to the shop have been reading it too. A remarkable book – there’s something astonishing on almost every page.
Thank you. I think you’d appreciate this memoir very much, particularly given its focus on Orr’s childhood. On a related note, have you read of come across Tove Ditlevsen’s series of books, Childhood, Youth and Dependency? (You may have seen my post on the first one last year.) Technically, the series is classified as fiction, but the books themselves feel highly autobiographical – easily one of my reading highlights of 2019. I think what I find so fascinating about these books (Motherwell included) is the way they show how our early experiences can shape us, influencing the way we view the world and the motivations of people around us. Also, in the case of Orr, the sense of shifting perceptions over time as various nuances in the personalities and relationships are revealed…
This sounds really interesting, I love that twin aspect of the personal story and the societal context within which she was raised. And that difficult relationship, the spectre of narcissism.
I think that’s what I find so fascinating about it too, the intertwining of the two threads – the personal and broader societal. Orr touches on so many of the things I recall from my childhood in the 1970s, the three-day week, the spectre of unemployment, the decimation of many vital industries. Then running alongside this is the portrait of Win, a woman struggling with a lack of agency in her life and yet channelling all the resultant bitterness towards Deborah instead of trying to find a more constructive outlet. It’s such a powerful book.
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