I was shocked—well, that’s the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one—that Deborah Orr was dead. She’s the same age as me, or would have been— Motherwell: A Girlhood was a message from beyond the grave. She died in 2019. She came from Motherwell. The title is a dead giveaway. And there’s a whole stack of her achievements listed on flyleaf with a picture of her, a haunting picture, in retrospect. Look at the cover image and, in contrast, a picture of Deborah aged around seven or eight, long hair, smiling for the camera, crinoline dress, blue and white pattern, white socks up to the knees and shiny white shoes. A proper little girl.
Deborah Orr’s achievements, including writing and editing for The Guardian, which at the time was as novel as a woman Prime minister, not because of her background, but despite it. One of the commonest tricks played on the working class is to point at the exception to the rule and say there’s one there. There’s a black swan. Upward social mobility is possible for those that work. My message to you and I’m sure Deborah Orr’s would be too is – fuck off. We’ve been moving backward to the dark ages bit by bit since the Thatcher/ Reagan revolution. An era when Deborah Orr escaped to the glory of a London squat, roughly, when this book ends.
Deborah was named after the film star, Debbie Kerr, her mother Win, loved all the glamour and glitter of Hollywood, but the grim reality is here in this joke the author loved (and I do too) about a Yorkshireman on his deathbed.
‘Steven? Are you here?’
‘I’m here, Dad.’
‘Mary? Are you here?’
‘I’m here, Dad.’
‘Bethany? Are you here?’
‘I’m here, Grandad.’
‘Aaron? Are you here?’
‘I’m here, Grandad.’
‘Then why’s the hall light on?’
Here’s one of your markers if you want to apply for your passport to poverty. I laughed out loud, while recognising my da skulking in the hallway waiting to pounce because I was on the phone. ‘That’s no a piano,’ Dessy, my da said.
The memoir is structured around memento mori. ‘The Bureau, Baby’s First Haircut, The Wedding Clippings, The Dolls…The Dope Box, Letter to Crispin, Untitled, The Last Vestiges of John’.
‘I loved Win’s wide black velvet belt, so tiny that she kept for years, a reminder to herself of her lovely curvaceous figure, “before I had children”.’
John was Deborah’s dad, the centre of his world. He was the baby of a family of five, as was her mum, Win, who was English. Win was under five-foot small, but gorgeous, everybody said so. John was luck to have Win, Win was lucky to have John. They all lived happy ever after isn’t much of a story.
‘John and Win met, and had their miscegenated, cross-border romance because of the war. Without the war, I was always told I wouldn’t have existed.’
When Deborah recalls three increasingly brutal rapes by different men—the playful rape at University, if you don’t squeal, I won’t tell; to the accidental rape, you’re sleeping, so I’ll just fuck you because we talked earlier; to the hands on the throat and you might never live to tell the tale—and her mother’s surprise that sex could be pleasurable and not something done to you, then her mum sides with the rapists. She sides with women jury members that found rapists and murderers such as Peter Manuel not guilty because women shouldn’t have put themselves in such a positon to be bludgeoned.
The natural positon of women was to think of Scotland, or even England in her case, when John, a good man, forced himself on her. Her wee brother David was brought up with different expectations, he’d go on to make his mark on the world. John and Win were great believers in the natural order of things. No Catholics, no blacks, no dogs as landlords used to mark on the front door even though dogs couldn’t read.
John couldn’t read either, not really. Like many others he’d left school at twelve or thirteen to earn scraps of money. Motherwell was built on steel and coal. Ravenscraig once employed 14 000 men and was the most efficient steel makers in the world. He became part of the working-class aristocracy when he got a job in Colville, girder makers, prior to nationalisation at the age of fifteen. He even became a heroic figure to many hardened by the noise and daily grind, when he pushed a man aside and away from a red-hot girder that had slipped its chains and would have slipped through his body just as easily. Health and safety was still to be invented.
Deborah believes he suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder and that’s what led him away from the life mapped out for him—to Essex and Win—and back again. John returned to Motherwell with his beautiful bride to working class life and the hope of a decent council house.
Win had a believe common to most rich folk, in what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine. Her father, John, as protector and saviour, aided her in this belief. His hates were his hates and vice versa. John, for example, had mates whom he thought ‘the sun shone out of their arse’, then it didn’t shine very much. Then it was them that was the arse. He ditched them. And he waged petty hate campaigns against his neighbours.
A conversation I heard today goes something like this, ‘They’ve just moved into the house for five minutes and noo they’re getting everything.’
I’ll translate. My neighbours are getting a new path. The same as other council house tenants. Imagine they were black, or homosexual or even worse English.
Deborah suggests her mum suffered from a narcissistic personality. She wasn’t a sociopath such as the moron’s moron Trump, or little Trump, Johnson, but she recognised the same self-centredness and hate. As long as Deborah remained a child and under her mother’s thumb, she was a good girl. Nobody hates so much and as well as the Scottish and we’ve got long memories. Win fitted right in. Win-win. But I couldn’t quite forgive Win and John for voting Tory. Voting for Thatcher. But I guess that makes sense. Deborah’s life ran in a separate trajectory to mine. The same, but different. RIP.