Motherwell: A Girlhood

Deborah Orr

Orion Books


Review by Dani Garavelli

You didn't need to know Deborah Orr personally to have the measure of her. Her glorious, contrarian, perceptive yet infuriating personality announced itself in every article she ever wrote, every tweet she ever posted.

Here was a woman who, dying of breast cancer, could write with equal passion about her contempt for her ex, Will Self, and her decision to plant spring bulbs as an affirmation of the world she was leaving. The awe she inspired in her friends shone out of every obituary, but so too did their exasperation.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Motherwell – the memoir of her childhood but also, as it turns out, her last testament – is a glorious, contrarian, perceptive yet infuriating book that elicits both awe and exasperation.

Orr grew up on the periphery of the Ravenscraig steelworks, a "stunning and dystopian panorama" that lit up and scarred the landscape and the lives of those within it. Those dark satanic cooling towers – a symbol of west of Scotland industrialisation and the working class culture it wrought – came down in 1992, victims of Margaret Thatcher's war on the north. But the shadow buildings continue to make their hazy presence felt throughout the book, haunting those who once believed them indestructible.

It was a "hell-like, hyper-mechanised" landscape Orr both loved and loathed; a landscape she fled as soon as she could but not without regret. All those years making a success of herself in London – as a writer and editor of Guardian Weekend – she felt the pull of her hometown as well as its push. Her book is, in part, an attempt to resolve the conflicts of self-imposed exile.

Orr's sifting through a large bureau – the family's "tabula rasa", where all documents were stored – in the wake of her mother Win's death is a literal unpacking of baggage. It's an interrogation of how the dream of post-war prosperity faded, but also how its fading f***ed up those – like Win and Orr's father John – who had invested in it. And how, Larkin-like, they f***ed up their own children in turn.

At its core, Motherwell is a forensic dissection of familial dysfunctionality and a hostile mother-daughter relationship. How did Motherwell impact on Win's ability to mother well, Orr asks, while never flinching from the tougher question: how did Win's failings impact on Deborah's own emotional development?

Orr is brilliant on the interplay between the physical and emotional architecture of post-war Lanarkshire. The family's journey through a series of properties follows the trajectory of the west of Scotland's housing policy. From a privately-owned tenement flat, demolished as part of the slum clearances, the Orrs move to a council maisonette – part of a great failed social experiment that promised under-floor heating and private bathrooms but delivered rats and anti-social behaviour. Eventually, however, as a result of Win's persistence – they end up with the prize: a council house with a back and front door.

This house – 18 Clyde Terrace – with its own garden was Labour's commitment to social mobility writ large. Inside, the perfect nuclear family: Win, John, Deborah and younger brother David. John and Win are both working. Deborah and David are wanted and cared for.

And yet, all is not well. Seen through Orr's eyes this tableau of domesticity – in which Win cuddles and reads to and praises her daughter – is a seething cauldron of emotional jealousies, simmering resentments and performative hate. A never-ending competition for intimacy undermines their relationships with one another, and leaves Orr believing she will never be good enough.

Orr explores the pressures and limitations that made her parents what they were. With particular acuity, she captures that tension between the aspiration to betterment and the importance of never "getting above yourself". It is this tension that results in the cutting down of those who choose to leave and pejorative phrases such as: "She thinks she's somebody."

John, whom Deborah adored, was a man whose insecurity led him to punch down. An unashamed bigot – he said he could identify Catholics by their big foreheads, long bodies, short legs and thin lips – he demonstrates no compassion to those outwith their tight foursome. Priding himself on his scathing nicknames, he calls a vulnerable neighbour "smelly Nelly"; an aunt on tranquillisers "Phil the Pill"; a girl with a steatopygian figure was "Mantlepiece Arse".

Win, who loved drawing, is constricted by the double binds of class and gender. Having surrendered to the role of housewife, she performs it to the best of her ability; but – like her husband, like her daughter – she lacks self-esteem. So uncertain is she of her place in John's affection she repeatedly tells Deborah he once said: "As far as I'm concerned, the chicken comes before the egg." In other words Win would always trump Deborah in his affections. "A mentality that secretly, subconsciously, sees itself as almost completely powerless, I think, wants to hang on to the power it does have," Orr writes in explanation.

This same powerlessness makes both Win and John dismissive of experiences beyond their ken: going abroad, career women, sex outside marriage and for pleasure as opposed to procreation. On an intellectual level, Orr understands all this. But here is where the exasperation sets in. Her stable upbringing has allowed her to escape the strictures that pinioned her mother to the past. She knows Win found her daughter's liberation difficult to cope with, that her tendency to diminish her achievements was born of frustrated potential. And yet she refuses to cut her mother any slack.

Not even when the bureau yields a lock of her baby hair and a cupboard full of cuttings of Orr's newspaper articles – cuttings Win has hoarded despite herself – does her daughter forgive her. Instead she fixates on the concept of narcissism, veering wildly from Hitler to the collective narcissism of Motherwell, the small-time narcissism of Win and John, without ever demonstrating what made her parents more problematic than anyone else's.

Sure, Win seems to have had her issues. But the specific grievances Orr cites feel petty: Win's refusal to allow her to take her collection of dolls to her new home; her insistence on using her daughter's married name against her wishes; the time a pre-school Deborah showed Win some early attempts at forming letters and Win replied: "that's not real writing". I accept those slights were hurtful. But knowing Orr went on to forge a glittering career, the temptation to say "get over it" is almost irresistible.

What makes Orr's nursing of grudges less objectionable is that she is as unforgiving of herself as she is of everyone else. "Man hands on misery to man," Larkin's poem, This Be the Verse, continues. And Orr is aware she has inherited many of her parents' traits. She wonders how they will have impacted on her own sons, Ivan and Luther. The reader cannot help but wonder if they will one day write a posthumous evisceration of her mothering skills. I hope not. There's enough history repeating itself here already.

Of her father, Orr says: "Narcissism is not self-love. It is the opposite of that. It's a nagging horror that you are, deep down, unlovable. A narcissist needs the love, attention and admiration of others to survive because he or she cannot produce enough healthy self-respect to be at peace."

She is far too clever, too knowing, to have written that sentence unwittingly; she realises it applies as much to herself as him.

This is why, for all the book's qualities and my long-term admiration for Orr's work, I found Motherwell a depressing read. It is carefully crafted and well-observed but it is not a book that exudes love or empathy. Coming so soon after her death, it forces you to confront the possibility that, for all her bravado and therapy Orr never produced enough healthy self-respect. I hope she found peace, though.