Book review: Motherwell, by Deborah Orr

Motherwell is a memoir, not a full autobiography, completed a few months before the cancer Deborah Orr had thought herself free of returned suddenly and brutally to kill her, aged only 57. It will be bought eagerly by those who admired and enjoyed her trenchant and generous journalism but it should also be read by many who have never opened a copy of the Guardian or the Independent. It is both a family memoir and a social study. It tells you a lot about Scotland, about economic change and the shift from a repressed to a more liberal culture.

Deborah Orr
Deborah Orr

Orr was born and reared in Motherwell when it was the great steel town, dominated by Ravenscraig, and was possessed of a proud, powerful and intolerant identity. Her father John worked in a steel mill, his boast that he had never missed a day’s work in his life. Her mother Win was a country girl from Essex. Theirs was a strong marriage. As a girl Deborah adored her father, and had a close but also uneasy relationship with her demanding and quietly dominating mother. She calls them both narcissists while admitting to a strong streak of narcissism in herself. They were old-fashioned working-class – John handed his pay-packet to Win every Friday, and she gave him back pocket-money for his betting and golf. (She resented the golf.) Both had charm. Both were surprising. John was proudly working-class, but detested the trade union reps and shop stewards in the factory. Both parents voted Tory, for Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and 1983.

They were proud of their clever daughter (though Win preferred Deborah’s younger brother David), but they were dismayed and disapproving when she chose to go to St Andrews University; it wasn’t right for a girl from her background and it would break up the family.

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They were horrified and disgusted when they found she was no longer a virgin. Sex, she is sure, frightened them. Deborah was born in 1962, but the Sixties and the Sexual Revolution bypassed the Orr family and indeed much of Motherwell. It was the economic revolution and de-industrialisation that cost the town its proud identity. Deborah escaped to London where she was to marry the journalist and novelist Will Self, but she remained caught in a love-hate relationship with the town she was happy to have left. Her parents thought she should have known her place; she knew she could make any place hers. Nevertheless the umbilical cord could never be quite severed.

Her mother must have been infuriating to – as well as infuriated by – the daughter she was proud of but could not understand. Win was demanding and possessive, always seeking reassurance. John, admirable in so many ways, was also sectarian, hating Catholics, racist and homophobic. His daughter disapproves but doesn’t condemn him. People aren’t all of a piece, and they are in part anyway what the world they have known has made them; she understands it’s possible to have opinions she detests and still be a good person. As for Win, “there was so much hidden animosity and distrust between us.” But Deborah is as ready to identify her own failings as those of her parents.

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.
I imagine that John and Win would have been horrified by this book, but then it’s one that Deborah Orr could never have written, or, if written, would never have published while they were still alive. It’s one, however, in which love and understanding triumph over the difficult and painful memories. It is disconcertingly honest and self-revealing. You are unlikely to forget it. 

Motherwell, by Deborah Orr, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 279pp, £16.99