My mother, born to a shoemaker and his wife in Northampton in 1906, was the youngest of eleven children. Those eleven produced only twelve children between them, and those twelve could only equal the eleven born to my grandmother. According to the official version, this was a result of decreasing child mortality and growing social security in the early twentieth century. But it didn’t feel like that. Loss and grief also attended the depletion of families, and these went unrecorded. We were dazzled by the coming of a better life: this quasi-religious expression is no accident, for the early days of plenty did have an otherworldly quality, indeed were suspected at first of being a mirage, since what had appeared so swiftly seemed as if it could easily be snatched away again. Many people in our unrelentingly morose town predicted it would not last. It was all a vast trick, to cozen us out of old wisdom in exchange for a few trinkets; a long colonial practice repatriated, as it were.
In the garden of the terraced house where we lived, a pear tree remained from an orchard on which the streets had been built in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The silver bark of the tree had become scaly, its crop paltry, each fruit a hard green teardrop that fell onto the grass beneath, where wasps eventually drowned in the rotting pulp. The dwindling harvest of the tree was emblematic of the family that had melted away – the ten aunts and uncles who had sent birthday cards and given us sixpences, a new ball or a box of Cadbury Milk Tray were dying one by one. The cousins, once close, had, through some unacknowledged alteration in tables of kinship, become unreachably distant relations. We were also an incompetent, spineless bunch, as though the vigour of the family had used itself up producing my mother and her ten siblings. One cousin suffered from anorexia long before it had been named, a pioneer of sickness in her way, just as her father had been in the vanguard of the labour movement; another, stunted in lifelong childhood by a dominating mother, revealed in her eightieth year that she had been raped as a girl of fourteen when walking in the park. One desperately sensitive young man failed to return to his army unit during the war and was arrested as a deserter. He was killed in North Africa in 1943. Five cousins were childless, without issue, human blind alleys.
The hesitancies provoked by this faltering of fertility shadowed my life as a child. My experience of love did not bestow upon me the confidence and sense of self that is the usual parental gift to children. It was a fretful dependency, haunted by an overwhelming fear of loss, a reflection of the fragility of fraying networks of kinship.
It was not surprising that many women, scanning the depleted families and vacated territory of the heart, sought to retrieve meaning by attaching their sparse progeny more firmly to themselves.
It ought not to have been so. We enjoyed the ambiguous blessings of growing up at a moment when all change appeared benign. The ending of the era of industrialism transformed scenes of misery and squalor, which had persisted since its birth, into smiling landscapes of plenty. If psychological disturbances also accompanied this happy transformation, these were scarcely perceptible beneath the rain of unearned rewards showered upon the people, unlike an earlier moment, when they had been driven out of a wasting rural life into the raw new settlements of industrial society. That upheaval had been savagely unsparing. Of course it was also attended by severe mental disorientation, as the growth in the number of lunatic asylums between 1780 and 1840 attests.
Yet if disturbances were less visible during the second half of the twentieth century, they were ultimately no less serious. The inner counterpart of the dismantling of factories, mines and mills was the demolition of familiar roles associated with the old coercive disciplines of industry. Just as smoky terraces, slag heaps and grimy mills were landscaped into grassy knolls, planted with rowan trees and silver birch, so archaic rules of conduct governing the reciprocal duties of wife, husband, son, daughter were replaced by the airy freedoms of individual relationships which, no longer prescriptive, now had to be improvised and bargained over. This required skills we did not possess: we had expected to walk into marriage as we had entered the identical houses of neighbours and kin, knowing what was required in the way of duty and companionship, just as we could anticipate the worn chenille and pale moquette in austere front rooms, the straggly scarlet geranium and the brass pot in the window.
Lives had been crowded with people who shared their small joys and extensive sorrows; kinship had been an ample vessel, containing all kinds of travellers, who provided each other with loyalty and affection, but who also knew when to chide and correct, to find fault with infringements of accepted behaviour. There was little sense of that depopulation of the heart that was to occur in my generation, an emptying of the inner landscapes hauntingly reminiscent of other, more material clearances – the Highlands for sheep, the enclosed village commons for crops or parkland, the poor for the railway terminals of London, the slums for concrete towers in which an overflow of humanity would later be lodged.
It was to the most intimate bonds that the greatest damage was done, since these ceased to be built on known contractual terms and now had to be negotiated. Love was no longer encoded in recognised behaviours, but became, more than ever before, subject to private desires and idiosyncratic needs. People, eager to enter this new realm of freedom, took as little notice of the changed terms on which their deepest attachments were forged as they did of the small print that came with all the free offers, gifts and prizes which came with them.
But those who lived through those opaquely altered times felt it keenly. As an old division of labour was falling into ruin, the psychological supports, which had sustained people in the long industrial exile, also fell apart. There was no one to turn to for advice or succour, because everyone was dealing with a private sense of abandonment. This was a time when doctors’ surgeries were filled with elderly women suffering from sicknesses they could not identify, a pervasive ill-being of both flesh and spirit. They were medicated into quiescence: purple hearts to lift depression, Mogadon to make them sleep, Valium to tranquillise lives that had never been more bare or more quiet. Their function and purpose were failing, just as the blistering labour of men was becoming redundant, buried beneath the razed fortresses of industry, towers and chimneys that were everywhere sinking in clouds of red dust and sparkling splinters of glass.
I do not wonder that my mother clung to me in these graveyards of industry, among the fallen masonry and rusty metal of ruined kinship. Nor does it now surprise me that I responded to her need with an anxious melancholy, since, apart from being infected by the disorder of the times, I resembled her; she had bestowed upon me her own vexed and unsettled spirit. I was led – that is, she led me – to believe that without her I would perish. I had to understand that I was supremely unlovable. Only her magnanimity and sense of duty rescued me from this outcast state. It could, of course, be withdrawn at a moment’s notice if I didn’t behave myself, which meant yielding to whatever she wanted. I felt I was ugly, obscurely stigmatised, and that her love was a kind of grace, almost a religious gift. And within the confines of her generosity, everything was permitted. This is the secret of dependency: no one else would have let me get away with it – my ‘nerves’, my precocity, my tantrums – and everything was sanctioned, as long as it did not thwart her will. Sometimes the aunts looked at me and shook their head, I thought in admiration of my intellectual prowess, but what I now see in those long-dead eyes is the clear light of pity.
It went without saying that I was incapable of forming attachments to anyone else. I was held fast. I looked out from the wintry closet of dependency, and saw in the faces of others only the shadow of my own captivity. My overwhelming fear was of losing her, and to forestall the calamity I developed private rituals, praying that she should not die of a list of ailments, which lengthened with my widening knowledge of the world to include sicknesses unknown to our temperate latitudes, like river blindness, elephantiasis and sleeping sickness.
In this glacial landscape, I could not react directly to other people’s feelings, but sought refuge in generalities about human suffering, the brevity of life, the certainty of loss. When my mother’s sister died of leukaemia at sixty-three, I experienced her death primarily as yet further evidence that it was not worth loving anyone else, since I would be sure to lose them in the end. I could not respond as I felt (and I did feel, even though I had no key to the chamber in which my vagrant emotions had been confined), but looked out bleakly onto a world dismally deprived of the loving presence of a dear dead aunt. I didn’t cry, because I knew I would need all the stored-up tears and dammed sorrow for the only loss that really mattered. The troubles of others merely foreshadowed the great grief that I knew would one day be my own.
If I was a victim, it was not of her calculations, but of her desolation. This merged with my own reasonless inconsolability, and the relationship achieved an unbalanced equilibrium, which lasted throughout my childhood; only when I came to adolescence, it chafed and irritated intolerably. But by then, as in a capital city fallen to a military coup, all exits had been sealed. I spelled help in the condensation on the windows of my prison, but the letters melted in crooked fingers down the cracked pane, and my messages of despair reached no one. I knew I was repellent, unfit for human company, unworthy of love, a pensioner of my mother’s scantily rationed emotions.
This was to become, for others, a time of youthful liberation, which I observed from my cage with spellbound fascination. I thought I understood what love was, but my mother had carefully curtained the chamber of our loneliness to mute any sound of laughter from outside. I imagined love as salvation, the lover as rescuer, a figure of deliverance. Even at primary school, I had a heightened sense of the inaccessible desirability of others. They were innocent classmates of whom I expected nothing, since they were objects only of dreamy possibility.
Later I harboured more intense feelings for boys at grammar school. These were so tumultuous, I found it inconceivable that they could fail to produce an equal response in the individual who had provoked them. I was shocked to discover no echo, no sign that the boy who had inspired such turbulence had the slightest awareness of it. When I was thirteen, I visited the street where one of these unattainable creatures lived. I stood on a freezing corner while the wind rustled the dead hydrangea blooms in the garden, and the light gleamed through the orange stained-glass galleon in the front door. I tried to communicate the overwhelming love I felt through the closed door, not believing he could be ignorant of the devastation he had caused. Perhaps the medieval conviction that devotion to the object of love is a kind of mortal illness is not, after all, antique sentimentality.
Unhappiness became an inseparable accomplice in these lonely passions, and they continued into adult life. The most desired remained virtual strangers. For three years at Cambridge I sustained a painful obsession with a young man to whom I spoke barely half a dozen times, although I saw him frequently. I treasured the images of him that I had stealthily seized: smiling at a companion, flushed with the cold as he rode his bicycle on a snowy afternoon, his head bent over a book in the library, standing outside Hall waiting for dinner at 6.30. The greatest consolation of these years was to project onto him my own feelings of isolation and absence. Whenever I saw him alone I felt strangely joyful, but if he were with a group of friends, this threw me into a jealous rage. I discarded these offensive images, the better to be alone with the picture of him, wistful on a summer afternoon, sitting dreamily in the common room, memories I pasted into the emotional scrapbook of my virgin dereliction.
I had no idea with which attributes I could beguile people to whom I was attracted, because my mother had assured me I had none. This led to some – in retrospect – strange contortions. I thought that since I was physically unappealing, I had better win people with my intellect, my cleverness with words. I learned in my early twenties that there were pubs in which it was possible for men to meet one another; on Saturday nights, I would stand hopelessly in the Coleherne, the gay pub in Earl’s Court, a glass of tepid white wine in my hand, waiting for someone to talk to me, but knowing that I gave off some mysterious repellent like a fox or civet, which even the newly discovered aftershaves and colognes, recently an indispensable part of men’s toiletries, could not drown. And when someone – anyone – did address me, I would try to dazzle him with my wit and securely hidden charms, for I knew that none was on show. In response to these exhibitions, most people would turn away, or look at me with glassy astonishment, wondering if I had not perhaps strayed into the gay pub in error, having mistaken it for a seminar on Dante or a serious talk on the High Renaissance.
Occasionally, I would be invited to somebody’s bedsitter or dingy flat, but instead of observing the conventions – a brooding silence heavy with erotic promise – I would maintain a stream of what
I thought coruscating chatter, with the result that they soon wearied of my words, or worse, asked me what fucking game I thought I was playing before opening the door in an unmistakeable invitation to leave.
And I returned to where my mother, martyrised and alone, sat waiting for my certain homecoming. She was like a withholding bureaucrat of some totalitarian country, who denied she was in possession of papers I needed to prove my identity for the purpose of crossing some heavily policed frontier. At twenty-three, I went back home to live, ostensibly because of a shadow on my lung. This was almost certainly a misdiagnosis. It was her shadow on my heart. One day, I answered an advertisement in the New Statesman’s personal column. A man was looking for a holiday companion. I went to London one evening and met him outside Knightsbridge Station. He was in his late twenties, upper class, and had been at Cambridge shortly before I was. I thought we might go for a drink or a meal. Instead, he suggested we should walk across Hyde Park. It was a night of fine rain, and the orange lights of London illuminated heavy swags of flocculent clouds. When we came to a deserted spot, he asked me to open my fly so he could inspect his holiday companion. Shocked, I fled.
It turned out that my flight only kindled his enthusiasm. He wrote me a letter, which my mother opened. I came home from work one day. She was silent and subdued, containing with difficulty her outrage and fury. ‘What’s this,’ she cried suddenly, brandishing the dishonourable piece of paper in my face. ‘Is it men you want? Is that it? Is that what’s wrong with you? Is it men? Is it? Is it?’ The monosyllabic crescendo of her rage and disbelief struck me with the force of bullets.
She had no sense that her behaviour was improper. She did not know where her own being ceased and mine began. She walked in and out of my life as casually as she entered and left the parlour. I protested that the letter had come unsought and that what he expressed had nothing to do with me. By excusing myself, I had yielded to her once more, because I could not place a limit on her loving trespass. I later saw in her puritanical frenzy the confusion of a lifetime in which she had the misfortune to forfeit her faith in the next world without ever being able to savour the more certain joys of this one.
In place of adult attachments, I learned other strategies for survival. I discovered where I could meet others who had also repressed their emotions, and indeed had voluntarily inflicted upon themselves the same kind of harm of which I had been a victim, for the purpose of avoiding entanglements which might hurt them. They were just looking for sex. They were not going to give their heart to anyone, since that symbol of their vulnerability had been roughly used too many times. They wanted an experience ‘without strings’. Their hearts had been bared too frequently and had become, like the skin of nude bathers in all weathers, hardened and leathery, whereas mine had been spared the opening that had permitted anyone – except my mother – to trample it.
As I grew older I came to see her emotional tyranny in a different light. How she must have suffered through the dispersal of kin, the dwindling of family and the demolition of neighbourhood, the multiple desertions in her life. I am not sorry if I relieved her for a time of her distress. But it was without my consent or understanding, and my escape from her indulgent captivity was necessarily at her expense. She spent her last years in a distant, lonely province, where no one could reach her, isolated by a mixture of melancholia, agoraphobia and Parkinson’s disease; these eventually bound her to the winged armchair and the agonising daily journey to the stretched sheets and narrow bed in the nursing home where she died.
We have come to regard our loves and attachments as if these were at a remove from society: timeless, as unbound by place as the vague decor of classical drama. This is, perhaps, one of the illusions of affluence, the temporal imperialism of a belief in the supremacy of the present. Our deepest bonds of preference and blood are always inflected by history, and if the link between personal pain and social pathology is lost, this disables our attempts, not only to relieve the obscure discontents of our privilege, but even to discern their nature and origin.
Photograph © Rescued by Rover