Friday, February 22, 2008
A girlhood in post-war provincial Britain
I have Stephen, on his Art's Blog, to thank for guiding me to Bad Blood by Lorna Sage. Although I was familiar with her reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, I hadn't read any of her books; now I own three.
I'm no speedy reader but this book has taken even longer than usual to finish because almost every page plunged me into my own particular memories of a girlhood in post-war Britain. Lorna was born in 1943 in North Wales and I was born at the end of 1945 just a few miles away in Lancashire. Our day trips were to the same resorts, Southport, New Brighton, Rhyl or walking on the Roman walls in Chester. I was captivated by the thought that we might have been there at the same time but even if we had, that two year age difference would have made any kind of contact improbable.
Lorna Sage's account of life in the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s is painfully accurate: the privations of the years of 'austerity'; the stresses and strains of families settling back to 'normal' life after wartime separations; the ignorance and prudery of the provinces, where Victorian double standards lingered for at least one generation longer than in the cities. She tells her story vividly and with sometimes brutal candour but her humour and the underlying sense of her courage and determination prevent it from being a tale of self-pity. Stephen is right in saying this book does not belong on the shelf labelled 'Damaged Childhoods'.
And yet .... it is not just a nostalgic trip to the days when we were sent out to play in fair weather and foul, coming home only to eat and sleep; to amateur dramatics in the church hall and special lessons in 'ballroom etiquette for fifth-form débutantes'. Lorna grew up in a most dysfunctional family and I read this book as a testament to her triumph over extremely difficult circumstances.
Bad Blood is a book worthy of serious study; if I were a student looking for a subject for my dissertation, I would take Lorna Sage's use of the terms real, reality, unreal and 'irreality' in this book and in her literary criticism and see where it led. I have only glimpsed at her work yet but I see a recurring theme, not always easy to comprehend but an interesting challenge.
I would like to study her use of language in the different stages of the memoir. The chapters devoted to her family are full of negative language and imagery: embarrassment, anger, hostility, resentment, contempt, disapproval. There is no feeling that the young Lorna ever felt loved, approved of or supported by anyone at home or at school or that she had any real friendships. Her family sounds monstrous but she doesn't accuse them, simply explains them. It is left to the reader to see how dreadful it must have been for such a sensitive and intelligent child to be in the charge of these people who offered neither affection nor security. She uses a description of family outings as an analogy of the family structure: "Clive and I, in the back seat or sandwiched between our parents in the lorry, were made to know our place. We were the passengers, they were in charge. Except that it was all tied together with string."
It is only in the last few chapters, when she has found her place (albeit unusual) in her marriage and at university that the tone of her writing becomes gentler and kinder towards herself and other people. I wanted to know more, to feel reassured that her academic and professional success led to her recognising her own value. I hope that writing this memoir helped her dispel the myth of 'bad blood'. As Clive James wrote: This is not a book for children, but neither was her childhood. I am sorry that she didn't live to write the next volume.