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 d├ębutantes'. 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.


  1. It’s most difficult to completely throw off a childhood bereft of affection and support. Feelings of unworthiness are always just off stage no matter one's accomplishments, high test scores or approbation in later years.

    Your review is outstanding and I look forward to reading your analysis of the words she uses to describe her feelings. Words being my particular passion.

  2. Thank you, e. I've just learned that this book was ten years in the writing and that does not surprise me. It is beautifully written with wit and humour but with a compelling subtext. I think you might like it but perhaps it would be too painful a read?

  3. No need for me to read it when you have so kindly done it for me.

    Though I’m much older than you (I was ten when they war ended), I no have memories of deprivation. We had rationing during the war, but I have no memories of it being that arduous and after the war, it seemed everything was available instantly, a new car, a telephone (we hadn’t had one before the war), appliances and even after a few years, that marvel, the television set.

    I don’t understand why as a child you were you forced outside even in bad weather?

  4. I'm no economist, e, but as I understand it, the austerity of the 50s in Britain had something to do with our inability to repay the wartime dollar loans. Things only really started to improve in the 60s when we had 'never had it so good.'

    I wasn't personally forced to play outside in bad weather but we were allowed far more freedom than modern children. I suspect that many poor children would find more to entertain them outdoors than inside.

  5. We had more freedom to roam and play as well. My kids had most of that, but there was some concern. Now I wouldn't let my grandchildren out of my sight for a second no matter how old they are.

  6. Looking back, I think we spent a great deal of time outdoors. If we children weren't saying 'We're off out to play", my mother was saying "Off you go. Out from under my feet!" while she got on with her chores - which of course took far more time without our modern appliances. My own children had less freedom to roam and I am sure the grandchild will be under permanent adult surveillance. Progress?

  7. A wonderfully perceptive review, M. I read Bad Blood some years ago, when it first appeared, and vividly remember many of the vignettes, as well as the terrible underlying themes of familial dysfunction and emotional neglect. But for a book which struck me so forcefully at the time, I have forgotten too much, and I feel the urgent need to re-read it now!

  8. Hi Juliet, I don't know how I missed this when it was first published. I think it is a brilliant book and one I'll read again and again. I've now got Lorna Sage's 'Angela Carter' and Moments of Truth' on my TBR pile.

  9. I'm a bit of an expert on dysfunctional families - and, sadly, not in an '-ology/-ologist' way. When I read Bad Blood a few years ago, it resonated for me at a profound level and not simply because of the subject matter but because the writing was so precise and clear. It had such a poetic rawness and honesty to it. Bad Blood also provided a reminder, if one really needed it, that Tolstoy was absolutely right about unhappy families.

    I was born just four years after Lorna Sage and can confirm that life in post-war Britain, especially in towns and cities, was pretty grim and colourless. School breaks (at infant and junior school) were always spent outside, even when it was sub-zero and your legs were blue with cold. We were allowed to stay indoors only if there was something approximating a monsoon going on outside, which in West London was rare.

    It's a wonder we weren't all scarred for life ... but then perhaps we were.

  10. Children just weren't the centre of attention then, were they, D? Fresh air was good for us, adults didn't have the time, even if they had the inclination to play games, except on rare holidays. My father worked long and hard to provide for us and we saw very little of him and, if he was working nights we had to keep very quiet in the day so that he could sleep - another reason to be outdoors!
    You've brought back school yard memories - those crates of small bottles of milk left outside to curdle in the heat or freeze in winter. I remember blue legs and red noses and hands stuffed in pockets.
    I was lucky as my mother was an excellent 'manager' and we were always well fed on stews and home-baked pies and my mother made most of our clothes. We were loved but no-one ever told us so - it just wasn't British to talk about such things then. Neither did you tell what went on at home, which is why Lorna's account of her family is so convincing - no-one would have guessed the reality. I'm sure your experiences were hidden too. Thank heavens things have changed for many but sadly not all children.

  11. It would be good to think that things had changed but, sadly, they haven't. We worked with the NSPCC for several years in the 1990s and I would often be in tears when I was editing (anonymous) case histories for public consumption - one of the very worst cases was down here in the South West. People don't always associate poverty, deprivation and child cruelty with this picturesque part of the country but, as you know from your work, it's there all right.

    Abuse takes many forms, as well. While the high-profile cases always seem to involve physical and/or sexual abuse of children, the reality and consequences of neglect can also be horrendous. And sometimes fatal.

    At least I had a loving mother who did her best to paper over the cracks. It was only when I began to make friends outside the home that I began to see that family life for other people was something very different. And that not every other child went to sleep at night wishing they were somewhere else.

    Oh dear, I hope that doesn't sound too grim and bitter because I'm not. And I do make a real effort to be positive! It's just that memories have a sneaky way of creeping up on you when you least expect it.

  12. A few years ago I read 'Bad Blood' ( a random choice from the local library) and I also was deeply moved by the compassionate description of her troubled childhood, even while recognising and identifying with the moment in history she recalls so well and writes of with such careful and tender precision. Like you Monix, I fantasised about having walked passed the author in some town or street in the North West of Britain. In fact, so moved was I by her remarkable memoir that I wrote to Lorna Sage and shared how here book had reverberated in me and in my own memories of post war childhood in the same part of the country. A few weeks after sending the letter, I had a delightful reply from her daughter Sharon – yes, her of the seeming virgin birth! – who told me that her mother had recently died, and went on to say what a comfort it was that so many people had enjoyed her mother's book. She also said that her Lorna had in the end, been content with her life and that they had enjoyed a good relationship. I was happy to know that, and suspect that those of you who have read the book will be too.
    Last year, Sue McGregor presented 'Bad Blood' as one of her books on 'A Good Read'. (BBC Radio programme). Excellent choice I thought! By the way, what has happened to Sue? She seems to have dropped off the edge of the world. Please don't tell me that she is dead too, for then the End Days really would be here!
    I loved 'playing out' when I was a younger child and still do it all the time whatever the weather.

  13. Crinny, I'm sure that everyone will be delighted to read about that reassuring letter from Lorna Sage's daughter.

    D, Isn't it funny what memories we have stored away waiting for the unexpected word, scent or piece of music to trigger them? Hopefully the painful ones can be put to rest with the advantage of perspective and a better understanding of the human frailties of our parents.


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