The late journalist Deborah Orr’s moving memoir of her Lanarkshire childhood is about many things but, unwittingly perhaps, it does demonstrate how extremely difficult it is to describe one’s parents. Our perspective is skewed by the very intimacy that should make their personalities reveal themselves clearly to us; unshiftable patterns get in the way as well as habits, secrets and alarming contradictions. In Motherwell, Orr wrestles with this problem but, parents being so slippery, she never quite pins them down: John and Win Orr remain elusive, captured in vivid but frustratingly partial glimpses. Nonetheless, there is so much to enjoy in this book: about growing up in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steelworks in a housing scheme called the Timbers in the 1960s and 1970s, about class, culture, women, ambition, social mobility and the jagged, resentful edge between one generation and the next. Orr writes of Motherwell: ‘I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do.’ That rugged, furious, chafing love shines through the book.
In the last months of Orr’s life, the acrimonious end of her marriage to Will Self was made horribly public. Although Self is barely mentioned, their relationship does hang over this book like an ugly knot. It’s hard not to conclude that Orr’s obsession with trying to pathologise her parents’ relationship is really about trying to understand her own marriage. Of her father she writes: ‘The last thing he would have wanted was a daughter who was unthinkingly adept at making excuses for controlling, psychosexually fucked-up, abusive male behaviour. Through his own unthinking, automatic efforts, however, that’s what he got.’ She isn’t the first person to find the explanation for fucked-up behaviour in a diagnosis of narcissism: Google the term and thousands of sites come up devoted to spotting the warning signs of it, such as ‘triangulation’, ‘gaslighting’ and ‘grandiosity’. Orr sees narcissism, for example, in her own tendency to exaggerate her working-class roots to heighten her achievements, and in her parents, whose ‘heightened self-love’ was ‘in constant battle with exaggerated self-loathing’. Her mother triangulated her affections, dangling her approval, and her prejudiced father ‘othered’ anyone who was different.