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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: Motherwell: a Girlhood by Deborah Orr

    Motherwell: a Girlhood (2020), a memoir by journalist Deborah Orr (1962-2019) begins with a vivid depiction of the Ravenscraig steelworks‘: “denatured, slightly hell-like, hyper-mechanised” ... High industrial Gothic,”  Ravenscraig once dominated the landscape and lives of the residents of Motherwell,  the working class, industrial town where she grew up in Scotland’s Clyde Valley. Her English mother Win moved to Motherwell from Essex to establish a home with Orr’s Scottish father John in his hometown. According to Orr, Win ‘hadn't mothered well at all'. Orr’s account of her relationship with her mother is often scathing.

    Orr and her younger brother David cleared the family home of furniture at 18 Clyde Terrace, Muirhouse, Motherwell ML1 2NG when Win passed away in 2014, including the bureau. The events in Orr’s life unfold in chronological order based on memories triggered by items found in the bureau, a lock of Orr’s hair from when she was a baby, news clippings from a local paper in Brentwood, Essex on her parents wedding and school reports. 

    Motherwell also details the architectural, social, political and personal landscapes which shaped Orr’s life. She moves deftly across a dizzying array of subjects ranging from sibling rivalry and sink estates, to feminism, sectarianism and narcissism in an apparently arbitrary yet organic fashion. It takes a while to get accustomed to the story's winding trajectory.

    She writes about Clyde Terrace and the neighbouring Glencairn Estate, a 1960s tower block in Motherwell built under the pretence of post war redevelopment, but then moves forward to the Grenfell Tower disaster. There is a sense of urgency about the book. It was published in 2020 after Orr had passed away of cancer in 2019.

    Orr's childhood, in the 1960s & 70s was in the era of black and white TV and public phone boxes, when shops were closed on Sundays and on Wednesday afternoons. She remembers watching children’s TV with Win, playing outdoors with children from her local community and holidays in Blackpool. She recalls the excitement of power cuts during the miners’ strikes in the Winter of Discontent (1978-79). Ravenscraig was closed down in 1992. She also mentions the local gangs (Toi or MuirToi), bad food and life before central heating. 

    In the bureau she finds an album of tea cards (collected from a new packet of Brooke Bond tea) on the theme Fifty of the Greatest Britons. She remembers there were a lot of Scots in the list of fifty but only seven were women, including suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.

    According to Orr her parents were from a post war generation that reverted to more traditional values. Win was controlling. Orr writes ‘She (Win) wanted to keep me with her, in the same way she wanted to keep her arm with her'.  The rift began when Orr started school which she enjoyed and excelled at leaving Win behind crying at the school gates. Nonetheless Win continued to nurture her hobbies (macramé) and education with trips to the local library.

    We hear how Win was against her decision to go to University and her move to London to pursue her career, and she offered Orr no support when her marriage (to Will Self) broke down. At times the story is uncomfortable to read. But it is also written with humour. Orr had a lauded and successful career which her parents didn't acknowledge while they were alive. Motherwell is also written with a great deal of honesty and needless to say Win and John would have disapproved of the end result. 

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