This Is Not about Me 
by Janice Galloway.
Granta, 341 pp., £16.99, September 2008, 978 1 84708 061 5
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You may well, at some point, have known a girl like Cora: big, loud, gregarious, ‘full-on all over’; talented in smoke-rings, hand-jiving, arm-wrestling, withering looks; the one who always seems to know about make-up, pop stars, sex and contraception; with ‘a laugh like a sewer when the notion took her and no time to lose’. She’s sharp, unfocused, ‘within an ace of spontaneous combustion’, her restlessness requiring constant smoking, knitting and television, cryptic crosswords and four library books a week just to keep it half in check. There was a girl a bit like this up the road from me when I was a teenager, and still we discuss what might have become of her: so vivid and yet so unknowable, a blaze of glory bringing behind it an awful darkling storm. But for Janice Galloway, the wonder and the horror is that Cora is her very own big sister, 16 years her senior and already pregnant and off to Glasgow when Janice is barely born; only to flounce back home to Saltcoats, ‘clawed . . . free from motherhood and sprung like a steel trap’ in 1960, when Janice is nearly five.

There are good things about having such a sister, especially when she gets a job in an Italian ice-cream parlour, in West Kilbride, along the coast, ‘Tallies’ being, as Galloway says, one of very few cosmopolitan influences in the West of Scotland in the 1960s. Her frocks, her heels, her make-up routine are magnificent, her hair black anyway then dyed even blacker to look like Elvis, her mascara clarted on thick enough to block out the sun. She paints Janice’s nails for her, takes her out to the funfair – ‘We’re spending the lot. Race you.’ And she brings home wondrous gifts from her workplace – ‘chocolate pennies, Five Boys Bars, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs and Refreshers’. ‘High on adrenalin and ice-cream sauce I drank her in’: long before the so-called ‘chemical generation’ of the 1990s, femininity, it seems, was already largely compounded of sugars and lipids and alkaloids and esters. ‘Cora was glamorous, glamorous, glamorous and I loved her to death.’

But no one is ever simple, and especially not this person, who, when she doesn’t know anyone is watching, can be caught ‘staring, eyes rimmed with flaking liner, mind off the hook’, her eyes with ‘something frightening and sad about them’. Sometimes, she forces her little sister to sing at strangers out of the window: ‘What do you want to make those eyes at me for/When they don’t mean what they say?’ – beaming delightedly, then suddenly calling them ‘nosey bastards’, slamming the window shut. She belts Janice when she brings home Edna O’Brien from the library: ‘I can’t read this. She knows damn well.’ And then, she does something so nasty with an ice cream, it’s like a moment from a Tarantino movie, except that it trembles with the unsureness, uncertainty, reality, that prove it most likely was drawn from life.

Janice Galloway was born in 1955 and grew up in Saltcoats, Ayrshire. After studying English and music at the University of Glasgow, she worked in welfare rights and as a schoolteacher, gradually becoming, in the late 1980s, a full-time writer – much encouraged by James Kelman, who discovered her work in a short-story competition. She is known mainly for three novels: The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (1989), the tale of a young teacher’s emotional collapse; Foreign Parts (1994), in which Cassie and Rona, West of Scotland welfare rights workers, kvetch and fret their way round France; Clara (2002), based on the life of Clara Schumann, prodigy and virtuoso and heroically loyal wife. In Scotland she is also known for music criticism, for collaborations with the sculptor Anne Bevan and as the librettist to Sally Beamish’s opera Monster (2002). And she is also a committed practitioner of the short story: her main collections, Blood (1991) and Where You Find It (1996), relate subtle, sometimes frightening and often funny complexes of being, watching, thinking, as experienced by the educated postwar daughters of the West of Scotland working class – liberated, professional, rewarded, beyond anything their parents might have imagined, for better or for worse.

Janice had, apparently, a ‘Bad Start’ as a baby. Her mother claimed this was because the sister in the maternity home persuaded her to try breast-feeding – ‘It was horrible’ – but the problem was also that she was unexpected and largely unwanted. Her mother was 40 when she was born, with a teenage daughter already herself pregnant, and when symptoms of the impending arrival could no longer be avoided, attributed them to ‘the Change’. Throughout the book, the question of how much Janice might have been wanted, and/or loved, and/or enjoyed, is returned to, again and again. ‘Every time she said this, there was a pause. I knew what was next. So did she. If I’d known you were coming, she’d say eventually, if I’d found out.’ ‘Christ almighty, she said, her eyes filling suddenly, I wish. God forgive me I do. I wish I didn’t have this . . . I wish I’d never had you.’ Galloway never resolves the question: I guess she will never know the answer, and neither, really, did her mother. One of this book’s virtues is its willingness so to bridge and saddle fence after excruciatingly painful fence.

Galloway’s mother, Beth McBride, came from a family of miners and labourers; she escaped from domestic service into the ‘as near as dammit white-collar embrace of Scottish Motor Transport’, as a clippie on the buses. Her father, Eddie Galloway, was a little grander, from a family that ‘could boast a glove-maker, a chauffeur, two cart-drivers and a chap who had, at least on one occasion, owned a van’. The couple married in 1937 when Beth fell pregnant; the child, a boy called Robert, died. Two years later, they had Cora and after the war, opened a newsagent-tobacconist-cornershop called the Cabinette. Twenty years later, Janice is a toddler and Eddie is increasingly flailing, violent, drunk. Shortly before Beth and Janice leave for good, the Cabinette’s stockroom, uninsured and stuffed full of fireworks, burns down; a couple of years after that, Eddie dies in hospital, of cancer it sounds like, although it is not spelled out.

It would not be true to say that Eddie makes no impression on Galloway’s memoir – ‘you knew he was in because of the way the air sat in the house’ – but the artist, the conscious shaper in Galloway appears to have taken him down a bit in the mix in order to bring up one of the book’s main subjects: the anxious, thrawn matriarchy of her childhood, the ways and situations in which her closest womenfolk had to live without men. When Beth walks out on Eddie, it is to a tiny boxroom above her GP’s surgery, with a two-ring hob, a bed-settee and no toilet: Beth works cleaning the surgery in lieu of rent. The room is horrible, completely brown, ‘like an explosion in a shit factory’; the work is sinister, ‘smelling of surgical spirit and bandage’; but the four-year-old Janice is as happy as a sandgirl, wrapped up warm inside the cosy paradise of pre-school domestic self-sufficiency. There’s a wireless to sing along to; there are butter-and-sugar sandwiches; at night, once the settee is folded out, Beth is ‘hemmed in’, stuck comfortingly in what the anxious little girl thinks of as ‘this wonderful little rat-cage of a room’. ‘It would not have occurred to me,’ she writes sorrowfully of her mother, ‘she wanted things any other way. From where I lay, curled in a pink wool blanket and the fire on, something to watch till I fell asleep, this was bliss.’

Except that one day, after a trip to the pictures to see Snow White, ‘my head . . . full of glass coffins, transformational potions’, there she is at the door:

She had a suitcase and a packet of fags; no baby, no explanations, no return ticket. My mother opened the attic out, beyond the shipwreck of drying frames, the sheets yet to be folded, and in she came. Her case, side-on, blocked the door. She lit up a fag, shook the match to death and scanned the place for an ashtray. There wasn’t one. Jesus, she said. Is this it?

In later years, Galloway will wonder if her mother knew that the ‘Great Return’ was coming: as with most things, it seems, she never found out for sure. What she did discover, however, was that someone else was now going to take precedence in the rat-cage, as a surrogate old-style man. Cora was forever making off for days and weekends at a time: ‘The words I miss her terrible filtered in at the window crack . . . My mother missed Cora. It took some time, this idea, some thinking through.’ The only earner in the house, Cora refuses to cook, clean, wash her clothes, do the shopping: she just sits there, knitting and smoking, while her mother peels, washes, slices and double-fries potatoes into chips for one. Cora also gets on with teaching her ‘wee sister’ her special life-lessons:

Want something nice? she’d say and hold out her hand. It could be chocolate, a wrestling match, a feather, a belt to the side of the head, no clues which. I didn’t even have to choose a hand. That’s what want got, she’d say, whether the surprise was nasty or nice. That’s what you’d get just because. What she was trying to teach me I have no idea: what I learned was a lifelong suspicion of treats, promises, the expectation of pleasure. Curiosity was a known cat-killer and cheek was simply asking for it.

The first time I read this passage, it struck me as weirdly familiar; after a riffle along the Scottish section of my bookshelf, I worked out why. Consciously or not, Galloway configures her sister as a baleful visitant, a demonic agent of what Neal Ascherson in Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland called ‘Calvinist cultural repression’, by which ‘guilt, formless, unassuageable, darkening all pleasures with dread of what was to follow’, comes to haunt ‘the Scottish psyche’. This structure of feeling, supposedly Protestant in origin, has become, with the passing of time and fading of organised religion, ecumenical in effect. So maybe you never had a girl like Cora in your life: maybe it was your mother, or schoolmates, or a teacher, who introduced you to that toxic combination of ‘self-doubt (sometimes masked in unreal self-assertion)’, ‘suspicions of “otherness”’, ‘chronic mistrust of the public dimension’, that Ascherson sees as typical of Scottish culture and which he attributes in part to the immense speed at which the Highland peasantry was ripped from the land and decanted into the cities – ‘the 20th-century parallel is the uprooting of Russian and Ukrainian society in the 13 years between Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan and the Nazi invasion of 1941.’ Which is to say – although it’s convenient and generally cosier to blame that characteristic unease you see in Scottish life, in Scottish writing, on an unconvincing figment Ascherson calls ‘the St Andrews Fault’ – that 99 per cent of the time you’re talking about ‘the Scottish psyche’, what you’re really talking about is the politics of class.

Just because something really happened doesn’t make it a good story: perhaps the noblest saw in the writing-class canon applies even more to memoir than to anything else. Galloway is not a particularly historical or sociological writer: her memories are personal, lyrical, embodied, often sensual. And yet, myself Scottish and of contiguous period, I sometimes gasped at her recollection of things sensed, words articulated which, until I saw them written in her book, I had not even realised had a particular provenance in a particular time and place: rain mates, pixie hoods and ‘ragings’, the ‘chuntering’ of the washing-machine, ‘the smell of spit on hankies and the feelings of choking (top buttons, the attaching of scarves or ties)’. Sometimes, I had the strangest sensation that Galloway was, somehow, reimagining not just her own childhood, but that it was my own mother, grandmother, classmates I was seeing: Janice’s fingers in their knitted gloves, slipping and sliding against the knob as she fights to open a door; the primary school photo, ‘the whole class, buckled under, socialised, emerged from infancy with shining success . . . Look deeper, however, look harder and there’s something of defence even in the faces of the children I thought were popular, the sporty ones, the kids with bikes, the collected-at-the-gate set with proud big sisters and brothers the size of men.’

And yet, the book also vibrates with what Carolyn Steedman calls, in her meta-autobiographical Landscape for a Good Woman (1986), ‘a form of political analysis’, ‘a resolutely social story’ about the desire for ‘fine clothes, glamour, money’; in other words, this being a story about postwar Britain, it has to be, in some way, a story about stuff. Had the Galloways not in reality run a shop that sold cheap, mood-brightening branded goods in smart and shiny packages, the Cabinette might have needed to be invented: ‘Miss Fags’, a customer calls the toddler Janice, ‘an elderly chap who came in every day, as though cigarettes were vegetables and best bought fresh’. ‘Sweeties, pop, penny caramels, chocolate biscuits’ recur in lists like liturgies, ‘rewards, promises and tokens, affordable pieces of demonstrable Good Life’. At 23, Cora already has dentures, and Beth is on her sixth or seventh pair. Janice’s mother hoards and mends and organises, ‘antique bags, polish-rich shoes, jackets with belts, brooches . . . cloche-hats and turbans, berets and snoods and wide-brim straws’. Cora, on the other hand, consumes with relish, ice cream and sweeties and frocks and cigarettes, with make-up, perhaps, her number one agent of transformation: ‘You show me a woman who’s ugly . . . and I’ll show you a woman who’s a lazy bitch.’

This being a story of postwar Britain, moreover, it is also a story about schools and education, and the consequences, intended or not, of the 1944 Education Act. Janice may be withdrawn and rather clingy, but she is obviously going to be brainy, and a child who has learned, thanks to her sister, to keep her interior life well hidden. At school, reading and writing and blossoming musicality give her new ways of developing this secret autonomy: ‘What I had was school. This was mine. I thought it every day.’ Books ‘made you unselfconscious’; spelling was ‘astounding’; music was ‘set to open’ in her life like a ‘bunch of fat, blown roses’. Quietly, in the dimly lit, unstressed ends of sentences, we see the sad little girl grow and learn and begin to have achievements: she comes first in exams, she writes a play, she’s the mainstay of the school choir; captivated by the black-haired, frug-friendly young supply teacher, she performs the ‘Swim’ in front of the whole class, ‘while Danny McFairlie put on his best black soul voice and sang “The Clapping Song”.’

Except that meanwhile, in a blink-and-you’d-almost-miss-it way, the reader cannot help but notice a certain correlation between these educational triumphs and unpleasant actions taken by someone else. As Janice starts at primary, Cora takes up a typing diploma, buying ice cream for everyone when she passes with distinction. ‘You have a lovely voice,’ Janice’s teacher tells her; the next day, Cora sets fire to her hair. Then Janice discovers that her father left her a couple of hundred pounds in a scribbled will; her mother has used it to buy her a second-hand piano, which will become another springboard to interior freedom. And yet, it’s Cora who plays it first – ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ – ‘with lots of black notes and thick, spread-out chords. I had no idea she had that inside her. It was astounding.’ Soon after, Janice buys her mother some fancy talc as a birthday present; Cora grabs her by the hair, muttering that she is ‘selfish and thoughtless and lazy’ and a ‘snob’ with ‘fancy ideas’. ‘What was new was the abruptness, an edge of uncontrolled craziness . . . It had something to do with the piano. How, I didn’t know, but it had.’

And then, at the end of primary school, Janice discovers she has come first equal in her exams: first equal, when she is supposed to be first solus, and so far has been, every single time. She is ashamed, her mother is bewildered: ‘You’re always first, though,’ she says, ‘as though I’d forgotten the rules.’ Then ‘Cora looked at me, almost playful. I know what happened. This first equal person? . . . Was it a boy?’ Beth slumps, her eyebrows slanting tragically: ‘Oh, pet.’ ‘Hoo,’ says Cora, ‘this is just the start.’

Shut up, you, my mother said, gathering her dander. She’s nothing like you.

Oh is she not? Cora said. She put her knitting down, always a bad sign.

No, she bloody isn’t. She’s not man-daft for a start. She’s not going to do what you did or anything like. She’s got more sense.

Cora laughed to show she didn’t care what anybody thought. It showed she cared very much. Aye right. You think she’s so bloody special. Well, just you wait. Just you watch. And if I’m man-daft where did I learn it?

   You learned nothing from me, my mother said. Her voice was cracking. You just keep your mouth shut. You’ve no respect for nothing, you, least of all your own weans.

‘Weans’? Hasn’t Galloway led us – wasn’t Janice led by her sister and mother – to believe there was only one?

The quarrel burns fiercer, with educational inequality in it (Janice is off to ‘the Academy’ – i.e. the grammar school – and it is not clear what sort of secondary schooling Cora had, or when exactly it was interrupted); and the politics of fertility: a world in which ‘chasing after boys’ can only ‘hold’ a woman ‘back’, unless you ‘deal with’ your ‘troubles’, as Cora claims she has done. Once such wounds are so viciously reopened, what in the world can soothe them? Beth, as usual, sends Janice out to buy ice cream; the same ice cream Cora will use to commit her culminating atrocity. ‘You have it so bloody easy,’ she is saying as she does it. ‘You don’t know you’re born.’

‘I hate it beyond words. It’s a crisis of the imagination,’ the Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon recently said of what he calls ‘the memoir craze’. Like Hemon, I get the feeling that more and more writers are turning to the genre as a quick-fix fudge between the discipline of fiction and the research demands of non-fiction; like Hemon, I know I really don’t like it. Challenge me on either the statistics or the prejudice, however, and I’ll find it difficult to reply.

And so, to be honest, I was a bit dismayed when I heard that Galloway, too, had joined in with the look-at-me memoir circus, but I didn’t need to be. Nowhere in her book does Galloway take advantage of anyone for easy laughs or thrills or weeps or horrors; neither does she ask for the reader’s absolution or indulgence. Her concern is merely to record the way things were, or at least appear, with the benefit of hindsight, possibly to have been. There is the occasional drop into the Joyce’s-moocow faux-childish – ‘This had something to do with growing up, the lying and the knowing at the same time. It changed the look of you, the way your eyes met someone else’s. It made you feel torn in two’ – but more characteristic is a measured apperception of child and adult perspectives, of all the children and adults, at all the different ages, between Janice the wee sister and Galloway the writer now.

The relationship with Cora is particularly scrupulous in both aesthetic and ethical ways: she’s a bully and a psycho, and yet and yet and yet. In her fiction, Galloway likes from time to time to drop in a really kitschy, abject image – the fruiting rot, the anorexia-inducing soup in The Trick Is to Keep Breathing; the revolting heart-shaped Valentine’s ham sandwiches in Where You Find It. It’s something sad about the flesh, she seems to be saying, its tragic vulgarity and vulnerability to decay. So here’s Cora in that tiny toiletless room, teeth rotten, face larded with make-up, smoking her filthy smoke and demanding deep-frying almost every night, but apart from one bit about Cora’s skin being like ‘pork links’ and a particularly evil moment in which her smile spreads ‘like chip fat’ across her face, Galloway keeps fear and antipathy from smearing over into disgust. She isn’t sentimental and doesn’t even attempt to engage in psychological second-guessing, except once, when Cora goes off to Glasgow to study for her diploma, her lipstick paler than usual, her hair tucked into a French roll. ‘She must have wanted the typing diploma very much,’ Galloway writes.

Galloway ends the book with herself at 11, about to leave Jack’s Road Primary: ‘She has no idea what the future will be like, only that it’s coming and there’s no escape.’ We don’t know the detail, but we have an idea of what will come later for Janice. But what came next for Cora? Apparently, I read in the press clippings, Cora was really called Nora – Galloway changed her name by a letter to lend her portrait a little distance. Apparently, Nora died of emphysema a few years ago. Apparently, in later years, she and Janice became totally estranged. And apparently Galloway’s next volume, about her teenage years, will explain the details.

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