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Vol. 42 No. 4 · 20 February 2020
Diary

The Deborah Orr I Knew

Jenny Turner

3751 words

When​ Deborah Orr died, in October, I hadn’t seen her for more than 16 years. We’d run into each other in 2003 at a book party, when I was pregnant with my son, and she’d tearfully told my then partner, now husband, that he’d better look after me, or else: a bit rich, I remember thinking, given how vile she’d been when we were falling out. A few months later, she invited me to her fortieth birthday party, but I didn’t go because it was the hottest summer ever – at that point – and I was so enormous I could barely move. But I read her stuff, in the Guardian and the Independent, and I thought of her fondly, though with increasing distance. Until a couple of years ago, when I noticed her pieces filling up with distress.

‘I have trouble remembering,’ she wrote in her Guardian column in January 2017. Remembering the year her father was diagnosed with cancer, the year he died. The year her mother was diagnosed, the year she died. The year Deborah herself was treated for breast cancer – 2010, I think. The years her two boys had problems with their schooling. ‘The year my then husband was diagnosed with a chronic blood disorder.’ Was this the first time she referred in public to the breakdown of the marriage she’d been in since 1997, with the tall and saturnine Will Self? ‘I started being treated in October for a mental illness I hadn’t even heard of: complex post-traumatic stress disorder … It comes about when you suppress traumas and carry on regardless … You thrum with stress.’

A couple of weeks after that was the first time I saw the word ‘narcissism’ in her column. It comes up so often in her memoir that I started counting it then gave up. ‘Men are more likely to develop narcissistic personality disorder than women.’ ‘To a narcissistic man such as this, no one matters but himself.’ Narcissism, trauma, breakdown came up more and more in her columns, and then the Guardian sacked her. I took to looking at her Twitter sometimes, and I saw grim stuff on it that I can’t check now, because a day or two after Deborah’s death her posts – ‘her support network and her playground,’ in the words of her great friend Suzanne Moore – disappeared. And I can’t check the posts that started appearing last summer, about terrible back pain, useless doctors, scans and X-rays, and anyway, we all know now the direction in which all this was pointing. Death, death, death, as Deborah and I used to say to each other, clutching at ourselves because we thought it was so funny – I started it, having picked it up from something I’d been reading by James Kelman. Death, death, death, death, death, death, death.

I met her in September 1989, on my first day at City Limits, the co-operatively run London entertainments magazine set up by the leftier of the Time Out journalists after a long and bitter strike. It was Deborah’s first day too, and the first day also for a third immigrant from Scotland, the enigmatic and hilarious Tommy Udo (Tommy, I was saddened to discover, died last year as well, a week before Deborah). The office, when we started, was in an old warehouse in Clerkenwell with worn floors, iron stairs, clattering typewriters, and layout still done on boards, with glue and scalpels. Deborah was deputy editor, Tommy was assistant editor and I was books editor, and to begin with I think we all loved it – I know I did. It was the only job I’ve ever had where I felt I fitted in.

Suzanne Moore, in her Guardian tribute, shared memories of her own first sighting of Deborah, which must have been around that time: huge dog, leather trousers, fag in one hand, Scotch in the other. I don’t remember the trousers, though thigh-high boots were often a feature, and the dog is right – he was a golden retriever and Deborah was looking after him for someone, and most unkeen to give him back. And the fag and the whisky were omnipresent. Whisky with ginger, I think? Silk Cut Kings? You were allowed to smoke in offices at that time and lots of us did, Deborah constantly. There was also a miniskirt (suede), and slinky high-neck cutaway dresses, and a make-up kit like a Black and Decker toolbox, with different mascaras for upper and lower lashes – I forget the rationale. But I do remember that she knew what she was doing with the brushes – ‘she just knew stuff,’ as Suzanne said – and that when she was done she looked both beautiful and a bit mask-like. Then she sucked on her fag and cackled, and took a swig of her drink.

This account, though, is of glam Deborah, Deborah when she dressed up and made an effort, and most of the time, for whatever reason, that was not the way she presented herself at City Limits. Her clothes, I remember thinking, were like those of a non-posh, non-trendy Scottish schoolgirl: mum jeans, as we’d now call them, cowl-neck jumpers, Dunlop gymmies, not DMs or high-top trainers like everyone else. Her famous hair was fairish brown and bushy, as is common in Scotland, not yet smoothed down and glossed up. Her teeth were shocking: ‘tiny, crooked, full of gaps’, as she described them in an article for the Times. ‘My smile sucked up light and made rooms darker.’ The teeth were one reason Deborah sometimes hated being looked at, shaking her hair over her face and hiding behind it, though she also did this when she found herself around people she couldn’t be bothered with. She often did it when I took her out to meet my friends.

So I’d been reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, and was telling Deborah about the diagram that shows how taste in interior decoration correlates with social class. ‘Not for me!’ she spat furiously, through her M&S prawn sandwich (it was always prawn for Deborah, from the M&S across the road from Brixton Tube, and never coffee, always tea). She lived, it turned out, only a few minutes away from me, in a one-bed attic flat in Hayter Road, and it was incredible: turquoise sofa, light oak kitchen, black ceramics, cream walls, grey floors and an elegant dado she’d made herself out of black and cream and turquoise mosaic tiles. She writes a lot in her memoir about her mum’s exquisite housewifery and string-picture-making, her own teenage experiments with macramé plant holders and a home-made Snoopy pouffe, and she was horrified by the incompetence she saw in the room I rented: ‘Christ, even in the squat I knew how to make things nice.’ But she also had an entire wall of bookshelves in her bedroom, so that was what we talked about, mainly – we were both big fans of Kelman, who was then annoying people because A Disaffection was on the Booker shortlist. Books, class, Kelman, being from Scotland, living in Brixton. These were the big things our friendship was about.

Before City Limits, Deborah had worked in contract publishing, which meant she’d learned everything there was to know about making a magazine: flatplans, aspect ratios, kerning. She’d taken a pay cut to come to City Limits as part of a strategy to get herself a job at the Guardian, then in the designer David Hillman’s font-butting, G2-adding incarnation: she loved the Guardian intimately, like a lover, the way it cropped its pictures, its Garamond and Helvetica and heavy rules. I, on the other hand, was completely clueless. Between Deborah and Nick Kimberley, my beloved deskmate, I was taught all the things I should have known already: that only the first word of a headline gets a capital letter; that spelling matters, and factual accuracy, and libel. One of my first City Limits pieces was a satirical Christmas gift guide, with a picture of Otto Dix’s Sylvia von Harden, and was, I still think, pretty funny. But Deborah had to take a knife to it just before it was biked to the printer, because things I’d said were unallowable. The issue came out with black strips in it, but at least my amateurism hadn’t closed down the magazine.

One nice thing about City Limits was that, unlike the rest of the London media, it wasn’t dominated by English public school boys – there were a couple, but Deborah was good at scaring them and keeping them well cowed. ‘Bewildering, this duality, this constant keeping of two flames, one of Scottish victimhood, the other of Scottish superiority’: this Caledonian antisyzygy, as scholars call it, though in my view it’s not about nation so much as class. It’s just an interesting accident that because Scotland until 1707 was a separate nation it has a higher concentration of civic institutions per head of population than the rest of the UK outside London, meaning that people who’d never get a word in edgeways if they’d lived in Stoke or Rotherham did and do, occasionally, in the Daily Record or on Reporting Scotland. Sometimes this means that people develop with a somewhat less wrecked self-confidence than they’d have had if they’d grown up in England, but it’s not a stable thing – it veers and wavers. Thus, I’ve always thought, the bottomless appetite for sweets and fat and alcohol and tobacco, and now drug overdose rates on a par with the US. As Deborah said, the duality is bewildering, and exhausting, and incredibly painful. You do what you can to buffer it, with whatever substance comes to hand.

Motherwell, Deborah’s home town, became a centre of steel production in the 1870s, and at its peak, in the 1960s and 1970s, the works at Ravenscraig employed as many as 13,000 men. Deborah’s father, John, was a miner’s son and left school at 14 to work at Colvilles, the mill that made the girders that hold up Tate Modern. He lost his nerve, Deborah discovered, after rescuing a fellow worker who had been nearly cut in half; so he ran away to Essex, where he worked as a postman and married Deborah’s mother, before returning home to turn steel for the gigantic blades of the coal-cutters made at Anderson Boyes. He stayed there until he was made redundant at the age of 62. Win, Deborah’s mother, was the daughter of an Essex estate worker, and worked as a wages clerk when not a full-time mother. She was, Deborah thinks, horrified by the ‘changeling’ she had produced, so preternaturally keen to learn stuff and go to London: ‘It wasn’t until Win was dead that I was able even to begin to work out how my own life had really been about just two irreconcilable things: defying my mother, and gaining her approval.’

It’s strange for me to read Deborah’s memoir, appearing now after her death.* So much of it I know already and have long since internalised, turned into a monument: in my imagination, for example, Motherwell looms enormous, so I was astonished to read on Wikipedia that its population is only around thirty thousand, less than a sixth of that of my own home city, Aberdeen. My parents were both teachers, a generation away from the physical and financial precarity of the Orrs; and yet, there was so much standardisation in 1960s Scottish girlhoods. Platignum Pens and the Burns Federation. Busy books, Francis Gay, Opportunity Knocks with Neil Reid. Dogs of all sorts, but mainly collies. Collies are the best. Chips fried in lard you’d leave to solidify for the next time, until it got so many ‘bits’ in it you had to throw it out; olive oil for earwax, not lettuce – ‘What was wrong with honest Heinz salad cream?’ Mallory Towers and Mum deodorant: I did not, I’d like to clarify, do what Deborah says she did with her ‘trusty bottle’ but it’s true that I wondered about the ‘stubby’ shape. Going to the careers teacher with your ‘perfect’ O-grades and getting told, ‘Well, with these results you could do anything. Nursing or teaching’ – though I was at least encouraged to do Highers, so I could try for a desk job in the civil service – and the struggle to get the parents to understand you really were going to university and leaving home: ‘I’d been shocked by this encounter, dumbfounded really. I didn’t understand where they thought all of their encouragement of my schoolwork had been going. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t be pleased.’

I also remember Deborah telling me how badly bullied she’d been, and how often. The time her dad had sent her, aged three, out to play by herself and a girl stole her christening bracelet. The time she stood on a concrete platform surrounded by other children, who were throwing bricks. The girls in Primary Seven who stripped her to her vest and pants and called her a ‘snob’ – because her mum was English, maybe, and nobody in Scotland, at that time, understood there was a difference between being English and being posh. The flashers and paedos and would-be rapists; the actual rapes at St Andrew’s University and in Edinburgh. (She mentioned them in a piece she did for me at City Limits. She was a pioneer of the 1990s turn to stylised confession as a mode of journalism, and later mocked herself marvellously for it, in an interview she did about Enquirer, the play she co-wrote for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2012: ‘I’m not a very good interviewer at all … My top thing was, I’d be transcribing away … and then all of a sudden in the middle of this really great quote there’d be this interruption and it would be me … saying something about YES, that had happened to me too! And isn’t it amazing!’)

What we didn’t talk about, however, was how wounded Deborah had been by what she calls the ‘performative hate’ all around her in her childhood: partly, I guess, because we didn’t really know what emotional damage was, and partly because we sort of did know, but being young and full of beans and frequently inebriated, thought it would be easy to outrun it. One example. She was always immensely proud of her Lanarkshire working-class origins, ‘in part’, she writes with her characteristic lack of mercy, because of how the origins made her look. ‘The more humble my beginnings, the more I appeared to have achieved.’ But she never mentioned that both her parents voted Tory (as did mine). And she was proud of her parents’ loyalty to each other, the way they always laughed at each other’s jokes; but she never talked about the time they opened a letter the twenty-year-old Deborah had written to her boyfriend: ‘It was obvious … that I was sleeping with this man. Did I not understand what I had done? Did I not know that I was ruined? … That night my mother rounded things off by adding, as some kind of double-edged sweetener: “I love you, Deborah … But I’m afraid I don’t like you. Not at all.”’

To begin with, the book posits Win as the problem: energetic and uprooted, denied the education and excitements of Women’s Lib by her class and times. Her mum, Deborah writes, ‘hated the piece-and-jam culture of Lanarkshire’, and the chips, and the mince and tatties: ‘I was her confidante when I was little, a receptacle not just for her fond memories but also for her resentments, her complaints, her own homesickness.’ Win favoured David, her son and younger child, over Deborah, but was in no doubt whatever that it was the girl’s job to keep her mother company, at home, for ever: ‘She wanted to keep me with her, in the same way as she wanted to keep her arm.’ Life was hard in those days, a constant battle to maintain respectability against the obscure but terrifying phantoms of ‘public shame’: even David, the ‘golden child’, had soap stuffed into his gullet when he was overheard using ‘bad language.’ And when the eight or nine-year-old Deborah, ‘wild with excitement because there was an opportunity to get “squiggle” on a triple-word score’, peeped at the tiles during a game of Scrabble, Win made her an I AM A CHEAT badge and paraded her in the town centre: ‘I’ve always said that my childhood was like growing up in a religious cult without the religion.’ But with punishment as a central ritual, and as missal, the infernal Sunday Post: Oor Wullie, as Deborah writes, would be seen on his bucket ‘with his bum smarting several times a year’.

Deborah’s father, to begin with, is ‘idolised’: ‘film-star handsome’ and so clever, in his wife’s estimation, that ‘he could have been a doctor. He could have been anything’ – except he had to work from an early age to support his family and never entirely learned to write. The idealisation was abetted, as so often among those dads, by their habit of scarcely ever being around: as well as working six days a week, fifty weeks a year, John had things he had to do at the betting shop, and at Shotts golf club. Deborah recalls him tapping her on the head with his newspaper when at last he came home, ‘grey-faced’, in his overalls: ‘Like a caress from a god.’

As the book proceeds, it becomes clearer and clearer that John was not always a nice man. He called his children ‘Fanny and Oswald’, a sign, as Deborah writes, of his ‘linguistic adeptness, so often expressed in jokes, wit and wordplay’. But he also used names that were a lot meaner: Smelly Nellie, Phyll the Pill, the Wee Chinaman; Tress, a learning-disabled 16-year-old girl who had already given birth to three children, he called MaTress. And there was Mantelpiece Arse, such arses being one of several signs of Roman Catholicism: ‘My dad hated Catholics. He had a million derogatory names for them, and claimed he could always identify a Groof/Paddy/Taig/Bog-Hopper/Fenian/Left-footer/Papist by his big forehead, his long body, his short legs and his thin lips, “like he had a hole for a mouth, made by a scalpel”.’ He was racist too, and homophobic, and feuded with neighbours, and thrashed his children. ‘The grip of his hand was like being in a vice, the blows like being hit by the bough of a tree.’

Both her parents, Deborah discovered later, considered sexual intercourse a disgusting throwback, and did ‘IT’ as little as could be managed. Once, when in her mid-twenties she brought home the man with whom she’d bought the Brixton flat, her father was ‘up all night, vomiting at the idea of his daughter being in bed with a man under his roof … Oh, God. The self-loathing of it. The sadness. What a pair … Babes in the dark, dank, fungal, scary woods.’

When Deborah and I started our jobs at City Limits we didn’t know that the magazine was collapsing. It had only been kept afloat, really, by a grant from Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell’s GLC, which had been abolished three years before we’d even got to the magazine, and by paying everybody the same, but badly – enough to get by, maybe, if you had a council flat or another income, impossible if not. Deborah started taking shifts on the Guardian to pay her mortgage, then she got a job there as a sub, and that was her. We went on working together off and on, but first I picked a boyfriend she didn’t like, then things started going terribly wrong in my life and she couldn’t bear it. ‘I’m a doler-out of harsh words myself, when the mood takes me. And sometimes a mood does take me.’ It certainly did.

One sad thing for me in Deborah’s story is when she lists favourite phrases her dad would use in his tongue-lashings: ‘You live in a fantasy world.’ ‘Don’t expect us to pick up the pieces.’ ‘Your problems, Deborah, are all of your own making.’ Such, I remember, were major features of the flayings I got, sometimes with added public shaming aspects. They hit, as she puts it, ‘like a physical attack’. So I completely missed the transition of my pal (‘Debbie,’ my mum used to call her, when asking after her – ‘Debbie’!) into the golden-haired goddess she became.

But from the book I learned, to my even greater sadness, that there was yet another, deeper Deborah I never knew at all. A girl who tramped the bogs and fields of the Clyde Valley, identifying bugs and beasties from the pictures in her Ladybird Pond Life book, and who built her own garden, with rockery and shed and a pond made from a bin lid, at the back of her parents’ house at 18 Clyde Terrace, Muirhouse, Motherwell, one of a row of wood-clad postwar prefabs, built as temporary accommodation but all still standing to this day: ‘Back and front doors. Back and front gardens … Creosoted jewels in Lanarkshire’s council-housing crown.’ And who planted lupins in the garden she made as a wife and mother in London, to remind her of the lupins she’d known, ‘orange wings with yellow standards, crimson wings with purple standards, purple standards with blue wings’ in that garden growing up. The Deborah I knew didn’t talk about gardens. We weren’t really at a gardening stage of life.

‘When I think of Motherwell now, I think of the marshland, the river, the meadows, the hills, the fields, the gardens, the trees, the flowers, the soft beauty of the valley. This Motherwell survives.’ When I think about Deborah, I’m thinking about the lupins, and how ‘on hot days you could hear the furry charcoal seed pods popping from the kitchen.’ They’re not a flower that means anything much to me, lupins. But reading her write about how much she loved them reminds me that I, too, heard lupins pop once, and though there’s nothing stopping me, really, I wonder if I ever will again.

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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020

I was a member of the original City Limits collective and one of those responsible for organising the initial financing of the magazine. Jenny Turner writes in her elegiac appreciation of Deborah Orr that the magazine had been ‘kept afloat, really, by a grant from Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell’s GLC’ (LRB, 20 February). The Greater London Council’s contribution to City Limits wasn’t a grant but a loan, and a commercial loan at that, with a schedule of repayment and a healthy interest rate. Even so, it was a political hot potato and our financial plan was scrutinised line by line by the GLC’s assistant director of finance on a daily basis over the first few months of the magazine’s existence (the director of finance himself was fully engaged defending the GLC’s other, larger political hot potato, the Fares Fair policy). The GLC loan was only a part, albeit the largest single part, of the magazine’s financing – many thousands of pounds came in the form of donations and loans from supporters, well-wishers and, indeed, one or two venture capitalists. Plus, in the event, only the first two of the three tranches of the GLC’s loan were ever drawn down.

Sandy Craig
London SE26

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