Sylvia Lawson

  • Daddy, we hardly knew you by Germaine Greer
    Hamish Hamilton, 312 pp, £13.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 241 12538 3

Fervently hoping to be proved wrong, I think this marvellous book is all too likely to be denied the reception and the uses it deserves. Two things especially stand in its way: the celebrity status of the author, and the apparent transparency of her style, which might easily deceive you into believing the work a far less literary object than it is. And there are baying voices along its path; most current feminist writing is either highly academic and philosophically separatist, or else purplish commercial-confessional; on both registers, this specimen of personal history is decisively at odds, open, generous, crazily compendious as it is. There is another danger; I shall come to it later.

Stardom has its genres and conventions. It was an essential determinant: the publishers gave a famous feminist a very handsome advance – she never says just how much – to write a book about the parent who had persistently evaded both her curiosity and her love. The question presents itself: how much space is there really between a Greer book about her father and the next slab of, say, Maclaine or Taylor, Going Public on some hitherto neglected item of spiritual or carnal adventure? Less, it seems at times, than one might have hoped. Not so much because of the writer’s freedom to fly round the globe repeatedly and drive rented cars across continents: it is, after all, a traveller’s tale. But (the querulous critic is nagging) what about all those bits where an experience – airport mishap, roadside bird or gum-blossom – is put on record merely because it’s her experience? What about the gratuitous scathing of her mother and the lazy library assistants, people who can’t answer back? Why did the suite in the hotel in Delhi, from which she watched the mythically sumptuous wedding, have to be ‘larger than most Indian houses’ with ‘vast marble bathroom’? And what is the relevance to anything of the piteous reminiscence on coming up to Cambridge and the conferring of her degree?

Nobody photographed me, not then, not when I knelt resplendent in medieval red and black with my hands joined in prayer within those of the Vice-Chancellor, Germaine Greer Philosophiae Doctoris Cantabrigiensis. I collected my degree by myself. There was no victory supper, no champagne. I had worked all my life for love, done my best to please everybody, kept on going till I reached the top, looked about and found I was all alone ... I thanked my lucky stars it was English poetry I studied, so that I had the charms and incantations to lay upon the wound in my soul. If I had chosen to study dentistry or computer science, I might never have won through to happiness.

If the beleaguered humanities academics of the present could only share the imagination in the last ringing sentences, and push through to their further meanings, they might have better ammunition against Thatcherism. The demand for relevance would misunderstand the kind of story we’re in. So would any notion that she’s simply telling it like it was or is, that the book is unmediated ‘experience’, like a hot spring somehow bubbling up from the real stuff underneath. This is the kind of writing in which the thinking-through, living-through and writing-through of the search and its predicaments are mutually and inextricably entangled: the words come out of the centre, not from a reflective umpire’s position on the sidelines after the game’s been won. Daddy, we hardly knew you – the full, intentional dreadfulness of the title, the depth of its multiple ironies are apparent only at the end – is highly-wrought literature. It is also a risky, flamboyant, long-sustained star performance, complete with pratfalls and buffoonery, self-mockery and self-castigation. Anything she dishes out she is more than ready to take; and as a performer, she has never shirked making an idiot of herself, or washing bloody knickers in public. The querulous critic can be anwered: here stardom is subverted, precisely while it’s being used.

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