To mark Mother’s Day (March 6th), the Guardian’s Saturday book supplement asked a number of writers to supply photographs of their mothers – as young women, before they had children ‑ and some accompanying text which might illuminate their lives and how their children felt about them – the things they knew and didn’t know, the things they only found out later, the whole exercise suggested by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Before You Were Mine”.
The most touching submission perhaps (many of them are touching) comes from Jeanette Winterson, who may well have been the child with the most to forgive. Her father, she recalls, who had left school aged twelve, was content: he had after all survived D-Day in one piece. For her mother, however, happiness “would have been a mark of failure. Her suffering became a badge of honour. And so she managed with the pills and the nicotine – angry, depressed, trapped.”
When Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985, her mother said
“It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.”
Four years later she was dead and I was 29. There was no time to mend anything.
I think about her, the revolver in the desk drawer, the flamboyant depressive, too big for her world, playing Kathleen Ferrier songs on the piano. I am sorry she died before I could restore her fortunes. I am sorry she never had a house of her own with a garden.
To hand by coincidence is a volume of essays by Graham Swift called Making an Elephant (2009): Swift’s latest novel, Mothering Sunday (another coincidence?), has just been published, to very favourable reviews. In the essay which gives his essay collection its title Swift recalls his upbringing in a south London suburb during the 1950s, but goes beyond it to consider the life of his father – before he met him as it were. Lionel Allan Stanley Swift was a civil service junior before he volunteered for the navy (the Fleet Air Arm) and became a pilot, spending the war years chiefly in a variety of exotic locations in Africa and the Mediterranean before returning, mundanely, to the life of a clerk in a branch of the treasury in the City of London.
An ex-naval officer, his uniform consigned to mothballs, now a clerical officer in the civil service; not a high-flyer by any means, as if for six years he’d put on fancy dress.
The postwar period was, Swift reminds us, a period when you didn’t consider what it was you wanted to be. For most people it was rather a case of accepting what one was and getting on with it.
Swift snr, though, was not unaware of his plight and had reserves of humour, always useful: once asked to fill out his occupation on a form he wrote the single word “Drudgery”. And so when offered the chance to “get out” early he did. So instead of five years before stomach cancer claimed him at seventy he had fifteen – goodish years of activity and wider horizons made possible by package travel – back to the Med with the wife this time, the cupboard under the telly filled with duty-free bottles, grinning from the porch as his son comes to visit and pouring the afternoon gin and tonics. A fortunate man and a survivor who had been neither destroyed by the war nor – ultimately – crushed by the toad work.
Graham Swift, whose fictions (Last Orders, Waterland) have won major prizes in the past, could be in the running again this year with Mothering Sunday. Let us hope so. His personality, one imagines, can be discerned quite clearly from his non-fiction writing (it is the personalities of created others that emerge from his fiction) and he seems to be such a quiet, considered, perceptive and kind person and very English – in a good way. I doubt very much if you could say such things about every writer, and indeed nor should you feel you have to. Still. Let’s have some success for the good guys. Go, Graham!