Idealism in British architecture has much to answer for, yet we like the idea that optimism mixes well with fresh cement. Housing estates were built on a sort of visionary, infectious hope, drawing on particular memories of bombed-out tenements and overcrowded room-and-kitchens. I once saw some letters sent to David Gibson, Glasgow’s messianic early 1960s housing convenor – “he took seven sugars in his tea”, his wife said – which came from citizens desperate to escape the slums. “Please put us down for one of your high-rises and all the clean air up there,” one woman wrote. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid tapped into a modernist hankering, a common wellspring of the better life, when he wrote that “there are ruined buildings in the world, but no ruined stones”. Outside the cities, just by Nirvana, they were building perfect “schemes” for those who knew how to live.
Deborah Orr’s mother knew all about that, or felt she did. Like many Britons of her generation and her class, she made something of a religion of keeping up appearances. She wasn’t from the slums herself, she was from Essex, but her husband was local and she loved their new house for being much more than a house, initially feeling they were renting a big new idea as much as a dwelling. “The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much bigger than themselves,” her daughter writes. “When it went, so quickly … [it] became a town without a purpose.” Set in the Lanarkshire countryside south-east of Glasgow, Motherwell at its height made trams, heavy engineering parts, and produced 3m tons of steel every year, employing 14,000 people (more than half the town’s adult population), many of them at Ravenscraig, which was targeted through the 80s and closed in 1992.
The life of Motherwell was seen as an experiment that failed. As Orr would have been quick to say, all lives, looked at from a certain not un-Scottish perspective, are experiments that fail. But there are miracles too in the world of hard knocks, and Orr, by a kind of genius, finds the kernel of the town’s former existence, and locates the “mother” in its name. By doing so, finishing the book not long before she died last October at the age of 57, she produced what I believe to be the best memoir to appear out of Scotland since 1935, the year of Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey. A good friend of mine and a former journalist of this parish – editor of Weekend magazine 1993-98, and later a columnist – she has left behind her a non-fiction book for the ages. Motherwell is a searching, truthful, shocking (and timely) observance of the blight that monetarist policies can bring about in a community of workers, indeed on a whole culture of fairness and improvement, while also showing – in sentences as clean as bone – the tireless misunderstandings that can starve a family of love.
The family lived at 18 Clyde Terrace, a timber-clad, typical two-storey dwelling in the middle of others much the same, and she recalls the bureau that stood in the corner of the living room, overseen by her mother, Win, who managed all its papers, all its memories. Win could be a fierce custodian of the family narrative and she often recoiled from her brilliant daughter’s efforts to change the story. She once told me Deborah was “perverse”, and, of course, clever children must sometimes seem that way to their confused and fretful parents. Orr could be savage, thrawn and irrepressible, but she was also a born writer and a born improver of dull situations. Win worried about what people thought, Deborah didn’t. And over the years Win’s power came to seem entirely oppressive to her daughter, like the forces excoriating the town itself.
On the west coast of Scotland they have as many expressions for embarrassment as the Inuit have for snow. You can be mortified or “black affronted” or “given a showing-up”, especially over matters of cleaning your house or paying your bills or “taking too much drink”. Early in Motherwell, it seems that Win is the engine of all this painful self-loathing, but then we see John, Deborah’s father, who is either an unskilled labourer at Ravenscraig (Deborah) or a trained engineer (Win). It shouldn’t really matter, but it does, very deeply, in the Orr scheme of things. Sifting through her memories as she tries to make sense of her life, Orr sees how she was never good enough, how life itself was never good enough, and that John was really a man of bigotry and anger. After Thatcherism, his world would be blown down in broad daylight, and he becomes an almost Hardyesque casualty of the land, someone carrying his trauma and his prejudices as if they were all he had.
There is great accuracy in the book’s sociological depictions, great courage in its manner of uncovering family secrets. (There can be few better accounts of how the postwar working-class strove so complicatedly for “betterness”.) Yet the book’s greatness lies mainly in the psychological dimension, in the vivid portrait of her parents’ narcissism and the just-as-vivid portrait of her own, which to some heartbreaking degree was to prove the struggle of their lives. Her mother was traumatised by the war and by the expectations that followed. She clung on to her things, stuffing them into the bureau, but also to her disappointments, as if only they could define her, keep her voice central to the life of the family, cancelling any youthful or novel encroachments. All the time, Deborah is looking at Win and asking: “Did she mother well?” But she also asks who she is herself, how capable, how good. She writes about the history of violence and sectarianism, the scars they leave, and slowly, with a reporter’s skill, she shows the interior life of her people.
On the day they blew Ravenscraig down, Deborah was there with her father, mother and brother David. They stood behind the cordon. “The crowd was sparse,” she writes. “There was still a lot of bitterness. It took six seconds for that huge, blue gasometer and those … massive elegant cooling towers to come down … After the … site was decommissioned, its buildings flattened and shovelled away, its earth decontaminated, there was just a big hole, in the town, in the shire, in so many people’s lives.” The local council let off some balloons, to represent every person who’d ever worked there, and the Orr family went home, like many others, to live out their myth of survival.
In the present climate, this book should be given out on the NHS. It should also be dangled in the faces of one-nation opportunists, for whom working-class communities only become real when they vote Conservative. Motherwell shows, chapter and verse, the ravages of individualism, yet it also has the guts to demonstrate how working-class identity may be weaponised for intolerance, and snared by eager bigots into voting for its own dissolution. Great books forge a connection between the movement of single minds and the fate of nations, and Deborah, by looking at her own Scottish family and herself, put her finger on the anger and narcissism of the current political moment: “The unsettling thing about group narcissism is that there’s a level on which it works really well. Group narcissism tends to keep individual narcissism at bay. It helps to regulate the feelings of shame … Within the family, John’s expressions of contempt for others got him lots of attention.”
Orr grew up in an atmosphere of what she calls “performative hate”. It’s not that her town had any sort of monopoly on that, but Motherwell’s decline, so spitefully speeded by the Thatcher “revolution”, got under the skin of many families, manacling them to a sense of waste. The proudest feature of her father’s life, according to him, was that he had never missed a day’s work in his life, a boast that persisted even after they made him redundant. People like to write about their people’s defiance, not their subservience, so this is a post-industrial story we have not quite heard before, allowing a genuine flushing-out of shame and fear about the whole ‘condition’ of the British working-class, as it used to be understood. The point is: it might never be understood that way again. Orr knew it was hard to speak up, and I believe she hoped for a new openness, ‘to take charge, to take complete control, of my own family, in my own words.’
After dark, the lights of Ravenscraig could once be seen from the whole town, and far into the surrounding countryside. This book is like that, forging out of living memory a glowing vision of troubled belonging. In the writing of it, Deborah found a way to rise out of her sorrows and dependencies, her own difficult loves, and create a masterpiece of self-exploration. We can only mourn her loss and the brilliant books she might have written after this. On reading it, I thought again of how Kenneth Tynan once said he could never really love anybody who didn’t like Look Back in Anger. Well, let me put if differently, and say I shall feel sorry for those who dislike Motherwell, before admitting that feeling sorry comes all too easily.
• Motherwell is published by Orion (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.