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Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Brief Reflection on Jeanette Winterson

I intended to use these next three or four days to complete another chapter of my work memoir. This one’s about the year I spent as an exchange student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when I earned a few dollars as sole proprietor of Clear Day Windows, Inc, juggling my bucket-and-ladder business with bits and pieces of work as a gardener, and a tutor in remedial English.

However, as the snow flies past the window, as my stomach nudges me and murmurs ‘lunch’, I find myself thinking back to last night’s BBC TV documentary on the life of Jeanette Winterson.

I read her debut novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was doing my M.A., just three or four years after its publication. I remember admiring it, and I remember being envious that someone so young - she was only 26 when the book came out - could write so damned well. No wonder she snapped up the Whitbread Prize. I think I was also envious of her childhood. My own was unpleasant, and, like hers, blighted by the attitudes and postures of fundamentalist Christians. But I think hers was a great deal. So, while I envied her ability to take apart a species of religious fanaticism which was still perplexing and haunting me at the age of forty, I also envied her the sheer awfulness of her childhood.

Writers need material. They generally get it - if they’re to be any good - by going out and living life, although some are born into such circumstances that they are surrounded by bizarre and colourful characters from the start. Watching this story of Winterson’s life last night, I saw that she’s certainly gone out and grabbed life by the scruff of the neck - but in terms of garnering material, boy, did she have a head start. This writer was richly endowed, mainly with a crazy, vicious, controlling mother who read the Bible aloud every night, starting with Genesis and ploughing her way right through to those lurid prognostications in the Revelation of St John The Divine - my own father’s particular delight - whereupon she started all over again. What made me particularly envious was the moment when her mother (her adoptive mother, I should say) discovered the literary novels Jeanette kept hidden in her bed, dumped them in the yard, poured paraffin over them and set fire to the lot. 

Damn. That’s the kind of outrage any writer would offer a right arm for, surely. Why didn’t that happen to me? It’s the old old story, isn’t it? You hear some ghastly tale of warfare, loss, disaster, and once you’ve got through your initial horror, once you’ve discovered that the victim survived to tell the tale - and what a tale! - you come over all green, resentful that your own particular narrative is so pallid.

Of course, a childhood such as Ms Winterson endured might have destroyed her. I had a brother who, I maintain, was more or less destroyed by the doctrinaire discipline in our house. Plenty of people who are abused in the home do indeed go under. And, for reasons which I don’t think the film explained, Jeanette herself attempted suicide a few years ago. But what came across loud and clear from this documentary was that this was a person of great spirit - and someone I find it easy to admire.

Well, the snow is still flying, A’s grandson is asleep in the hallway, and I must grab a bite before returning to my recollections of Albuquerque, 1986.


  1. Yes, we have a lot of that white stuff as well. However, I had to blink at your wishing you'd suffered to the extent that Jeanette Winterson had in her childhood so as to give you fodder for your fiction. C'mon, Alan, you're a writer. Empathy, not sympathy. I worry about folks who need first hand experience before they pick up a pen. So... what do writers of Crime Noir do?

  2. Hey, Linda. Fair point,I guess. I was musing, as one does; a bit tongue in cheek. I was watching the prog., listening to her talk about the abuse (I read the book years ago) and when she got to the book-burning, which she clearly delights in dramatising, I thought, 'Yeah well, if you're gonna have wacky parents, you may as well have the buggers burn your books too.' Face it, it made a great scene in her book - and on TV.


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