It’s amazing to think that writing about troubled childhoods has become a genre in itself over the past fifteen years or so. My friend, Kathryn, was in her local branch of W H Smiths when she saw a whole section of books categorized as ‘misery memoirs’. I can understand wanting to write about a ruined childhood, to trace the journey from premature devastation to something solid, valuable, real. But many of these memoirs remain mired in trauma, it seems to me now, as I’ve been turning my attention to them and starting to think about what they mean. And I wonder what provokes the urge to read about children locked in cupboards for petty misdemeanors, beaten and starved or psychologically tormented. What’s that all about? When I began looking at these books, I’d initially picked out Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood and Andrea Ashworth’s Once in a House on Fire to read, the former describing a loveless childhood in a religious household, the latter a violent upbringing at the hands of a drunken stepfather. But every time I picked them up, some instinct within me recoiled a little, unwilling to venture into this ugly territory. I’ll have to do it at some point, and both books have won awards and are considered modern classics in their way. But if the misery memoir remains a popular genre, it also seems that critical opinion has moved on in the past few years, and as I checked out the more recent publications, it was the books that promised humour and a little compassion for all concerned that were winning the critical accolades. At the very end of this route lay the first memoir that I finally did read, Mother Country, by Jeremy Harding, which tells the story of the author’s search for his natural parents.
Jeremy Harding, an acclaimed journalist and translator, knew he was an adopted child from the age of about five onwards, but waited until his father was dead and his mother too ill with dementia to be anguished by his actions to start looking for his birth mother. All he had was a birth certificate with her name and the address she was inhabiting at that time on it, no mention of a father, and a fairy tale that his adopted mother had spun him that changed and grew more elaborate over subsequent retellings. The story of his roots was one that had a lot to do with class, that great British disease that was rampant in 50s when Harding was a child. Colin and Maureen, Harding’s adopted parents, were relatively well off, even if they chose to live (or at least Colin chose to) on the edge of a river that flooded for part of every year in various family houses that had none of the modern conveniences we take for granted nowadays. For a while Colin had earned a decent income at cards, until he had found a job with the Stock Exchange. Maureen did not work (until much later in life when she briefly and joyously ran a florists), was not altogether happy with life, drank too much and lived in a faintly hallucinatory world of her own creation. Maureen had two children from a previous marriage to a man who was seriously rich, and whom she had left for Colin. When Colin wanted a child of his own, they found a poor, young shop girl who had got herself ‘into trouble’ and arranged to take the child from her with the usual promises of being able to give him a better life than the one he was otherwise destined for. They then faked a pregnancy for Maureen and passed the baby off as their blood kin. But Harding always knew that he had been rescued from a different kind of life, even if he wasn’t altogether sure what that life was, and in his early years at least he was fond of his new parents, happy and secure in his context and unscarred by his sudden transition up the rungs of the ladder of class.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this memoir is the portrait that gradually emerges of Harding’s adopted parents. One of the most enigmatic elements of it is the reader’s gradual recognition that he quietly despises them. Quite what caused the breakdown in their relationship remains a mystery; it’s a story Harding never tells, and its absence leaves a gaping hole in the narrative. Into this vortex is sunk the reasons why he is so emotionally engaged in the quest for his natural mother. Oh he gives the usual statements about curiosity and wanting to know for his own children’s sake, but there’s a hefty big reason lurking in the margins of his storytelling that I, for one, ached to know about and remained unsatisfied. He was sent to boarding school at a very young age, and that may be part of it. And he reserves his greatest dislike for his father, Colin, who seems to be class conscious to the point of psychosis. Researching his roots he learns to his surprise that his adopted mother, Maureen, came from exactly the same kind of poor background as his real mother, only her astounding rags-to-riches first marriage (which included elocution lessons) fast-tracked her into a wholly different milieu. Colin was not the same class as her first husband, and therefore probably more tender about it; he refused to let Maureen keep up with her old friends, eventually pulled the plug on her beloved florist’s shop because a working wife was not de rigueur for a man of his standing, and generally erected barricades about their family that made them prisoners of their own sense of themselves. He does not emerge well from this record. Maureen is drawn with more sweetness, her love of musical songs, her fantasizing, her easy sociability with people from all walks of life remain endearing qualities, even if they crumbled about the edges into delirium, unreliability and moral weakness. Reading between the lines, Harding’s quest for his natural mother was as much about putting distance between himself and his adopted background as it was about finding something primitive and authentic.
Harding is a good writer who tells his story well, but where he excels is in giving brief but evocative sketches of people. I particularly loved the description of his grandmother (Colin’s mother) as ‘open and apparently carefree, but she liked a dispute and loved a lawyer.’ Her lengthy letters to her solicitors ended in a line of script that curled around the margins of the entire page, and she was famous for taming moor hens and bringing them into the house, which was considered most eccentric: ‘Dressed in a shabby, last-minute way, seldom without a hairnet to complete the effect, she was nevertheless oddly elegant, and gave the impression that at some point in the early morning, making haste and running riot had been the only options, there were the birds to attend to, there was the garden and at length, the solicitor.’ I found myself a little frustrated, however, with his lengthy descriptions of the process of uncovering genealogical data. It’s as if, eschewing the personal journey he is on as too momentous and too complex to describe, every other real life journey has to be accounted for in the narrative; from the various record offices he haunts to the trips around London that he makes. These are all described in what I have always considered to be masculine style (which does not foreclose it as an option to women) in which he describes precisely where he finds his files, and where he puts his car, rather than attending to the larger picture of landmarks and impressions; the result is sometimes resistant to visualization in the mind of the reader, despite, or maybe because of, the precision of the detail itself. But in the way he organizes his hunt into a kind of detective-style inquiry he produces a gripping narrative whose ending I will not spoil.
But in this fable of class and blood kinship, I emerged with a sense of nurture being far stronger than nature. As an educated, highly literate family man, Harding is far more a product of his adoptive parent’s upbringing and his own free will than the DNA of the mother who gave birth to him. For all he may push Maureen and Colin to one side in his desire for something different, something other than the flaws and the foibles he perceives in them, there are undoubtedly echoes of their imagination, their resilience, their almost romantic territorial possessiveness about him. His trajectory through childhood and into maturity is no different with adopted parents than it would have been with blood ones, and education makes the greatest impact on his expectations and his lifestyle. That’s not to say that being adopted doesn’t have significant consequences on his perception of himself, but as ever, for Harding as for all of us, the important parts of life were taking place in the dimensions where he simply wasn’t looking.