Friday, 20 July 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I am a thief.  In High School we read a play, Hobson's Choice.  It was a rare example of reading something in school, and actually really enjoying it.  It was also the first play I ever read.  I liked it so much that I somehow never returned it, and it's still to be fund on my bookshelves.  The school in question was Accrington Moorhead High School.  It came into existence when Accrington High School for Girls (a Grammar School) was abolished as part of the Comprehensive drive of the 70s.  At that time, a pupil was exiting with a fairly poor set of O-level results (failing four, passing five).  She was called Jeanette Winterson.

Last night, I devoured - yes that's the only word for it - her wonderful 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?  which is now out in paperback.  Her life - or rather, a sort of semi-fictionalsied version of it - was catalogued in her 1985 book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was turned into a BBC drama in 1990.  Winterson was adopted, and placed with a deeply religious family (or at least Mrs Winterson was) in the small Lancashire town of Accrington.  Oranges describes growing up with this family as she also wrestled with her lesbianism.

Accrington, as Winterson writes in her book, 'is not famous for much'.  She goes on: 'It has the world's worst football team - Accrington Stanley - and a large collection of Tiffany glass donated by Joseph Briggs, an Accrington man who did manage to leave, and who made his name and fortune in New York, working for Tiffany'.

Winterson too managed to leave, via St Catherine's College, Oxford.  I too - Accrington was where I grew up - managed to leave via University.  Reading Winterson's book, I discovered for the first time that she had grown up on Water Street.  An impossibly long terraced street which leads from the centre of town up to The Coppice - a hill with a park at the base and a trail up to the top, which overlooks the town.  It's used in the BBC adaptation, and it's somewhere I would regularly go as a child, look out at the town and beyond, and wonder:  how to escape this place?

She would have walked to school past my grandparent's corner shop at the end of William Street (they would have been running it when she was a girl in the 1960s), and then on to Queens Road, past the house I grew up in and on to the School which I also had so many classes in.  She would have sat in the same Hall taking her O-levels, as where I vividly recall a particularly stressful German GCSE examination (I received a D).  My Mother - like Winterson - was also adopted, and I can't ignore that in considering my own reflection on the book.

For me, the book is in two parts (something Winterson seems to have intended, as she inserts a 'intermission').  The first is a factual re-telling of a story, vaguely familiar from Oranges.  The second, a remarkably raw and powerful section in which she recounts her more recent question and her quest for her birth mother .  If I was to be found regularly laughing at the first part, I was fighting back the tears at the second.

Winterson's observation that Accrington seemed out of time - at least until the 1980s - would I think, be challenged by myself and many of my contemporaries who also 'got out'.  Even in the 1980s Accrington seemed oddly out of time and place.  A sort of weird Dr Who-esque apparition.

This theme of 'getting out', of escaping the small-town mentality, the attractiveness of Manchester - a slightly distant cultural hub which nursed Marxism and Feminism - the quest to go beyond, it rings so true.

In school a teacher observed that we should be studying Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.  It stuck in my mind for some reason.  I'm not sure why.  It must have been 1993 and the TV series was in 1990.  I don't think the teacher - I forget her name, but she told us she listened to the Archers every night.  We teased her for listening to the radio but in truth, I'd never heard of either the Archers or Radio 4 before.  This woman seemed so foreign to us.

I remember the TV series, although I never watched it.  My Mum watched it every week, but I was told "it isn't something you'd like" and so I went upstairs watching something else.  Years later I finally re-watched it when a cable channel re-showed it.  It was wonderful.  Although from a different time, decades on, it held a particular value for me.

The book and the series swept the board with awards.  Although it might not have followed the ideal script of Accrington Tourist Board (and other than the Coppice scene was shot in Rawtenstall and Todmorden), you might think that the town might celebrate a famous writer.  It didn't.  It still doesn't seem too.  The most famous living Accringtonian is a lesbian.  Shhhh!

Of course, there are many Accrington's.  The small town of the North or South.  Attitudes apparently out of time.  A people that seems alien, and yet are the familiar.  It's tempting to believe in my privileged educated bubble that such 'otherness' no longer exists.  Yet, I know from the closet cases in the industrial north that I might occasionally encounter, or the stories people tell me on Twitter that these other worlds do exist.  Yes, as Stonewall tells us, it does get better.  But, it's also still pretty crap in the first place.  

Read this wonderful memoir.  Think of those who still live in these places.  Still struggle.  Still feel othered.  Oranges can also be watched on YouTube (you see Accrington at 8.10, and the monument they sit on is one I regularly sat on as the wind blew a gale).  For so many, the question first asked by Mrs Winterson, and now by Jeanette Winterson in her book title, is a question that continues to be answered with an embrace of the normal, the normative.  The title alone could make me cry.

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