Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Week Fourteen - Jude

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2012)
Recommended by Kathryn Cook

Christ, what a week to read this. For the first half of it, I was in my childhood home. In the second half, Margaret Thatcher died.

I've never read any of Jeanette Winterson's books before. Which is amazing really, given the way that she writes (which I love), and the things she writes about (things I'm interested in). However, I did see the TV adaptation of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit many years ago, and at the end of last year saw a BBC documentary about Winterson, closely linked to this book.

So I knew a few things already. From the documentary, I knew that Winterson still had a slow, strong Accrington accent. From that and from Oranges, I knew she was working-class, self-taught, and incredibly clever. That she had been adopted by a mad, cruel mother and a dad who didn't intervene. That she had read her way through the local library, very ravenously, like I had, and went to university in Oxford to read English, as I had.

I didn't know that the real story of her life was even weirder, even nastier, even tougher, than that.

But before all that: Kathryn Cook. I met Kathryn in the lovely summer of 2001, as a friend of my then-boyfriend Barry, and best friend of some other working-class girl called Jeanette (hello, lovely Jeanette). Kathryn and I shared a love of pop music, sitcoms, massive bottles of Tesco's own-brand Soave, and later shared two flats together – one when we'd both broken up with our boyfriends so did a house-swap, and then one for a year together in Hackney. Those were glorious days.

Kathryn also has an encyclopaedic brain on most subjects –with her husband Rupert, she only went on AN EPISODE OF POINTLESS and WON.  But she's not only an expert on obscure glam-rock/indiepop/rave singles, and how to accessorise an outfit just-so (she's gleefully brilliant at both). She's also razor-sharp on books and politics, and always has forthright, refreshing opinions.

(She is also someone who has helped me so much over the years with her wonderful chats and advice, and that matters most of course. She is one of my loveliest friends.)

Kathryn recommended me this book a few months ago, and I finally bought it last week. It's fantastic: beautifully written, angry, and stylistically really interesting. It's chronological, sort of, taking us through Winterson's younger years, until the moment she lasts sees her adoptive mother, then bouncing forward to the decade when she finds out her real mother is still alive. It's full of theories about love and family and loss and being a woman, like therapy through literature.

"Words always help" is a very condensed version of what she seems to be saying. I'm not half the writer she is, but words do that for me too.

For Winterson, so does fiction and the editing and filtering of our lives. In Oranges for instance, there was a character Elsie, who helped the fictional Jeanette. In real life, Winterson reveals here: "There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that."

As a lonely child in very different circumstances - my father had died, and I missed him - I found lots of solace in this book. Lots of other passages connected with me personally. When Winterson reads T.S. Eliot for the first time, she experiences the same head-rush and heart-rattle that I did, and describes it with a thump. The stuff about Oxford struck me too, although I was a comp kid who had her own bedroom, not someone who lived in the back of a car.

The stuff about Thatcher too. Jesus. It's been a funny week, obviously, thinking about all that. Jeanette (my Jeanette again) and I talked about this on the phone last night... about how Thatcher's death brought up about so many thoughts and feelings. About how the mythologising of Maggie's time in power, and the whitewashing of her legacy, coloured by the might of her pronouncements, and the projection of her power, ignores just how much she rode roughshod over our own communities and families, and how her ideology fundamentally changed the way many people behave.

In this book, Winterson says why she voted for Thatcher in the 1979 General Election. This happened just after she had been given her place to read English at Oxford. I'm going to quote this just before I sign off – and it's long, and I hope Winterson doesn't mind (and if anyone reading this does on terms of copyright, email me through my website, and I'll take it down pronto). It just seems so important to post this today: the vivid, brilliant words of a girl who came from nothing, and had nothing, and here says so much. The non-italics are her own.

 "Thatcher had the vigour and the arguments and she knew the price of a loaf of bread. She was a woman - and that made me feel too that I could succeed. If a grocer's daughter could be prime minister, then a girl like me could write a book that would be on the shelves of English Literature in Prose A-Z.

I voted for her. 

It is commonplace now to say that Thatchr changed two political parties: her own, and the left-wing Labour opposition. It is less often remembered that Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK broke forever the post-war consensus - and that consensus had lasted for over thirty years.

Spin back to 1945, and whether you were on the Left or the Right in Britain or Western Europe, rebuilding societies after the war could not happen using the outdated and discredited neo-liberal economics of the free market – unregulated labour, unstable prices, no provision for the sick or the old or unemployed. We were going to need housing, plenty of jobs, a welfare state, nationalisation of utilities and transport.

It was a real advance in human consciousness toward collective responsibility; an understanding that we owed something not only to our flag or to our country, to our children or our families, but to each other. Society. Civilisation. Culture.

That advance in consciousness did not come out of Victorian values or philanthropy, nor did it emerge from right-wing politics; it came out of the practical lessons of the war, and – and this matters -–the superior arguments of socialism.

Britain's economic slow-down in the 1970s, our IMF bail-out, rocketing oil prices, Nixon's decision to float the dollar, unruly union disputes, and a kind of existential doubt on the Let, allowed the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s Right to skittle away annoying arguments about a fair and equal society. [...]
In 1988, Thatcher's Chancellor of The Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, called the post-war consensus the 'post-war delusion'.

I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility,  or that the life of the mind will not be counted as good unless it produces measurable results."

And so it continues, and brilliantly. But this last section seemed the right place to end this post, given how much it says about self-education.  Winterson says elsewhere in this book that "reading is where the wild things are". And that for the younger her: "Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it."

I feel this doing this blog. Every book is another trip into the life of the mind. Of our minds. Every book is another pulling-out of a stopper. A means of action that many value, but don't do enough. And we should. After all, education is our most powerful weapon.