• review by Paul Burston

Deborah, I hardly knew you

Updated: Feb 4

I was friends with Deborah Orr for over 25 years. We first met in the late ’80s, when we both wrote for the London listings magazine City Limits. Later she commissioned me to write for the Guardian Weekend and I took her dancing at Love Muscle at The Fridge, where she often succeeded in picking up the rare straight man on a dance-floor full of muscle Marys. Her striking good looks and insistence that people place their hands on what she called her “feel my skirt” skirt may have had something to do with it. Not to mention the fact that we were high on Ecstasy.


The dance remixes of Blondie’s Heart of Glass and Atomic were big that year. Deborah and I were both Blondie fans and, if no other man was available, I was instructed to feel her skirt. When Deborah asked you to do something, you did it. The skirt was made of suede and certainly had feel appeal, even for a gay man like me. When the band reformed in 1999, she commissioned me to interview them. We listened to Maria and predicted it would be a massive hit. It was.


By now Deborah was married to Will Self and we were neighbours – though it has to be said that social occasions were often fraught. Deborah wasn’t always easy and neither was I. Eventually we fell out so badly there was no going back. The cause of the argument really doesn’t matter now. We were both going through difficult times. Suffice to say that when she died I was deeply saddened but didn’t feel it appropriate to add to the outpouring of grief on social media.


Reading her memoir, it struck me that in all those 25 years I didn’t really know her at all. Motherwell is an extraordinary, raw and revealing book. Orr writes unflinchingly about her parents, who I met several times. On one occasion her father turfed a bunch of her friends out of her house because he’d decided it was time for bed. This was despite it being her house, not his – and her having invited us over to watch the Oscars, which hadn’t even started yet. I should have known then just how difficult Deborah’s relationship with her parents was.


Though Motherwell has far more to say about the mother-daughter dynamic, Orr’s father doesn’t come off lightly. Neither parent gave her much in the way of encouragement or praise. Quite the contrary, in fact. It was only after they both died that she discovered a collection of press cuttings indicating their pride in her achievements. But by then the damage was done.


“There are mothers who will never cease to refuse their daughters their own identity in whatever way they can,” Orr writes at one point. “My mother was one of them.” It makes her famously fearsome reputation easier to understand. Ferocity was her emotional armour. At heart, she was always embattled – and never more so than when her marriage to Self broke down.


But as her book reminds us, she was also a brilliant writer. The chapters on her ’70s working-class childhood give such a powerful sense of time and place, you’re right there with her. There’s a fair amount of social history contained within these pages. Motherwell was one of the industrial towns left behind by Thatcherism when the steel works closed. But the recurring themes are narcissism and emotional abuse. Orr’s mother didn’t mother well. Nor did her daughter find the happiness she craved in her marriage to the man she describes as a controlling narcissist.


It’s tragic that she didn’t live long enough to see her book published. But writing it seems to have brought her a kind of peace. In the closing chapter she finds catharsis in taking “complete control, of my own family, in my own words”. There’s some comfort in that, at least.


Earlier this week I dreamed about Deborah. She was sitting at my dining table, apologising for the fact that we’d fallen out and telling me she was dying. We hugged and made up. I woke up feeling bereft and wishing we had.


Motherwell: A Girlhood is published by Orion


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