Some versions of pastoral

Lorna Sage, jargon-busting critic, has turned all her wit and insight on her own, strange upbringing.
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The Independent Culture

"Do different, do Dutch," suggests a flyer in the University of East Anglia's arts block entrance. Upstairs, Lorna Sage's office has moved to the cooler, leafier side of the building; her boxes are not unpacked yet. It's been a bad weekend to come home from France; I thought she might not make it. But she soon arrives, instantly recognisable from her book jacket: an old photo, but the sexual magnetism remains. She's energetically on the side of the French strikers, scathing about hostile British reportage.

"Do different, do Dutch," suggests a flyer in the University of East Anglia's arts block entrance. Upstairs, Lorna Sage's office has moved to the cooler, leafier side of the building; her boxes are not unpacked yet. It's been a bad weekend to come home from France; I thought she might not make it. But she soon arrives, instantly recognisable from her book jacket: an old photo, but the sexual magnetism remains. She's energetically on the side of the French strikers, scathing about hostile British reportage.

She's back for the launch of Bad Blood (Fourth Estate, £14.99): a witty and compulsively readable memoir of her childhood and adolescence. "When I thought about the past," she says, "I used to consider mentor relationships when I should have considered genes." Her memoir describes three generations of marriages. But it's also about self-fashioning in three generations of storytellers, "about what we can make out of what the world and our genes determine to make of us".

For Sage, her "old devil" of a grandfather is her prime determinant. In the 1930s, he was the vicar of Hanmer on the Welsh borders. "He and his wife were appalled by each other from the first," she thinks. Saturnine, scarred by a domestic knifing, he lived in a melancholy animated only by sporadic adultery and his own preaching. In his diary, pictures of the Stations of the Cross co-exist with entries like "Marj on my lap in the study". His style, if gripping in its way, is subfusc. Her Grandma's sensual passion for colour and texture is a stronger presence in Sage's writing.

Sage agrees his prose is dull. "But he was a good preacher, he had authority. He was my black marker. When the chick emerges from the egg, it knows what it is from the first thing it sees." With her father in the army and her young mother skivvying for both parents, the old devil was her pattern. She inherited the language of Bible and hymnal - along with his bad blood.

Her parents could pass unchallenged in a romantic wartime film. He was a coal-haulier's son who joined up in 1939, married the vicar's sweet daughter Valma, was twice wounded and made an officer. Afterwards, fighting a daily battle with the English language, he endlessly retold that story with the help of cruet and crockery over disastrous home cooking in the council house where the family moved after her grandfather's death.

Isn't she, I wonder, more like her father than her grandfather? She has shown the same determination. Sage denies much likeness, except in the way that both altered their accents. "He was a martinet," she says. "He came out of the army wanting us all to stand to attention. We [her brother Clive and herself] wouldn't do that. I fought him. In this book, I wanted to write about 'close' people, not as good or bad but as they were. I couldn't have written it when my mother was alive."

Valma is eternally girlish, lost in the bad faith of a Fifties marriage seen by a guerrilla child shortly to read Simone de Beauvoir. Her amateur dramatics expose her domestic act. "That unfulfilled dreaming has been my own nightmare," Sage says. But Bad Blood is so richly imagined it allows the reader other standpoints. Sage creates more admiration for the parents than she perhaps intends. Did your father ever acknowledge your success, I wonder? She thinks that, partially, he did. "But he still half thinks it's an act, that I'll be found out."

Other "close" people are created with space for themselves. Her first husband, Victor Sage, was the first man she danced with: the courtship-novel genre is one subtext, the school-story another. The playground enemy becomes the best friend, the duffer the Popular Girl. But differently.

Sage's popularity peaked when she got pregnant by Vic in the Upper Sixth, had her baby on 29 May and took her A-Levels in June, coolly walking round her headmistress ("Shouldn't you be at home, Lorna?") to get into the school. At prize-giving, the tepid applause turned to cheers for her; it was 1960, and even the gym mistress could read the writing on the wall. Durham, to its credit, changed its practice to take her in as a married undergraduate, and she and Vic got firsts in English and Latin there.

She was worried, she says, about how Vic would react to the book. They are still colleagues and friends, and she reminisces about the marriage with affection. When they first started teaching, "we would talk all the time, we had amazing seminars of two. Sharon [their daughter] would come home from nursery school to listen intently, once enquiring, 'Mummy, what is irony?'"

But Vic feels no sense of betrayal. "He was, and still is," she says, "a seriously nice guy. And yet he thought I was too soft on Whitchurch, where we both went to school. It was hellish."

Satire, though, can thrive on restraint. "I took the decision not to reproduce dialogue, which must be fictional after so long." The occasional one-liners need no embroidery. When the Matron of the appalling Maternity Home spots a new mother's red nail-varnish, she brays, "We don't feed our babies on nail-varnish!" Shakespeare couldn't make it up.

Bad Blood, she says, "is a tribute to all the writers I've read. You don't come out of nowhere. Who you knew, who taught you, who you read - these are what you are and what you make. I don't believe in originality. It's a tribute to critics and readers too."

As a cold pastoral where soggy fields threaten to suck you down, her Hamner acknowledges Hardy's Wessex and other versions. Writers from her book Women in the House of Fiction feed into the book. Yet it's never armlock-literary. She laughs about her trendy MA thesis on 17th-century poetry about writing poetry, and hopes no copy still exists. But a career spent thinking about the way language derives from language pays off brilliantly here.

So, while I struggle to keep her on herself, she constantly slips away to praise other writers, especially Angela Carter - a friend whose loss is painfully felt. She remembers with pleasure an interview with Carter that she did for the New Review, bringing a recognition Carter lacked then.

Journalism, for Sage, connects the world of academia with the world of consequences. "I always wanted to write like a writer, not an academic," she says, "to show there's someone behind the words, someone from a specific place. I was a directive editor of the Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. I didn't allow jargon." Dull academics despise journalism because they can't do it.

She taught at UEA almost from the start of the institution, and met a lot of hostility. "I annoyed people just by being me and doing the things I did." There was no feminist narrative ready to take her in. "Pre-sisterhood, I had to make feminism here, which was difficult. Literature had been a place of exile for me. I had to make an environment as well as doing the work." She has become a financially astute administrator, which you'd never guess from Bad Blood. It's that side of the achievement she wants to end with: "I invented courses and put policies in place that made this School somewhere bright students want to go."

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