Funny How Things Turn Out, By Judith Bruce

The Monday Book

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The Independent Culture

This memoir should be read backwards, beginning with the last chapter, an evocative account of Judith Bruce collecting her mother's death certificate from the hospital. She finds herself affronted by the stated cause: end-stage dementia. "Odd, even off with the fairies, but not raving," is how she would describe her dead parent. After all, the old girl was 106.

There follows a detail which rings only too true for those of us who have been there: she has to remove her mother's disabled parking permit from the windscreen. "Lost mother and Blue Badge in one go." The chapters immediately preceding this are similarly graphic, full of pathos and black humour, relating her mother's days in the not exactly five-star care home.

To put it another way, Funny How Things Turn Out starts feebly, and gradually picks up. Born in the early 1900s, mother had not enjoyed an easy life. Her father was so uninterested in his eight children that he often failed to recognise them in the street. She married a man who was not much better. Bruce has written not just her memoir, but that of her mother. Unfortunately she spoils her early material with barrowloads of – to my taste – absurdly uninteresting detail. On a walk to the doctor's her mother's shoes go, in italics, "tap tap tap" four times, plus one "tap tap tappetty tap".

Things do not pick up much when the author herself appears. "I sit at the table. It has a white cloth on it. But I don't want to eat." It is perfectly possible to describe the experience of childhood in the language of childhood but much of this book feels like a reading primer.

It is when Bruce joins the BBC that her sentences get longer and her prose grows up. Like her mother and grandmother, she marries an unsuitable husband. Judith was, she guesses, the only bride to take the Tube to her reception accompanied by her husband's tearful teenage daughter. The witty, sharp pages covering this period provide a tantalising glimpse of the book that might have been. Then we jump from 1966 to 2005, by which time she has divorced and recently remarried. Her account of those missing four decades would make fascinating reading. Let's hope her fingers are at this moment going "tap tap tap" on her keyboard.

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