Deborah Ross: Our Woman in Crouch End

How I survived my happy, abuse-starved, middle-class upbringing, I'll never know
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The other day, as I was flicking though the Sunday Telegraph books section, because I don't just read OK!, or even always read OK!, although if I did, say, I might have been quite taken, this week, with the photographs of Kerry Katona's daughters and the caption that reads: "Molly and Lilly Sue can't wait to get their hands on the scrummy KFC mum has just bought for them!" Ah, bless, and bless all fat little chavs everywhere, as they, after all, are our future when it comes to hanging about outside junk food outlets and scaring everyone with their really tight ponytails. Still, at least Kerry realises children need variety in their diet and can't be expected to exist solely on help-yourself buffets full of the most astonishing crap from Iceland.

Anyway, flicking though the Sunday Telegraph's books section, often incredibly fast (history; cultural studies; military studies; cultural military studies; military history; cultural history that is military in nature - oh, please), I arrive at a genre they have called the "Pain Memoir". The Pain Memoir? These, it turns out, are the books about horrific childhoods: Angela's Ashes; A Child Called "It"; Ugly; that sort of thing. Hang on, I thought, how come I haven't cashed in on this yet? Usually I am so quick to cash in. I was quick to cash in on cookery (How To Eat: Just Open Your Gob And Shove It In) just as I was quick to cash in on diet and fitness (How Not to Eat: Just Shut Your Gob And Say No, Thicko) but the "pain memoir"?

Middle-class 'abuse'

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: hang on, you had a thoroughly uneventful - nay, happy - middle-class upbringing in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which doesn't sound like an especially promising basis for a true story of abuse, neglect, survival against the odds and the indomitable nature of the human spirit, but you would be wrong and, oh how wrong. Here is a taster from my forthcoming A Terribly Tedious Work of Mind-Blowing Mediocrity which has already been described by the London Review of Books as: "Like Angela's Ashes, but without any of the harrowing bits, or even any of the interesting bits, come to that."

Here goes: "I grew up in a house where no one was safe, particularly from music lessons (piano, mostly). I was one of four children, and we would all beg for the lessons to stop. "Stop, stop," we would all cry, "this is middle-class abuse of the highest order and not one of us has any talent whatsoever." But our parents would have none of it. In fact, my earliest memory is of hiding under the bed the moment the piano teacher arrived, at which point my mother would have dragged me out and violently beaten me within an inch of my life if she hadn't, instead, simply said: "Now, come on out and stop being so silly." What a bitch, and what a selfish bitch at that, denying me my "pain memoir" from such an early age and always encouraging me both educationally and when it came to Brownies. Without her, I can honestly say I would not have got my pet badge or any O-levels at all. What a cow.

"We were all too ashamed to say anything about it outside the house, obviously. You simply didn't back then, when a child's word would never be taken against their parents'. In fact, if I recall rightly, which is extremely dubious, after a particularly brutal and dehumanising incident at home, when I had been told I would not be allowed to watch Blue Peter until I had tidied the room I had all to myself (us being quite well-off) I did break down in class, but my teacher did not seem especially concerned. My parents were not, can you believe, even questioned by the authorities.

"Every day would begin in the same way: with my father hurling abuse at my mother. We thought it was normal. "Anything nice planned for today, dear?," he would say. Or it might be: "Is it the Robinsons for dinner tonight or is that tomorrow night? Are you doing your coq au vin and caramelised oranges?" But we knew what he really meant. We knew he really meant: "Yer fucking cow, think yer can say no, do yer? I'm yer husband and I've got me rights. Now get on this bed and I'll do for you, yer useless mare..."

I don't know how we knew, but we just did. Children always know what is really going on. You can't fool them, particularly if they hope to get a book out of it. We even knew that when our father took us all on family holidays to Europe - France; Italy; Spain - what he really wanted to do was beat the shit out of us and then tie us all up in the cellar and violate us. It was as plain as day. It's only thanks to the indomitable nature of the human spirit that we not only survived but have all ended up as fairly balanced university-educated professionals. I am not a crack addict, but could be if the publishing deal was right.

Bash deprivation

In short, my childhood would have been one of squalor and terror if only we had not been so comfortably off, damn it, or our parents had ever hit us, which they didn't, the bastards. Come on, one good bash over the head with a chair is almost a book already. Two good bashes over the head with a chair and it's a book and its sequel plus a further book from a sibling saying it never happened and yet a further book from another sibling saying it was a table, not a chair at all. A heartbreaking tragedy, like I said, plus we were never, ever, allowed KFC. Did I protest at the time? No, because I knew that if I'd said: "But Molly and Lilly Sue's mum let them have it," my mother would have come back with: "Well, go and live with her, then." That's how keen she was to get rid of me. Bitch, cow, slag..."

A Terribly Dull Work of Staggering Mediocrity will be available from all the bookshops there are: good, bad, indifferent, but especially the bad and indifferent ones.

d.ross@independent.co.uk

Comments