Janet Street-Porter: Mother does not always know best

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The Independent Online

Memories of childhood are always subjective, and one of the most sensitive subjects for writers is the mother-daughter relationship. The final taboo is shattered if you dare to tell the world your mother was a nightmare to live with. We are conditioned to pretend that mum always knew best, that mum had our best interests at heart, and that mum loved us unconditionally. But for thousands of women, that's not true. I know, because a few years ago I wrote a book in which I dared to criticise my mother, provoking reactions, from shock to sympathy. I received hundreds of letters from women (and men) who said they had been cheered up just to know they were not the only people they knew who couldn't stand their mother.

I only felt comfortable publishing my book after my mother's death. Cowardly? Yes, and it made her elderly sister unhappy, although my sister was comfortable with it – after all, she'd been there. But writing about your mother while she's alive, takes courage. A fascinating libel case has just concluded, brought by a hurt and angry mother who accused her daughter of lying about their relationship in her autobiography, Ugly, which has sold over 400,000 copies in the UK alone. The jury in the High Court threw out the action brought by the mother of Constance Briscoe who had accused her of a wide-ranging catalogue of abuse, from physical abuse through to making her sleep in wet bedclothes. In some ways, the case was heart-breaking – Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell was a dignified plaintiff, a well-dressed pensioner of 74, who rebutted her daughter's claims that she went well beyond being a strict disciplinarian and became a monster behind closed doors. Another daughter, Patsy, sided with their mother, so the damage to the family seems irreparable.

The book obviously offered Constance a cathartic way of cleansing herself of a traumatic childhood – the title was her mother's pet name for her. She clearly has drive and ambition – perhaps a result of learning to deal with regular beatings and verbal abuse. She worked as a cleaner for two hours a day before school and then attended Newcastle University, going on to become one of the UK's few black female judges. At one point, brought to rock bottom by constantly being called "a dirty little whore", "Miss piss-a-bed" and "potato head", she contemplated drinking bleach, because her mother told her she was no more than a germ. My own mother wasn't physically abusive – our relationship was rocky because she seemed jealous of my career, and over-critical of everything from my boyfriends to my clothes to my choice of home furnishings. In writing about my mother and looking at her poor background and lack of opportunities – she was forced to leave school and work as a maid at 14, something that rankled with her to the point she lied about her qualifications to get a civil service job later on – I came to understand her better.

In the end, I made peace with my memories of my mother by writing my book, but the chance of Constance and Carmen ever speaking again seem remote. That is a tragedy because the only way to really resolve such a damaged relationship is ultimately to try and engage in a dialogue – and the High Court was not the best place to attempt that. So Carmen will spend the rest of her life loathing her daughter, which I find a shame. At least mum and I could manage a conversation, even if it generally ended with one of us hanging up.

The smart traveller avoids the Venice crowds

Only ten days ago I was outside a café on the south quay of the Dorsoduro in Venice enjoying a glass of wine, a crisp pizza and basking in the winter sun. It was chilly walking through the narrow backstreets, but here, out of the wind I was as warm as toast.

Now, the scene couldn't be more different – the city is suffering the worse flooding for 30 years, brought on by heavy rains and seasonal high tides, and tourists are being urged to stay away. A shame, because for the smart traveller, the best months to visit Venice are December and January, when the Biennale has closed, and you can walk for hours around the Giudecca and only see the locals.

I don't agree that Venice is a theme park – there's plenty to explore if you avoid the well-trodden tourist trails.

How frugal are we really?

Funny how people tell white lies when they take part in a survey – evidenced by the news that more than 60 per cent of us claim we're economising this Christmas by making our own mince pies, puddings and stuffing.

A third of us say we'll be making bread sauce, a Christmas cake and gravy. Impressive, but not totally believable. Mind, you I've already made mincemeat. After watching the Panorama programme about baby P, I was so upset I couldn't sleep, so I wrote some cheques to children's charities, and then spent most of the night grating apples and making jars of mincemeat. I draw the line at rustling up pastry. Sod the need to be frugal. One can only go so far. In the Christmas department of John Lewis I didn't see any takers for the DIY cracker kits, and I can guarantee that how you make the right stuffing is the cause of world war three in our house every Christmas. We've solved the problem this year by inviting a chef to lunch and he's bringing it.

If the jacket fits...

Jack Straw and Jacqui Smith have unveiled new "high-visibility" jackets being issued to offenders doing community service. Critics say a third of these sentences aren't completed and one in 10 offenders commits another crime while carrying out the work. Manacles might be more appropriate than lollipop lady vests... only joking. The report into the failures in Haringey social services identifies 121 workers, but no one was ultimately responsible for Baby P. Now, the bosses are suspended on full pay. Why not issue them with high-visibility vests and get them to do something useful for a change?

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