Terence Blacker: From private hell to public exploitation

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The Independent Online

Would it be unspeakably heartless to suggest that, in the matter of his poor dead mum, the moment has arrived when Andrew Motion should live up to his name and move on? In 1969, Mrs Motion suffered a terrible hunting accident, and remained in a coma for three years. She died nine years later, never having left hospital.

It is a horrible event about which Andrew Motion has written poems and spoken in interviews and at literary festivals. This autumn his memoir, In the Blood, will be published. To judge by pre-publication extracts, it will pack a powerful emotional punch. "The silence is heavy," Motion writes, recalling how he looked around his mother's bedroom after the accident. "The silence and Mum's lemony smell. Without thinking why, I slither off the bed and on to my knees, fold my arms on the counterpane, and lay my head on my hands. 'If you're there, God, make Mum get better.' The words crawl out of my mouth and lie among the green cotton-tufts like worms."

It will, of course, be a huge success. We live in an age when family life is fetishised and where anguish, recollected in tranquillity and served up in tearful prose, appeals to the public's taste for second-hand pain. Motion's memoir presumably covers other aspects of his childhood, but it will be his mother's unhappy end which will be reported and discussed. The Poet Laureate, who has recently complained that "people pry into my private life" has, for the best literary reasons, been doing some prying of his own.

Any serious writer will be a ruthless exploiter of the past. Some may even, in gloomy moments, regret the unexciting contentment of his or her childhood. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad, and if you're planning on writing that's probably a good thing," Alan Bennett has observed. "But if you are planning on writing and they haven't fucked you up, well, you've got nothing to go on, so then they've fucked you up good and proper."

But this memoir, lemony smell, green cotton-tufts and all, induces a mild twinge of queasiness. It occurs to one that maybe there is something to be said for unfashionable reticence when it comes to the death of those close to you. Writing from the perspective of a younger, grieving self can have the odd effect of diverting attention from the one who is dying on to the sensitive author-in-waiting looking on. Besides, is this really the way a parent would want to be commemorated?

It is argued that writing of this kind is essentially cathartic, a way of creatively processing and easing an ancient grief. The American author James Ellroy, whose mother also died violently at a miserably young age, has said that his famous novel The Black Dahlia, shortly to be released as one of the autumn's big feature films, helped him come to terms with her rape and murder. "My mother's name was Geneva. She haunts me in unfathomable ways," he confided to an audience this week at the Venice Film Festival. "Her death corrupted my imagination."

When it comes to vein-opening family exposure, Ellroy is in the champion's league. Much of his career, it has sometimes seemed, has been built around the horror of what happened to his mother in 1958. Hearing him talk about it in interviews again and again, one has to agree that something corrupting may indeed have taken place. Family life can be cruel enough at times without it being forever reworked in print, even by the most sensitive and articulate of sons.

A life like a rolling stone...

Sixty-five years old, with 44 albums to his name, Bob Dylan has apparently produced another masterpiece with his new CD Modern Times. Even if there is a tendency to over-praise the late work of Groanin' Bob, many will invest in it, if for nothing else but to be reminded that age need not be the end of creativity. On the road year after year, a part-time DJ, author of a brilliant memoir, Dylan's late flowering makes him rock'n'roll's answer to Philip Roth.

Beside Dylan's rave reviews have been reports of Keith Richard's brilliant guitar-playing during the Rolling Stones tour and the latest performance in London of the great New Orleans pianist Dr John. These three men have one thing in common. Should doctors be studying ingestion of recreational drugs in the past as a way of extending one's creative life?

* It would have been interesting to attend the commissioning meeting at MTV's UK headquarters when the green light was given for its new series The Virgin Diaries. The concept behind is gloriously simple: find a few 16- to 18-year-olds who are attractive but have not had sex yet, and follow them around for three months to see whether they lose their virginity.

By the law of averages, a few will manage this important feat, particularly since they will feel under pressure to deliver up their cherries for a TV audience. The series, we are told, is being made for the highest moral reasons. "I thought that there was a real opportunity to tackle an issue which is difficult for young people," MTV's UK managing director Michael Barry has said. The real opportunity, of course, is to boggle sleazily and exploitatively at the sex lives of the young.