On the cover of her splendid memoir Grand, Noelle McCarthy sits on a pile of those plastic chairs which have one thing going for them: they’re easy to stack. Shabby building, old asphalt, untended pot plants fighting for space and water. Dangling feet in high heeled shoes, good legs, and head tipped back showing great bones, wild hair and a don’t give a fuck grin.
So – this isn’t a memoir in which a peace-loving girl from a happy vicarage goes off to spend her life looking after the dispossessed, then? Page one: “Mammy was a werewolf, it took only one sip of a drink to change her.” Friends have asked me how could she have written about her mother like that. What? Do they want gutless memoirs, the sort of pappy happy stories that Facebook specialises in? Don’t ask McCarthy for filtered happiness. And she’s not requiring sympathy. You don’t have to ask her for perceptiveness either: it’s there in buckets.
Part of an answer to the people who express dismay that a daughter can write about her mother so disparagingly is a short but harsh ‘It helps that her mother’s dead’. Though this is only sort of true: although a person dying should in theory end your relationship with them, lots of us, memoir writers or not, know that it actually doesn’t. Who hasn’t been awake at 3am replotting their own story? Making excuses for their behaviour? Rewriting conversations, seeing a situation from another point of view so they can feel even guiltier?
But your self-edit in bed will be different from writing a memoir. Autobiographical writers know they’re even more at risk out there in the world than Princess Diana in PPE on the minefield. Some embrace risk, others avoid it. All are busy creating a persona. There’s always the possibility that even a cautious writer who believes they’ve been fair, will inadvertently find themselves in quicksand.
My older brother was so infuriated by my depiction of him in childhood that he told me “Never to bother him”
After the (middle-aged) children of one of my friends demanded that all references to them be removed from her memoir, her agent told her that no one likes being in someone’s memoir. This is both untrue (how else do you explain people in bookshops flicking through infuriatingly unindexed books looking for references to themselves before they buy their acquaintance’s book?) and true. In my memoir, described by the likes of St John Campbell as “lovely” and “generous”, I managed to offend both those included and those left out. My older brother, now 81, who has spent all of his adult life in picturesque North Yorkshire and who doesn’t hang out with anyone who doesn’t think Boris Johnson is super, was so infuriated by my depiction of him in childhood that he told me “Never to bother him” again. This was a reaction that took me by surprise. I had referred to him I thought with great affection, mostly as the recalcitrant hero of my mother’s stories, which we pleaded with her to tell us. In her stories, Michael – who had spent his wartime childhood alone with our mother, our father being away at war – was evoked as a Just William style character. We, his three sisters born after the war, loved any story in which he beheaded all the flowers in the school garden after telling his teacher, who’d just ripped pages out of his untidy printing book, that his mother wasn’t buying books for her to rip up. I saw these as stories of heroic courage, defending his mother, taking out his anger on plants. He, I guess, saw them as a reminder of what stayed with him through life: probably dyslexia. Clever as can be, he left school unqualified, always judged for not what he wrote but how it was written. “It’s all lies,” he said to me when I phoned him to hear how he’d enjoyed the book. “I,” he said “have a photographic memory.”
“You,” he said to me as part of the list of my personable foibles which I’d failed to acknowledge in my memoir, “Didn’t even travel when you left school.” “Well – I would’ve liked to – but I went to university,” I said. “Oh – so you went to un-i-vers-ity.”
McCarthy doesn’t have to worry about an enraged phone call from her mother, usefully dead. As a slightly more cautious person, I’m interested too in her personal courage, her preparedness to describe a young life in which, like her mother before her, she was often drunk. Her mother’s problems were resolved in the most final way, but McCarthy’s personal story is one of redemption of a sort – she didn’t want to be like her mother in that particular way, so she stopped drinking. Memoirs are inclined to be redemptive, non-fiction readers wanting a satisfying conclusion every bit as much as fiction readers do. I tried unsuccessfully to think of a memoir in which the author decided to keep drinking themselves into an early grave, finishing the writing, glass in hand. McCarthy is one of the most intelligent, astute people writing today – Becoming my mother’s daughter is the book’s terrific subtitle. What does it actually mean? Initially, I guess, it was by following the same path with alcohol, then later, it was by showing backbone, mettle.
She joins another fearless memoirist, the equally grippingly readable Charlotte Grimshaw
I admire the nerve McCarthy displays, it isn’t easy to admit how foul you are capable of being. I listened the other night to the new podcast Where There’s a Will There’s a Wake in which comedian Kathy Burke – who can ever forget her as teenage boy Perry, friend of Harry Enfield’s Kevin – talks to famous friends about how they want to die, and what they want to happen afterwards. Dawn French, a long time very close friend, was her first guest and one of her admittances was that how although she is usually cast as adorable, in reality she’s a tough old bitch. Burke refrained from contradicting her.
McCarthy in her book is the McCarthy we know on radio – impulsive, fast, fluent and frighteningly bright. By saying that her life has been less than perfect, that she found her mother irritating, she does many of us a favour. Does anyone really want yet another joyous photo of a friend carousing in Copenhagen? But we also don’t want pages and pages of poor me. Here she joins another fearless memoirist, the equally grippingly readable Charlotte Grimshaw. Grimshaw’s book outlining her upbringing by her famous novelist father C K Stead, is possibly even more hard-hitting because he’s a public figure. She’s actually harder on her mother than her dad, but love is always a subtext. Grimshaw, also a chip off the old block, though this old block is her father – simply tells what she knows is the truth. Given that she was simply telling things as they were, I was left feeling that Grimshaw could well be surprised when she learnt some readers considered her words to be treacherous. I suspect her parents were far less offended by her depiction of her childhood than those writing letters to the ed about it. For a start, they both understand what makes a story.
In England, Iris Murdoch’s friend, fellow novelist AN Wilson, was so unhappy with John Bayley’s two volume version of Murdoch’s life, that he wrote his far more considered Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her. He’d been asked by her 15 years earlier, well before the onset of dementia that took her life, to be her official biographer. Bayley was, by the way, Murdoch’s long-time husband. In Grimshaw’s case, her sister had carefully placed articles giving another version of the story published just by chance around the same time as Grimshaw’s memoir came out.
A story, that’s what a memoir is. Your life is not a story; it’s a series of events which you may or may not choose to connect. Effect doesn’t neatly follow cause. Memoir is at its most artificial when it’s presented chronologically, which will come as a surprise to hundreds of people who write stories of their lives to pass on to their descendants and who privately feel they are publishable. Memoir writers know how tedious this can be to read. And then I was at primary school… and then I got engaged…. and then I closed the book and never opened it again. Good on them, I say, their families will treasure them. But memoirs written by writers are stories that have been curated. Apparently important things are left out. Important people – McCarthy’s partner comes to mind – are skated lightly over. People who don’t fit the pattern of what is being written can appear to be erased – sorry, the writer knows you were there, but the story may not have room for other people at that point.
Both McCarthy and Grimshaw write what they’re prepared to let you know about them, of course they do. Both of them are perfectly happy to shock. Both of them are mistresses of the genre. They both write as if they couldn’t give a fuck about what the reader thinks. I can see what they’re doing. I’m aware I sell myself in the way John Campbell chose to describe me after reading my book – nice, generous. The Dawn French of Wellington. Once you’re a writer though – and not all people who write actually are – but once you’re a writer, you’re defined far more by being one than by being a wife, a mother, a grandmother or a friend. You are doomed, or blessed, to have that chip of ice in your heart.
Grand: Becoming my mother’s daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Random House, $35) has been named by ReadingRoom as best book of 2022, and is available as a Xmas present in bookstores nationwide. Tomorrow: Patrick Evans on the best work of fiction of 2022, Return to Harioka Bay by Owen Marshall.