Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Larkin Was Right

Over at The Dabbler, I've written about Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I read - and loved - the other day. It's the story of a child brought up by a madwoman. I empathised with that child, but I realised as the story went along that, to my discomfort, I also envied her. The reason I envied her was that she was allowed to eat oranges. At almost all junctures in the story – moments of happiness, moments of chaos or cataclysm or disaster – her mother offers her oranges. 

My mother never allowed me to eat oranges. Ever. Which is probably one reason I remember the afternoon when I was diagnosed with measles so well.

I lay on the sofa after the doctor had left. My mother, having propped me up with pillows and wrapped me in an eiderdown, went to the telephone to ring my grandmother. I was supposed to be going to stay a few days with her, but now my visit would have to be delayed. Even though I was on the other side of the room from the telephone, I clearly heard my grandmother's reaction. 'What am I going to do with all these oranges?' she shrieked down the line.

The thing was my grandmother had bought in oranges for me, specially, knowing that I loved them and wasn't allowed them at home. The reason I wasn't allowed oranges was that my mother didn't much like the smell of them. That was sufficient grounds for banning them, and no-one, least of all me, ever dared suggest to her that this might not be reasonable (to be honest, I hardly dared think such a thing, even in the privacy and safety of my own head). But, as I read Winterson's account of her own childhood and thought about my mother's orange edict, it did occur to me that I might have more in common with the book's young heroine than I had initially thought. 

My mother might not have belonged to a marginal church. She might not have been besotted by the idea of my becoming a missionary. Nevertheless, like Mrs Winterson she was – and remains - a pretty powerful personality. Her most enduring legacy – besides the idea that oranges are slightly subversive - is an indelible conviction that having fun is not a legitimate use of time. Like Mrs Winterson, probably like almost all parents everywhere, (possibly even all humans), my mother, although she means well on the whole, is actually somewhat strange. 


  1. Bit late to this... Have you read Winterson's recent memoir, Why be Happy when you could be Normal?? I found it gripping, her struggle to come to terms with the mother and to be happy with herself. And then, to find another mother. As I'm adopted, maybe I empathised more than the average person might. But it's a fine companion to Oranges.

    1. I have the book. I also have an MP 4 of a marvellous documentary that Alan Yentob made for the BBC about her. I wonder if there's some way I can send it to you. It is so brilliant. I might try to work out a way - if I put it on You Tube I think it would be removed v quickly, but maybe I can do some kind of Cloud thing. I think you'd love it. I'll have think.