Jeanette Winterson's new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? appears to have been highly praised, rightly it seems to me, for its zest and candour and noted for a quality that some reviewers have seen as haste or even carelessness but which I see as her characteristic lively, pugnacious inventiveness. She describes herself as "a bare-knuckle fighter" who is her own worst enemy in love, lashing out at those she wants to love, all of which may proceed not just from the oddity of her beginnings in a crazy Evangelical household dominated by the unloved and unloving adoptive mother she calls Mrs Winterson, but in that sense of being unwanted, though the social workers and adoption agencies of course repeat to her the mantra that she was wanted, the birth mother when eventually located singing the same song. There are harrowing descriptions of her bout of madness after a long relationship ended and her attempted suicide, as well as some rollicking humour from that mad religious household. But what stuck in my mind was something else: her repeatedly stated affection for the North of England (like me she is a Lancastrian) and her regret at what has happened to it. The emptying of the libraries (she read the literature section right through in A to Z order) by infotainment librarians, the triumph of Utility over inspiration in education, are all vigorously condemned but some of the most moving passages (aside from the personal ones of course) are where she observes contemporary England, the urban fringes of Manchester, for example, where the terraces have been demolished to be replaced by a waste land of "tower blocks and cul-de-sacs, shopping compounds, and gaming arcades...most of the small shops... boarded up, lost on fast, hostile roads". She asks why decent people cannot live in decent environments:
"Now and again, forlorn and marooned, there's a four-square stone building that says Mechanics' Institute or Co-operative Society. There's a viaduct, a cluster of birch trees, a blackened stone wall; the remains of the remains. A tyre warehouse, a giant supermarket, a minicab sign, a betting shop, kids on skateboards who have never known life any other way. Old men with bewildered faces. How did we get here?...I love the industrial north of England and I hate what has happened to it."
And this was the case before the current recession.