The scent of dried roses, p.1
The Scent of Dried Roses, p.1Tim Lott
PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS
The Scent of Dried Roses
‘The Scent of Dried Roses touches a nerve no other English memoir has found; it does so in a way that seems not only affecting, but somehow important’ Sebastian Faulks
‘This is a moving, insightful, important book. It works as a personal story, as an analysis of the unknowable horrors of suicide and as a history of a changing Britain’ William Hague
‘In its slow and careful way, it unfolds a certain topography of melancholia, and the map Lott makes of his troubles mixes the intricate streets he has walked all his life with some pretty intricate places in his own mind and heart. We are left with a resounding lament for a small England… The book’s recreation of a suburban world, its flashing-back and forward in real time, its compilation of whispers and roars and half-remembered truths, its reliance on the intimacies of interior monologue, are bound to make some people think of it as fiction’ Andrew O’Hagan
‘A moving, valuable account of a particular English family and their idea of England, as well as a sensitive record of the experience of a particular madness… He tells the story of his family during the golden age of pre-and post-war certainty, and the subsequent quick changes of post-Suez England… a very readable family history’ Tamsin Dean, Sunday Telegraph
‘[A] wonderful book… essential reading for anyone concerned with depression and happiness’ Dorothy Rowe
‘His triumph is to take tragedy as his subject, and by exploring it, create a new myth of tentative hope. The reader is harrowed, intrigued and finally consoled’
Michèle Roberts, The Times
‘Lott sorts through the sepia-tinged photographs of his ancestry in search of the flaw in his family that leads him to depression and his mother to suicide… distinguished by its observation, its honesty and its ambition’ Matthew de Abaitua, Harpers & Queen
‘The Doc Martens and Sta-Prests, the dance-halls and favourite bands are all carefully recorded. The strange low-spirited optimism of the immediate postwar years, all rubble and rationing, nationalization and utility furniture, little of which Lott can have experienced himself, is carefully sketched in… These took some writing, and Lott can write’ Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
‘Breathtakingly powerful’ Christina Hardyment, Independent
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Lott was born in 1956 in Southall, west London, the son of a Notting Hill greengrocer. In 1976, he took a job on the pop magazine Sounds, and in 1980, he set up the first glossy colour pop magazine, Flexipop! He left the venture in 1983 to attend the London School of Economics and after graduating accepted the editorship of the listings magazine City Limits. He resigned after only two weeks, and a period of acute depressive illness followed, during which his parents nursed him back to health. Shortly afterwards his mother, Jean, committed suicide. The Scent of Dried Roses grew from an Esquire article on Jean’s depression and suicide, and its publication in 1996 met with universal acclaim.
Lott’s novels include White City Blue, winner of the 1999 Whitbread First Novel award; Rumours of a Hurricane (2002); The Love Secrets of Don Juan (2003); The Seymour Tapes (2005) and Fearless (2007), a children’s book.
Born in Yorkshire, Blake Morrison is a novelist, poet and critic, best known for two highly acclaimed memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother Never Told Me. He writes regularly for the Guardian, teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, and lives in south London with his family.
The Scent of Dried Roses
With an Introduction by Blake Morrison
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Viking 1996
Published in Penguin Books 1997
Published with an introduction in Penguin Classics 2009
Copyright © Tim Lott, 1996
Introduction copyright © Blake Morrison, 2009
The moral right of the author and introducer has been asserted
All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
In his short, classic memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, the American novelist William Styron describes his annoyance at those who see suicide as a mark of shame and weakness. ‘The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it,’ he writes, ‘and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.’ Part of the power of Tim Lott’s book lies in its inside knowledge of anguish and pain. His mother killed herself because of them and a few months before her he came close to doing the same. His book is a double study, a search to understand his mother (whom he took for granted when alive, as sons often do), and a diagnosis of himself. ‘Memoir’ isn’t the right label, any more than it is for Styron’s book. Constructed like a novel or quest myth, The Scent of Dried Roses blends biography and autobiography, with topography, social history and psychology added to the mix.
The first chapter unfolds with chilling clarity. The ‘I’ of the son is present for the opening sentences, then disappears, allowing the all-seeing eye of an impersonal narrator to take over. Lott’s parents become Jack and Jean, figures in a suburban landscape, going about their daily business, though the day in question will end like no other. There are hints of the impending tragedy: the neighbours who think Jean doesn’t look well; the phone call she makes to cry off work; her sense of the house being ‘empty’, though every object in it is described in loving detail. But even when Jean resolves to ‘get the job done’, we can’t be sure what kind of job she means. It’s through Jack that we discover the worst:
Jack got home about five o’clock. The house was nice and tidy as usual, with all the breakfast things cleared away. He shouted for Jean. There was no answer. Deciding that she was probably in the garden, he walked through the kitchen and into the small patch of green at the back. It ran slightly wild, the garden. It was deserted. There was an old shed at the end, full of junk, but there was nothing there either.
He came back into the house, puzzled. It seemed so s
Such writing might seem cold-blooded. The death of a parent is traumatic in any circumstances and when it comes as abruptly and violently as this a torrent of emotion is the expected response. But the mask of third-person objectivity is essential: ‘picking over the fine details of the act’, Lott is able to record an event he didn’t witness and can hardly bear to contemplate. His prose doesn’t emotionally manipulate the reader. It annotates commonplace actions and domestic objects. Facts, facts, facts are its brief. But the facts are heartbreaking enough.
Having reconstructed the crime scene, Lott sets about solving the mystery: what brought his mother to this impasse? His role is detective but also chief suspect, since he accuses himself of murdering her. This isn’t just grief talking or a rhetorical flourish. Nor is it guilt that he has somehow infected Jean with his own manic depression. The offence is to have missed his cue when, on the night before she kills herself, his mother owns up to her despair. As an expert on antidepressants, he tells her that the drugs she has been prescribed will cure her but might take a couple more weeks to kick in; to which she replies ‘I don’t know if I can last that long.’ An alarm goes off in his head but isn’t loud enough for him to panic. Surely his mother – middle-aged, practical-minded, purposeful and caring – will be all right.
As the story unwinds, and takes us back to Jean’s adolescence and early married life, it slowly emerges that she has been far from all right for years. Not that she seems unhappy. She has a husband who loves her, three sons she’s devoted to, good friends, a part-time job as a dinner lady, hobbies (gardening, painting and tennis) and a home of her own. But there’s the alopecia she develops when pregnant with Tim, a difficult thing for a woman as proud of her appearance as Jean is to live with (and another reason for her son to feel guilty). There’s a tendency to hide and repress uncomfortable truths such as her brother’s fragile mental health. There’s a competitiveness that, as a housewife, she can’t express. And in the last months of her life, there’s a collapse of self-esteem. Simple tasks such as parking the car or playing cards are suddenly beyond her. She is, she complains, ‘no good’ at anything. ‘It is time to get out of your life,’ she tells her husband in her suicide note, ‘I am holding you back.’
The same note leaves another clue to her breakdown: ‘I hate Southall, I can see only decay. I feel alone.’ Southall is an outer London suburb and her sons feel the same about it as she does: that it’s a dump, a lower-middle-class subtopia, a place to leave as soon as you can. Tim left it years before but when he’s drawn back after his mother’s death, revisiting his childhood haunts and seeing the changes there have been, he can feel the damage it did them both. It’s not just the environment – the concreted-over front gardens, the double-glazed aluminium windows, the dog shit on the pavement – it’s the whole cramped idiom that goes with it, the stoic clichés people fall back on in order to cope: These things are sent to try us, Might as well look on the bright side, What can you do? London suburbs have no monopoly on deadly dullness. Nothing, like something, can happen anywhere: ‘It’s not the place’s fault,’ Larkin said. But Lott has no doubt that Southall is partly to blame for making Jean feel worthless. Against the denuded present, he gives tantalising flashes of an England (not Britain) to which his mother wanted to belong, not a bullying, racist and imperialist nation but ‘innocent, decent, quaint, a bit pompous, fond of a lark’ – and long since dead. With a brilliant, almost Orwellian command of social and historical nuance, Lott conveys what the country looked and felt like, from 1930 to 1988. England Made Me was the title of one of Graham Greene’s novels. Lott’s book could have been titled England Unmade Me because of the way it connects his mother’s depression with the nation at large.
Gradually, too, it connects her story with his. For several chapters he takes centre stage, leaving her in the wings. The hare-lip he was born with, his teenage bolshiness, the experiments with cannabis and LSD, his girlfriends, his precocious business success in the Thatcher years, his time as a mature student at the London School of Economics, the job he miraculously got but immediately gave up as editor of the listings magazine City Limits – all this serves as a prelude to the depression which leaves him standing on a rooftop ready to throw himself off. Once again, as with Jean, the private and public come together. ‘It is not only me who seems to be falling apart but, eerily, the world outside,’ he writes, as the ‘confused, self-hating’ national psyche reaches a nadir in the autumn of 1987. The Hungerford massacre, the October hurricane, the Enniskillen bomb, the stock market crash and the Kings Cross fire: to Lott, in extremis, it ‘all seems to knit together in a great cross-stitch of decay and chaos that merges with the darkness inside my head’.
To his surprise, and in defiance of Sixties prejudices he has inherited from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and R. D. Laing, Lott finds that four years of depression are cleared up within three weeks: all it takes is a visit to a psychiatrist and the right medication. A convert to antidepressants, he’s certain that his mother will be redeemed too – which makes her suicide all the harder for him to accept. But his book doesn’t end bleakly. There are green shoots through the tarmac, fresh pastures for Jack, the experience of parenthood for Tim. However sad its story, this is a hopeful and cathartic book, presenting depression as an illness like any other, potentially curable and not a matter for stigma or shame.
The 1990s saw a surge in memoirs, not by the great and good, but by youngish men and women looking back on their childhoods and/or their struggles with loss, trauma and addiction. Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Andrea Ashworth’s Once in a House on Fire, Elizabeth Wurzel’s Prozac Nation, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Linda Grant’s Remind Me Who I am Again are examples, along with personal accounts of mental illness such as Styron’s Darkness Visible, Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. Tim Lott’s book is similarly intimate and confessional. It’s compelling because authentic: we trust the teller as well as his tale. But the devices of imaginative literature are employed, too (plot, characterisation and dialogue), giving the book its place in an older tradition of madness, one that runs from Medea and King Lear to John Clare’s poems, Equus and The Bell Jar.
Above all, perhaps, The Scent of Dried Roses is a celebration of storytelling. ‘We cannot live without stories,’ Lott writes, envying the simplicity of the narrative that sustained his father, the one that gave him stability and direction. His mother lived by the same narrative and died when she stopped believing in it; losing the plot, she lost her reason for going on; her illness is ‘the illness of those who do not know where they fit, who lose faith in the myths they have so painstakingly created for themselves’. Lott, by contrast, has no sustaining narrative at the outset, ‘only scatterings of impressions that light up the landscape like flares, then disappear again’. Yet by the end he finds his way and the story is there – as told by a grieving son in order to appease his pain and guilt, but articulated for the benefit of us all.
Blake Morrison, 2009
For my father
‘Harry hates people who seem to know. They would keep us blind to the fact that there is nothing to know. We are each of us filled with a perfect blackness’ – John Updike, Rabbit is Rich
Thanks to Sarina for her patience, to David Godwin for his faith, and to Dorothy Rowe for her wisdom.
Also to Jeff and James for their love and support, and to everyone who appears in this book who has given me their stories. To those whose stories – whose pasts – I have shared, then stolen, I can only say that I have tried my best to handle them with care, and always with affection.
The time that I
That day I remember as being neutral, without any sense of imminence. Perhaps there was a slight wind that made the rowan tree on the tiny front lawn of my parents’ house falter. When my father, Jack, woke at around eight, Jean, my mother, was already awake. She had been sleeping badly of late and had been prescribed what she told Jack were sleeping pills.
Jack slept naked, but Jean wore a nightie. It would have been a pastel shade – Jean tended away from strong colours. Muted tones edged the lives of her and her friends. They lived in pale houses between magnolia walls with faint watercolours. They wore clothes that were slightly flounced, or slightly frilled, or inscribed with floral prints; clothes that were cream, or cucumber, or scrubbed lemon. They did not wear black, or abstract, or self-confident, shouting blue, but colours that were either apologies, or absences, or blustery smiles at unselfconscious jokes.
Jean also wore a headscarf in bed, knotted tight in gypsy style, the way girls – women really, but they were all girls then – had been taught during the war. It kept their long hair safe from the machinery that was punching out igniters, capstans, locking mechanisms, firing bolts, grenades and light arms to fight the German enemy.
Jean’s hair was long, thick and chestnut in those days – a waterfall tumbling back from the crown. There is a black-and-white picture of her when she was sixteen years old, in 1947, straight out of Photoplay: the sultry glance cast just to the left of the photographer’s shoulder; the full, dark lips and arched, confident eyebrows; and above all the thick hair, falling casually on to those thrown-back shoulders (one turned towards the camera). She was lovely, a catch, a perfect skirt. Or so Jack had thought when he first saw her, in the Empire Snooker Hall, Ealing, in 1951. He was there with Ronnie Van Den Bergh, like most nights when he wasn’t dancing or at the movies. Jean wore a tight sweater – after Jane Russell in The Outlaw or Lana Turner in They Won’t Forget – that made her stand up, stand out, proud, perfect, the ultimate wife-to-be (for all women, then, were wives-to-be). Those breasts, that nipped-in, tidy waist, the pertness, the promise of those careful, poised eyebrows.
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