Thursday, November 28, 2019

Not the Sky - a memoir

Not the Sky  - a memoir.  Author Gail Ashton
Brilliantly done - my book of the year
A few months ago I resolved not to buy any books until I'd whittled down the ever-growing pile by my bedside. And in the main, I've been pretty good, catching up on a host of 'must-reads' including Chris Arthur's sublime Words of the Grey Wind, Robert Macfarlane's somewhat overrated Underland and Rory Maclean's distinctively human perspective on Eastern Europe, Pravda Ha Ha. But like most folk on a diet (even if mine is a literary one) I've had the odd lapse - and in the case of Gail Ashton's Not The Sky, boy was I glad I did!

This deceptively unassuming little memoir chronicles a working class childhood in Sixties and Seventies Birmingham, the premature death of Ashton's mother and subsequent loss of her father to a new partner, emigration and eventually cancer. Using dialogue to drive much of the narrative, she recalls her lost parents - and through their voices, explores not only the deprivation and abuses she endured but also the tensions of education, class and gender, that were a defining feature of those decades.

In a sense, Not the Sky is the antithesis of nostalgia - even allowing for the times, it's clear that Ashton had a particularly tough childhood, and while her father takes much of the blame, she is too intelligent a writer to moralise. Indeed, he comes across as one part victim - shaped by his own miscellany of expectations, sense of self, masculinity... a toxic cocktail of diminished self-worth that quickens fists and sharpens tongues. The feuds and secrets in the extended family add wider context,  even humour, to what in many ways is a compound tragedy.

As I read the book in a rather swish hotel in Keswick, I was struck by how so much of this would seem another world to my children - the past, as they say, being another country - and yet for my generation, these experiences were relatively commonplace, if seldom as intense.  Like many memoirs, Not the Sky is ultimately a story of coming through, but its resonance lies not only in the overcoming of ordeals (shocking though they seem now), as in its resurrection of the language, attitudes and behaviours of her family and community, which those of us of a certain age will recall.

The dialogue is internal too, transcending time as Ashton's parents continue to address her in the present. I laughed at her mother's description of her recent marriage to a female partner as a right funny how d'you do - closely followed by, I wonder what happened to that green duster coat I used to have?  And so, for all their faults, they remain ever-present; nudging and shaping her life, long after they've physically gone.

I find the questions of who we are and how we came to be, fascinating - more than that, they are a constant in my life and writing - which perhaps explains why I'm in awe of this brave exploration of those themes. Not the Sky has echoes of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; it reminded me too of Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father? These are lofty comparisons, but worthy. For this is a book which surpasses the ordinary - it is not so much about the past as it is about the present, and though rooted in particular experience, like all good memoir, it is really about us all.

Brilliantly done - my book of the year actually.

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