Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood has, like many of the books I review, been on my to-read list for years. I so enjoyed her non-fiction book, Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth Century Women Writers, and was eager to read more of her work. Rather than a collection of critical essays, Bad Blood is a memoir of Sage’s early life in rural Wales during the 1940s and 1950s, and ends with her University graduation. It was published in 2000, and won the Whitbread Prize for Biography just a week before Sage passed away.
Sage’s childhood was ‘dominated’ by her ‘brilliant, bitter grandfather – a drinking, womanising vicar, exiled to a parish’ just over the Welsh border with England. After the war, when Sage left the ‘gothic eccentricity’ of the vicarage, she moved into a nearby council house with her parents and younger brother, Clive. Here, she ‘soon discovered that real family life was marked by myths, secrets and disappointments of its own.’
‘A dazzlingly vivid account of one girl’s coming-of-age in post-war provincial Britain,’ writes its blurb, ‘Bad Blood is now universally reclaimed as one of the most extraordinary memoirs of the decade.’ Hilary Mantel praises it ‘both for its generosity of spirit and its intensity as an act of self-recovery’, and Claire Tomalin calls the novel a ‘classic account of childhood’, and Sage herself a ‘writer of rare intelligence’. Margaret Drabble writes that Bad Blood is a ‘vividly remembered, honest, generous, shocking story… A fine transformation of pain into something redeeming – I don’t think that’s too grand a word. A very moving testament.’
Bad Blood has been split into three parts, which cover distinct periods in Sage’s life – the first her early life at the vicarage in Hanmer, the second her transition to grammar school and living with her parents, and the third her surprise pregnancy at aged sixteen, and her determination to receive a University degree. These sections are peppered with photographs. Of Hanmer, Sage writes: ‘So Hanmer in the 1940s in many ways resembled Hanmer in the 1920s, or even the late 1800s except that it was more depressed, less populous and more out of step – more and more isolated in time as the years had gone by.’
Sage had such a gift for capturing vivid scenes and unusual characters. The memoir opens with the following description: ‘Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much… He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality. He had a scar down his hollow cheek too, which Grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came back pissed and incapable.’ Due to the sheer amount of time which Sage spent with her grandparents, who tolerated each other at best, she had very few memories of being with her parents when she was little. Of her soldier father, away at war, she recalls only that she was picked up by him and was ‘sick down his back’.
Bad Blood presents a multi-generational family portrait; Sage scrapes away at the veneers of her family, and reveals what it has been hidden far beneath the surface. She writes with such sincerity about her somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, spent more with books than people, and describes the changing post-war landscape with such detail. Throughout, Sage’s narrative voice is lilting and friendly, and she speaks about such varied things, from fashion, farming, and food, to schooling, swimming, and sharing. I enjoyed the second and third sections of the memoir the most; in these, Sage played a more active role in proceedings, rather than merely telling the reader about her grandparents and parents in rather an omniscient manner.