Nearly 30 years after her debut novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson returns with Alan Yentob to the scenes of her extraordinary childhood in Lancashire.
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This programme contains some strong language.
Jeanette Winterson published her first novel,
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, in 1985 at the age of 26,
and has since then blazed a unique trail
through contemporary literature.
But no matter how high her imagination flies,
how brilliantly luminous the world she creates,
she's always tapped into something deep and dark
in her own life story.
When I'm standing up here,
I'm thinking about that bit in Oranges,
where the character Jeanette
goes up to the top of the hill above her hometown, and she's looking out.
It's a dismal sight.
And she says, "It's just like Jesus on the Pinnacle,
"but it's not very tempting."
And this IS very tempting.
This is that bit in the Bible story where Jesus has fasted
for 40 days and 40 nights,
and he goes up to the pinnacle of the temple
and Satan appears and says,
"Why don't you just throw yourself off?"
Very modern, because it's the temptation of celebrity,
to throw yourself off the roof of your own life.
You look over this vast, lit up space.
And that tiny moon behind the tower block.
And this is success.
It's beautiful, and it's frightening.
-Who was the oldest man in the Bible?
-How old was he when he died?
What sort of tea is this?
Stand up and be counted.
I mean, Empire Blend.
In Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,
a magnificent monster was born - Mrs Winterson.
A woman who kept a revolver in her duster drawer
had plans for her adopted daughter.
She was to be a missionary in the Pentecostal church.
It didn't quite work out.
In 2011, Jeanette returned to the story of her childhood
with a new book, Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal?
APPLAUSE AND CHEERING
Before we begin, I just want to ask a question.
Would you put your hand up
if you've never read anything by Jeanette Winterson?
This is marvellous! LAUGHTER
You've been led here tonight to this tent
because you know that something is missing in your life!
And so far, nothing has been able to fill that gap.
And some invisible force prompted you to go online
and get a ticket for tonight.
And by the end of it, I can't promise a pot plant,
which is what Mrs Winterson got when she found Jesus, but...
But I can promise you an experience.
And I hope that by the end of the evening,
when I ask you to raise your hand,
all of you will be able to say, "I've been saved."
She's a great advert for being a short arse!
She has such power in that little frame,
and she so dominates wherever she is,
and I just think that's fantastic, you know?
It's like, you don't have to be big and butch to rule the world,
cos she does rule her world.
The most recent version of her autobiography
is a tale of two mothers.
There's the overwhelming presence of one mother, Mrs Winterson,
and the overwhelming absence of another, her biological mother.
She's still my daughter!
She's not your daughter. She's mine.
You were unfit.
Unfit to have a child.
Just let me see her!
God gave her to me!
You've nothing to do with God!
You've a heart of stone!
You'll be in hell!
Who told you to come out here?
I said, who told you?!
Was that my real mother?
I'm your real mother.
She was just the carrying case that bore you!
'To be rejected by one mother is bad enough.'
To be rejected by two is horrific.
And I think that's the other thing about Jeanette,
it's a miracle that she has survived that.
And I think she absolutely did survive it
by telling the stories, by recreating herself.
And I sort of recognised it slightly too,
because I think it is what you do
when you can't cope with your environment.
You can fall into books or art,
and you can reinvent yourself through your own stories.
"Chapter One - The Wrong Crib.
"When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said,
"'The devil led us to the wrong crib!'
"The image of Satan taking time off
"from the Cold War and McCarthyism
"to visit Manchester in 1960,
"purpose of visit, to deceive Mrs Winterson,
"has a flamboyant theatricality to it."
She dedicates Why Be Happy..? to her three mothers, doesn't she?
Of whom I am one, yes.
Of whom you are one.
And, erm, yes,
I was immensely pleased by that.
I like to think that she thinks of me like that.
I believe she does.
I think that Why Be Happy..? is a wonderful book,
..it's the quintessential autobiography, really.
But she knew it, and wrote accordingly.
She wasn't going to be dissuaded or swayed in anyway.
It's very positive, very straightforward,
and, oh, absolutely real.
You believe every word.
Folks, do your good deed, have a good read!
Do your good deed and you have a good read!
"I was born in Manchester in 1959.
"It was a good place to be born.
"Manchester was the world's first industrial city,
"its looms and mills transforming itself and the fortunes of Britain.
"Manchester spun riches beyond anybody's wildest dreams,
"and wove despair and degradation into the human fabric.
"Manchester is either bling or damage."
Ladies, you're looking fine, me lovelies! Not twist your arm?!
Jeanette's portrait of Manchester as radical and contrary
fits with her own combative energy,
her passionate feminism and her belief in the power of art.
Gallery eight. In Pursuit Of Beauty.
The Victorians really believed in beauty
and did everything they could to destroy it.
I can't believe it! It's my first ancestor! It's Sappho!
There she is, looking rather pouting and magnificent.
Mrs Winterson would never have had that in the house.
It's astonishing, this idealisation of women.
Women who didn't look like that, and never would.
But also, the fact that women are so absent from public life
and so present in art.
That's ridiculous and fantastic. I love it!
I love the way her feet match her tiger skin.
That could be a Vogue shoot, couldn't it?
SHE LAUGHS It could be!
I mean, some of this is so dreadful,
it just tips over into another kind of experience, doesn't it?
If I'd been around at the turn of the century,
I definitely would have been a militant suffragist,
and they were all here, of course, in Manchester.
And in 1913, they came into the gallery
and slashed some of the pictures,
including this one, which is a bit bizarre.
Paolo and Francesca.
But I think they were probably just running riot by then.
And they continued and had a go at Rossetti, had a go at Leighton,
and I think part of what they were doing
was trying to desecrate and destroy this false image,
this artificial idea, of what a woman is.
That she will always be decorative, that she'll always be passive.
That she's ornamental.
That you can paint her
and she doesn't have high passion, feeling, a heart.
And by smashing everything up,
it had to change that image.
Would I do it, even though I love these pictures?
-Would you do it?
-I think I would.
You know, it's like that business
where some people know they couldn't commit murder,
but I'm not one of those people.
"Where you were born, what you were born into,
"the place, the history of the place,
"how that history mates with your own,
"stamps who you are,
"whatever the pundits of globalisation have to say.
"Sometime between six weeks and six months old,
"I got picked up from Manchester and taken to Accrington.
"It was all over for me and the woman whose baby I was.
"She was gone.
"I was gone.
"I was adopted.
"21st January 1960 is the date
"when John and Constance Winterson got the baby they thought they wanted
"and took it home to 200 Water Street, Accrington."
When did they first buy the house?
Well, my parents got married after the war,
and they came here in 1947, which was the coldest winter of the century.
And she said that the snow was so high
that it was at the top of the piano when they pushed it through the door.
And, of course, she lived here until she died.
She died in 1990. She was only 68.
This was their home, and it didn't change.
-And there it is.
-There it is.
200 Water Street, Accrington, Lancashire, BB5 6QU.
-Mrs Winterson's house.
One thing I'm missing here is, there used to be a doorstep.
-You were thrown out most nights.
-That IS the doorstep.
-You see that York stone doorstep? That's it.
-You poor thing!
-You weren't sitting on that, were you?
That's got the imprint of my bum on it somewhere!
-Ooh, let's have a closer look here!
-That's the step.
That's where I was shut out many a night.
But it works perfectly well.
I mean, even now. You can sit here quite comfortably.
You don't get rained on.
And this is where I made up stories.
Mrs Winterson wasn't that keen on Accrington,
and she always said that it would be blown up in the apocalypse,
because she lived in end times.
She was longing for the apocalypse, where everything would be destroyed.
Revelations was her favourite book of the Bible.
This was the woman who read the Bible to us every evening.
'Mrs Winterson was absolutely Old Testament.
'There was nothing of insecurity or softness about her.'
She literally spoke in great statements all the time.
She was a huge, larger-than-life figure,
and Jeanette was this tiny, little creature.
This little elf. And I think that's the thing.
There's nothing New Testament about Jeanette either!
I'm always saying that to my daughters.
Jeanette does almost the same thing.
She talks in great, cathedral statements.
She lives her life in this great way.
There's no light and shade there.
It's there, and I think that is part of the dance
that her and Mrs Winterson played all the time.
She used to read the Bible standing up.
Start at Genesis, go right through the 66 books to Revelations,
and then give us a week off to think about things.
And then start again.
But if you hear that every day of your life,
and you hear a woman with a rather startling turn of phrase...
you know, she spoke like the Bible.
Lord help me to defeat this limb of Satan!
Hear the word of the Lord from the book of Deuteronomy.
"The Lord will smite you with the boils of Egypt
"and with the ulcers and the scurvy
"and the itch of which you cannot be cured!"
One of the things I love about Jeanette is her use of words.
And I love it in her books, but I also love that in my life.
I send her a text message,
and I get an A-star text back!
Nothing is unconsidered.
Nothing is not sort of fully formed, fully grown.
That sort of abundance in her writing
is actually in her personality.
Drink. They spend all their money on drink,
and they're as filthy as anything.
They've never seen soap or polish
and they buy all their clothes from Maximores.
Catalogue seconds. They can't afford new ones.
They cut corners and swallow every penny.
'She was telling her truth,'
and she was telling the truth of someone very small, yeah?
Who was brought up by someone very big and powerful,
and very, very determining.
And here's this little, determining creature
inventing herself against this huge creature,
which was Mrs Winterson.
And Oranges is actually the story of that clash,
and the growth of this little one
into someone who can stand on her own two feet.
I had to be able to set my story against Mrs Winterson.
She was such a powerful storyteller in her own way.
She had these dark narratives, you know,
the devil in the wrong crib, that kind of thing.
If somebody says to you,"The devil led us to the wrong crib,"
immediately you're in a fairy story, aren't you?
You think of all the stories where the Queen gives birth,
and she looks in the cradle and it's a cat.
It has furry ears or furry feet, and that's what it was like.
When you finally left home,
and you lost touch with your mother, didn't you, really, almost, you...
Yes. I came back once to see her in the Christmas holidays,
I'd left home for two years and got myself to Oxford.
Then I wrote to her and asked if I could come back in the holidays,
and bring a friend.
She said yes, which was unusual,
because she was not a welcoming woman.
I should say that where that letterbox is positioned now
is exactly where the poker would come out
if somebody knocked at the door and she didn't want to answer.
She'd just run down the lobby and stick the poker through the letterbox.
But she said yes, I could bring a friend,
and I came back here in that Christmas holiday,
and actually it was like something out of Edgar Allan Poe.
-I hate cooking.
-So do I.
If it wasn't for you and your dad, I'd be a missionary.
It's too hot to cook out there. You just eat pineapples all the time.
Explain how Mrs Winterson responded to you.
Let's hear it first hand.
I know, the story is legendary.
Literally, I walk in the door,
and she said she'd been to the missionaries
to find out what is it they eat.
So as I came in the door, she handed me a plate of pineapples from tins,
handed me a plate, and she brought the dinner wagon out.
She had the best dress on and best dinner service out,
and she brought it in, and she said "Vicky, would you like some gammon
"and pineapple, or perhaps pineapple and cream, Vicky?"
And then I went to bed, and the bed was like, I kid you not,
seven duvets and about five hot water bottles,
"Because they feel the cold. They feel the cold."
It turned into like being in a Joe Orton play.
It started getting weirder and weirder.
So we went out one evening, thought we'd told her, came back.
Mrs Winterson was at the frying pan.
She'd been frying our dinner for five hours.
She was like this. Like that.
She said, "I've been cooking your tea for five hours." Literally.
I thought, "OK". Then in the morning, we were washing up.
Her mum comes storming down the stairs
with a Victorian postcard
of two little dogs going, "Nobody loves us."
"That's your dad and me." And she stalks off again.
From then, it just spiralled out of control.
And eventually she got the revolver out, and laid it on the table.
I said to my friend Vicky, "I think it's time to go."
And Vicky thought it was time to go because she'd gone up to bed,
and found her pillow had disappeared,
and the pillowcase had been entirely stuffed
with tracts about the apocalypse and the second coming.
Which was Mrs Winterson's way of trying to save her soul.
The other very odd thing she did was, one night Jeanette
went to see a friend, without me.
She sat beside me and went, "Vicky," like this.
She brought out this book,
and it was this extraordinary album of Jeanette's life.
Documented in extraordinary detail.
Tiny handwriting, every single moment. It was obsessive.
And she sat with me, and we had to go through the entire book.
The strangeness of it was the incredible love
and intensity she had for Jeanette, incredible fixation almost,
and Jeanette being the chosen one, the special one,
at the same time as not being able to deal with each other at all
when they were in the same room.
A line I love from the book particularly
is when somebody has described her to Jeanette as a monster,
I think expecting sympathy and understanding from Jeanette,
and Jeanette says "Yes, she was a monster, but she was MY monster."
-Were you like that?
What were the reasons you got thrown out, by and large?
Usually because I'd broken some code, you know.
It was very difficult not to do things wrong with Mrs Winterson,
and the punishment always came a long time after the crime.
So she'd make my dad hit me if he came home from work,
or she'd just say "Get outside and sit on the step."
But kids were often shut outside.
It was a routinely brutal world, a different world.
They wouldn't have thought they were being cruel.
You know, nowadays you'd have social services round.
In those days, somebody would come by and say,
"Jeanette's sitting on the step again, give her a bag of chips,
"we know what her mother's like."
That's how I started to tell myself stories.
Because either you can sit there and think, "My life's over,"
or you can go into your head and start inventing something.
It's very strange coming back here.
I have so many emotions about it.
Part of me is still proud of it,
still connected to it in a very deep way which will never change.
And another part of me actually can't bear it
and wants to run away the moment I return.
We all used to play around here when we were kids.
There are a lot of children.
That's something that has changed, hasn't it?
Tons of kids on the street, there was a streetlife.
CHILDREN SING AND CHANT
I used to love that. We used to sit up there.
In fact, that was one of my spots for telling stories
because I knew more stories than anybody else,
so you imagine a group of snotty-nosed, dirty kids.
We weren't clean, you know, that needs to be stressed,
nobody had a bathroom, so we'd be up there telling stories
to the dead of night and then some mother would come out down the road
and shout, "Susan, Jeanette, come in", and that'd be it.
What did Mrs Winterson make of it when she read the book?
It was dreadful. We hadn't seen each other for years
and she sent me a note
in her beautiful copperplate handwriting that she was very proud of,
saying that I had to give her a phone call, but she had no phone
and I had no phone, so I went to a phone box
and she went to a phone box.
The phone box is still there around the street.
And I telephoned her and that's the moment when you think,
"Who needs Skype?",
because I could see her in the phone box, larger than life, filling it
up, 20 stone, surgical stockings,
flat sandals, crimpolene dress, headscarf. And she said to me,
"It's the first time I've had to order a book in a false name."
That was the beginning of our conversation
and I tried to explain, but you know, what was going through my mind
all the time was, "Why aren't you proud of me?"
And she did say to me, she said, "But it's not true."
And I was rather taken aback by this, because this was a woman
who had explained the flash-dash of mice activity in the kitchen as ectoplasm.
Their whole life was a story of them versus us.
It was "Me and this chosen child that I have
"and the rest of the world...don't go there, Jeanette, don't, it's us".
That's how she started the story.
That's why I think she was obviously so devastated when Jeanette
became her own person and more importantly, was a lesbian.
That was the thing.
Because up to then, she had created the narrative of who Jeanette was
and who Jeanette was in relation to her,
and it all completely broke down.
And it was at that point, one cannot imagine what Jeanette's darkness
must have been like,
because Mrs Winterson was her lifeline to the world, her mother,
and it completely smashed between the two of them.
There are two of our number have committed a great sin.
A terrible sin. The sin that dare not speak its name.
Jess, Melanie, come to the front, please.
WHISPERS: Keep calm, keep calm.
These children of God have fallen foul of their lusts.
Their bodies have proved stronger than the spirits,
their hearts are fixed on carnal things.
-These children are full of demons.
-I'm not, neither is she.
I've said it's not true.
Now we hear the voice of the demon arguing with the voice of the Lord.
Now we hear Satan's voice.
Do you deny that you love this young woman with a love
reserved for husband and wife?
Yes! No, it's not like that.
Even when she first published that book, I think,
people were so busy laughing at it
that they didn't actually look at it and think
"This is actually a portrait of psychological and religious abuse
"of the worst sort, from somebody who was your adoptive mother,
"so you were already given away."
Mrs Winterson believed that we're called to be a part
and in a small northern town, that's a full-time job.
But she liked an occupation,
so we lived in the closed world of the church.
We weren't really meant to interact with unbelievers and the heathen.
They were all going to be damned and we weren't.
So there was a cut-off point for us.
And I think that's why she tried so hard to keep secular influences out.
I think she had been well-read
and she didn't want books to fall into my hands.
She had a line which is a typical Mrs Winterson line.
She said, "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it
"until it's too late."
I used to think "Too late for what?"
It's this other world, so naturally,
as these things were forbidden, I wanted them.
Mrs Winterson used to love reading mystery stories
and so I was packed off to the library to bring back
her sackful of mystery stories and when I challenged her about this
and said, "Why can you read mystery stories and I can't read books?",
she said, "If you know there's a body coming, it's not so much of a shock."
In Accrington public library,
Jeanette found the means to transform her world.
She found books.
They were sitting there on shelves, marked English Literature A-Z.
By the time she was 16, she had got to M.
I love this building.
This was my escape from Mrs Winterson and it was going to be the beginning
of my escape from Accrington, because the book would be a flying carpet.
That's how I was going to get away
and I always thought of myself as both of these figures,
reading the book, so intent and so serious, so caught up in it.
They're beautiful and they gave me hope.
There's the boy and girl and I was both because I was never
quite sure whether I was a girl who was a boy or a boy who was a girl,
or if I was all of those things together and it didn't matter.
What mattered was the book and I'd go around saying to myself,
"Oh, for a book and a shady nook",
either indoors or out,
and "a book is better to me than gold", which it was.
Money was meaningless, we didn't have any anyway,
but the fact that you could read and learn and change
and then invent yourself and reinvent yourself, disappear,
to me it was like performing the Indian rope trick, that you
climb to the top and then you vanish and never come back again.
# What is life to me without thee?
# What is left if thou art dead?
# What is life, life without thee?
# What is life without my love? #
So you had the library and more than anything, you had this place.
Yes, I had escape.
I mean, Mrs Winterson wasn't interested in child protection,
so she let me wander about as much as I liked, so I could come up
here day and night and not have to go home until it was dark or even then.
You look at this view and it does give you something, it makes
you feel that there are other places, places that you can go and escape.
It's quite liberating and exhilarating up here, isn't it?
It is. Well, I suppose that down there defines you, doesn't it,
whereas up here, you can define yourself.
-Yes, this is the runaway place.
Of course, I felt like Heathcliff or something out of the Brontes.
The one thing I have never been in my whole life is bored.
There has always been a place to go and that place has been
the world of imagination.
And what about this sort of sense of...did it give you time
to think about who you were, your own sexuality,
your own desires, your own aspirations in that sense?
-I never thought about sex, I just did it.
Yes, I never wasted any time thinking about it.
I just made the most of the opportunity
and also it never worried me, it wasn't a concern.
It's strange, because it's never been really at the forefront of my mind.
I mean, it became something that was political later
that I knew that I had to fight for, a civil liberties issue,
for the dignity of difference,
but in myself, my body, my head, my imagination,
it was always something I was very comfortable with.
I was comfortable with being me.
And when you read Murder In The Cathedral, for instance,
and you say that you sobbed in the library,
where you're not supposed to make any noise.
No, the librarian was furious
because you weren't allowed to sneeze in the library in those days.
When we went in today and saw everybody scooting around,
it being user-friendly, part of me is horrified,
thinking you've got to be quiet and just read.
But it was a bad day because Mrs Winterson was throwing me out
because I loved another girl and I always felt that the failure
was my failure, that I couldn't be in a family and couldn't belong.
So I was really unhappy and I thought "Where will I go?
"I have nowhere to live.
"I don't know how I'm going to make enough money",
and I got one of her books and she'd put on the list
Murder In The Cathedral by TS Eliot
because she thought it was a story about monks.
And she loved anything that was bad for the Pope.
So I got it and I opened it and thought "It's a bit short"
and it's written in verse which, by and large,
mystery stories are not, and thought, "She's not going to like this".
And I opened it on the line - which I'll never forget -
where Thomas a Becket is saying, "This is one moment,
"but know that another will pierce you with a sudden, painful joy."
And that's when I burst into tears and I went outside
and sat on the library steps in the usual freezing northern gale
and I read it all the way through, and I thought,
"Yes, this is one moment,
"but there'll be another and there will be joy",
and I thought could go forward.
And that's why it's always seemed to me that the great writers were not remote,
they were my friends, and they were in Accrington.
When I was growing up, I used to hide books under my mattress,
and anybody who's got a single bed, standard size
and a collection of paperbacks, standard size,
will know that you can fit 72 under the mattress.
And it was when Mrs Winterson realised this
and she pulled one out and the whole lot came tumbling down,
and it was DH Lawrence, Women in Love - terrible choice -
and she knew that Lawrence was a Satanist and a pornographer,
and she took the whole lot and threw them into the back yard,
then poured paraffin on top of them from the little stove
that used to warm our freezing house, and set them on fire.
And watching them burn that night, I realised two things.
One, that everything outside of you can be taken away.
And also as I saw those volumes burning
and the scraps of paper flying around the yard up into the air -
a Saturnian, January night, never forget that night -
I thought, "Fuck it, I can write my own."
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
"I was 16, and my mother was about to throw me out of the house for ever
"for breaking a very big rule - even bigger than the forbidden books.
"The rule was not just no sex,
"but definitely no sex with your own sex.
"In many ways, it was time for me to go.
"The books had got the better of me.
"And my mother had got the better of the books."
Immediately after leaving home, Jeanette had nowhere else to go.
She began sleeping in a borrowed Mini she was learning to drive.
A late '60s Mini. Perfect.
Extremely smart, though. Mine wasn't at all smart like this.
Mine was rather battered.
However, I will now demonstrate how you live in a Mini.
Yeah, tell me. In we go.
You get into the front, into the driving seat.
-Perfect amount of space.
These large, old-fashioned steering wheels
are ideal for reading a book or for writing letters.
So this is really very comfortable.
And you have your own little library and office in this space.
And then when you want to eat, you eat where you're sitting now.
But you mustn't just slide across,
because that will just feel
like you're some scruffy, homeless person eating in a car.
No, you have to get out of this side...
I shall close the door. Come round to the other side...
Because then immediately you've got two doors, which is gracious,
and two rooms.
Then you get into this side and there's plenty there for you to eat
and here you can put your food, your cups, whatever you want.
-So that's all perfect.
-You've got room.
And when night time comes, you must get your things out,
go round to the back of the Mini -
very important to have dignity and order -
put everything away in the back, neatly, close the boot
and then it's time for bed.
So in order to go to bed,
your sleeping bag's ready in the back,
in you get.
I would normally close the door by now.
Put your feet up, and it's good night from me.
And it's good night from me.
And how long did you actually spend in the car? Sleeping in the car?
Not long. About a couple of months.
-ONLY a couple of months...!
And then I found better accommodation for the winter.
-Do you ever yearn to be back again in the Mini?
I don't long to be in those difficult places,
but I know that if everything were to be taken away from me,
if I had nothing again, I'd still have the books inside me,
I'd still know the poetry, and I'd always know how to survive.
"I decided to apply to read English at the University of Oxford
"because it was the most impossible thing I could do."
"I had no idea that there could be such a beautiful city
"or places like the colleges with quadrangles and lawns
"and that sense of energetic quiet that I still find so seductive."
"I'd never seen a shop with five floors of books.
"I felt dizzy, like too much oxygen all at once.
"And I thought about women.
"All those books, and how long had it taken for women
"to be able to write their share?"
Here we go.
That soothing sound... Is that familiar? Do you miss it?
I do miss it, yeah.
And it sounds like a real car.
I can't hear my car at all.
Isn't it interesting...
You arrive here in your 1960 Morris Minor
and there is the 1962 classic Modernist building by Jacobsen.
This glorious thing.
And there you are, this working-class girl from Accrington.
Yes, it's a good symbol of the two worlds,
and the huge space in between them.
The car and this college,
where I'd come from and where I was now,
and where I was going to be.
It was 1978, and it'd been only four years since St Catherine's
had changed the terms of its foundation charter
to become one of the few Oxford colleges to admit women.
It was here that Jeanette met one of her closest friends.
I take it you were both experiments, according to...
(LAUGHS) That's right. The famous story is true,
of our tutor, dear Michael Gearin-Tosh, on the first day,
saying, "Now, you're the working-class experiment,
"you're the black experiment - how exciting!"
And after that we thought,
"Well, we'd better be friends, then, really."
It was still very sexist, very patriarchal,
in a way which would be extraordinary to students studying now.
And there is a gender difference here. And it's huge.
It's changed, it's changing, which is wonderful for women now
who feel that they can do whatever they like.
But coming here, I thought,
"I'll have to use this space, use what the university offers me.
"But there are all sorts of things they can't offer me.
"They don't understand that being a woman is different to being a man.
"They don't understand - really - what it's like to be a working-class girl,
"who wants to get her own book on the shelves
"of English literature in prose."
There's also that sense that women aren't just child-bearers,
and the possibility that women who have the creative spark
can devote and dedicate themselves to creativity.
That's part of that story, isn't it?
Yes, because of course the four great women writers, supposedly -
the Brontes, Eliot and Jane Austen - didn't have children.
I wish I'd been able to do it. I couldn't.
But I think now, suppose it all started again,
how great it would be, to be in a situation where I could do both.
Whilst at Oxford, Jeanette also discovered
the novels of Virginia Woolf.
No-one understood so well, or wrote so tellingly,
about how women could storm the citadel of literature.
The first steps were an independent income,
and a room of one's own.
So here I am and this was a room of my own.
And bigger than anything that I'd ever had before in Accrington -
certainly a lot bigger than a Mini.
And it felt like freedom. It was freedom.
And I enjoyed this monastic austerity,
which seemed perfect for the life of the mind and serious study.
And then you get that fabulous view.
When I first came here, in the first couple of weeks,
and I was reading - every time there was a knock on the door,
I still used to hide the book under the pillow.
Because I couldn't remember for that split second
that it wouldn't be Mrs Winterson.
And that the whole thing wouldn't have to be a secret.
That you could be here BECAUSE you wanted to read books!
It was astonishing.
And, actually, I thought, slightly mad.
But, of course, it was the other world that was mad,
not this one.
At this point, there's an extraordinary and rather playful
leap in the chronology of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
It takes a break.
Allows itself an intermission.
And skips 25 years.
So, taking a leaf out of her book,
let's flash forward to 2012,
and the now successful author is visiting Paris,
one of her favourite cities.
# Deshabillez-moi... #
And, of course, the city of love.
# Deshabillez-moi... #
In 2000, she chose it as one of the locations
for a very modern love story, The PowerBook,
whose narrator is a writer for hire on the world wide web,
giving Jeanette the opportunity to reinvent the city, and herself,
for the digital age.
"You pointed to the Cafe Marly,
"and we walked across to a glittering table.
"She said, "What brings you to Paris?
"A story I'm writing."
"Is it about Paris?"
"No, but Paris is in it."
"Well, what is it about?"
"Can't you write about something else?"
"So, why come to Paris?"
"Another city, another disguise."
One of the things I love about this book
is the way you kind of rediscover words.
So, when I'm looking here, and I'm thinking about this virtual world,
a virtual world is a world you can invent in your own image,
that's what people do with these machines they have, anyway.
Then they can search, they can save.
They kind of reinvent the world, just like, in a way, Paris,
this is the place where you imagine you find those cliched love stories.
But you've turned it all upside down.
I think that's my job.
There's a line actually in Written On The Body, where she says,
"It's the cliches that cause the trouble."
Every time, we have to try and detonate the cliche, and begin again.
It's important for our imaginative life,
and, actually, for our spiritual life.
And what I try and do here in The PowerBook
is retell all kinds of love stories.
Not with happy endings, because I don't believe in those,
but with something in them that forces the person
to grapple with the size of their own feelings
so that things should not be lukewarm or insipid,
but they should be urgent.
Maybe I'm one of the last romantics,
but I do believe that you do it from the heart, or not at all.
And that, probably, the only way to live
is to love with your whole nature, and leave the rest to fate.
And, there's love and being loved.
-Yes, which are not the same thing.
SHE LAUGHS No.
You've had a struggle with both, of course.
But usually in my life, I've chosen to go out there
as the suitor, or as the knight, searching,
because we're back to the Grail stories,
hoping that, by looking for love,
I could conceal from myself
the fact that I might not know how to love,
either the giving or the receiving.
Sometimes you have to watch your enthusiasms,
because they tell you where you're actually lacking.
The PowerBook is partly about that.
It's about a search for something which cannot be found,
that leads back, inevitably, to the self.
She says in there, "I can change the story. I AM the story."
Which is very freeing, but also very risky.
Did I hear you say you have had several affairs in Paris?
I have had several affairs in Paris, yes.
So I guess it is a question of art imitating life.
# Bien sur nous eumes des orages
# Vingt ans d'amour C'est l'amour folle
# Mille fois tu pris ton bagage... #
I suppose, for me,
bridges are always emblematic of relationships,
in that I feel the closeness of the connection,
and at the same time, the absolute separation.
I feel that we're here, we meet in the middle.
But at nightfall, we can't help it, we have to go our separate ways,
because I live on that side and you live on that side.
And there is nothing we can do about it,
except hope that the bridge stays up.
I'm never more lonely than when I'm in a relationship.
# Je t'aime. #
How did vermin find their way into your love story?
-I mean, they're in The PowerBook.
There are two kinds of love, two ways of being in love.
There's what Dante calls "The love that moves the sun and all the stars"
which is an ecstatic, all-consuming, joyful love.
And then there's what Freud calls "the overestimation of the object",
which is what happens when you're really just projecting
all your own ideas and desires onto the other person.
Of course, soon that falls away.
And then, you just want to get rid of them.
And they become "animaux nuisibles", like these,
and you just want to stick them in a trap, and get rid of it.
And that's why I was writing about love as the snare.
Love is the thing which is the opposite of ecstasy,
which is the thing that traps you
and also the thing that you desperately want to get rid of
at all costs. These are all the rejected lovers, aren't they?
These are all the overestimations of the object!
It is fabulous. I love the macabreness of it.
It's very active, this shop.
Have you noticed how many people are in and out?
-I know, it makes you wonder about Paris, doesn't it?
-I think we should just go on.
-Shall we just go?
In 2007, long after the death of Mrs Winterson,
Jeanette came across a formal adoption notice among her father's papers.
The name was scribbled out.
Suddenly, she felt trapped by her past, as she never had before.
It coincided with the break-up of a long-standing love affair.
"My six-year relationship was rocky and unhappy for us both.
"I have written love narratives, and loss narratives.
"Stories of longing and belonging.
"It all seems so obvious now.
"The Wintersonic obsessions of love, loss, longing.
"It is my mother.
"It is my mother.
"Soon after that time, I began to go mad.
"There is no other way to put it."
She was very close to the edge at that moment in her life, wasn't she?
I think she was close to the edge, yes.
Perhaps more than she had ever been,
um, perhaps because she was older.
When she was young, when she was very young,
she was so full of hope and ambition.
And she, she... She carried it out.
She did these things that she intended to do.
But I suppose with Deborah, it was a terrible blow.
And she didn't expect it.
And, it was...
It hadn't happened to her very often, if at all before.
I come from a Catholic background.
I believe very much in the dark night of the soul, I respect it.
And so I wouldn't ever presume to know or understand
how she was going to come out of that.
I didn't know what to expect,
because I knew that it was so true and so deep,
I had no sense of how she was going to survive it,
where she was going to be at the end of it.
There's a very strange moment when all that was going on
when I realised she hadn't been in touch.
And I couldn't get hold of her.
And I started sending messages, you know, saying,
"I know you're in hiding,
"but I just want you to know I am thinking about you.
"I know you don't want to talk,
"but I just want you to know that I'd love to talk."
And so on and so on.
And then, in fact, that did mean that we had some conversations,
and we had some walks, we often go on walks and have conversations.
And so I was aware that things were pretty bad.
"There's a field in front of my house, high up,
"sheltered by a dry stone wall,
"and opened by a long view of hills.
"When I could not cope, I went and sat in that field,
"and fixed on that field.
"The countryside, the natural world, my cats,
"and English Literature A-Z were what I could lean on and hold on to.
"My friends never failed me.
"And when I could talk, I did talk to them.
"But often, I could not talk.
"Language left me.
"I was in the place before I had any language.
"The abandoned place.
"Where are you?"
The best reprieve for her at the time
was that truly remarkable bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare And Company.
It's run by Sylvia Whitman,
whose father, George, opened the store in 1951,
reviving the name made famous in the '20s
as the haunt of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and others.
For Jeanette, it was a place of sanctuary,
with an unfailingly warm welcome from Colette, the dog.
George's motto for the bookshop was,
"Be not inhospitable to strangers, for they may be angels in disguise."
It's certainly a book lover's heaven.
Since George opened the shop,
more than 40,000 impoverished, aspiring writers
have been welcomed and given a bed for the night,
some staying for days, some for months, some for years.
It's true that it really is a little island of literature.
A place to get lost amongst the books.
Sometimes, you can be completely oblivious about the city around.
And George's rule was that everybody who worked here
-had to read a book a day.
-Read a book a day.
-As he did himself, didn't he, all of his life.
Anyone can walk in that door and be welcomed, almost anyone.
He'd look up and he'd say, "What's she doing here?"
And then you'd say, "Dad, it's Jeanette Winterson."
He'd say, "Oh, yeah, she's a really good writer,
"she can stay as long as she likes!"
THEY LAUGH And throw the keys at me.
So, yeah, it very much evolved around his personality.
And there are a lot of people that felt like Jeanette does,
it's a home away from home.
I think that filling a place with books makes people feel at home.
I want to talk to Jeanette about how down she was when she came here.
-Which we didn't know.
-You didn't know.
-That's interesting in itself.
When I read the book, I couldn't believe it.
And how much, and how much care you took of her when she came here.
How fragile she was.
Well, you know about, you know about making me stay, and the pyjama episode.
-You did, you forcibly made me stay.
-Yeah. Changed the ticket.
Usually, it's easy for me to be cheerful and optimistic.
I usually need a reason not to be optimistic.
I think that was one of my strengths
and survival strategies, I suppose, when I was growing up.
So what happened to me in 2007 was both unprecedented and unexpected,
and that's why I talk about it as living in a haunted house.
Because some days you would get up, and you felt entirely normal.
And I thought, "Oh, everything is fine again".
And then, it would be an invisible blow,
it had the physicality of a blow,
to the chest or to the stomach, or behind the knees.
And I would feel it again,
this pain of despair, this agony of mine.
I'd collapse, I would just go on to the floor
and hold on to a piece of furniture,
and think, "Don't let it start again."
At that point, I had no language to describe my situation
in those waves of despair.
No way of talking about it at all to myself or to anybody else.
And I would simply curl up, or be in a place where I felt safe,
until the worst of that moment passed.
So I couldn't trust my mind any more.
And, for me, that was the most frightening thing that could happen.
I was concealing this from everybody because I was also deeply ashamed.
I didn't feel that I had a right to this misery,
you know, I looked at my life
and I thought, "You're a successful writer, you've got money in the bank,
"you've got your own home, you've got really good friends.
"What is the matter with you?" And there was that shame
as well as the despair and the self-destruction,
so I didn't want to talk about it
but through all of that, I was able to come here.
So books were here,
which have always been the way that I have coped,
and an unspoken, unquestioning, unjudgmental friendship.
I didn't have to explain. I was simply allowed to be in this place.
When we met Jeanette, we had no idea
that she was going through that kind of experience
and it's amazing that she says that she couldn't count on her mind
because her mind was exactly what we were all drawn towards,
so it's extraordinary to hear that interiorly,
she was going through something quite different to what we saw.
I didn't want to live without that space that I knew was me.
I would rather be dead
and I thought, "If I cannot get back to who I believe I am,
"then I don't want to be here at all,
"I don't want to live this lukewarm half-life,
"I want to be in the intensity of creativity,"
and this luminous, this lit-up world that I've always found,
even when I was at home or shut in the coalhole or out on the step,
the world has always been luminous to me.
I've lived in the present very well
and seen it and got great joy from it,
and if that was going, then I thought I should go too.
And the other thing is that of course,
-Jeanette talks to herself and...
So when she wasn't talking to you, Sylvia, she was obviously
-having this argument with this other Jeanette...
-To the dog.
A dog is a very good excuse
because you can talk to yourself and nobody thinks you're crazy.
It's funny, because now, looking back
and realising what Jeanette was going through, I realise
that we were able to provide her with something that was very simple
and that was books and food,
-and that's really what I feel that we...
Yes, and love, of course, but often, you know,
we would just hand her a pile of books. "This has just come in,"
or "There's this unusual edition of Gertrude Stein, I'm sure you'd be interested in that.
-"And here's some really good food."
-And then food would appear.
-Yeah, and you felt she was nourished by both of those things.
People say to me, "How amazing that you survived that childhood
"and you didn't have a breakdown."
Then they say, "Amazing that you survived Oxford
"as a working-class girl arriving with no parents, no support" -
Oxbridge is notoriously a ruthless environment
and a lot of kids either do break down or drop out or commit suicide -
get through that,
become a writer and a success early, get through that,
and then have the bit about, "We hate her, we hate her work,"
you know, the British press, "Let's kill her now."
Get through that, and it was almost as though I kept escaping the fire
and the fire was coming after me, and there was going to be a moment
where I was not going to be able to escape it,
that I had to turn and confront it.
I was at bay and I did confront it, and there was no way out but through.
MUSIC: "Art Thou Troubled" from "Rodelinda" by Handel
# Art thou troubled?
# Music will calm thee
# Art thou weary?
# Rest shall be thine
# Rest shall be thine... #
"Sylvia arranged for me to stay
"in the unmodernised, old-fashioned Hotel Esmeralda,
"next door to the shop.
"On the top floor, with no phone, no TV,
"just a bed and a desk and a view of the church,
"I found I could sleep and even work.
"Those times were temporary, but they were precious.
"I wasn't getting better.
"I was getting worse.
"I didn't go to the doctor because I didn't want pills.
"If this was going to kill me, then let me be killed by it.
"If this was the rest of my life, I could not live.
"I knew clearly that I could not rebuild my life
"or put it back together in any way.
"I had no idea what might lie on the other side of this place.
"I only knew that the before world was gone for ever."
In February 2008, Jeanette tried to end her life.
She shut herself in her garage and turned on the car engine.
-And what about the cats?
-Oh, you can't live without a cat.
In a way, a cat saved your life.
When I tried to end my life,
although I thought about it many times prior to that,
I didn't think about it at all in the moment, the hour, whatever,
I have no sense of the timing, actually, of when it was happening.
I simply could not go on any more
and I thought that the simplest way to do it
and the most dignified and least messy,
I mean, I could never jump under a train or anything like that,
would be to just go into the garage
and turn on the car engine and get on with it,
which I did,
and carbon monoxide is a heavy gas,
so it's on the floor before it's higher up,
and what I didn't know was, when I locked myself in the garage
and fastened everything up properly, it's a good, well-fitted garage,
that one of my cats was in there with me
and it was the cat scratching my face as I was falling unconscious
which brought me, literally, to my senses,
like having a bucket of cold water thrown over you
and I'm not quite sure how I moved from there to outside on the gravel
but at some point, I remember opening my eyes
and seeing the sky studded with stars
because this was in the country, so they were bright and deep and myriad,
these miraculous stars,
and what I was saying out loud,
I think, unsurprisingly, was something from the Scriptures,
which is that "you must be born again".
And I'm lying there, repeating this over and over, and thinking...
that this is a second life, this is a choice for life,
it's not a movement towards death,
so for me it was a moment...
Was it a moment of surrender? I think it was.
I did feel that I'd stopped battling with something at that moment. Yes.
But I am certain that I'll never have to go through that again
with or without my cat.
But yes, I think if I was ever to have a crest,
a cat would be on it!
I remember, obviously, after her very, very dark, almost breakdown,
I remember her just saying to me,
"I think I'm going to look for my mother, my birth mother."
I think we'd mentioned it a few times,
over our entire length of friendship,
and I'd always backed down and never said anything, I kept my own counsel
as to whether she should search for her mother,
so this was a huge thing,
she just slipped it into the conversation like so.
In many ways, I don't know if it's a journey she could have done alone
and I'm eternally grateful for Susie
for being with her and being a strong presence for her,
because I don't think Jeanette could have done it on her own
or with her existing friends.
I mean, we all played a part, but I think she couldn't have done it
without an extremely strong figure standing with her.
Well, it's not an unusual thing to be interested
at a particular moment in your life,
about discovering your origins,
particularly if they've been clouded
with a lot of stories that don't quite fit together,
so I understood that it might be very important for her.
If you've been told that you should have been sent back home
or sent back to where you came from,
then there's a particular bite
in the need to find why you hadn't been held on to.
Jeanette's investigation into the true story of her adoption
became another quest into a past
where adoption had been both shameful and hidden.
It was a bureaucratic nightmare, which left her angry and frustrated.
Eventually, the trail of paperwork led back to Manchester.
The city was now more than ever a part of her story.
It was here, after much soul-searching,
that she finally met her birth mother Ann,
a woman who Mrs Winterson had told her was dead.
In fact, she was a seamstress, who had worked
in one of the city's great clothing factories, Raffles Mill.
So this could have been your destiny.
Yes. I could have been sewing tablecloths here,
I suppose that IS what would have happened to me.
I'd have gone into the rag trade. What else would I have done?
It was a detective story all of the way through.
I thought she was probably involved in the rag trade.
I mean, why wouldn't she have been? And she was born in Blackley,
where Queen Victoria had her wedding dress made.
You know, everything around here was about seamstresses and sewing.
She's a very good sewer, and when I met her, she said to me,
"Oh, I can make anything. There's nothing I can't do.
"You can show it to me and I'll cut it out and I'll sew it for you.
Raffles used to make all the overcoats and gabardines
for Marks and Spencer's, and they looked after their employees
and it was Old Man Raffles, as she called him,
who found my mother the mother and baby home
when she told him she was pregnant.
He didn't put her out of a job. He found her somewhere to go
and he said, "And when you come back, there'll be a job for you."
-Come on, then.
-Shall we go in?
"There are three kinds of big endings..."
"Revenge and tragedy often happen together.
"Forgiveness redeems the past.
"Forgiveness unblocks the future."
"My mother tried to throw me clear of her own wreckage,
"and I landed in a place
"as unlikely as any she could have imagined for me.
"There I am, leaving her body,
"leaving the only thing I know
"and repeating the leaving again and again,
"until it is my own body I'm trying to leave,
"the last escape I can make.
"But there was forgiveness."
I walked through this cemetery many times
when I was growing up in Accrington
because I used to steal flowers from the newly-laid graves
to take to my girlfriend, who lived over in Huncoat
and I couldn't afford to buy them, so I'd run up from Water Street,
run through here, grab the flowers and make off over the back wall.
But this is your first visit since your mother died?
I haven't been here since my father died
but I didn't go to Mrs Winterson's funeral.
We were estranged. I hadn't seen her
since the time I was in Accrington over the Christmas holidays
and she got the revolver out
and I'd fled with my best friend, thinking that we might be murdered,
and she died, just really, around the screening of Oranges for the BBC,
which was extraordinary.
So I rang up my father
and I got through to him eventually,
and he said, "She died of a broken heart. You broke it."
-He did. She was 68.
And I controlled myself and I said, "Look, Dad,
"she did have an enlarged heart and a prolapse and a thyroid condition
"and whatever she died of, it wasn't a broken heart."
And he said, "Well, you're no daughter of mine."
It was very upsetting. And that was a really bad point between us,
so I didn't go to the funeral,
but I did send some flowers,
and what I sent was a dog,
a dog made out of flowers, because Mrs Winterson liked dogs
and there's one in Oranges, actually,
where the lady who runs the funeral home makes it out of wire
and then puts flowers all over it, and that's what I sent up,
so for a little while, there was a flower dog to look after her
but I've never been to her grave
and I don't know where it is.
Well, we're going to find it now, I think.
It's down here somewhere. Come with me.
-So it's been 22 years since she died.
-So you've had time to reflect, haven't you?
and that's one of the reasons why I wrote Why Be Happy, to my surprise,
because I began to understand her for the first time ever
and also to forgive her
and there's that wonderful line in William Blake, isn't there,
where he says, "Throughout all eternity,
"I forgive you, you forgive me."
Well, here she is. Look.
It says, "A beloved wife and mother."
I suppose my dad must have done that, mustn't he?
-He must have.
And he will have chosen the headstone
and look, there's the Bible in the corner.
I think that's right.
So what do you feel now, then, really?
Despite having discovered your birth mother,
you might have been a very different person
if you hadn't had Mrs Winterson.
Completely different, and though she is Constance, she always used to,
she talked to herself all the time, which I still do as well,
she'd wander around the house, going, "You're a fool to yourself, Connie."
We never knew quite what she meant.
I mean, we assumed it was something to do with me and my dad,
and she always felt rather put-upon and burdened,
you know, this is a woman who'd say,
"The Bible tells us to turn the other cheek,
"but there's only so many cheeks in a day."
-I'm a bit confused, though, by this headstone.
there's Mum, Constance Winterson,
and then it says, "Also a dear father, John William Winterson,
-"1877 to 1951."
Which is really baffling, because my father's John William Winterson
and he's buried over there cos I buried him in 2008.
He certainly isn't here, and I wonder if they were saving money
and deciding to get the headstone done all at the same time.
Well, maybe this is her mystery story.
-I think it is.
-Maybe she's responsible for this.
I think it is. I think this is the cover of her own book.
Yes! She's taken a bit of a leaf out of your book, hasn't she?
Sort of confusing fiction and fact
and sort of turning it into a sort of...
-She'd like that, wouldn't she?
I think we should give her that, then.
-All right, well, I'll leave you to look round it.
They'll not know, will they?
I keep thinking of her singing God Has Blotted Them Out
and then me singing Cheer Up Ye Saints Of God,
which pretty much sums up the difference between us, I guess.
And she wanted me to be a missionary
and of course, she did get what she wanted
because I am, but just not for Jesus.
It was for the power of the word,
and I suppose even that is something of what she wanted,
because it does begin, doesn't it, "In the beginning was the Word,
"and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
And I suppose the word is God, to me.
And she hated her life. It was too small, too mean, too narrow.
She just wanted to escape
and the sad thing is that I was her means of escape.
I was the golden ticket,
I was the one who could have got out of here for ever.
She could have had everything that she wanted,
she could have had the house she wanted, the life she wanted.
She was always praying for a miracle
but it had already happened, and it was me.
And sometimes, the thing you really want is standing right next to you
and you don't know it because it comes in the wrong package
and I was just the wrong package, you know, too wild, too risky.
But I think she got the right daughter
and I think I got the right mother.
I'll leave her now.
MUSIC: "After the Gold Rush" by k.d. lang
# I dreamed I saw a silver spaceship
# Flying in the yellow haze of the sun
# There were children crying and colours flying
# All around the chosen ones
# All in a dream, all in a dream... #
I think you should give her your jacket, Alan.
I think she's... All these years there, it's a long time
-to stand without any clothes on.
-Can we give her my jacket?
-OK, she shouldn't be...
-Cover her up.
Yeah, she shouldn't be like that.
That's better. You see, we'll make a suffragist of you yet!
Actually, that's sexier.
It is sexier!
# Flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home. #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
First shown in 2012, nearly 30 years after her triumphant debut novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson returns with Alan Yentob to the scenes of her extraordinary childhood in Lancashire. She was adopted and brought up to be a missionary by the larger-than-life Mrs Winterson. But Jeanette followed a different path - she found literature, fell in love with a girl, and escaped to university. Following her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson tells the story of her recent breakdown and suicide attempt, her quest to find her birth mother and how the power of books helped her to survive.