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Mother Tongue
© Ian McEwan, 2001

I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is Cockney, Estuary, RP or Valley Girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learned it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got.

"It's a lot of cars today, id'n it?" I am driving Rose into the Chilterns to a nature reserve where we will stroll about and share our sandwiches and a flask of tea. It is 1994, still many years to go before the first signs of the vascular dementia that is currently emptying her mind. Her little remarks, both timid and intimate, do not necessarily require a response

"Look at all them cows." And then later, "Look at them cows and that black one. He looks daft, dud'n he?" "Yes, he does." When I was 18, on one of my infrequent visits home, resolving yet again to be less surly, less distant, repeated conversations of this kind would edge me towards silent despair, or irritation, and eventually to a state of such intense mental suffocation, that I would sometimes make excuses and cut my visit short.

"See them sheep up there. It's funny that they don't just fall off the hill, dud'n it?" Perhaps it's a lack in me, a dwindling of the youthful fire, or perhaps it's a genuine spread of tolerance, but now I understand her to be saying simply that she is very happy for us to be out together seeing the same things. The content is irrelevant. The business is sharing.

I remember other journeys in the Home Counties we took together by train in the mid-50s. Typically, they would end on the station platform of our destination with my mother taking from her handbag a scented embroidered handkerchief, dabbing it on her tongue and screwing a wet corner into some portion of my face. The idea was to rid me of "smuts", entities in which I had no faith at all. I was to be made fresh-faced for whichever aunt or friend of hers we were visiting.

The trains were of the old-fashioned sort, with corridors, and leather straps to hold the windows open, and dusty compartments in which it was common to hold polite conversations with strangers. On one occasion a lady got in who must have appeared to Rose to have considerable social standing. They began to talk and I remember being surprised by the change in my mother's voice. She measured out her sentences as she strained for her version of correct speech.

I was to hear the same transformation many years later, when my father was commissioned from the ranks. There were two tribes of officers; those who were drawn from the middle classes and had been to Sandhurst, and those who had risen from being ordinary soldiers and who never got much beyond the rank of major. All my parents' friends belonged in the second group. Whenever some gathering in the officers' mess obliged my mother to hold a conversation with the colonel's wife, the posh voice would creep in, with its distorted vowels - yais, naice - and aitches distributed generously to make up for the ones that were dropped elsewhere. But most significantly, Rose spoke very slowly on these occasions, almost lugubriously, aware of all the little language traps that lay ahead.

When I was 11, I was sent from north Africa, where my father was stationed, to attend school in Suffolk. By any standards, Woolverstone Hall was a curious place, a rather successful experiment by a left-wing local authority in old-fashioned embourgoisement. It had the trappings of a public school - Adam style country house, huge grounds, rugby pitches, a genially Philistine headmaster - and so on. But this ethos was rather stylishly undermined by the intake of mostly grammar-school level working-class lads from central London. There were some army brats like me (their fathers all commissioned from the ranks) as well as a tiny smattering of boys from bohemian middle-class backgrounds.

During my early teens, as my education progressed, I was purged of my mother's more obvious traits, usually by a kind of literary osmosis - when I was 14 I was an entranced reader of the handful of novels Iris Murdoch had published. I was also reading Graham Greene. Slowly, nothink, somethink, cestificate, skelington, chimley all went, as well as the double negatives and mismatched plurals.

Sometimes I took myself in hand. I was in the first year of my sixth form when I arranged for my best friend, Mark Wing-Davey, a rare and genuine middle class type, to say "did" out loud every time I said "done" in error. Very kindly, he done this for me. But he got into serious trouble one afternoon in a history lesson. I was earnestly delivering a prepared piece about the bold reforms of Pope Gregory the Seventh (how I loved to intone "the extirpation of simony") when Mark loyally murmured a "did". The history master, a kind Welshman, Mr Watts, whom we called Charlie because of his striking non-resemblance to the drummer, became incensed by what he considered to be a display of rudeness and snobbery. To prevent Mark being ordered from the room, I had to intervene and explain our agreement.

But these adjustments of speech and writing were superficial, and relatively easy. They formed part of that story, familiar in English biography, in which children who received the education their parents did not, were set on a path of cultural dislocation. What tends to get said is that the process is alienating and painful. But it seems to me now that there is more to it. There are gains as well as losses, at least for a writer. Exile from a homeland, though obviously a distressing experience, can bring a writer into a fruitful, or at least a usefully problematic, relationship with an adopted language. A weaker version of this, but still a version, is the internal exile of social mobility, particularly when it is through the layered linguistic density of English class.

When I started writing seriously in 1970, I may have dropped all or most of my mother's ways with words, but I still had her attitudes, her wariness, her unsureness of touch. Many writers let their sentences unfold experimentally on the page in order to find out what they are, where they are going, and how they can be shaped. I would sit without a pen in my hand, framing a sentence in my mind, often losing the beginning as I reached the end, and only when the thing was secure and complete would I set it down. I would stare at it suspiciously. Did it really say what I meant? Did it contain an error or an ambiguity that I could not see? Was it making a fool of me? Hours of effort produced very little, and very little satisfaction. From the outside, this slowness and hesitancy may have looked like artistic scrupulousness, and I was happy to present it that way, or let others do it for me. I was pleased when people spoke approvingly of the "hard surface" of my prose; that was something I could hide behind. In fact, my method represented an uncertainty that was partly social: I was joining the great conversation of literature which generally was not conducted in the language of Rose or my not-so-distant younger self. The voices of giants were rumbling over my head as I piped up to begin, as it were, my own conversation on the train.

Of course, those remarks copied into a 1994 notebook after our visit to the nature reserve give no sense of Rose's warmth in conversation, her particular emotional tone. In the summer of 1970 I went with my father to collect her from the military hospital in Millbank, London, where she was recovering from a stomach operation. It was customary for officers and their wives to occupy different wards from the other ranks and their wives. There was a noisy, tearful scene in the corridor outside Rose's ward as we were coming away. A dozen patients, the young wives of privates and corporals, had gathered to say goodbye and give presents to the woman who - so they said - had listened to their problems and given them her wise advice. In convalescence, she must have deserted her ward. She had been the wife of a sergeant, and before that, in her first marriage, of a private soldier. She would have felt more comfortable among the younger women in the other ranks' ward. And she was also in her element in a heart-to-heart. No language perils there.

When I was six, and we were living in army quarters in Singapore, I remember how I liked to loll unobtrusively on the floor behind the sofa when my mother had a friend round. I would listen in to these roaming, intimate heart-to-hearts. Broadly, they fell into two groups - operations, and bad behaviour. How compelling and gory they were, these accounts of flesh under knife, and the aftermath. I'm sure they exerted their subliminal pull on my first short stories. And with so many bad people in the world, what a lucky six-year-old I thought I was, when my mother and her friends were always on the side of the good.

In my second term at Woolverstone I was sent on an errand to the headmaster's secretary. The office was empty, and while I waited I saw on a desk a confidential report card with my name on it. "Hopelessly shy", "Can't get a word out of him", and worryingly, "An intimate boy". I half knew what the word meant. But surely you had to be intimate with someone. I looked the word up and saw in a secondary meaning the mention of secrets. I had none, but it was true that I only spoke freely on a one-to-one basis. I never acted in plays, I never spoke in class, I rarely spoke up when I was in a group of boys. Intimacy was what loosened my tongue, and I was always on the look out for the one true best friend.

My father, by contrast, loved to take control in a group of friends, especially if he could make them laugh, so I was far closer to my mother in conversational style. In my first stories I wanted to get as close as possible, put my lips to the reader's inner ear. These were almost parodies of artificial intimacy. Entering a public arena for the first time, I strove - too desperately, some said - to provide lurid secrets for a set of deranged narrators. Like men who had been alone too long, they had much to tell. Forcing them to confess at a couple of hundred words a day, and within a literary tradition, I thought I was freeing myself from my past. Writers who fictionalise their childhoods, I declared in my first interviews, bored me. The business is to invent. So I invented - intimately, with the embarrassed hesitancy of the inarticulate - in my mother tongue.

Rose Moore was born in 1915 in the village of Ash, near the military town of Aldershot. Her father was a painter-decorator. One of my first memories is of visiting him in the larger of two upstairs bedrooms where he lay dying of TB. The house then, in the early 50s, was as it had been during my mother's childhood. A steep, unlit central stairway, gas lighting, a gloomy kitchen smelling of damp and gas, the brighter unused front parlour, the scullery with a copper under which a fire was lit every Monday for the weekly wash. In the garden, a plum tree and the wooden privy perched over its horrible pit. Beyond, Farmer Mayhew's meadows stretching away to a low ridge of hills known as the Hogs' Back.

Rose was the eldest of five. Her mother was a reluctant housewife, a chain smoker who liked to walk to Aldershot to window shop, leaving her first born to mind the younger ones. Granny Moore had come over from Ireland at the age of 16 with a college education, according to my mother, who left school at 14. The age at which people went to college or left it meant little to Rose. She did not know where her mother grew up, or what her background was. My father, who grew up in Govan, Glasgow, also knew little about his family line. His parents were both tram drivers for the City Corporation, and their parents were agricultural labourers from the Stirling area. That was all he was told. This uncurious rootlessness characterises our family. I feel it myself, a complete lack of interest in family trees, or poking around in parish registers. Two or three generations back is the land, and most certainly a hard life. But whose land, and precisely what kind of life are forgotten. Not even that - they were never known.

Rose developed rickets from malnutrition. In a photograph taken in 1918 with her parents - her father was just back from the war - she is wearing calipers on her legs. Poverty went for the bone. Like many of her generation and class, Rose lost all her teeth in her 20s. During my childhood her false sets - top and bottom, lurking at night like bear traps in a glass tumbler by her bedside - were always giving her trouble. Another impediment to easy speech.

In the mid 1930s Rose married Ernest Wort, also a house painter, and my half brother Roy and my half sister Margy were born. Rose often told this story to illustrate the "ignorance of them times": when she was going into labour with her first child she believed and feared that "it was going to come out of my bottom". The astonished midwife set her straight. Ern was no great provider, though he clearly had charm. He often went missing for days or weeks on end - living under hedges, according to Rose, but she would only have known what he told her. Occasionally, the police would bring him back. Until then, she and the two children lived "on the parish" - provisions made under the old Poor Laws, until the welfare system was founded in the next decade.

Ern died in 1944 from the stomach wounds he received after the D-Day landings. In 1947 Rose married Regimental Sergeant Major David McEwan, and the following year I was born. A wedding photograph shows her tense, uncertain smile. My father also left school at 14 - the family's poverty forced him to abandon his scholarship, and four years later, unemployment on the Clyde forced him into the recruiting office. His lack of formal education sat unhappily all his life with his ferocious intelligence. There was always an air of frustration and boredom about him. He was a kindly man, but he was domineering too, with a Glaswegian working man's love of the pub - and the sergeants' mess.

The drunkenness distressed Rose but she never dared challenge him. She was always frightened of him, and so was I. When I came to early adolescence, I was like her, too tongue-tied to face down his iron certainties. I was at boarding school anyway, and in my mid-teens began to spend my holidays abroad with friends. After that, I drifted away, and saved my darker thoughts for my fiction where fathers, especially the one in The Cement Garden - were not kindly presented. Our most serious clash came some years later when I was in my 20s and visiting my parents in Germany. Rose had nothing to do all day at home but polish the furniture. When she was offered an afternoon job running a tiny barracks library that lent out paperback thrillers to the troops, David turned the job down on her behalf. His firm view was that having a wife who went out to work would reflect badly on him. Two years after our row, the job came round again and, moving with the times, he relented.

In my 20s I was often defending, or trying to defend, Rose against David, or promote her cause somehow. The effect on my writing was fairly direct, though I think at the time I had no clear sense of the connection. I read The Female Eunuch in 1971 and thought it was a revelation. The feminism of the 1970s spoke directly to a knot of problems at the heart of our family's life. I developed a romantic notion that if the spirit of women was liberated, the world would be healed. My female characters became the repository of all the goodness that men fell short of. In other words, pen in hand, I was going to set my mother free.

At home, there was violence in the air. There always had been, but only now could I really see it for what it was, and begin to judge it. My father, I know, felt he had a right to it, and it was no one's business but his own. When I was visiting my parents in the late 70s, Rose told me the latest. I was inclined to believe her and I offered to talk to David. The idea horrified her. It would make things worse when I went. That week he gave me as a late birthday present, an Olivetti portable typewriter. I was grateful - my old machine was falling apart. But the first thing I wrote on it, in a tiny bedroom upstairs, was a letter to my father which I gave to Rose to keep. She was to give it to him if she was threatened again. In it I told David that I loved him. I also told him that hitting Rose was a criminal act, and that if necessary I would come from England and see both the military police and his commanding officer. It turned out she destroyed the letter the week after I left. She said she couldn't sleep at night knowing it was in the house. Matters went on much as before, and what settled the problem in the end was only mellowing age, illness and growing dependency.

The memory of another letter from that time still makes me smile and wince, and remains a caution. Speed kills. Late one Friday morning, just before leaving my flat, I typed an indignant few lines to the Spectator concerning some slight I thought I had received in its pages the week before. Generally a mistake to complain, but I hadn't learned that yet. I put a carbon in my pocket and hurried off to a Friday lunch in Bertorelli's. At some point in the conversation, as the main course was being served, the Spectator article about me came up. I produced my stinging reply, and it was passed around the table, from Clive James, to Mark Boxer, Martin Amis to Karl Miller, from Christopher Hitchens to Terry Kilmartin to Peter Porter to Julian Barnes. Gratifying that, having the writers and critics whose opinion I valued most read my letter. There was general silence, then some throat clearing, and a move to change the subject as Jeremy Treglown, who had seen the carbon last, cupped his hand and murmured kindly in my ear "There's a dangler in the first sentence". Dah! - as Amis and Hitchens liked to say. In the first word . That indignantly detached participle. "Sir," would have been the sort of thing, "Having destroyed my meaning with dishonestly juxtaposed quotation, I find myself perplexed by your reviewer's sudden concession to probity when . . ." Osso bucco never tasted so vile.

It is spring time, 2001, and I collect Rose from the nursing home to take her out to lunch. Sometimes she knows exactly who I am, and at others she simply knows that I am someone she knows well. It doesn't seem to bother her too much. In the restaurant she returns to her major theme; she has been down to the cottage in Ash to see her parents. Her father was looking so unwell. She's worried about him. Her mother is going to come up to see her in the nursing home, but doesn't have the bus fare and we should send it to her. There is no purpose in telling Rose that her father died in 1951, and her mother in 1967. It never makes any difference. Sometimes, she packs a plastic carrier bag of goodies - a pint of milk, a loaf, a bar of chocolate and some knickers from the laundry basket. She will put on her coat and announce that she is going to Ash, to Smith's cottages, to the home where she grew up and where her mother is waiting for her. This homecoming may seem like a preparation for death, but she is in earnest about the details, and lately, she has been convinced that she has already been, and must soon go again. Over lunch, she says that what she would really like is for her mother to come and see her room at the nursing home, and see for herself that her daughter is all right.

Afterwards, I drive her round the streets of suburban west London. This is what she wants, to sit and look and point things out as we cruise from Northolt to North Harrow to Greenford.

"Oo, I really love doing this," she says. "I mean, look at me, riding about like Lady Muck!" As we go along the A40 in a heavy rainstorm, past Northolt airport, she falls asleep. She was always so bird-like and nervous that sleeping in the day would once have been unthinkable. She was a worrier, an insomniac. Soon all her memories will be gone. Even the jumbled ones - her mother, the house in Ash with the plum tree in the garden. It's a creeping death. Soon she won't know me or Margy or Roy. As the dementia empties her memory, it will begin to rob her of speech. Already there are simple nouns that elude her. The nouns will go, and then the verbs. And after her speech, her co-ordination, and the whole motor system. I must hang on to the things she says, the little turns, the phrases, for soon there will be no more. No more of the mother tongue I've spent most of my life unlearning.

She was animated and cheerful over lunch, but for me it's been another one of those sad afternoons. Each time I come, a little bit more of her has gone. But there's one small thing I'm grateful for. As she sleeps and the wipers toil to clear the windscreen, I can't help thinking of what she said - riding about like Lady Muck. I haven't heard that in years. Lady Muck. Where there's muck there's brass. It must have been in use in the 1930s, or 1940s. I'll use it. It's right for the novel I'm finishing now. I'll have it. Then I'll always remember that she said it. I have a character just coming to life who can use her words. So thank you, Rose, for that - and all the rest.

This piece was published in The Guardian on 13 October 2001 and is republished by permission of the author. It also appears in the book On Modern British Fiction, edited by Dr. Zachary Leader and published by OUP in 2002 (ISBN: 0199249326).
Novels:    The Cement Garden    The Comfort of Strangers    The Child in Time    The Innocent    Black Dogs       
Enduring Love    Amsterdam    Atonement    Saturday    On Chesil Beach   Solar   Sweet Tooth
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