“I think we should run an electroencephalogram on you,” or, “Maybe you need a good neurological work-up.” It’s fair to say that in most aspects Lila Mae White was an unconventional parent, and she too, like Jeremy Seabrook’s mother, exercised an uncomfortably intimate dominance over her son’s every move. When, as a teenager, he started to go out, Lila Mae would tell her son, ‘Remember, I won’t be able to sleep a wink until you’re safely back here . . . Please don’t keep me up all night, honey.’ And, when he did return: ‘I’d stand in her doorway at midnight . . . she’d want me to rub her back; sometimes she’d turn on a light and ask me to press out the blackheads. Her skin felt clammy. I could smell the whisky seeping from her pores; in a kittenish way she’d call it “wicky”.’ With a mother like that, one might be tempted to say, what better son to have, than one who became a writer?
In selecting this anthology from more than fifty issues of Granta, from 1995 to 2009, I could hardly fail to be aware that the memoir, the first-person autobiographical form that generations of writers were taught to avoid, is the literary genre that marks this period more than any other. And what made memoir during this period more notable was that it was men, as well as women, who were writing about their personal experiences and their emotions. In America, an early example was Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, published in 1989, which proved that this autobiographical form could have a novelistic resonance. In Britain, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992) used football, and specifically a love affair with the north London club, Arsenal, as a means by which to chart a young man’s emotional progress. It was followed, a year later, by Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which explored the relationship, rarely exposed so candidly in print, between an adult son and his dying father. It caught the frustrating, humiliating tension of a son trying to reconcile his love for a man who appears to him, in so many ways, an absurd figure: a self-assured cheat who has exploited his wife’s loyalty and failed to recognize his own faults. The memory of his father’s life allowed Morrison to examine his own and the book perfectly caught the moment when all children have to acknowledge that, however much we might hate to admit it, we have been formed, to a lesser or greater degree, by the character of our parents and by our experiences within family life.
The memoir soon became the fastest-growing genre in non-fiction. Granta had been in the vanguard of its literary form, publishing not