Jenny Diski's latest novel, Apology for the Woman Writing, is published by Virago.


Dear little bird, do die now

I am what historian Richard W. Bulliet calls post-domestic. Unless you are a hill farmer, or a herder (in which case you are an anachronism, which won't come as a surprise since making a living in either of those ways is very difficult) so are you. My grandparents came from the shtetl: they were traders, furriers, tailors, but at some point they must have ridden horses, or used them to pull carts. They would have kept chickens and killed them under the watchful eye of the rabbi. My mother, although born in London in 1912, knew how to singe and dress chickens that came, head and feet on, insides inside, from the kosher butcher. Even so, the children of immigrants like my parents put the shtetls behind them as much as possible. Their old people were old world embarrassments, for all that they had made the bold journey from a hostile middle Europe to unknown and far-away city centres.

Neat, clean clothes confirmed how far we had come from the old country. My mother was adept at defining a lady. A lady always wears pale gloves, carries a clean handkerchief. A lady does not mess with dirtying nature, except in the kitchen to prepare it to look other than what it was by chopping and cooking, and, I would like to suppose, sometimes at least, in bed. My mother and father both fled into the urbane. When I was young we lived in a centrally-heated block of flats, a man way down in the basement stoked the boiler, another man came every week and took the dirty sheets and brought them back washed and ironed. My ladylike gloves were white. We had a little more to prove, but I don't think we were exceptional among the many families of the 50s: the goal was to achieve and hang on to respectability. Falling over was frowned on, not just because you hurt yourself, but because it dirtied you up: stuff from the pavement on your clothes, blood, no longer contained, staining those nice neat socks and handkerchiefs. We walked or went on buses or taxis to shops or to the park, where children have to be taken. Russell Square, a small patch of green in central London, or the larger patch of Regent's Park in the other direction. When I was old enough – seven or eight – I went alone or with friends. But be careful not to sit on the grass without putting something down first. Those patches of unpaved earth were what Americans call it: dirt. Near enough to nature to be reminiscent of countryside.

My mother spent her days dusting and polishing and cleaning, but our flat was so small, I can't imagine how it occupied her for more than half an hour a day. She washed herself and me as if we spent our lives in dark and dusty tunnels. Especially down there, in the animal – the natural – the private – parts. Not that they had much opportunity to get dirty – clean knickers every morning and careful lessons in how to wipe yourself after urinating or defecating. My mother was prepared to confront the dirty animal but only to ensure that it never, never got a hold on our existence.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.



Issue 13 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop