Sunday, May 27, 2012

On John Cheever, 'The Dante Of The Cocktail Hour'

The next instalment of my column for New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian.

An Indian city’s suburbs are, typically, squalid, overcrowded areas inhabited by those who can’t afford to live closer to the city’s centre. The notion of a suburb is very different elsewhere, particularly on America’s eastern seaboard, where they’ve been viewed as havens of homogeneity, places to move to when one has children, picket-fenced dwellings from where middle-management men in grey flannel suits emerged to commute to and from offices in the city. As John Cheever wrote in a 1960 piece for Esquire just before his own move to Westchester, “My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place-name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun”.

Cheever, whose 100th birth anniversary is this week, captured the malaise of suburban life like no other. Though he wrote five novels – of the last, Colm Toibin said, “If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language” -- it’s his short stories that Cheever is remembered for.  He was to influence others such as John Updike, and Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, has cited him as well as Richard Yates as inspirations for the show. (In the first season, Don and Betty Draper live on Bullet Park Road, a reference to a Cheever novel.)  In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza’s to-be wife discovers a cache of amorous letters written by Cheever to her father, and in the same year there was a commercial for Levi’s directed by Tarsem Singh that was a take-off on ‘The Swimmer’, one of Cheever’s best stories, earlier made into a 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster.

Like that story, the others possess an autumnal melancholy akin to what Orhan Pamuk referred to as huzun in his book on Istanbul. The titles themselves are revealing: ‘O City of Broken Dreams’, ‘Torch Song’, ‘The Season of Divorce’, ‘The Sorrows of Gin’. Most are set in the 1950s, that period of American promise after World War Two and before Vietnam. Cheever satirises and sometimes mythologises the lives of men who are anxious not to betray their potential, drinking too much, conducting casual affairs, observing their wives and children with an equal mixture of pride and helplessness. Sunday evening shadows lengthen over the lawn in the suburb of Shady Hill as they brood over disagreements and disappointments, trying to rise above them by attending one party too many. Not for nothing was Cheever referred to as “the Dante of the cocktail hour”.

As a repressed homosexual in a loveless marriage for most of his life – as well as an alcoholic – Cheever’s treatment of women in his fiction is problematic, a charge also levelled against other writers of his time. They stay at home; they shop; they exchange gossip; and, when they aren’t tender objects of desire, can be vain and demanding. It’s not as easy as calling Cheever a misogynist; rather, most of his women – in ‘A Country Husband’, for instance – exist to valorize or oppress the men. At the other end of the scale, in stories such as ‘Reunion’, ‘The Five Forty Eight’ and ‘Goodbye My Brother’, is Cheever’s consummate ability to portray the anxiety beneath the artifice in sonorous, graceful sentences that are, in Hanif Kureishi’s words, “intelligent and resonant, poetic and ineffable”. Cheever himself once wrote, “The constants that I look for are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being”.

In one of his early stories, ‘The Enormous Radio’, a couple in a Sutton Place apartment finds that their radio has the ability to pick up the conversations of others in their building. All is revealed to them: bitterness, jealousy, heartbreak and the difficulty of keeping up appearances. In the same manner, Cheever was able to tune in to the frequency of quiet desperation and broadcast its voice to the rest of us.

In Greeneland

This appeared in today's DNA.


It’s not often that a writer composes a book-length homage to another. Offhand, one can recall Nicholson Baker’s quirky U and I, about his fixation with John Updike; Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, about his attempts to grapple with the life of D.H. Lawrence; and, more recently, Tom Grimes’ Mentor, about his relationship with Frank Conroy, erstwhile director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Typically, such work is designed to reveal as much about the writer as the person being written about, and this is also the case with Pico Iyer’s new book, The Man within My Head, a meditation on Graham Greene. (The clever title is a take on Greene’s first novel, The Man Within.)

In his autobiography of his early years, A Sort of Life, Greene writes that part of the motive that made him a novelist was the “desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order”. In The Man within My Head, Iyer tries to impose order on his experiences of travel and early life by examining them through the prism of his relationship with Greene’s work. As such, it’s not a book that one can easily slot into pre-fabricated categories of memoir, travel or literary criticism. In a loosely-overlapping series of intensely personal chapters, he explores the question: “Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?”

Thus, this is no Norman Sherry-like obsessive quest; the focus is internal. As Iyer says to a friend, “I’m interested in the things that lived inside him. His terrors and obsessions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us”. With Greene installed as his “adoptive father”, Iyer is also free to also talk of his actual father: the early signs of brilliance in Mumbai, the move to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and the final shift to California. Iyer himself would spend many of his growing years between England and America, no doubt planting the seeds of his interest in geographical displacement, and what it does to a person.

While travelling to places such as Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Vietnam, Mexico and Cuba, Iyer sounds a note of self-analysis again and again: “Freed from usual routine and small talk, I was away from the sense that I had to play a role, or to choose one self over another; I could find what lay at the heart of me, my core….” He dreams of meeting Greene, writes obsessively, grafts his fictional characters onto the people he meets and, on occasion, visits the locations that Greene himself went to.

In pensive passages, Iyer points out how Greene deftly escapes easy categories of being a “Catholic” or “English” writer; besides, he states that his reaction to the novels is more visceral than reductionist. The inability to slot the novelist is brought out more than once: “Sometimes Greene called his books ‘entertainments’, but they were always shot through with a sense of sadness and being lost; the ones he called novels often had scenes of such riotous misunderstanding and knockabout poignancy that professors would refuse to take them seriously”. At times, though, Iyer can skirt dangerously close to the woolly: “All Greene’s books are, deep down, about the shaking of the heart and not the body”.  (By way of contrast, one thinks of Colm Toibin’s always-trenchant assessments of writers’ relationships with their families in his recent collection of essays, How to Kill Your Mother.

At its best, Iyer’s analysis of Greene’s flawed heroes in novels such as The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana is sensitive and intelligent, and his accounts of interactions with his parents are affecting and poignant.  It turns out that this act of paying homage to another writer and exploring the nature of kinship – both genetic and elective – enables him to be more revealing about himself than ever before.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ignoring Writing Advice

The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian.

Over the years, a cottage industry has arisen around books that offer advice on writing fiction. These come in all stripes, from the folksy (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird) to the insightful (Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist) to the inspirational (Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write).  Writing schools have published anthologies on craft and novelists have weighed in with opinions and experiences, among them, Stephen King, Norman Mailer and Ray Bradbury.

Volumes promise to make you finish writing a novel in the next year, the next ninety days, the next thirty days and even the next ten days, should you be in a hurry. There are books on dialogue, plot, characters, subtext. There’s even one titled How Not to Write a Novel, with examples of the mistakes that novices make.

Most of these assert that there are no rigid rules for writing – and yet, certain pieces of advice crop up time and again. These have been repeated so often that they’ve come to be taken as hoary truths. This is far from the case. Here, then – speaking as someone who’s never written a novel – are five common pieces of advice you’d be better off not to follow blindly.

Keep it Simple.  George Orwell said it. Strunk and White insisted on it. So it must be followed, right? Not necessarily. What if, by subject and inclination, one needs a prolix, wordy style? In that case, the important thing, especially at a rewriting stage, is to be clear about what you’re aiming for, and then make sure you’re communicating it. Not convinced? Two words: William Faulkner. Still not convinced? Two more words: Henry James.

Write What You Know. On every novel written by a Vietnam veteran describing the horrors of conflict, there falls the shadow of Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage, which he wrote despite having no Civil War experience. If you have first-hand knowledge about your subject, great; if you don’t, and it’s something you need to write about, find out what you have to and let your imagination do the rest. Kafka never visited the United States, which didn’t stop him from making it the setting of his first novel.

Show, Don’t Tell. This makes sense on the face of it, considering that a large part of the art of fiction lies in dramatizing characters in action. Yet, almost no novel can rely on only showing and not telling. There has to be a balance between the two – and what that balance favours depends on the needs of the novel in question. Look at how much Milan Kundera tells instead of shows, underlining his ideas. (Polemical novels, though, face the danger of being more polemical than novel, but that’s the subject of another column.)

Murder Your Darlings. This one originated from Arthur Quiller Couch, who wrote in 1916: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Ever since, it’s been held up as a way to banish passages that are “clever”, “literary” and otherwise not plain enough. While I’m certainly not advocating purple passages and overwritten prose, I don’t think that one ought to kill those poor darlings at all. Rather, examine them scrupulously and, if they’re there for a reason and make the point you want them to make, let them live and breathe.

Write When You Have Something to Say. Scott Fitzgerald, somewhat confusingly, once said, “You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say”. The need to have something to say has stopped many fledgling writers in their tracks and is one of the leading causes of furrowed brows among their tribe. Here’s a more worthwhile way to look at it: write to find out what you have to say. Scribble, explore, go down blind alleys, take U-turns and then emerge onto the highway of meaning. And don’t forget to thank me in your novel’s acknowledgements.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Small Exiles

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


To read Anjum Hasan’s Difficult Pleasures, a collection of stories that have appeared elsewhere over the years, is to be reminded once more of Irish writer Frank O’Connor’s thoughts on the short story. He asserted that it was in this form that one found “an intense awareness of human loneliness”. It was here, he went on, that we would meet outsiders, “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society”.

People who think of themselves as outsiders are aplenty in Difficult Pleasures. There are many drifters, in whose minds lurks “the mild danger that such a life encompasses a great deal but amounts to little”. A naïve, budding photographer comes to Mumbai to meet the person he thinks of as his mentor. A young woman returns to Bangalore after studying in England and sits among packing cases thinking of her mother and a failed relationship. A disobedient schoolboy plays hooky to marvel at the pleasures of a mall in the big city. A Paris-based economist decides to drive to Sweden upon hearing of the suicide of his brother. Time and again, Hasan’s characters emerge from ruts to find – as the bumper sticker has it – that they’re diagonally parked in a parallel universe.

Pleasingly enough, these stories are also leavened with wry reflections on people’s foibles. A character thinks of her landlord that he was “tolerant of the world's instabilities as long as the rent was paid on time”. Another character in the depths of despair thinks: “I can’t want to kill myself because I’m hungry and it’s not possible to feel both things at once”.

These, then, are humane, unshowy tales that depend more on character than on plot for their effects, and the best of them – such as ‘Immanuel Kant in Shillong’, in which a widowed professor re-visits old haunts – are moving and eloquent. In another vivid story, ‘The Big Picture’, the predicament of a widow approaching menopause and travelling to Europe for the first time to attend an exhibition of her paintings, is narrated with empathy, grace and finally, unexpectedness.

On a few occasions, though, there’s a slide towards solipsism, as with ‘For Love or Water’, in which a student in Bangalore discovers a scarcity of both. In ‘Hanging on like Death,’ in which an 8-year-old schoolboy worries about whether his father will attend the school play, there’s an uncharacteristic turn towards the dramatic at the close.

These, however, are minor quibbles, given the quiet yet striking insights that one encounters in other tales. “It is possible to feel completely at home in the world,” one story begins, “but this is only because we have laid claim to a small space – a few rooms, certain streets, a familiar town – over which our habitual wanderings create grooves that we can comfortably slip into”.  When Hasan’s characters drop out of such grooves, they find themselves amongst the unfamiliar, eavesdrop on conversations in cafes, ruminate obsessively over the past and, if they’re lucky, make their peace with it.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

More Chemistry Than Tears

This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times


Unlikely couples and wily inventiveness have often been a part of Peter Carey’s novels. One thinks of Oscar and Lucinda, of Parrot and Olivier, of Dial and Che, of Jack Maggs and Henry Phipps. His latest, The Chemistry of Tears, features another such pair, one from the 19th century and the other from the 21st.  Past and present are yoked together by a series of notebooks, while the novel deals with the interplay between the constructed and the natural.

We’re introduced, first, to Catherine, a horologist at the Swinburne Museum in London, who receives the news that the married co-worker she’s been having an affair with for over a decade has died of a sudden heart attack. This, she learns later, occurred a day before the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an incident that has a bearing on later events. The grief-stricken Catherine is given a new project, the restoration of an ingenious 19th century mechanical duck, during the course of which she discovers a series of notebooks written by one Henry Brandling, the person who commissioned the automaton. Henry’s notebooks become her lifeline: she obsessively reads of his hopes that this “clockwork Grail” will cheer up his ailing, bronchial son, and of his travails in getting it made.

Henry records his journey from England to the heart of Germany’s Black Forest and the strange obsessions of the craftsmen who create his device there; Catherine, meanwhile, handles superiors and assistants at the museum as she helps to reconstruct Brandling’s duck-turned-swan.  Both face the loss of life and the simulacrum of it, finding peace in “the quiet ticking of clocks”, as the correspondences between their situations and the people around them are made increasingly apparent. Catherine becomes even more enmeshed in Henry’s notebooks as they sweep on, from a father’s quest to make a device to delight his child to dramatic events surrounding the creation of a Babbage-like analytical machine.

Carey’s prose is spare, almost spiky, deftly moving between the two voices. Metaphors of the mechanical are used to describe the worlds of both characters. For Henry, he is his son’s “engine, his pulse, his voltaic coil”. For Catherine, her lover is a “creature who should be forever celebrated in marble”. London is a “suicidal engine burning in the night”; Catherine’s flat is “a jewel box”; and tear glands are “intensely complicated factories”. On the other hand, “that we were intricate chemical machines never diminished our sense of wonder, our reverence for Vermeer and for Monet, our floating bodies in the salty water, our evanescent joy before the dying of the light”.

As the novel progresses, the nature of the automated swan becomes more protean. Is it a way to explore the mysteries of consciousness, a machine with or without a ghost? Is it a Frankenstein’s monster for our age, an indictment of the Industrial Revolution? Or is it a comment on the nature of novel-writing and other forms of artistic creation? Almost all of these are teasingly hinted at. As one of the characters says of Mark Rothko’s work:  “You can look and look but you never get past the vacillations and ambiguities of colour, and form, and surface”. In many ways, this pleasing uncertainty and the novel’s intricate pattern are its strengths.

However, there’s more chemistry and less tears here: the cleverness of Carey’s design mitigates the novel’s emotional impact. The emphasis on the mechanical, and the constant need to establish links between past and present make The Chemistry of Tears appear bloodless, much like the Zeus-like swan at its core. This apparatus, on one occasion, is described as “precise, ingenious and strange”. You could say the same about the novel itself.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Judging A Book By The Ad On Its Cover

The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian

Publishers have started printing advertisements on book covers in a move to help their industry sustain development and survive.

I have three words for those planning to adorn book jackets with advertisements. Context is everything. In the same way that it would be inappropriate to feature a commercial for beer on the Disney Channel, it would be counter-productive to display an ad for a fine Cabernet on the cover of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Here, in the interests of helping the publishing industry to survive, are some examples of how to go about it. Exclamation marks are optional.

On E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India: Now, see India like never before. With Royal Quested air-conditioned tours that take you away from the heat and dust of the country and keep you safe and cool behind glass windows. Why venture into smelly caves and shake hands with unhygienic natives when you can simply lie back and savour the sights?  Hurry: the first 100 people who call us will receive free framed photographs of the Taj Mahal autographed by Shah Jahan.

On George Orwell’s 1984:  Are your employees grumbling behind your back? Could they be planning a strike?  Are they considering leaving the firm?  With our range of discreet Room 101 spy-cams, you’ll be the first to find out. Conceal them at workstations, near water-coolers, in rest-rooms, and soon, you’ll know just whom to promote and whom to push. Doublespeak was never this easy to keep tabs on.

On V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas: It’s time you moved into a place of your own, and you know it. Presenting Tulsi Properties, the answer to nagging parents and overbearing in-laws. A range of spacious apartments with access to a gym, a pool and a clubhouse.  Each one is miles away from the city and thus, completely affordable. This distance also means you’ll meet your relatives rarely, if at all. Tulsi Properties. Thoughtfully thinking of everything you can think of.

On any novel from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series: Stop depending on the kindness of strangers. Enroll yourself with BBB – Bella’s Blood Bank. From now on, should you ever need a blood transfusion, we’re here to speedily provide you with types A, B, AB, O as well as any other letter that takes your fancy. Bella’s Blood Bank. Because getting blood shouldn’t be a pain in the neck.

On James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay.” We don’t know what that means, and neither do your listeners. You see, you need to speak correctly to harness the incredible powers of persuasion that will leave them begging for more. It’s so simple: a three-week course in Daedalus English Classes will give you all the tools you need. Impress the boss! Amaze your colleagues! Win over the girls!

On Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles: Bothered by the unruly behaviour of your canine friend? That’s where the Baker Street Dog Training Academy steps in. Just a few weekends will turn your rowdy pet into an adorable creature ready to lick your hand at the drop of a deerstalker. Sessions include being able to differentiate between a favourite pair of slippers and a bone, and being able to tell whether the game is afoot or merely asleep.

 On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: Hair loss, crow’s feet and loss of stamina are inevitable signs of aging. Until now! For the first time, acclaimed nutritionist Vivian Darkbloom offers the world a patented age-fighting tonic, guaranteed to make you attractive to the fairer – and younger – sex all over again. This birthday, don’t grow older, grow younger. Special introductory offer: a month’s supply at a never-before low, low price. Satisfaction guaranteed or your wrinkles back.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Irish English

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian

Whether it’s a secret ingredient added to the water or the magical powers of the Blarney Stone, Irish authors have always been able to make the English language perform wonders. From Jonathan Swift to James Joyce, from Flann O’Brien to John Banville, their prose has a distinctive, satisfying cadence and a sometimes dark but always unique way of looking at the world. For author and broadcaster Frank Delaney, “the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors”.

Over the years, several anthologies have tried to showcase the best of such writing. There was the mammoth Penguin Book of Irish Fiction put together by Colm Toibin which, in over 1,000 pages, had selections from over 100 authors from the 17th century to the present day. More manageable are the collections that focus on short stories, a form close to the heart of Irish writers, with notable anthologies edited by Frank O’Connor, Joseph O’Connor and William Trevor, among others.

The most recent of these, with 31 selections from the 20th century, is The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by the redoubtable Anne Enright. Any such anthologist faces a daunting task, given the sheer wealth and breadth of material on offer. Enright appears to have pulled it off with élan, stating that she simply chose the ones she liked. (One wishes that she had set modesty aside and included a story of her own, too.) In a memorable phrase from the introduction, she says that short stories “are the cats of the literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers' tastes”.

Enright goes on to mention the strong tradition of Irish folk tales and oral storytelling as a possible reason for her fellow citizens’ penchant for the short story, and combines this with Frank O’Connor’s observation that the form is the natural home of loners and misfits. What emerges is a vision of the short story writer as a contrarian, going against the grain to bring us “truths that are delightful and small”.

In her collection, one finds many familiar voices that are a pleasure to listen to again. Among these, William Trevor’s destiny-driven ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’; John Banville’s impressionistic ‘Summer Voices’; Edna O’Brien’s sensuous ‘Sister Imelda’; Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, with almost every sentence a perfectly-framed photograph; Frank O’Connor’s quirky, moving ‘The Mad Lomasneys’; John McGahern’s quiet yet powerful ‘The Key’; and Roddy Doyle’s Gothic-tinged ‘The Pram’.

What’s of more interest are the new – for me, anyway – voices: the dreamlike, dissociated rhythms of Keith Ridgeway’s ‘Shame’, the bittersweet swing of Hugo Hamilton’s ‘The Supremacy of Grief’ and the urban, existential drama of Philip O'Ceallaigh’s ‘Walking Away’. There’s also Kevin Barry – whose new novel City of Bohane has been making waves – with a twisted ode to love in ‘See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown’.

Overall, the anthology demonstrates how Irish writers have changed with changing times -- for example, there are fewer priests, pregnancies and less politics than you’d expect. The spectrum is wide: the old, the young, the conservative, the modern, the violent, the peaceful, the schemers and the misunderstood, in Ireland and out of it.

A common thread is an intermingling of pathos and humour; not black comedy exactly, more a wryness of tone and an arch of the eyebrow at the miseries that life can toss in one's way. This is a world in which rain falls incessantly on a grey city, sweeping over to the adjacent county. Shamed by desire and held hostage by history, characters listen to the inarticulate speech of the heart, knowing that they have only a few weapons in their arsenal, among them silence, exile and cunning.

A word of caution, though. The stories here are so rich, and there are so many of them, that to consume them all in one gulp – as I tried to do – is most unadvisable. Far better to take them in small doses, preferably accompanied by sips from that other recommended produce of Ireland, a dram of Jameson’s whiskey.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mum Isn't The Word

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


In Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin and Ek Din Achanak – the first and last films of his so-called Absence Trilogy – the disappearance of a member of the family is a plot device used to examine the responses of those left behind. The same stratagem is to be found in Kyung-sook Shin’s novel, Please Look after Mother, the recent winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize and a bestseller in her native South Korea. There’s a marked difference in tone and aim, however, between those films and this book.

The person who goes missing is Park So-nyo, the 69-year-old wife and mother of five grown-up children, who’s parted from her husband at a Seoul subway station on the way from their village to the city where the children have settled. The reactions and memories of the rest are brought to us in chapters that shift between the points of view of some of the others in the family. There’s one of the daughters, a peripatetic writer; the eldest son, his mother’s favourite; the wayward father; and finally, the missing person herself. So-nyo’s absence, then, is a frame within which is revealed a portrait of her role in keeping the family together.

From the start, what’s emphasized is the mother’s utter selflessness and hard work when it comes to caring for others. She doesn’t let her various ailments – including a stroke and breast cancer – come in the way of doing whatever it takes: “She would grind red peppers in the mortar to make kimchi, sift through beanstalks to find beans and shuck them, make red-pepper paste, salt cabbage for winter kimchi, or dry fermented soybean cakes”. That’s just for starters: she also cultivates vegetables, scrimps and saves on expenses, breeds silkworms and brews malt.

The food and customs of rural Korea are vividly brought to life in the telling, pointing to what’s between the lines, an elegy for earlier ways of living now lost (like the mother herself) because of increasing urbanization. In this parable of change, for example, people prefer to holiday abroad during the full moon harvest festival instead of staying home to perform rites for their ancestors.  This is also the link between some of Shin’s characters and those in the short stories of Yiyun Li, relics in a fast-changing China.

What mars the novel is the tone of extreme sanctimoniousness when it comes to So-nyo. The attitude towards her is nothing if not reverential; at one point late in the book, there’s even a comparison with Michelangelo’s Pieta. In all this overstated pathos, the mother is shown to have few needs or desires of her own apart from the upkeep of her family – and the members of an orphanage, to boot.

In Sen’s films, the reactions of the families to the absence of one of their own are designed to uncover middle-class hypocrisy and insecurity. In Shin’s Please Look after Mother, the mother’s absence turns out to be a way of valorizing her motherhood above all else. Mum isn’t the word. Treacle is.