The Stirrings: A Memoir in Northern Time by Catherine Taylor

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Review by Annabel

I’ve long followed Catherine Taylor on Twitter, where she has a straight-talking view of things literary and often political. A former publisher, she’s now a freelance writer, critic and editor. I am always interested in journalists’ memoirs; the best place their story set against a backdrop of the sociopolitical and cultural mores of the times to inform and add context to their own stories. That is something that Taylor does so well, it really felt like being back in the mid-1970s to 1980s when she was growing up.

I didn’t know that Taylor is a New Zealander by birth. Her mother, from Auckland, met her father, a ‘Ten Pound Pom’, on the boat home after hitchhiking around Australia. Catherine was just two and a half when the family moved to England settling in Sheffield, where her father worked at the university and her mother ran a bookshop. In early 1977, when she was nine, she went with her mother back to New Zealand for two months and it was on their return that her father left the family.

Midsummer. There was now an informal arrangement in place by which I saw my father on certain Saturdays. He didn’t come into the house, but waited outside in an unfamiliar car – our own car having been taken away by bailiffs, along with various household items, as my parents’ bookshop was facing bankruptcy.

They found a way to keep the bookshop running and Catherine would help out after school and at weekends. Meanwhile, it’s 1980 and the Yorkshire Ripper attacks are increasing.

Every second Saturday during that time, I would, despite what I had been warned against, get into a stranger’s car. The difference was that the stranger was my father – known, and semi-known, just as his simultaneous presence and absence continued to pervade out house. Schrodinger’s Dad, half dead, half alive. […]

My misery during these access visits was profound.

The Queen’s jubilee year of 1977 features strongly in Taylor’s account of her parents’ break-up, but it is the Yorkshire Ripper in the background that strongly pervades these next few years, setting in context what it was to be a young woman in Yorkshire back then. She didn’t have it easy at school either, being bullied for being from a broken home, being bookish, being an outsider, and consequently truanted frequently, nervously going to the park to read.

Finally, Sutcliffe was caught, and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief, although many commented on the police’s lack of insight that let him get away with it for so long. Ere long, Greenham Common and the Miner’s strike would take over the airwaves and column inches. Taylor sets her own story, and political awakening where Greenham is concerned, against them, punctuated by what was in the pop charts. I very much enjoyed her style of personal linked to reportage.

But illness beckoned, and a hyperactive thyroid was diagnosed, leading to a narrow escape after an allergic reaction to anaesthetic after a thyroidectomy, which turned out not to be the problem in the end. Luckily she is able to move on in her later teens to having more fun, drama productions, crushes, first love and lasting friendships, and university at Cardiff. There is grief too when a friend is lost in a tragic accident which she must work through.

Taylor writes not only with a journalist’s eye but also with a fine sense of humour, relating as many funny anecdotes as poignant ones. We’re with her all the way as she finds her way through teenaged life to emerge as a young woman ready to seize her future.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books.

Catherine Taylor, The Stirrings (W&N, 2023). 978-1474625302, 256pp., hardback.

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