A love letter to Sheffield - from a most unlikely source | Rachel Cooke

How could old Etonian Ferdinand Mount possibly understand the character of the northern city? He used his imagination

It comes over you only rarely in life: the swoony feeling that a book might almost have been written for you. Two weeks after I finished it, I can’t stop thinking about Kiss Myself Goodbye, Ferdinand Mount’s extraordinary memoir of his Aunt Munca. Like someone in love, all I want to do is talk about it, a situation that’s sorely testing the patience of my domestic colleague, who must now attend a Munca symposium at approximately 7.30pm every night. (There is only one speaker: me.)

When first we meet Munca, it’s the late 1950s and she is living it up in Surrey, a luxurious realm of golf courses, plumped cushions and endless deceptions. But then, slowly, we scroll back to where she was born – and it was at this point in the story that I was amazed to see a fuzzy picture of a certain house on a Sheffield street: the very spot where I was first kissed. My God, I thought, what a nerve! Mount, a former editor of the TLS, is an old Etonian, a cousin of David Cameron and in the 1980s ran the No 10 policy unit under Mrs Thatcher. How could he possibly understand Sheffield? His one-time boss ripped apart our city.

But his evocation of it is beautiful and faultless. Its singular topography stirs him; he grasps that, more than most cities, it is a collection of villages; he has such feeling for its hulking chapels, crumbling steel mills and working poor. Closing the book, I wondered all over again why anyone would want to apply identity politics to the writing of literature – a good writer can go anywhere – and then I sent its author an embarrassing fan letter in which I detailed various Cooke family locations (girl guide hut, pub, Granny’s outside loo) and their precise relationship to places in his narrative. Possibly alarmed by my ardent tone, he replied by return. Which is how I came to know that, unlike me, Munca did not maintain her flat vowels after the rest of her moved south.

Older women on film

Yes, it’s depressing to see 35-year-old Carey Mulligan playing Edith Pretty in The Dig, a woman who at the time of the discovery of treasure on her estate at Sutton Hoo in 1939 was 56; apparently, the rage for diversity is having no effect whatsoever on our culture’s borderline disgust for the middle-aged woman. But it’s also baffling. My sense of myself, at 51, is that I’ve never felt more vital or self-defined; that what I lack in collagen I make up for in energy and confidence. As for other women my age – my friends, my colleagues – not only are they undimmed, I know for a fact they’re extremely desirable. Don’t these dinosaurs in film know that out in the real world men are absolutely mad for older women?

Sew late in the day

As a teenage domestic science refusnik, I couldn’t stand sewing. While my mother designed the tapestry kneelers that, 40 years on, are still in use at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, my efforts were limited to two samplers she inevitably had to finish for me once the requisite no-progress-for-six-months period had passed.

So I feel mildly embarrassed at having taken up embroidery now – yet another retro effect of Covid-19. Will it stick? Maybe. In 2021, tutorials in complex stitches come courtesy of the internet. Unlike my mother, the soothing woman on screen cannot be driven halfway round the bend by my warty French knots or my stem stitch that looks like the work of a small child.

  • Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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