Why Not Say What Happened? A memoir
Review by Peter York
A girl raised in a chaotic home. A mother perpetually drunk, with a succession of partners. No food in the fridge, only booze. A recurring question about her paternity. A horrible childhood accident where a kettle full of boiling water is pulled over and causes 70 per cent burns and months in hospital. Questions about responsibility and fit and proper parenting, but much maudlin rambling from the mother and her partner of the time. Alternately ignored and hyper-involved as the love-hate companion of her mother’s hopeless life and unpleasant death from cancer.
It’s a familiar story from the world of Jeremy Kyle and Trisha; the story of inadequate underclass parents who can’t cope, can’t give their children what organised, structured, disciplined middle-class types can. The life that explains being light years behind when starting school, and predictable futures. Sadly an obvious candidate for Taking into Care.
But what if the girl’s a Guinness, part of the glamorous, rich Irish brewery clan? And what if she’s double-toffed because her granny married a marquess and her hopeless mother’s a Lady? And if what the ‘partners’ were globally famous artists — Lucian Freud, Israel Citkowitz and Robert Lowell, whose name she took? How d’you read Ivana Lowell’s story? Should she still have been taken into care? Do the familiar predictable episodes become more interesting because they’re played out in Knightsbridge, South Ken, New York, Sag Harbor and Tuscany, in a variety of oversized, rather beautiful houses and flats (though still uncomfortable and unkempt and often with terrible food)?
Above all, is a reasonably unsentimental but deeply non-analytical playback a work of art, of journalism, or what exactly? Where does it really belong in the scale of things? Why Not Say What Happened? was launched in New York in a hyper-smart apartment with a major art collection — apparently with delicious food, too. It comes garlanded with praise from smart people in NY-LON, people like John Richardson, biographer of Picasso, who says Lowell is ‘a born writer’.
The seriously rich are interesting, no question. And the Guinnesses are borderline mythological and long-haul rich, too. So add in the toff and the arty connections and it ought to be riveting.
So why isn’t it? All human life is there, people you want to know about and read about. And considering her background Lowell sounds nice enough, not aiming too obviously for the sympathy vote despite the sad background or the more recent foreground of some pretty gruesome boyfriends.
Her mother, Caroline Blackwood, whom I remember meeting in the Chelsea Artigentsia world, was reckoned a pretty good, if flaky and episodic writer. She tackled some interesting subjects and was said by people I respected to be a good writer. And, from the photographs in her daughter’s book, rather beautiful, too. Lowell herself looks pretty good but in a completely different, darker way.
So what exactly should we expect from Lowell as a memorist, or should we be content with the insider’s view given how interesting everyone was? Too interesting by half, in fact. One of the problems of the later-20th-century inherited Idle Rich was this uncertainty about their abilities and that perpetual question of whether anyone would pay them any attention if they weren’t all the things they were. (This current generation of the Rich seem to have solved that one, by getting hyper-educated and working to make another, bigger fortune.)
For the postwar upper-class, the answer was to work at being fabulously interesting by involving themselves with the fabulously interesting and rackety lives of artists, sleeping with them, sometimes marrying them and doing a bit of art stuff themselves. Thus all those unpublished writers and barely exhibited painters of 1950s Chelsea (the precursors to the girl in Jarvis Cocker’s wonderful Common People lyric).
Given that they didn’t get out much socially, any real artists that girls like Blackwood actually met would be successful — and often socially on the make — ones who’d penetrated their milieu. So Blackwood considered herself and was considered in her world as having Broken for the Border by running away with and marrying Lucian Freud. (Lucian Freud! Even then, hardly an unknown family brand, but his Jewishness shocked her mother, the ghastly-sounding Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava.)
It was this desperate urge to be interesting that infected practically everyone in that world — and in this book. So desperately, indeed, that little Ivana longs at times for the forbidden fruit of middle-class comfort and security. (Her idea of ‘middle-class’ ordinariness, it should be said, is having a swimming pool.)
Lowell thinks it’s enough to set down What Happened in tolerable prose, with a few gropings for something fancier, more poetic. She doesn’t go in for much in the way of analysis or contextualisation — why bother with that when, for instance, you can describe your terrible grandmother’s annual party for her friend and contemporary the Queen Mother, where polite heads swing to the left and right, as at Wimbledon, following the royal inclination and where a footman is positioned to respond to the QM’s glass-over-the-shoulder sign for a refill? Or her mother’s big rackety house in Redcliffe Gardens, divided into flats for parents, children and staff, and the setting of a party where the Duke of Devonshire gets so drunk he has to be gently pushed out and promptly falls down a flight of stairs?
It is interesting-ish but strangely unreflective, and this reader got decidedly impatient and irritated halfway through — and somewhat underwhelmed by the search for a real dad (it turns out he’s the grandson of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and — thrillingly for her granny — not Jewish).
If you follow all these people you’ll want an index, but you won’t get one. Too middle-class.