I was born in Manchester, England, to a young woman who worked as a machinist at Marks & Spencer.
That was in the days when Lancashire was still the textile king of the U.K., and garments for M&S were made in their factory in Manchester.
Ann was sixteen or seventeen when she gave birth to me. She came from an Irish family of ten children, and it was decided that adoption was the best thing. For me. For her. I’ve written about this, and about meeting Ann many years later, in my memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I was adopted by John and Constance Winterson who lived in the nearby manufacturing town of Accrington. My father had left school at fourteen, and had trouble reading. He was a young soldier in the D-Day landings. Mrs Winterson was intelligent, but had also been forced to leave school at fourteen, even though she won a scholarship. Women weren’t for education in her family. She hated being uneducated and poor.
Both of my parents were religious. As evangelical Pentecostals they believed that my destiny was to be a missionary. They were right, as it turned out, but in an unexpected way.
We lived in a two-up two-down terraced house (two rooms per floor), without a bathroom, but with an outside toilet and coal-shed. (Type that too fast and it comes out as cola-shed, which isn’t what I mean, at all.)
There were no books in our house except the Bible and some religious commentaries. The Bible was read out loud by Mrs W every day, starting at Genesis, and going right through to Revelations. Sixty-six books in all – so not bad.
I am grateful for the Bible – its language, its story-telling, its certainties, its sense that the world is at once knowable and fully mysterious. That’s how I feel today.
And it’s the language of Shakespeare. The King James Bible, commissioned by James the First of England, uses the same rich, self-assured, poetic and powerful prose as Shakespeare. Knowing the Bible was owning a connection to language. Any working man or woman who read the Bible had no trouble reading Shakespeare. That was good for me. It gave me an edge. It gave me a chance. It meant I was fluent past the mismatches of social class and ambition. I could use words. From a household without books I had a twice daily language class soaked in how English works.
But I was lucky in other ways – going to a girls’ grammar school, and getting a sense that education was worth having. Not a utility education designed for job hunting – but a wider, deeper life of the mind. Allowing the mind to develop as place of enquiry, not as a means to an end.
I didn’t attach to my parents – it wasn’t possible for me, or for them. I think we were confused by one another and usually disappointed in one another. When I fell in love with another girl – really in the ordinary unexceptional way that girls do fall in love with other girls – I had to make a choice; the choice was to give up the girl or to leave home. I was sixteen, I was starting on my A levels. For the next two years I moved around – a tent, the floor of friends’ houses, unhappy episodes back home. I found refuge in a Mini -- that was a good experience. It was my own private place. I had books and safety. I never felt safe at home.
Here’s a clip from a BBC One programme I made called IMAGINE. It tells you how to live in a Mini.
I always had evening and weekend jobs; selling ice-cream, working the markets, assisting in a funeral home, behind the desk in the public library. After I finished school, and before I went to university, I worked in a mental hospital for a year helping to look after the long-term inmates. The money was good, and I needed to save up to get away.
I got away. I went to do an English Literature degree at the University of Oxford. St Catherine’s College.
International Museum of the Baroque
photo by Tim Walters
It was a wonderful and frightening time. I was out of place and out of my depth. I drove myself there in a Morris 1000 Post Office van so knackered that I couldn’t turn it off once the engine was running, in case it didn’t start again. This meant refilling it with fuel with the engine running, from cans stashed in the back, while parked up on the hard shoulder of the motorway.
But it was the start of my life.
After Oxford, things moved fast.
I started out working in theatre at London’s legendary Roundhouse. I did everything; swept floors, sold programmes, wrote and edited copy, drove around Thelma Holt, who was running the place.
I was writing, thinking, living cheaply, which was possible in the 1980s, and wondering how to make my way.
I soon applied for a Publicist job at a new feminist press called Pandora.
I didn’t get the job, but when I was telling stories about my life to the boss, she said, ‘If you can write it the way you tell it, I’ll buy it.’
I did – and she did.
That was Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.
Except that I did and didn’t want it to be about me, because I had understood early that the only way for me to change my world was to read myself as a fiction as well as a fact. If you are the story, you can change the story.
So Oranges uses myself as a fictional character. It’s me and it’s not me. It’s early auto-fiction, and it’s a way of experimenting with truth, not to distort it but to distill it.
The book was a big success, and in 1990 I scripted it into a 3-part BBC TV series. It won a BAFTA for Best Drama.
So that was the start, and the rest is easy to follow via the books. The books are the best of me. The books are where you will find me.
In 1994 I left London to live in the Cotswolds. I am not really a city girl. I love cities, but they are not my heart’s home. I need space and nature. That’s what I get out here, living in a wood with a big garden and the stars over my head.
But a couple of years later I bought a derelict house in Spitalfields – and by derelict I mean it had a Dangerous Structure Notice on it.
It was built in the 1780s, a tiny cornerhouse, in what is London’s East End, where the ancient fruit and veg market was located. When I first bought my house, the market was still on – trucks rattling through the arches at 4 am.
There were no shops at all – only the Taj Stores on Brick Lane. And the 10 Bells Pub where the Krays used to go drinking.
Now the area is gentrified and fancified, and there is no market as such – only stalls selling things no-one really needs, but it’s a fun place to have a house.
There’s always been a shop on the ground floor – and just now it’s let to Montezuma, the ethical chocolate company, so I feel good about that.
There’s nothing here about relationships, I know. And that’s because for women, relationships become the focus of everything, and it’s boring, so I decided not to write anything at all, except to say that love remains a work in progress.
But so it does for all of us, if we stop and look.
In 2013 I joined the staff at the University of Manchester as Professor of Creative Writing. I teach there for twelve weeks a year, two days a week, on the MA course only. It’s lovely to have that connection with Manchester again.
I have been offered a number of honorary degrees across the course of my life – and while I respect that, and am grateful to everyone who thought of me, I have accepted only two; Manchester, and Oxford. That’s right for my life, right for me.
I have won a fair few prizes, and accepted two public honours; an OBE and a CBE.
I realise at this late stage – coming up to forty years of creative work – that you build a life over time – there is no rush. What matters is to do the work that interests you; find a way to pay your bills, shape everything you do around your core values, because every decision we make – and that’s the food on the plate to the people we work with – every decision either supports or undermines who you are, who you want to be.
We make mistakes, we all do, and it doesn’t matter unless those mistakes become a habit that pulls us further and further away from our course.
Take yourself seriously and don’t cut corners. You can move fast – that’s different. Go at the speed you need, but don’t cut corners.
That’s what I know…
Suzanne Du Toit for the National Portrait Gallery