Friday, 13 January 2012

Last-Year Reads: Janey and Me

Janey and Me is the second of the trio of books I read about Janey Ironside this Christmas (the first one Janey, her autobiography, is here). This title especially wasn't happy holiday reading. Written by her daughter Virginia Ironside, who I knew best through her Dilemmas column for the Independent, it's about their complicated relationship, apparent from its sub-title, 'Growing up with my mother'.

Virginia quotes extensively from Janey and The Fashion Alphabet to retell Janey Ironside's story. Through this book, the scope of what Janey achieved professionally is made even more apparent. It shows her devotion to her students and their work and in return how some (though not all) worshipped her in return. She scoured portfolios searching for spark and originality, rather than finesse, and in the process opened her RCA course to Northern working class students such as Ossie Clark and Antony Price. She is quoted as saying: "People have frequently asked me, especially foreigners, what my secret is, producing all these bright people. The answer is there is no secret. It's the social revolution. There are no class barriers to design." The book emphasises her belief that the achievement of good design was actually a moral imperative.

Janey's career achievements are set against her deep unhappiness, her depression, sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. It completely changes how I read Janey.Virginia writes about how her father hated parties, but how her mother craved that social environment. Suddenly the neediness in Janey's own book becomes apparent, such as when she wrote, "A reason for my own love of parties was that my clothes ... designed and made by myself, were usually a success and my appearance was praised."

The book shows the complex push and pull between both the mother and daughter. The pride in her achievements - still evident as this Daily Mail article shows - versus the knowledge she was a demanding and distant mother (after her parents divorced, Virginia went to live with her father Christopher). The final years of Janey are desperately sad and hard to reconcile with how her public persona has been portrayed. As part of the conclusion to the book, these sides are patched together, perhaps as best they can be:

"The truth was my mother was an icon. An icon is not really a person. An icon is something sparkling and brittle. If you are an icon, you cannot, I think, be a mother."

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