Old Devil in a Dog-collar

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I first read Lorna Sage’s deeply absorbing and funny memoir Bad Blood in 2001, just before it won the Whitbread Award for Biography. A week later she died of emphysema, aged only 57, and, although I’d never met her, I felt as if I had. Her printed voice still flowed in my head, witty and full of insights into the rocky worlds of children and the adults who are supposed to care for them; a precise voice, rich with details that reminded me of my own semi-rural childhood: ‘hedges overgrown with hawthorn, honeysuckle and dog roses’.

Lorna Sage was a professor of English Literature, a distinguished literary critic and a regular reviewer for the Observer, the New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. She was born during the Second World War, in 1943, and lived with her ‘rather put-upon’ mother at her grandparents’ vicarage, while her father, an army captain, was away on active service.

In the vicarage another war was being waged. Lorna’s grandparents barely spoke to one another and slept at opposite ends of the house. The ‘old devil’, a High Church vicar who went in for frequent communions, not only wore a dog-collar but also sported a scar on his cheek, the result of a carving knife wound made by his wife on one of the many occasions when he’d come home drunk. It was the drinking that had brought about his relocation from South Wales to the village of Hanmer, in an obscure corner of Flintshire. There ‘the communicants got watered-down Sanatogen from Boots’, grandfather’s wine supply having been stopped by the Bishop.

According to Lorna’s grandmother, Hanmer was a hole: ‘A dead-alive dump. A muck heap.’ A place of traditional farmers and Women’s Institute wives, smallholders and labourers, with only one policeman, one butcher and one baker. On its publication in 2000, Bad Blood provoked a great deal of criticism from Hanmer’s resi

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About the contributor

Linda Leatherbarrow is the author of two collections of short stories and is currently working on a memoir.

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