The title may seem a tad blatant but, in my 35 years as a writer, I’ve been continually fascinated by the key influence parents exert over their children’s future development and life-chances, and also by the power of sex to enrich and exhilarate. Yet I’m equally aware of the darker side of sex, which, if violent or exploitative, can damage and debase. Taught by the Reverend Mother of my convent boarding-school that one single act of incontinence could land me in hellfire for all eternity, I was conscious from a tender age of the dramatic dangers of “the world, the flesh and the devil”.
Bad mothers certainly feature in this collection – negative, critical, or cantankerous – but I wanted to balance them with some positive, upbeat element – hence the lovers, who, although by no means all ‘brilliant’, engage in enough passionate and transformative sex to justify the adjective. However, there are also more troubling liaisons, for instance, an 82-year-old professor’s attempt to seduce a post-graduate student 60 years his junior. The encounter begins promisingly enough, as the Prof runs through his repertoire of erotic expertise but, when it comes to the crunch, he proves just too offputtingly ancient and the girl flees his bed in panic and disgust.
Another, much younger lover – a data analyst obsessed with numbers, algorithms and mathematical formulae – seems incapable of sexual spontaneity, adhering to a rigid sexual system, as if his every timetabled move is dictated by a dispassionate cyber-brain.
But many of my characters lack any kind of lover: essentially lonely souls, such as 93-year-old widow Primrose, divorcee Sarah, or single, childless Ellen. Yet, each of the three achieves redemption and reprieve – another recurring theme in my work. The basic notion of redemption was instilled in me, very early on, as a Roman Catholic child and I found it appealingly compassionate in that every person on earth can be saved, so long as they seek forgiveness. Of course, redemption for my fictional characters is rarely a religious matter; indeed, is sometimes achieved through bizarrely secular means – in businesswoman Helen’s case, a self-indulgent glut of marshmallows, or, for shy loner Ken, a home-made Christmas pudding – but the basic concept holds good, in that it remains a regenerative and liberating force.
As always, many of the stories sprang from personal experience: the fake gold ring I was offered in a scam; my encounter with a colony of mice at Clapham Common tube station; the bridal couple I saw posing for photos in the Lost Property Office, of all places; my horror as a pious child when I fainted during Holy Mass and believed I was plunging into Hell.
And that terrifying incident brings me back to mothers and lovers. Reverend Mother, who deplored my habitual fainting and refused to call me Wendy on the grounds it wasn’t a Saint’s name, was undoubtedly a ‘bad mother’. Yet I sought solace in God the Father, whom I regarded as a lover, in the sense of a powerful, life-enhancing Presence, demanding worship and surrender.
Oppressive mothers and unobtainable fathers have characterized much of my work since my first novel in 1980, along with Catholicism, of course, which has left indelible traces in the fibre of my being, like letters lingering in a stick of rock until the very last lick. And, in many of my books, I explore the struggle between rebellion and submission, and the drive for self-fulfilment in conflict with the pernicious lure of self-destruction. All these themes recur in Bad Mothers, Brilliant Lovers, yet, in the interests of fairness, I’ve also included a few good mothers in the stories, as well as some downright crappy lovers. Take your pick!
Read an extract from ‘Joy’ a short story from Wendy Perriam’s forthcoming collection Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers. This collection will be published by Robert Hale on 14th January 2015. www.halebooks.com