I thought readers of my blog would be interested to read a review of Darling Baby Mine by Donal Trelford, former editor of the Observer, now living in Mallorca. This review appeared in his weekly column for the island’s large British community, The Majorcan Daily Bulletin.
Here is the review in full.
JOHN de St Jorre is a man I have known for nearly 50 years in two different contexts – as a foreign correspondent on The Observer, covering Africa and the Middle East; and in Majorca, where he had a house in Deia for many years and returned there this year with his friends and family, including his American wife and two children, to celebrate his 80th birthday.
John has lived an adventurous life – as a soldier in Malaya, an agent of MI6, as a journalist in war zones, and as the author of a number of books. His latest, launched in London last week, is the most personal book he has ever written: about his lifelong search for his mother.
Darling Baby Mine (published by Quartet Books at £20), is a deeply moving story, essentially tragic, but also uplifting and compelling. Beautifully written, it is one of those books you can’t put down until you know how it ends.
From his early infancy John had retained a memory of a woman wearing “a loose blouse, half-open, revealing large breasts. She had blue eyes and blonde hair framing a full, plump face. Smoke curled upwards from her cigarette. She looked at me, threw back her head, and laughed…She sounded happy and that made me happy too. She seemed familiar, someone close to me, and I suppose that is why I thought of her as my mother. Who else could she be? Then she vanished.”
The book is the story of his attempt to recover that lost vision. After years of intermittent searching, he finally succeeded, piecing together his family jigsaw with the dedication of an investigative journalist. His father was from the Seychelles – when the author went there for the first time in search of clues to his mother he found himself surrounded by two dozen people named St Jorre on the boat from Mombasa.
His parents had married in London in 1934. It was a bad match from the start. His father was much older and too stern for his fun-loving wife, who told him on their wedding night that she had married him for security rather than love. There were hints that she had an affair.
Nonetheless, they had two boys. John and his younger brother Maurice were packed off by the father, at the ages of five and three, to an austere Roman Catholic priory in Kent, where they (rather pitifully) were made to address their letters home to “Mammy and Daddy,” until a nun brusquely informed them that they had no mother. They were then left with a succession of ageing landladies who looked after them kindly while their father visited at weekends.
The whereabouts of their mother was never discussed and John never dared to ask. They assumed she was dead. It turned out that she had behaved so strangely after the birth of her second child – there were some mental health problems on her side of the family – that the father had not only had her admitted to a mental hospital but agreed to a pre-frontal leucotomy, a fashionable operation in the immediate post-war years, though now medically discredited, which left her a pacified wreck. She was probably suffering from post-natal depression.
Eventually the father married a Scots school teacher, a decent woman, whom John was required to call mother, provoking in him an uncomfortable sense of disloyalty and a determination to find out if his natural mother could still be alive. The search could only begin after his father’s death. It was complicated by the fact the father had removed her name from all family records. As his step-mother said, while helping John in his search: “He was an unforgiving man.”
John finally located her through tracing her sister and they were reunited, in an emotional scene, in a mental hospital in Hertfordshire, one of several in which she had lived for 40 years. Grace had become so institutionalised that she could be persuaded to come out for weekends only occasionally. After the initial shock of meeting her long-lost son, she showed a rapid improvement and could hold a sensible conversation and even recall details from her distant past.
She died in 1979 while John was covering the revolution in Iran. When he went to look for her grave in Kensal Green cemetery, he couldn’t find it. His mother had vanished again.
John’s love for Majorca is shown in the book in a beautiful passage about his arrival home in Deia a description which many of us will recognise: “One last swoop and there is the village, perched on the top of a small hill in a valley and walled in by a great arc of mountains on all but the seaward side. The houses, with their stone walls, red-tiled roofs and green shutters, appear to lean on each other, old friends weary with age, as they climb up the steep hill to greet the church. A graveyard, guarded by tall cypress trees, shares the summit with the church and accommodates generations of farmers and fishermen and their families.
“At this point you can see everything – the mountain range clear and sharp against the sky, the countless terraces, sculpted from the living rock by the Moors centuries ago to nurture the precious olive trees; the occasional ancient, weather-beaten finca, high up on the mountain side; and the magnificent sweep of the pine-clad coast, fading away in a purple haze.
“The lock squeaked as I turned the key and the heavy wooden door needed a shove to open it. I stepped inside and inhaled the mixture of smells that I had grown to love: the linseed oil on the wooden beams; the dry, fusty odour of straw from the mattress stuffing; and a faint scent of jasmine, a reminder of hot summer days when the stone walls retained their warmth well into the night.”
John may live now in the United States but, as I could tell while having lunch with him recently in Pollensa, his heart will always be in Majorca.