The instructions were clear. “Hi Mum. Plumber arriving at 10am to plumb in new toilet. Please let him in and show him where the bathroom is and don’t worry about payment as I’ve got it all sorted.” Simple enough? Yes, I thought so too. Fast forward to 6pm, excited by having my own private toilet at last I ran upstairs to have a look. I’ve never seen a 4 foot waste disposal pipe at the back of a loo before and I’ve never, ever seen a toilet in the middle of the room. The scribbled red-pencil note taped to the toilet seat said “Your mother insisted – I tried to put the loo where you wanted. I will have to charge you extra for the waste disposal pipe.” My poor mum did get an earful that day. She meant well because the recess into which I wanted to put the loo was narrow, but not THAT narrow. And yes, it was backing on to a window, but that’s what curtains are for and we were on the 4th floor with nobody overlooking us! Mum never got angry when people reacted to her actions, she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders in a well-it’s-up-to-you motion, leaving a seething, exasperated, confused person unable to fathom the logic. There was logic, but it was Mum logic and it made sense to her as she always applied it with love. Given carte blanche to design her own home, it would have made the history books as one of Britain’s most eccentric houses. To explain the situation: Mum inherited a tumble-down, neglected house in London that hadn’t been maintained for decades. The windows rattled, there was no central heating, none of the doors closed properly, various animals lived in the loft and I took over the top floor aged 18 just before I started work with the BBC. It was an adventure and slowly I converted the rooms into a sort of self-contained flat even though it was just the top floor of the house, so anyone could walk upstairs whenever they fancied, and 9 times out of 10 that was Mum.
She often refers to “Number 6” when she is confused by where she’s lived. It was a spectacular house and would have been a wonderful home, but the work that needed doing was beyond her on a cleaner’s salary and mine as a rookie BBC trainee. Clingfilm over windows was a great tip from a money-saving expert. Not only did it stop the wind whistling in, it helped discourage the ice on the inside of the window. Mum nestled herself into 2 rooms on the ground floor and painted the mahogany panel walls bright pink (gloss) and covered all the floors with all the thread-bare carpets she’d found in other parts of the house. It must have reduced the room height by at least a foot and I can always remember the trip hazard when you stepped up into the room onto the layers of carpet. Life was always colourful at Number 6, sadly now knocked down and replaced by a block of modern flats with one flat (the one that occupies the same space that my old kitchen covered), always up for sale. That’s a big story for another time, so for now let’s say that the place had its own personality and made itself known.
Tony & I are thinking of clever ways to get a bit more space in the kitchen area. In contrast to Number 6, our house is squeezed for space and my dream has always been to have a downstairs loo so that if Mum does manage to come to stay, she’ll be able to have her own little bathroom (with a normal, short waste disposal pipe). Every time I think of renovation of any kind, my mind always goes back to Number 6 and how basic life used to be there. We have central heating now and I’ve never taken it, or hot water, for granted as it wasn’t something we had whilst growing up. My Dad hated central heating, so it was never installed and washing up was always done with various kettle-loads of boiling water. “Who needs modernity?” were Dad’s words whenever we complained that all our friends had hot running water and warm houses. Back at Number 6 I’d had a party where Dad and my step-mum had come and the three of them got along quite well for a change. Dad mentioned that the electricity supply was a bit old fashioned and suggested to Mum that maybe it needed updating for safety’s sake. So she took his advice and brought in an electrician to give us a quote. Bearing in mind that my old lounge had one old round three-pin socket from which I’d erected a stack of two-pin round adapters to run all my appliances from. It was when the blue sparks flew out from the stack whenever anything was un-plugged that alerted my Dad to the safety aspect. The electrician said that it would be cheaper for us to have gas and electric done at the same time as there were two rooms where the gas was escaping through old pipe work. How we didn’t all suffocate or go up in flames is a miracle. The electrics were all done – no problem – but for some reason Mum got involved in the routing design for the gas pipes. Now, you’d think that the route for running a gas pipe down from the loft and into the room below would be into the corner and along the floor don’t you think? No, Mum thought that each pipe should come down the wall half-way across the door frame, then snake round the door frame, 1 foot from the frame itself, then do a 3/4 square wiggle to get to the floor. And where did this first experimental gas pipe design appear? In my lounge. Not only were the ugly pipes visible and sprawling everywhere, she’d painted them bright red. I’d got used to the electric sockets being placed half way up the wall, but the red gas pipes had to go. Give the man his due, he finished the job, often seen leaving the house shaking his head and scratching his brow with another strange piping request.
All this was Mum’s way of keeping me safe of course. She’d been told that the pipes and wiring were dangerous, so her responsibility was to replace them and make them safe. Aesthetics didn’t come into it – well, I suppose they did, but they were Mum’s vision of interior design. Many, many years later I worked for BBC Pebble Mill with the brilliant Nick Thorogood (the man who has always encouraged me to write all this down) and we developed a show called “The Million Pound House Experiment” where Justin and Colin renovated and sold a chain of homes from a cheap Birmingham flat to a million-pound Mayfair home over 2 years with clever renovations, using psychology in the display and selling of the houses and the sheer brilliance of their design ideas. Maybe Mum should have sneaked in and had a word with one of the craftsmen somewhere … can you imagine?
No matter how old we are, when parents swear it’s always shocking. Mum swears all the time these days and although we’re all horrified by the words that come out they make us laugh first, outraged second and admonishing last. Why is that? Why do we laugh after being scared to death, after outrageous behaviour, or when children or old people say things that we think belong to our own generation? A psychologist once explained to me that the function of laughter is to counter-balance extreme emotions that cause us to be fearful, outraged, challenged or threatened. Opposing ends of the emotional scale I reckon. Thank goodness for humour – for the brilliance of comedians, our ability to take ourselves with a pinch of salt and to dilute the world’s worst people with a comical put-down. Mum’s swearing only really comes out when her carers have to manoeuvre her in and out of her chair as she’s suffering from severe arthritis and in quite a bit of pain. But even Mum, with the attention span of a gnat, advancing dementia and her ‘alternative’ lens on the world, uses humour to deal with the confusing world around her. I’ve just finished a fortnight working with Jeremy Vine and 75 fantastic guests on Celebrity Eggheads and Mum’s reaction was “Get Trump on your Celebrity Eggheads show and let’s smash him – he’s a Humpty Numpty”. It’s wonderful logic isn’t it? There are so many jokes in there that I’d need Stephen Fry to break them down and analyse them. Rather like Chauncey Gardener in “Being There”, Mum’s innocent and inward thoughts spoken out loud appear to make more sense than anything else going on. Peter Sellers spoke only in gardening terms when he was hailed as a philosopher by the system. And we’re always hearing ‘truth from the mouths of babes’. We all get a bit clever when we’re grown up and think we know better, but if we listened to the world with our open-minded, non-judging listening ears on perhaps other people make far more sense.
Mum’s never been afraid of anything – apart from hospitals. She’s the bravest person I know and my secret weapon whenever I’ve needed anything sorted out and was too chicken to deal with it myself. When I moved into my house it was frustrating to have my next door neighbour’s bindweed forever invading my flowerbeds so I mentioned it casually to Mum. On returning from work the next day I could hear high-pitched voices in the back garden and it looked like someone was flinging bindweed up in the air. Nag, nag, nag whoosh, quibble, quibble, loud voice, whoosh – more bindweed. Mum! She’d knocked on my neighbour’s door under the pretence of wanting to wait for me to come home from work (Mum never had my front door key) and had then laid into her about the bindweed that was “ruining my life.” (It wasn’t). The point was made, rather too strongly I thought, but it was made and once Mum had gone home I checked with Eileen that Mum hadn’t been too rude or obnoxious in fighting my relatively unimportant gardening corner. She told me that when the knock on the door came, a loud voice shouted; “I’m from Barnet council and we DEMAND that you clear your garden of weeds”. This was through a closed door I might add as Eileen was making her way back in to the house. She was confronted by Mum in a scarf, dark glasses and a floppy dark brown hat yelling about neighbourly behaviour and threatening to sue her. Luckily Eileen had met her a few times before and saw through the disguise immediately and as the wonderful kind woman she was, invited her in for a cup of tea. The bindweed flinging came soon afterwards when Mum decided to do it herself, causing more neighbourly stress as Eileen’s precious flowers were being unearthed by my mum in one of her flinging moods.
One of my favourite Mum-telling-off-the-famous stories was when I’d taken her to see Nina Simone in concert. I’d made a radio series presented by the wonderful Helen Mayhew for BBC Radio 3 called “Mississippi Goddam; the story of Nina Simone” and despite five failed attempts to actually meet her, Nina finally conceded that I could come and say hello after the show. I told Mum that she would have to wait in the theatre bar while I went back-stage and I should have known that despite the promises, she would never have kept them. I was told to bring a dozen long-stemmed white roses and to wait until she spoke to me first. So I waited outside her dressing room and waited and waited. On four occasions I was packed and laden up with tape recorders when her manager phoned me to say that Miss Simone wouldn’t be able to see me. On the fifth attempt he asked me what colour skin I had. Apparently Nina had only agreed to see me as Beldom sounded to her like a black name. He told me that I was free to go, but to remember that Nina could be violent with people she didn’t like the look of. I put it down to “Mummish” behaviour and thought I’d get round her and charm her into giving me an interview. The subsequent call confirmed that was definitely not going to happen – I could hear Nina yelling in the background so I missed flight number 5. With these thoughts running through my head Nina’s dressing door flung open and her bass player came out, all guns blazing, yelling at the top of his voice that one of the pieces used in the series was from a live album and not a studio recording. He was furious – seriously furious and I was a bit lost for words. Then I could hear another set of guns blazing behind me as Mum advanced at full screaming voice telling him to back off and leave me alone. Then he started yelling at her to mind her own business and she came at him with this fantastic put-down; “Shut up silly man, you sound like a duck”. It did the trick. Everyone was confused, Mum started laughing, he went silent, the door of the dressing room opened wide and a smiling Nina Simone beckoned me in saying “leave the children to it”. She was charm itself and had loved the series and confessed that she was just nervous of the interview as she didn’t like appearing as herself without a piano keyboard in front of her. She told me that, like my loving mother, she’d had her own demons, but had learned to try and laugh them off. I know other people who will say that she didn’t laugh very often, but on that night she did. I think she saw herself in my Mum and told my Mum to keep the roses as a gift from her.
I’m going to play “My Baby Just Cares for Me” to Mum when I go and see her and I bet she’ll remember every word, even though she’ll have forgotten what day it is or what she’s just watched on the telly. She always told me that I always had a lot to say for myself, even as a baby and sometimes she’d hum this tune to me to calm me down. And it’s so true – her baby don’t care who knows it, her baby just cares for her. A lot.
Sadly she’s not mobile enough to come to Finchley these days or I’d have a subtle word about the noisy neighbours who’ve moved into Eileen’s house. It amuses me to wonder what they’d say to a little 87-year old, ginger-haired lady who’d tell them to keep their (insert embarassing-parent-swearing-word here) noise down and to stop having loud parties till 4am. They’d probably laugh – till 4am. Humpty Numptys.
At age 5 I asked my Mum what a Europe was and she told me that it was like a huge cake with dozens of countries in it. I whispered to myself that she obviously meant “currants”, but I was seriously worried about how a cake could be made that was even bigger than Hendon. Our oven was small, greasy and black, the nursery school oven was bigger, but it was IN Hendon, so still not big enough. It was always comforting to have big concepts to think about whenever Mum was doing her normal crazy stuff. She told me I was going to sing for Cilla Black and dance for the Queen – and she bought me that fantastic curly bread with a shiny top from her special bakery, telling me I was precious and often whispered to me that I was the reason she wasn’t carted off to have her head fried. That made me wonder if the bakery was where the cake would be made and where people had to be careful they weren’t put in the deep fat fryer head-first. And it was my responsibility to stop that from happening. When you’re little you take all this information in as being true and in Mum’s world it was – totally normal. I asked everyone how to make a currant cake that was bigger than Hendon and people laughed – silly grown ups – what did they know? Nothing. They were always telling me to stop thinking too much and I thought up my first joke while wondering how big people were always so silly. The banging door was the signal that Daddy was home. “Knock, knock Daddy”. Who’s there Sweetie? “Europe”. Europe who? “I’M NOT A POOH – YOU’RE A POOH!” My dad had a wonderful expression on his face that I’ve never forgotten and still see today; a “that’s my girl” smirk.
I had a lot of things on my mind as a little girl; where they were going to bake this huge cake? Why people would want to fry my Mum’s head? Who was Cilla Black and how I’d get past the scary guards at Buckingham Palace?
Mum’s explanations were always fantastical – borne from a wild imagination craving freedom and the insurmountable confusion of postnatal depression which went largely undiagnosed and ignored in the 60s.
She was brushed aside by people around her and patronised as being “too excitable for her own good”. She was ill and nobody really recognised it as something that could be treated, so it was ignored. Oh no, what’s Margaret been up to now? Whenever I heard that I went into myself and thought “I can tell you some of the things she’s been up to, but you probably won’t believe me and might tell me I’m fibbing”, so I kept quiet. Keeping quiet feels like a very British thing and something that women were supposed to do in the latter part of the twentieth century. Mum being mum didn’t heed the advice from other mothers around her and got louder and louder.
I told my teacher the Europe joke and even though all the class laughed I had to stand in the corner. She tried to make me wear a sash with “naughty” written across it, but that wasn’t going to happen. What would Mum have done in that situation? She would have ripped it off and flung it out of the window singing “Goodbyee – don’t cryee – wipe a tear baby dear, from your eyeee” so I gave it a go. The class all laughed with me, but the teacher started crying. Silly grown ups: no sense of humour apart from Daddy and Nanny & Pop.
I’m working on the Celebrity Eggheads show this week and next, but Mum is very confused by the whole idea. “Eggheads? What’s that?” It’s a quiz show on BBC2 with some brilliantly clever people mum. One team are quizzers who know pretty much everything and …” she interrupts me with a “not everything, they don’t know about our special word”. That’s true Mum – some of the questions are quite difficult. “I do very little these days, Sonia darling, just lazing around. But I love Jeremy Vine though, so I’ll watch it – he’s the one asking the questions that fry your brain isn’t he?” Stopped completely in my tracks, it occurs to me that she now attributes the brain frying to quizzing rather than the dread of having Electric Shock Treatment. When Mum was diagnosed in 2010 they asked me for permission to administer EST and I refused. Back in the 60s she would be have been talking about EST when she said “They might fry your brain”, which led to her having a crippling fear of hospitals, psychiatrists or doctors all her life. No-one’s going to fry my precious Mum’s brain. I can still protect her from that lifelong fear at least and sleep peacefully in the knowledge that she’s re-assigned the phrase to a happier place. Our happy word? HUGGLES – Mum’s mixture of hug and cuddles which she invented for a children’s story she wrote in the late 60s about a dragon that ate children unless they said the magic word and answered 10 questions right. Maybe Mum could be an honorary Egghead with a delightfully scrambled, rather than a fried brain? Love her to bits.
Sometimes life can be very simple if you ask the right questions. That’s always been my belief anyway, like “How do you fancy us coming to play in the restaurant lounge when you have an event on?” or “If I got myself qualified as a bus driver can I drive some of your classic Routemasters?” My mum’s questions, however, have always been challenging and she’s as likely to ask me “How can I get to Afghanistan so that I can stand on a roadside bomb and be done with it?” as “Have you brought me any toffees?” to which the answer is always yes to the latter and “Is your passport still valid Mum?” to the former, so that the question doesn’t have the devastating impact she’s trying to create and has the wind taken out of its sails by simple, logical answers. I’ve learned that with Mum and her advancing dementia, interspersed with her magical creative thinking, you have to switch on a different pair of listening ears. Ears that leave logic, pre-conceptions and quick reactions to one side. Alexa ears … Siri ears … just listening to facts and creating as straight forward an answer as possible.
Having had a bit of down time over Christmas, Tony and I have been playing together on piano and double bass. It’s been joyful to focus on filling the house with music and it always reminds me of a hilarious exchange last year when I told Mum that I wanted to learn a bit more about harmony and improvisation.
“Hello Mum, I’ve just come back from my jazz piano lesson”
What do you mean? Don’t you mean violin?
“No, I’m no good at violin, don’t you remember I only got to Grade 3”
Surely that MAN man can teach you violin – for God’s sake! (For some reason she’s very cross at this point).
“Why Mum? I want to learn how to play jazz piano properly”
I can’t imagine him being very good at teaching you piano – he plays the violin. When did he suddenly become a piano teacher?
“EH Mum? What are you on about? He’s been teaching piano for ages, one of the best … why are you so against jazz piano lessons”
Well, I never thought much of your father’s piano playing to be honest.
Very plonky and loud. (He’s a professional violinist).
“What’s Dad got to do with this Mum?”
Well if he insists on teaching you, at least he’s getting up off his lazy arse (they divorced many years ago). Your Dad teaching YOU the piano ! Really ?!?!?!?!
“Ahhhh Mum – JAZZ piano lessons, not DAD’s piano lessons”
Pardon Sonia darling? Your Dad’s NOT teaching you the piano then?”
“No Mum – he’s sticking to the violin – I’ve got another teacher for the piano”.
Good – let him stick to the violin. And then she breaks into the Mendelssohn violin concerto – recalling every beautiful note and humming it pitch perfect – in E minor.
Mum often peppers the conversation with comments about wanting to be gone, but if she ever sees that I’m upset by hearing it she laughs and changes the subject. I know deep down that she’s tired of life and wants peace and relief from pain, but on the other hand she loves the people she’s surrounded by and tries new things every day, so her zest for life and learning is still there in between it all. My lovely friend and neighbour has just recommended a book to me; “Contended Dementia” by Oliver James and there are three rules that people can start thinking about when communicating with people who have dementia. 1) Don’t ask direct questions, 2) Listen to the expert (the person) and 3) Don’t contradict. These are all logical points that will take a bit of practice because I know I contradict my mum a lot – mainly because she says such funny things and it always makes us both laugh, but now I’m wondering if I should start listening to her with those new ears. As for not asking questions, I’ve always thought that the action of asking questions makes the person feel important, included and that it shows that you’re interested in them. The theory in dementia is that it confuses people if they don’t know an answer, can feel under pressure to give the right answer and it highlights that they have reduced short-term memory. Sometimes, when confronted with someone who doesn’t have a lot to say, it’s tempting to fire questions at them to encourage them to talk, but to them it may sound like a barrage of words that serve only to bring pressure and an unwanted spotlight.
Next time I go and see Mum I’m going to compile a playlist of songs that she’s always loved and I’ll bet you anything that she remembers every single word. She’ll probably rip off the headphones and try to give the Ipod away. I’ll keep persevering though because not only does she have a very pretty singing voice when she’s not wailing like a banshee for comic effect, but I can see the light going on in her eyes when she realises that her brain hasn’t give up on her after all.
And one day when the weather improves I can’t wait to see her eyes when we’ve loaded her wheelchair onto the bus and she sees me getting into the driving seat to drive the residents down to the seaside for fish and chips. It could go a million different ways of course. For one, she’ll insist on talking to me the whole time. She might get them all singing one of her favourite songs and I know she’ll be flinging her toffees at everyone and wondering why, two minutes later, there aren’t any left. She’ll put her toffee order in, like she always does and the next day she’ll have forgotten all about it. But I know that somewhere, deep inside that wonderful brain of hers, the memory will be lodged and the right prompt, not question, will bring it back.