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.