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.