It’s panto season – oh yes, it is. Come on, you knew I wouldn’t be able to resist that one. Oh, you didn’t? Oh yes you … OK, OK, I’ll stop now. We rehearsed our panto band last night in our little terraced house – 2 violins, French horn, clarinet, piano, bass and drums until 9.30pm. Well, you wouldn’t want to upset your neighbours with loud noises, raucous laughter and feel-good fun for too long now, would you? Mum would have loved it – even though she couldn’t really play an instrument (apart from a one-chord version of Danny Boy), she had a great singing voice which often wandered into Hinge & Bracket territory and for anyone NOT as old as me, H & B were a brilliant piano & singing duo who sang comedy songs in full falsetto and size 12 heels. Look them up on Youtube – you won’t be disappointed. I met them both once while working as a producer for Radio 2 – they were in normal man clothes in the studio and switched seamlessly into drag voices when the microphone was on. We were stuck for decent phone-in guests, so I roped Mum in as part of the show. It was a risky plan, but it worked brilliantly as she asked them a few questions that really made them laugh. “Hello ladies – where do you buy your pants?” was the first question. Followed by “Can you teach my daughter how to sing properly?” thus completely giving the game away when they asked who her daughter was. “The beautiful lady bossing you about.” was her answer before telling them that she had to go because her toast was on fire. Mum taught me the very essence of taking risks. She did it all the time without probably understanding that they WERE risks as her mental health condition didn’t really compute embarrassing behaviour with “normal” social interactions. Wonderful woman. Even though she did get me severely admonished for not using proper audience members as part of my programme. Hey ho, I survived.
I often think about that moment and when clearing out Mum’s house, we found a whole cabinet full of cassette tapes (youngsters look this up on Youtube). We found that she’d recorded nearly every show I’d ever produced. She loved the radio so I’m planning, along with a very dear friend and colleague who’s mother was equally chaotic, to start a podcast to share stories and compare notes with other people around the world. It’s so exciting because a) it’ll be a wonderful way to speak to people about their own mother/child relationship and b) I’ll be going back to my radio roots at long last.
Would you want to share your own stories? The more the better. Hopefully some of the stories will make you smile, others may draw a tear, but most importantly these stories aim to heal. Maybe even help restore and transform relationships that may have lost their way a little. Those who’ve read this blog will realise that my relationship with my troubled mum was completely transformed once I understood fully how ill she’d been throughout her life. Mental illness was a far bigger part of Mum’s world that I’d ever really understood and it took until she was 80 for her to be diagnosed, supported and looked after until she passed away last year.
So, for anyone interested in seeing a panto with a band bigger than most professional shows on the circuit this year (apart, maybe the band at The Palladium), it’s Aladdin with The Guild Players from 5th – 7th December. My wonderful husband and MD, Tony Clout has spent weeks getting the arrangements together and 70% of the band are pros, so it should sound good.
If you come, say hello – I’ll be the one bossing everyone about.
Driving through London’s West End in a vintage double-decker bus is challenging at the best of times, let alone when there are protests and road closures everywhere. Thanks to my inherited bravery from my lovely mum we managed, but it was tight (and I don’t just mean round side streets with cars parked on each side). Deep breaths – you made it. Calculating the various driving jobs over the past year or so I realised that I’d clocked up fourteen weddings and one amazingly soul-affirming funeral where we drove behind the funeral cortege at 10 miles per hour from Harrods to Mortlake with every road user letting us through. No honking, no swearing, no over-taking. Just people stopping to watch us go by with their heads bowed in memory of people they’ve lost or just paying their respects. Life in frantic London can have its extraordinary moments.
Today’s blog is about the joy of navigating a bus as old as I am through London’s streets and the heartache of learning that buses are wide, long and did I mention wide? Yes, I did – it’s the image of that green Lamborghini that still haunts me while being directed by a police man in Covent Garden Piazza to try and get past it, because it was illegally parked and blocking everyone. Easy in a car. Not so in a bus, especially when you’re being filmed by two restaurant terraces of diners all wanting a bit of excitement to show their friends on social media. CRUNCH. The noise still makes my blood run cold. WHOA. The cry from enthusiastic, voracious filmers still makes me want to jump out and shout “Well – YOU try it in THIS.” The smirking “Didn’t think it would make it through” from said policeman didn’t exactly instil confidence either. We made it to our pick-up in the nick of time though. The Lamborghini, miraculously, didn’t have a mark on it, but the poor old bus had a nasty crack in the bonnet. The big, red bus is a London icon and anything other than shiny, bold and heroic doesn’t really work in my eyes, so that Kermit-green image will always be with me when I check in my left hand mirror.
My precious mum would have thought the whole thing hilarious. She told me that she once witnessed an accident and ran up to the driver who’d smashed into two parked cars and hugged him like a long lost friend. She thought that if he had a nice memory of the accident, it might not affect him so badly. He didn’t think of it like that and called the police. Not to report the accident, but to report Mum for assault. She meant well of course and luckily no action was taken (at least that’s what she told me). Nobody came up to hug me after the Lamborghini incident and I live in dread of one day seeing my crumpled expression in the driver’s cabin as the crunch rang out. There on social media for the world to see. So far, it hasn’t. Since this incident I’ve been told that if you pump an old routemaster’s brakes too much, it can build up pressure and that occasionally makes them surge forward despite your foot being on the brake – so I’m sticking to that version. “It surged Officer, it surged. Nothing to do with my judgement of width. Honest.”
The wedding on Saturday was absolutely charming – the family and friends of the army officer getting married thanked me personally for a smooth drive which made all the angst of road closures, driving South over bridges to get back to North London and uncharted bus territory worth it. On the way home I stopped at the bus stop outside my Dad’s house and there he was, waiting like an excited kid to jump on the open tailboard and have a ride on one of the buses that he used to take as a child. He kept saying afterwards that he couldn’t quite get his head round the fact that he and Mum used to take me to my grand parents on the same bus route (the old No. 19) and that now he was watching me as a grown-up driving the thing. Another soul-affirming moment, especially as Dad doesn’t drive at all.
Everything in life is a lesson and the one thing that my Mum taught me is that life is there for the sheer adventure – good or challenging – and most of the time the unexpected makes you stronger. I did tell her about the Lamborghini incident, just before she passed away, but she didn’t understand why I was going on about lamb all of a sudden as she was only eating scrambled eggs. I can’t believe it’s a year since she passed away – it’s flown past and I think of her everyday and am comforted that 50% of me is her. That’s the 50% that my husband often worries about – the “what’s the worst that can happen?” wife who refuses to be defined by age and convention. When a lot of my friends were contemplating a bus pass within the next decade, I decided to pass my bus test instead. One day I’ll migrate to buses that have power steering, air conditioning, sound-proofing and heating. Routemaster’s, however are much more fun.
The garden is quiet, the roads are clear, the neighbours are away and peace is here. Aaah bliss. I’m looking out at a rose that I planted in my mum’s memory and wondering where this last year has gone. And now – popping into my head are memories of going on holiday with my eccentric mum. I had no idea that you could actually pre-book a hotel or simply buy a ticket for the train. In Mum world, we chose where we were going, tried to blag lifts from coaches, cars at traffic lights or anyone who looked like they were going in the same direction. Then, once there the first day was spent spotting “vacancy” signs in bed & breakfast windows, Mum flirting with the owners and sometimes we even got a sandwich and glass of orange because they felt sorry for us. One particular holiday always makes me laugh – and to be fair, Mum also found it funny looking back. “Oh, dear, Sonia darling, to think I put you through all that, but we had a nice time didn’t we? What a mother I am!” Yes, Mum, you were a fantastic mother, despite the mental illness and … no, wait. Hang on. I’m getting all sentimental and not telling you the story.
This particular holiday was split in two. One half in Edinburgh and the other half on the Isle of Skye. It was in Edinburgh that I met my very first “love” and he must have thought a lot of me, because despite Mum’s efforts, he wrote to me for at least a year afterwards. I was 13, so it was all very innocent and sweet. He wrote me a poem and Mum decided that it wasn’t grown-up enough so edited it. I thought that she’d only edited my copy from “we will never part, so strong is our heart” to “whenever love comes it crushes your heart.” But bless him, he re-wrote it and sent it back to me saying that he was sure my mother would prefer this version. Bearing in mind I was 13 and he was 15, he tapped on our door at the guest house where he was staying with his mum and asked me what to do with the box that mum had left for him. Inside were two condoms and an orange. Well, I loved oranges, so thought that it was her idea of the perfect gift for him to give me and as for the condoms, I knew what they were, but he didn’t, so I took them and threw them away saying they’d probably dropped into the box by mistake. He seemed to believe me, but I’ve often wondered if he conjures up that scene. I didn’t speak to mum for the rest of the Edinburgh holiday out of sheer fury at her interference, although now I can see that she was very forward-thinking and open-minded about it all.
Next stop – Skye – stupid old Skye with its gorgeous views, little fishing boats and horrible, boring, beautiful coastline. I was in a real grump, having been dragged away from my new friend and away from city life. And to make matters even worse, we were in a crowded, silent-patron, don’t-disturb-anyone-with-the-clatter-of-cutlery b&bs that didn’t really approve of children, let alone a flame-haired mum who kept hijacking everyone else’s breakfasts for scraps to make a packed lunch. Day two was an early morning fishing trip. The trouble was, the fishing boat had no idea that two children would be joining them. Mum wasn’t taking no for an answer and when the reluctant fishermen left the harbour, Mum waved enthusiastically from the jetty yelling that she wanted mackerel, NOT cod. Day three – still missing my new friend, Mum decided we needed to know how kippers were made, so blagged her way into a kipper smoking factory and got a very grumpy foreman to show us the process whilst lecturing us that this was a working day and we weren’t to disturb the workers. One older lady sought me out with her kind eyes and winked at me, gesturing in a comedy head jerk to the foreman. This made me laugh and said foreman whizzed round so quickly to see what was happening that he slipped and fell on his backside. Cue hysterical laughter from everyone, including himself in the end. We were then all invited to join them for a lunch of, yes, you’ve guessed it, kippers. I had no idea that kippers were dyed orange, did you? I thought they just went that colour with the smoking process.
Mum’s holidays were always the most memorable and stale toast & marmalade lunches had a charm all of their own. It’s made me a very brave traveller and my catch-phrase has always been “It’ll all become obvious when we’re there.” I just think of Mum and what she would have done and then do the opposite.
So, next time you’re trailing through booking.com or searching flights on Easyjet, think how much more fun it would be to stick a pin in a map, turn up and hope for the best.
“Kiss my children for me” – the last line of the letter my mother wrote to my step mum just after they’d swapped places in our family. On first reading it’s heartbreaking as I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for her, let alone what it made her feel to write it to her love rival. But that was Mum – she said the things out loud that most people would keep inside. Because she wasn’t there to kiss my brother and me goodnight, she asked the one person who she knew would do a good job on her behalf.
Probably the shortest blog I’ve written (some would say that’s a good thing), but I wanted to share it as that line has had a profound effect on me and how memories can sometimes trip you up. I’ve written about the effects of seeing your mother skipping down the road, apparently without a care in the world, leaving you motherless, confused and abandoned. It led to all the obvious issues, but now with my 50+ thinking I can see it as an act of love to leave us with a woman who deeply loved my father and had the stability and kindness to provide a loving home. The fact that my step mum recently gave me the little letter that she’d kept safe for over 50 years is evidence of the silent contract that these two women had with each other.
The other great letter sign-off from Mum was “please tell the Salvation Army that their bacon sandwiches are lacking in the bacon department.” Up until that point in the letter there was no mention of the Salvation Army or bacon. And the best opening line ever was. “Sonia Darling, I fear for the lives of the woodlice who creep into my bed every night”. After that it was all about coach rides, weather and not driving in the rain. As I’m searching for the perfect opening line for the new children’s book I’m writing about learning how to drive a bus, I’m wondering what Mum would have written and it’s making me laugh – in between the odd teardrop. What a woman.
It is five months since my precious mum passed away and I realised this morning that there are so many life-changing things happening at the moment, some of which I’ve seen and some of which other people have helped me see. Although I think I’ve been seeing life with my eyes wide open, have I been trotting along with my blinkers on?
Yesterday I met up with best friends, old friends, work friends and made a new friend. And as I’ve got a head full of drama ideas, screenplay developments and time management issues, I put my listening ears on so that I could soak up other people’s lives and see life through their eyes. I recommend it if, like me, you’re a chatterbox. I think it’s rare to find best friends working successfully together. Everyone tells you that a) you need to have distance and neutrality in the work environment, b) familiarity can often breed work contempt and c) you should never hire your friends. Not true in my case with one of my besties. Sure, we’ve had a couple of creative wrinkles at some point in the past, but nothing that wasn’t ironed out immediately we listened to each other. Now we’re collaborating on big drama ideas and I have to pinch myself to think that a mad idea from a few years ago might actually be making its way toward the screen. It made me think back to the plays and panto scripts that mum used to write and send off to the biggest West End players she could think of. Fearless and confident in her efforts, even though she had no training and no experience of writing. I’ve still got the letters from some and one in particular sticks in my mind.
“Dear Margaret, Thank you for sending in your amusing script which we’ve all enjoyed reading. Whilst we have had a lot of fun trying to engage with your storylines we don’t feel that ‘Sonia and the dancing angels’ is quite right for us and are you sure that your 6-year old daughter actually wants to be an actress and ballerina? We wish you all success with the idea and encourage you to attend writing classes or a dramatic writing course to help you focus your creative thoughts. Yours (name left out for obvious reasons), Theatre Manager, The London Palladium”
Re-reading it recently I marvelled at the passive aggressive tone and could almost see the room full of creatives laughing hysterically at Mum’s script. Fair play as it’s not very good and her diagrams for lighting cues and ideas for special effects leave a lot to the imagination. But then I wondered if that letter left a deep impression on me as a child as she was in tears when she showed it to me and apologised to me for getting my hopes up. I took on her sadness and added a tinge of guilt even though I had nothing to be guilty about. I had so many stories and ideas floating around my head when I was little, but I didn’t write them down for fear of getting a similar letter and it could upset Mum again. Later in life I had dreams of writing books, plays and films, but stuck instead to radio production and factual television as I wouldn’t get a letter about them when people sat around laughing hysterically at my silly stories. Often I’d talk about an idea and people did indeed laugh at me, but in a nice way which didn’t make me feel guilty or stupid, just brave and creative. But drama? The idea of having your personal, imaginative story laughed at was unthinkable.
Next up, I saw someone I haven’t seen since his wedding nine years ago and his subsequent move to America. The cliche of ‘it only seems like yesterday’ made us laugh as we recalled our experiences of live radio shows that went wrong, that one extra bottle of red wine, just missing being arrested in Cairo and that we’re both at a place where new ideas and new career breaks are coming at us. Our trio was made up with a man who is now my new work friend. A fascinating, bright and creative man who is a drama producer and used to manage one of the UK’s biggest stars. Another person at that place where the world is beckoning us in a different direction. If we’d all been working on conventional paths we wouldn’t have had the time to meet for a mid-afternoon drink – thank you, Universe. Lots of listening and quite a bit of talking at this point focussed my mind with one of those BANG! moments. Heartbeat in the ears, clarity of vision and the sound of a giant penny clattering its way to the floor. How didn’t I clock this until I articulated it out loud? My New Yorker buddy and his mate (new friend) were waxing lyrical about my adventures in bus driving. It was great regaling them with the stories of my first lessons and subsequent run-ins with youths who wanted to board my training bus (never mime an “L” from the driver seat when you’re trying to show them that you’re a learner driver and they can’t board your bus). The inevitable “WHY DRIVING A BUS?!!!” question came up and I found myself answering it with a philosophical thread that was only emerging as I spoke, although it was obviously deep in my psyche. Flashback to ten years ago when things were going so horribly wrong in Mum’s life and I was in pieces trying to manage work, trips to the police station in Littlehampton, mental health workers and doctors. I broke down a bit with my step mum and dad as it was all getting on top of me. My step mum offered to come down to the coast if that would help and my dad leant back, closed his eyes and drifted back to a painful past, saying “Sometimes I don’t why you bother with her, I’ve often wished her under a bus.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course; he was using the bus as a metaphor for trying to forget. I think back now to any times I’ve left hand-over notes or travel plans. What have I pre-empted it with? “Just in case I’m knocked over by a bus or something… ” So now I realise exactly WHY I decided to drive the bus. I have turned that upsetting, negative thought into something positive that I could own and enjoy, rather than keeping the bus as a trigger to memories of plate smashing, yelling in street and being plonked on other families while things calmed down. Yes, that’s exactly why I did it and until I listened to new voices and really heard their question, I hadn’t realised it.
The final meeting was with two fabulous women who are loud, proud, role models and go-getters. One of whom is helping me build up my public speaking career and the other with whom I’m starting a new venture, based on the idea of sharing experiences and stories with other people who’ve had “alternative” parenting. Both of our mothers were called Margaret and both of them were crazy, but wise in their own way. Watch this space.
What a day – what fantastic people – and my ear drums need a rest. The best part of the day was coming home to my beloved husband who has given me the confidence, peace of mind and support to be able to pursue things I never dreamed I could do.
Blinkers off – ears open – I’m grabbing today firmly with both hands. What discoveries will today bring I wonder?
I’m trying to get my head round the fact that my grandmother actually gave birth to me. If you’re born with all your ovarian eggs then your mum will have developed hers in her own mother’s womb. No surprise then that the resemblances between the generations of grandmother and granddaughter are often remarkable. My Nanny Ellis was a one-off. She couldn’t pronounce my name properly and called me “Zoh-nee-yer”, much to Mum’s annoyance as it was ‘too Northern’. Mum was born in Sheffield and miraculously lost her accent when she left in her teens. Occasionally the odd word would slip out to show her roots and it would be hilarious to see her clap her hands over her mouth, widen her eyes, giggle and go completely quiet. A very, very, very rare thing, my mum going silent.
Nanny Ellis was in and out of mental institutions during her life which meant that my aunties and uncles were never together for long as they were farmed out to relations or, in Mum’s case, to foster carers. Was Mum having any of that? Not on your life. She’d escape at every opportunity and on one occasion managed to stay in France for a fortnight, according to her diary. They weren’t a very bonded mum and daughter as far as I could gather. I never once saw them hug each other or kiss each other hello or goodbye, but they were always very respectful. Well, nearly always, as Mum took great exception to the neat littles old lady dresses that Nanny Ellis used to love. Mum would turn up with fashionable slacks and colourful tops for her, but no. Nanny Ellis liked pale blue, beige and cream. Mum had flowing red hair when Nanny Ellis had short, mousy hair. Mum was glamorous, slim, curvy in all the right places and often mistaken for a British film star of the day. Nanny Ellis looked like an Ewok. In fact, all my aunties and uncles looked a bit like Ewoks, apart from the furry faces. Nanny Ellis was 4’8″, completely spherical, wore pebble glasses, was very deaf and shook her stick at people. She also thought that I lived at the BBC as she’d heard my name every-so-often on credits.
I once told Mum my theory that Nanny Ellis had actually given birth to me and she pondered it for a while before bursting out laughing at the audacious concept (her words, not mine). Then she thought very hard about her own grandmother who was tall, red-haired and eccentric. I’d never heard anything about her before and there it was – proof that the similarities between grandmother and granddaughter aren’t that peculiar after all. We say things like “it skipped a generation” when we marvel at how we may have our grandmother’s eyes or her talents, but it didn’t really skip anything if we were partly formed formed in her body.
Happy Grandmother’s Day Nanny Ellis. Thank you for giving birth to Mum and thank you for making me too.
Sonia’s Mum is a transformational love story between a mentally complex mother and the daughter who adored her. I want to share these deeply personal and funny stories so that we can raise awareness for how challenging it is for many people who’ve had mentally ill parents and have struggled to come to terms with their own issues.