I drove my first RML bus yesterday – the classic red London bus from the 50s – and thought about my lovely mum. She knows I’m somehow connected with buses but can’t recall the whole picture. I’m still elated from the drive and a bit sad at the same time as I can’t really share it with her and remind her that it’s all down to her and that can-do spirit she’s always had. A spirit that has often got her into trouble, but more often than not into incredible places and life-changing experiences. Driving down a busy high street with nearly every modern bus driver giving you a “respect” salute is something I’m going to have to get used to. As the old red bus drives up, people smile, children wave and one old man today took his hat off and gave me a little bow, followed by a huge, toothless smile. “Good on you, girl!” he shouted as I drove past.
Writing all this down, I’m reminded of a couple of bus stories from many years ago. Mum has always been a very flirtatious woman, and once she and my dad divorced there was always some hopeful chap hanging on to her coat tails. One such chap was Keith – a bus driver on the 102 bus route that ran outside our house in London. If Keith were driving, he’d always give my mum a toot and a wave, often stopping to have a brief chat and a wink with her. Mum could tap on the glass if she was on the bus and he’d pull up wherever she wanted to get off. It was illegal, of course, and he shouldn’t have done it, but he did because Mum was so insistent and had that promise-I’ll-make-it-worth-your-while smile when she hopped off the bus. And did I ever tell you the story about the fat lady on the bus? I might have done, but it’s worth retelling now as it’s appropriate to the theme. I was always worried about the damage that really big people did to their mummies when they were born. I had no concept of growth or ageing, so I’m guessing I was about four years old when I asked my mum about how big people were born. She told me that they were little when they were born because they had to go through a small tube. It terrified me – huge people being made tiny to go through a tube? How did THAT happen? Then I started wondering about how they got big in the first place. Mum’s answer was that they were either expecting a baby or they ate lots of chips. It made sense at the time and grown-ups are supposed to tell you things that are right, aren’t they? We were on a bus to the Swiss Cottage swimming pool when a huge woman got on and stood next to our seat. She smiled down at me, so I thought I’d ask her – “Excuse me, are you expecting a baby?” She was furious. “NO I’M NOT!” “Well, you must eat lots of chips then!” I thought that was just the truth, so it was confusing as to why my mum jumped out of her seat and started berating the fat lady for being rude to a child. The fat lady started yelling and everyone around us was tutting and huffing before we were politely asked to leave the bus. Now THAT wasn’t fair, I thought, so I trod on the fat lady’s foot when I got off. I remember my mum telling me to wave when the bus drove off. I did as I was told and Mum was laughing at the fat lady who was shaking her fists at us and wobbling her big arms. I was just embarrassed at the waving bit, but mum was always ordering me to wave at people – brides, policemen, anyone in uniform and butchers. She had a thing for butchers, don’t ask me why, and I can remember once rendering a Sunday school teacher speechless when she asked us to draw what we thought God looked like and I drew a fat butcher with a striped apron, holding a string of sausages like they had in Punch and Judy shows. What was wrong with THAT? Grown-ups! Silly people.
So buses are really in my blood. I’ve always loved them and they’ve been a punctuation point to various episodes with Mum. My granddad was a GPO driver and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of London landmarks, so whenever we went to his house I begged him to go out in his car and see all the London sights. He allowed me to change gears sometimes and once he let me sit on a cushion and steer the car in a car park. One day, I thought – one day I might get to drive a bus! A lifelong ambition to drive a red Routemaster bus has finally come true. To be honest, I was thinking that I’d have a go at it on a bus driving experience day somewhere, but the more I thought about it the more I fancied the idea of doing it for real. Just imagine being paid to drive an iconic London bus around this wonderful city I’m proud to call home. And for me to have the power to throw people off if I need to. What would my lovely psychiatrist friend make of that one?
My darling husband is getting used to the idea that many weekends could be taken up ferrying bridal parties to receptions, business people to London landmarks or tourists on sight-seeing tours where there will be many more smiles and one ecstatic blonde woman grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel and thanking her mum for instilling bravery into her world. She once dreamed about Sweden, so she bought herself a plane ticket and relied upon strangers to put her up, show her the sights and take her to museums. She had another dream about cycling the length of Britain and so decided to clock off work for a month and try it herself. She got as far as Sheffield – with the help of a benevolent train guard, various truckers and a lot of padding. Her bike has only recently been donated to a charity shop – heavy, three gears, cumbersome and very old-fashioned. Hardly the vehicle to cope with various terrains and an amateur cyclist without so much as a repair kit. My heart broke when I came home from work on one of her adventure days and played back my messages. Mum, in tears, begging me to go to a train station and pay her excess fare for the bike so that she could get off the train and continue her journey. In the background I could hear a man saying something like, “We’ll have to confiscate your bike and call the police”. Of course, Mum, being Mum, hadn’t left a message about which station she was at or who needed to be contacted, so I had to wait three agonising days until she called me. I’d been panicking and checking with every rail and local police station I could think of in the Sheffield area, to no avail. Bearing in mind this is going back to the early 80s when we didn’t all have mobile phones, waiting for the phone to ring was a real “thing”. She did call me three days later, happy as ever, telling me how she was staying with a lovely family who kept rabbits. They had rescued her from the station, paid her excess fare (£3) and taken her in. I warned her about taking care of herself, not to be a burden on them, to keep her room tidy and do the washing-up – yes, we were officially in the parent–child–parent loop.
Mum’s favourite weekly trip is out on the minibus when the volunteer driver (another Keith), with whom she’s in love, takes the residents of the care home to see the West Sussex sights. She adores her fish and chips and has often been caught hiding them and then feeding them to the donkeys. She’s not supposed to, of course, but she just doesn’t care. When they need extra drivers, I’ll now be able to take them all out and see that twinkle in her eye when she realises that I really CAN drive a bus and I’m not making it all up.
She’ll probably call me Keith, because in Mum’s world that’s what all bus drivers are called. Sadly, she’ll never be able to ride on the Routemasters because she can’t get up to London these days, but I’ll show her a picture of the cockpit I will be driving in to see if it evokes any memories. I’m sure it will; good times, Keith, not the fat lady, but who knows?
Ding, ding – any more fares, please?
“I’m Gracie Fields and my favourite person is Toni Blair.” Mum noted these things down when we were writing and drawing together recently. Her picture of a chicken would have had Picasso scratching his head, but it all made sense to her. Toni with an “i”, not Tony with a “y”, because she’d heard recently about the concept of non-binary and thought it meant that everyone was male and female whenever they want to be. She thought the “i” looked a bit more feminine. “And if that’s what he wants who were we to argue with him, Sonia darling?” She took on the persona of Gracie Fields as we’d been playing some of her favourite music and Gracie’s “Sally Down our Alley” is her number one favourite – mainly because she can have a lot of fun with the “Sallee-Salleeeeeee” bit in her screechy voice while laughing at everyone covering their ears. She also reverted temporarily to her native northern accent, which only comes out every so often, normally when she’s throwing a tantrum. It turns out that all the residents in the home love it when you draw them pictures and play them songs. Yvonne wanted a cat drinking milk, Jenny wanted pictures of her children playing in the garden, and I noticed a huge difference in Mum when we challenged her to a written quiz on her life. Things like “My favourite cake is … because it is …” (ginger, boingy) or “I love it when … as it makes me feel …” (I get toffees, loved) and my favourite, “My carers are … and they …” (beautiful, always talk to me like a human). She lit up with the new challenge and looked focused for a while, pen in hand, wrinkly brow, eyes concentrating on the paper.
I think it took her back to when she used to write plays and send them off to the biggest players in the West End theatre world. I’ve still got the letter from the manager at the Palladium. She was sensationally brave and unhindered in her thinking and some of it’s rubbed off on me, much to the exasperation of those around me on occasion. Well, sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and go straight to the top to see what happens, don’t you? We wanted a royal family member to present a music prize at Radio 2 many years ago, so I wrote to the queen (with the reluctant help of the royal liaison person at the BBC). Her Majesty had to decline, but we were offered a prince instead, so a RESULT as far as I was concerned. Mum did make it past the main gates to Buckingham Palace once. She was determined that I was going to dance for the queen as I’d got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance Summer School and the very fact that it had Royal in the name meant the queen was going to come, obviously. She had a letter with a suggested outfit for HRH and a speech that she’d like her to give me. As far as I can remember, she told me that the letter was delivered and she was politely shown out. I never went to the summer school as we could never have afforded the fares or costumes, let alone the lodging fees, but hey, that was life with Mum. You never quite knew if any of the plans were ever going to materialise, which is most likely the reason that I still feel a visceral angst if well-laid plans go tits-up at short notice. It’s short-lived, but it’s still there. Strange, isn’t it, how those early experiences can end up becoming the cogs to your life? Having gone through my own coaching and therapy I’m now able to help other people unpick those moments and recalibrate memories into a more positive spin as it’s all too easy to let those barriers build up and stop you doing stuff. Mum, on the other hand, has no barriers and has never worried about what she says in front of anyone. It also meant that you had to be very careful what you said in front of her, in case she acted on it.
My brother and I were out with Mum on an access day after Mum and Dad divorced. We had been to Speakers’ Corner and wanted to walk around Hyde Park with the hope of being allowed to go boating on the Serpentine. It was hot and on spotting the cafe we both said that we were thirsty and wanted a drink. We hadn’t learned the art of direct messaging and thought the subtle dropping of a hint might make Mum see the cafe, make the connection and get us a fizzy pop. Did we start walking towards the cafe? No, of course not. We were marched in the opposite direction towards the park gate. We then dodged the traffic to cross the road and found ourselves being ushered through the very posh doors of the De Vere Hotel. Mum accosted one of the waiting staff, pushed me and my brother forward and said, “My children are so very, very thirsty and said that they liked the look of your hotel and asked if they could have some water.” Cue little brother and sister looking at each other and miming the 70s, junior equivalent of WTF? “Please take a seat, Madam. Let me see what I can do.” Off he went, and we were both rendered silent in case anything else we said ended up in a situation halfway as embarrassing. Mum tidied our hair and rubbed our faces with Mum-spit tissues, and back he came – complete with a huge silver tray, a silver bucket of ice, tongs, cut-glass tumblers, doilies and slices of lemon. He flamboyantly put them down in front of us and smiled, asking if we’d like ice and lemon. Back then I just wanted to roll up into a ball and hide in the corner as the man wanted to thoroughly humiliate us with his over-the-top display of upper-class snobbery. Everyone was staring and smirking as the hotel manager came over and asked us if we wanted any biscuits. Oh no! Not more people showing us up in public – I would have felt more at ease on a podium at Speakers’ Corner talking about parental divorce. No biscuits, no biscuits!! Mum didn’t think anything of it and wrapped them all up in a linen napkin, and off we went. All I wanted to do was go home to my dad and gentle stepmum to listen to the radio and feel normal again. If anyone has ever heard that story from the perspective of the butler at the De Vere Hotel, I would love to meet him, shake his hand and say thank you, because I can see now that he wanted to give us a lovely experience and leave us with a lasting impression of how kind the people at the De Vere Hotel were. And although it felt like a random Mum act from nowhere, perhaps she knew exactly what would happen and hoped we’d love the whole thing; after all, it’s a hundred times nicer than a lukewarm can of coke from an overpriced cafe, isn’t it? I’m proud of my mum – what she’s achieved, who she’s met, her sheer exuberance for trying new things and venturing into this confusing world with an open mind, endless energy and no constraining social niceties to hold her back. If she wants to be Gracie Fields this week, who are we to argue? They were born in the same area, both loved and played in the Peak District and could bring the house down with their singing. Gracie ended up in Capri, Mum in Bognor – both by the sea and surrounded by colourful people. I’m going to frame the chicken along with the donkey and “Toni” Blair portrait. That will always make me chuckle, as I was once describing my then-partner Tony (now my husband) to some clients and one said, “Tony with a Y or Tony with an I?” The knowing wink on the Y was obviously code for acknowledging between them that I was straight. What would they make of Mum’s take on our ex-prime minister, I wonder?
Knock, knock. Who’s there? “My name’s Matthew. Are you Sar-nee-arr? Your mum told me to come round to your house for afternoon tea.” My dad was pretty relaxed about it. I, on the other hand, wasn’t. I was thirteen, hugely embarrassed, and a strange, enthusiastic, energetic American was expecting cucumber sandwiches and strawberry scones, as promised by Mum without our knowledge. In he bounded, stayed for an hour and was dispatched with a packet of Rich Tea biscuits and a tangerine when an equally enthusiastic, energetic American mom turned up to collect him. “See you in church,” were his last words. “Can you phone your mother and ask her what all that was about please?” “Dad, do you think it will make any more sense if I do? Can’t we just leave it?” Dad conceded and, to give him his due, he didn’t say anything bad about Mum or put me in the hideous position of having to defend or pacify opposing parents. Matthew was gone – another weird moment orchestrated by my well-meaning and inappropriately meddlesome mother, wanting me to have a boyfriend on one hand while warning me off boys with the other.
She’s never really stopped doing it even though she adores Tony, my beloved, precious husband. It’s in her DNA. Sometimes she hands the phone to a random resident in the home when I call her or shouts at someone when I’m there to “Come and sit with my lovely daughter – she might marry You one day” while winking at Tony. The old boys at the home don’t seem phased or angry and none of it matters. That’s the great thing about her living with people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, borderline personality disorders and learning difficulties – nobody minds, nobody is upset, it’s normal and life just carries on. We, on the other hand, blow everything out of proportion, argue with our families, bear grudges, vow never to speak to them again and spend days, weeks or months being right, looking good and covering our backsides. For what? So exhausting.
I’ve got two mums – Mum (Margaret, in the home, flinging biscuits at people) and my stepmum, who took on our family when Mum and Dad divorced in the late 60s. She was the angel from the clouds who didn’t force me to eat weird food, made sense when she spoke, didn’t borrow and rename other people’s dogs, was there every morning, played the violin like my dad and sang like a film star. Compared to my real mum she was the essence of normality and smelled nice. We do love each other, but we fight a lot. With Mum it’s never worth picking an argument because she simply doesn’t “see what that looks like” or “understand how embarrassing it is” because she can’t. I didn’t feel jealousy when my stepmother came into our lives. Quite the opposite. Despite all the ‘cruel stepmother’ jokes from the kids I was at school with, Donna marrying my Dad was a sign that the world could at last by normal. I was pleased to see Mum out of the picture with all the angst and confusion she brought, but now, looking back with different eyes, I wish we could have all been a bit better joined up. Mum, weirdly, adored my stepmum, always telling me how beautiful she was, how she loved my dad and wanted to have cuddles all the time whereas Mum didn’t. A psychologist one winced when I told her that, as she believed that could have set up a confusion in my young mind between sex and love. Huh! That wasn’t half of it.
Looking back, I do remember that Mum’s version of what sex was had a few holes in it. “Sonia darling, when a boy wants to put his hand between your legs you must jam your legs together.” I was so confused when ballet dancers lifted beautiful ballerinas in the air as they always held onto their legs and the dancers didn’t appear to jam their legs together. And the dancers on Come Dancing were always doing it when they jived around. Hmmmm … maybe Mum wasn’t telling the truth. I asked her once why some mummies I knew didn’t sleep in the same bed as the daddies. She told me it was because the mummies had itchy bottoms. What did THAT mean? I don’t ever remember being told the facts of life, because I always seemed to know all about lady passages and man funnels (her words, not mine). But I do remember Mum telling me that when a man loves a lady and they want to have a baby, the man gives the lady some milk. I was terrified of milk, ran away from the milkman (for obvious reasons) and once told a lady in a cafe that the man who brought her tea wanted to have a baby with her because he’d brought her a jug of milk. The cafe owner told us to leave and I don’t think I’ve seen that shade of facial puce to this day. Silly man, what was he fussing about? EVERYONE knows that giving a lady milk means that she’ll have a baby!!! And I’ll swear blind that she told me my genital region was my “revolver”. She did! I remember thinking that it sounded like a gun and asking her to repeat it. Yes, “revolver”. Next day at school I fact-checked it with my teacher – do you remember her? She was the one who broke into tears when Mum marched in with a bowl of porridge and demanded I ate it before I went home. She coughed a lot and had to go and get something to drink. The only thing was one of those little bottles of milk that we used to have in school. I shouted at her, “NO! Don’t drink that or you’ll have a baby!” She cried – AGAIN – and ran out of the classroom. Mrs Segal, our American head teacher, was very sweet when I went to see her and told me that milk wasn’t something to be scared of, because she drank it every day. I asked her if she had children. “Yes, dear, I have three sons and four daughters.” Confirmed – milk gave you babies.
I was fascinated by Americans from a very young age as I liked the way they spoke, so Matthew was quite a nice person to talk to when he turned up on our doorstep. He was into cowboy movies and was cross when I kept smirking whenever he mentioned how the tough guys would reach for their revolvers and pull the trigger. And as for John Wayne’s “Get off your horse and drink your milk”, as a 13-year-old that was too snigger-worthy to ignore. He consoled himself with that fact that I was enjoying his conversation because of his accent. He said my name out loud a few times. “Sar-nee-arr, Sar-nee-arr. I’m going to call you LE Sar-nee-arr.” Very funny. NOT. What’s he on about? Le Sonia? I’m not French. Years later, I realised it was a joke about lasagne, but as it hadn’t really landed in the UK it didn’t make much sense, rather like the rest of my younger life. But thank goodness there wasn’t too much sense around – having a different perspective and seeing things through different people’s eyes has given me a healthy sense of humour and on the whole I don’t take things that people say too seriously. Mum has certainly gifted me with the skill of seeing things through various different lenses.
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 fourth 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 and various animals lived in the loft. 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 nine times out of ten 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 two rooms on the ground floor and painted the mahogany-panel walls bright pink (gloss) and covered all the floors with all the threadbare 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 and 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 that Dad and my stepmum had come to, 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. Bear 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 the blue sparks that flew out from the stack whenever anything was unplugged 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 pipework. 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, wouldn’t you? No, Mum thought that each pipe should come down the wall halfway across the door frame, then snake round the door frame, a foot from the frame itself, then do a three-quarter 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 halfway up the wall, but the red gas pipes had to go. Give the man his due, he finished the job, and was often seen leaving the house shaking his head and scratching his brow at 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 in which Justin and Colin renovated and sold a chain of homes from a cheap Birmingham flat to a million-pound Mayfair house over two 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.