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I once told Les Dawson a Mum anecdote and he said, “I’ll probably use that in my act.” He was amused by the growing number of landlords and landladies in the UK and told this wonderful story on-air when I was working for BBC Radio 2. When he complained about the dreadful food at his digs, his landlady said, “Don’t you know what it’s like to be starving in this world?” His reply? “Yes, I’m learning.” I told him later that Mum decided to do bed and breakfast in her old sprawling, run-down inheritance of a house in Hendon, and for some reason I was the one who received all the complaints, not her. He was genuinely in hysterics at the stories, which was an incredible honour as I’ve always put Les Dawson down as one of the funniest men who’s ever lived. I never thought it was a good idea that Mum started letting out rooms, because Mum’s hotel and dining etiquette has always been questionable. Putting her in charge of her own establishment was always going to be a bit of a car crash. I was right.
I’ve been invited on to the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 this Friday, so it will be fantastic to be on the other side of the microphone. We’re going to be discussing how mental health has been viewed over the decades, and no doubt Jeremy will want me to recall a couple of funny stories. My dad’s going to get a surprise if he hears about it – stories about his ex-wife who caused him the most terrible problems, now a comedy icon! I reckon Jeremy will ask me what my dad thinks and I’ll have to fess up that he doesn’t know anything about it – yet. Although I want to share with him how people are getting in touch and the blog is obviously hitting a nerve with people who find it supportive and funny, it’s probably kinder to leave him in the dark. And to be honest, he would probably think that a blog is a cut of wood. And as for my stepmum, she had to endure so much in the early years of her marriage to Dad, it’s probably kinder to save her from it too. What do you think? No doubt they’ll hear about it all if one of their friends tunes in to Radio 2 on Friday.
Back to Mum the landlady. Two students took a twin room and asked politely if Mum could just leave out cereal and milk rather than insisting on cooking them breakfast. I explained that if she’d set her mind on something, rampaging elephants would never change her path. What was she cooking them that was so bad? I know Mum’s cooking has never been great, but how wrong can toast, bacon, eggs, sausage, tomato and beans go? They showed me a list of her breakfasts and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing in their puzzled, pleading faces. Monday – boiled eggs (sounds ok so far) with cucumber soldiers. Of COURSE the egg yolk slid off the cucumber, so did they ask for toast? They didn’t dare, apparently. Tuesday – pilchards and rice. Strange, but not a million miles from kedgeree. Ah, rice from a tin (creamed rice pudding) and tinned pilchards in tomato sauce. Nasty. Wednesday – porridge. Ok, that sounded a bit better, but Mum’s porridge is made with water and salt. She served it on a plate with salted peanuts on top. Thursday – toast and chicken. Toast at least. Burnt as usual, but at least it was toast. Although these were sandwiches with Marmite instead of butter, roast chicken slices and toasted only on the inside. Friday – fruit and yoghurt. At last something normal. Fruit salad from a tin (ok so far) and yoghurt that she’d made herself after seeing someone making it on the television. She didn’t bother with a recipe, so tried it with lemon juice to curdle the milk and make it nice and thick.
The students didn’t stay long and there were other tenants who had other complaints. Some of which I had to act upon (Mum unlocking their doors at random times in the middle of the night to take them cups of tea) and others that just made me sigh and slump my shoulders. Poor old Martin. He was a homeless man who mum took pity on and took in so that he could claim housing benefit and get himself up on his feet again. He was nice enough, very quiet, but prone to outbursts whenever Mum insisted he had a bath so that she could replace his dirty sheets. One evening, I could hear an almighty row downstairs and, although I normally tried to ignore them, this one sounded violent. Martin was taking his bath and Mum had burst into the bathroom after she heard “loud, ridiculous squeaking” (her words). Martin had been sliding up and down the bath as the water emptied out, enjoying the huge old enamel tub at its most slippery. Of course, the key thing was invasion of privacy as she burst in on him naked in the bath, but the sliding appeared to be the biggest problem. “Don’t slide up and down in my bath!” “Why not?” “You might break it.” “Of course I won’t break it.” “You’re not allowed to slide up and down in the bath in this house. Did you do it in your last house?” “I haven’t had a house or home for over twenty years, Margaret.” “Well, just sit in it in future – I don’t like the squeaking.” “What squeaking? I don’t squeak.” “Yes you do when you’re sliding up and down and I don’t like mice.” “I’m not a mouse.” And so on. I can’t quite remember how it all ended, but two weeks later there was a notice nailed to his door that outlined tenants’ rights. Mum tore it off and stuffed it back under his door, telling him that he had now destroyed her property with the pin mark and she’d be calling the police. Oh, happy days.
Mum’s most recent housing thing is to remind me that there’s plenty of space in her room to put up a couple of refugees or asylum seekers. She’s adamant that they need proper housing and there’s an en-suite bathroom they could use if they wanted to. She’s not thinking about the practicalities, purely going on gut reaction and generosity of spirit – something that’s often got her into all sorts of trouble, but you can’t argue with the compassion. She’s in a care home now so of course she isn’t allowed to sublet her room, but she’s adamant that we’re all a bit too selfish about the homes we live in. I had a letter once from a charity that Cliff Richard was associated with. Mum had donated sixty per cent of the house to them and they wanted to see how to release the money now rather than wait for it to come to them by trust. Confusing? Yes, very. I thought the simplest thing was to call them and explain the situation. At this point I was the legal owner of the house as Mum wasn’t really capable of dealing with the legalities of home ownership and there were constant streams of weird men coming round with flowers, chocolates and offers of money to buy it. Her solicitors had suggested the title transfer into my name, so I thought it was the best things to do in order to keep the roof over her head (and mine). The dodgy old developers were all sent away with a flea in their ear by yours truly of course, furious at how predatory people could be when they saw an easy opportunity to con a vulnerable person out of her home. I explained to the charity that Mum was not the legal owner and that she was not of sound mind to have made the donation anyway. I expected a simple “Oh, I understand, thank you”, but no. They sent legal letters, threatened to sue me for the money they were expecting and were incredibly aggressive. They stopped after a while, but it did make me realise that there are some horrible people out there who don’t give a fig about mental illness and see it as an opportunity to exploit.
For me those times were a mix of fury at all the crazy stuff Mum was doing in the house and an overwhelming need to protect her whilst trying to get her help. Any time I’d call her doctors to try to see if there was any kind of medical intervention, I was fobbed off as, if it wasn’t a request from her directly, there was nothing they could do unless she was a danger to herself. These days it would be much easier to seek help, but even back in the early 80s it was still something people didn’t really talk about, especially not doctors to other family members. I do remember that my stepmum was once asked if she could sign off a request to section Mum, but she couldn’t do it as the new stepmum who was trying very hard to keep things as quiet and calm as possible for two troubled children. I understand that of course she couldn’t bear the responsibility of being the person who “put Mum away”, but wonder what might have happened had Mum been taken into the system. The episode that prompted the section request would have lasted a day at most and Mum would be back to normal afterwards. My long-suffering dad was angry about it, no doubt hoping that Mum might have been put into care and therefore stopped from doing all the crazy stuff she always did, but it wasn’t to be on that day. It was to be forty years later that she was eventually assessed and given the support she needed – at eighty years old. The big old Hendon house was eventually sold, and Mum had a much smaller, more manageable home which she occasionally invited random bed and breakfast guests to share with her. They never stayed for long and I wish I’d been able to rig up a camera to capture the action. I did once get a letter from a “guest” complaining that Mum had sold off all his equipment while he was away for the weekend. She’d heard him talking about being a bit hard up for money, no doubt trying to get out of paying rent, so she’d gone into his room and taken his radio, TV, and various bits and pieces to the local second-hand shop and left him an envelope with the money in. He wasn’t impressed, but Mum did get her rent that week, so who are we to argue against her logic? Les Dawson loved the egg and cucumber story and the selling-off-assets-to-pay-for-the-rent story and I wonder if he ever used them to embellish his landlady jokes. I hope so. It’s wonderful to hear people sharing these Mum stories now, adding in the newer element of how her actions were always based on helping people and charity from the heart. Who else would invite strangers to share their care home room? Who else would give away their home to help people less well off? And who else would think that Ambrosia creamed rice and pilchards was a delicious, hearty breakfast for young, impoverished students?
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying she’s a rotten cook, but when I bought her a high-speed gas stove all I got was my toast burned in half the time.” Les Dawson, 1978 (or thereabouts).

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