“Neither am I.” quipped Peter Cook when he met a man who said he was writing a book. A great agent friend of mine said he had a cupboard full of clients who were “just finishing.” theirs. My beloved husband is compiling showbiz anecdotes to go into his book and I still have the rejection letter from a major publisher to whom my dear departed mother sent a manuscript called “Balls.” It was a tale about a violinist who gave up performing and took up football. However, he wasn’t very good at it and had to retire after being kicked in the nuts. My parents were going through the early stages of divorce at the time and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what was going through my mum’s head. The letter said, “We all wish you well in any other career you might choose to pursue.” Oh, I DO love a bit of passive aggressive every now and then.
I’ve finished the first draft of “Mumbelievable” and now feel like the expectant kid who’s finally handed in their homework. The wonderful editor I work with will no doubt point out the glaringly obvious and recommend in her beautifully subtle way that perhaps this could do with a slightly change in direction here and there. I’m hoping that within the next few weeks we’ll have a version that’s ready to send to the publisher and then, who knows?
It was an honour to have been asked to comment professionally on the body language on display at Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral on Monday. I have always been fascinated by non verbal communication and learned from a very young age that what people said was often at odds with how they were really feeling. My mum was a completely open book, however my dad was a “masker” and spent a lot of time pacifying me and my brother amid the arguments and mayhem. His expressions, nervous ticks and body positioning always gave away that he was stressed, even though he told us that everything was OK. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – how true. My mum always wanted me to write a book about my experiences and wrote me a list of chapters. I was five or six and thought at the time that these chapters were all feasible and that one day I would achieve them. After all, mums are grown ups and know what they’re saying. Don’t they? “The day I sang for Cilla Black”. “The day I danced for the Queen.” “The day I rode a horse to Buckingham Palace.” “The day I drove a bus.” and “When I flew with the birds.” Only one of those came true, (number 4) and I did once join in with Cilla Black when she came on the Gloria Hunniford Show on BBC Radio 2 and encouraged the team to sing harmonies for “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” So maybe two out of five. Come to think of it, I did once go parasailing and was floating up in the air alongside a pack of seagulls on holiday once, so maybe three out of five. Doesn’t it go to show that we’re writing our own life stories all the time and if we unblock our thinking, we’re all achieving things we never thought possible?
OK. Procrastination over. Focus Beldom, focus. First draft written, now get it out there.
When my mumbelievable mum died if felt fitting to remember her with a golden plaque on a wall of remembrance, as she was a woman who spent her life breaking them down. She didn’t give a hoot about protocol, socially acceptable behaviour or speaking her mind. The process of dealing with “stuff” after a death is often a helpful distraction to the grief we feel. What must it have felt like for King Charles III to cope with his precious mother’s passing while being hurled into a world of Royal tradition, protocol and onto the worldwide lens? I was honoured to be asked yesterday by the Press Association to comment for various newspapers and magazines on whether his voice might bring us the same comfort and reassurance of that of our dear departed Queen. It was an interesting thing to be asked about, because I’ve always believed that the voice is more the window into our souls than our eyes. It’s why I started my career in radio at the BBC. I fell in love with the voices of the announcers who made me feel safe and secure, not only in what they said, but how they said it. The choreography of speaking, use of tone, volume and the variations in enunciation and articulation fascinated me. I built up pictures of what these people looked like and created their worlds in my imagination. I can remember telling my mum that I loved the sound of Brian Matthew’s voice and thought no more of it. A few weeks later my mum burst into my bedroom flourishing a letter with a stamp franked by the BBC in bright red. It was a letter from Brian Matthew to me saying thank you for my kind comments and invitation to meet, but he was married and had a very busy schedule. I was 6 or 7 and I was puzzled. Why had this gorgeous, lovely, reliable man written me such a strange letter out of the blue? Mum!
King Charles III’s first speech was interesting to watch, especially as I’d spent the afternoon analysing his voice and comparing it to that of Queen Elizabeth II’s. I found it fascinating to listen to as he had obviously thought a lot about pace and had slowed down his normal run-together speaking style. I talked to the journalist about the origin of a plummy accent and explained that it is most likely to have originated from times when a shrill, high voice was encouraged to deepen by placing a soft plum in the mouth so that the articulation moved from the front of the mouth to the back. Throat-based articulation is more resonant and closer to the chest, so you get a deeper effect. That deeper, resonance is more associated with authority and control. And of course, the deeper sound waves have a physical effect on us in our core bodies, compared to the lighter, more shrill voice patterns. Interesting to note that the Queen’s voice dropped about a semi-tone per decade which is why we felt more connected and reassured by her when she spoke in later life. And we all remember how Margaret thatcher was encouraged to deepen her voice to command respect and inspire authority.
My mum used to change her voice a lot, depending on the situation she was in. When trying to sound clever or commanding with a policeman or my teacher, she’d adopt this crazy deep voice as she squashed her chin into her neck and peered through her eyebrows. It wasn’t her voice itself that terrified people, it was the sudden change and strange look in her eyes. It always made me laugh, because I thought she was doing it as one of her silly voices she used for storytelling. She’d then spin round, stare at me, look cross at me giggling, put her chin down again and continue to berate whoever had annoyed her. The effect was complete confusion on the poor faces of those she was talking to. If that voice didn’t work, she’d go within a split second into flirty high girlie voice. This was the devastating voice for me as she would “quote” me and put ridiculous words into my mouth that I had never said. Brian Matthew talked sense. Brian Matthew spoke in the same gorgeous, deep voice all the time and he didn’t break into flirty girlie voice. Ever. I probably did want to marry Brian Matthew when I was 7. Can you imagine when in the 1990s I was given the job as a BBC Radio 2 producer and I was allocated a role on Round Midnight, presented by … yes, you’ve guessed it … Brian Matthew. I could hardly contain myself. MY Brian Matthew, the voice that kept me sane when my parents were hurling plates at each other and stomping off down the street. MY Brian Matthew who emanated calm, compassion, knowledge and had a great taste in music? WOW. We were to meet in the BBC canteen, and I was a bit tongue-tied at the beginning and managed not to say that he wrote to me when I was a little girl telling me he was married. Brian was seated when we got there. MY Brian Matthew was at least six foot tall, had flowing dark hair, deep brown flashing eyes, a broad chest and (for some strange reason), dark tan riding boots. THIS Brian Matthew was shorter than me, had thinning white hair and a tendency to avoid eye contact. But the voice, oh that voice. Magical. My love affair with voices and how they made people feel started there. How amazing that voice itself can conjure up a story. I can also remember having visceral reactions to the wrong voices. One poor chap was lovely, handsome, clever, witty and interested in taking me out, however his voice!!!! Oh, his voice! So deep and gravelly it made me feel nauseous when he spoke, as it had a visceral effect on me which I couldn’t overcome. And as for the high-voiced, squeaky men, they didn’t get a look-in either and my theory for that isn’t something I’d talk about here. (Email me and I’ll explain). Having left Radio 2, I worked in TV and then started a coaching business, helping people find their voice, project their voice and have confidence in themselves through their voices. And a lot of public speaking confidence comes from taming your inner voice – the loudest one in the room that can trip you up with its constant nagging.
I’m looking forward to listening to the voices of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort as they take on their new roles, no doubt with Queen Elizabeth’s voice in their memories, encouraging and reminding them of how to engage and reassure people. And now I’ve got the voice of my precious mum in my mind, reassuring me that life can be sad, hilarious, and adventurous if you break down those walls. “Come along, Sonia darling, you won’t know until you try it.”
I was just about to give up the trumpet when my precious mum bought me one. It was dusted aluminium with shiny slides and inner bell. I loved it, but sadly it didn’t love me. Having had tonsil and adenoid surgery I couldn’t maintain the air pressure needed to get a decent note out of it, so the noise of air escaping down my nose was louder than any note I could muster. I decided to take up the trombone which was altogether easier to play and didn’t sound like a balloon about to burst. It was also great for creating sound effects in the school plays and making resonant farty noises to make my granddad guffaw with laughter and my Nan waft her hand in front of her nose (making Pop laugh even more). Mum, bless her heart, would have taken on a new job to pay for the trumpet, so I didn’t tell her for ages that I’d moved on to another instrument. She would have understood, because one of her phrases was “move on, move on” which she did, often.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week so I’ve dusted off my old trumpet from its case under the sofa and just tried to play it. Thinking about my wonderful mum I’ve tried a chromatic octave scale in her honour and now need to lie down. Another reason for not persevering with the trumpet was that my dad was never keen. I couldn’t really understand why not as he’d played the trumpet himself in the past. I finally got it out of him that he was worried I’d end up in the brass section of an orchestra and as a professional violinist he knew how raucous and misbehaved brass players could be; a bit harsh I thought, however it cemented my love for jazz and the sound of a big band which will never leave me – another thing that Mum did, often.
Having grown up with my mum’s unpredictable, hilarious, embarrassing antics I realise now that I never sought her out for comfort or re-assurance and never really confided in her about anything. God forbid I ever spoke badly about friends or teachers – Mum would be there firing on all cylinders, mis-quoting me (always the worst bit), screaming and probably throwing things. So I kept it all in. My lovely dad was always working showbiz hours, so I didn’t see an awful lot of him. All in all, the only person to really rely upon was myself when I was little. Looking back I can remember being quite happy prancing around in ballet dresses, singing songs and pretending to be a famous performer. I even managed to crow-bar a little dance into the nativity play when I was the Virgin Mary. I don’t think she did pirouettes and arabesques, but who really knows? In my world she did with her skirts hitched up high, a big grin on her face and proper pointy toes.
I must have been about 6 or 7 when I was told that I was going to be adopted. The family who were going to give me a new home lived in a huge house in Swiss Cottage with instruments everywhere, a massive garden with dozens of balletic fuchsia bushes and a very loud daughter who thought it was funny to boss me around and remind me that she was the rich one and that I was the poor one. That bit didn’t resonate really, because I don’t think you’re really aware of income snobbery at such a young age – well, I wasn’t. The bit that did resonate was the hope that this might be the end of all the abandoning. Mum was always leaving me with different people, some of whom I knew, some not. My teachers were nice enough, however I didn’t really trust them as they insisted that you can’t get a sun and moon in the same sky or that ALL leaves are green, not red – wrong. It felt as if my dad wasn’t there much and it has only been in later life that I’ve realised that he just didn’t know where I was. He had no real control over Mum’s spontaneous off-loadings and tried to make things seem as normal as possible when I came home again and carried on as normal. it was a bit confusing as I often wondered if he cared that one family used to send me out to the allotment grounds (now Brent Cross Shopping Centre) to dig up earth for their garden with a tiny spade and a whicker shopping trolley. It didn’t matter – I quite enjoyed it really as it gave me time to practice my dance moves and sing songs to myself. I didn’t get adopted of course, because it turned out that the adoption was one of Mum’s stories that made a lot of sense to her as they would have had the money, status and opportunities for me that she didn’t think she could offer. How wrong she was on that count – all I wanted from her was to be there, no matter now crazily she was behaving. OK, maybe without the mis-quotes such as “Sonia tells me that you don’t wash your bottom.” WHAT??? Or ” Sonia won’t be writing an essay about birds because she hasn’t stopped crying about the one you cooked and brought to school.” No amount of protesting would ever convince “that” teacher that I had no idea she ate chicken sandwiches and no, I didn’t expect her to go veggie.
The reason for mentioning all this is that I feel pretty much like the same me as I did back then. I still love joking with people, pulling silly pranks, putting Mum’s antics into anecdotal stories and seeking out the good in most situations. Children make up their minds about what life means when they’re little – I know I did. Mum loved me, but not enough to stick around, so I was probably doing something wrong or had something about me that people didn’t like. Ring any bells? I see it a lot with coaching clients; those old rules we made up for ourselves when we were far too young to make them. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to re-programme my relationship with my mother and see her for who she was – quite simply a woman who wanted everything, but was mentally unable to cope with anything for very long. Her heart was the size of a planet, her voice as shrill as a whistle. She enchanted and infuriated in equal measure and is about to be immortalised in a children’s book which aims to help adults laugh along and explain mental health issues with their kids, classes, grandchildren and friends. It’ll also be a way of children seeing that other mums do silly things too and that talking about it is better than hiding food, breaking things in secret or retreating into your own little world.
It’s been a year hasn’t it? We’ve all lost people we love, been scared into avoiding each other and missing those we’ve been unable to hug. Soon we’ll be able to start venturing out again, enjoying the world around us, seeing loved ones and making lots of noise. And what’s really making me laugh right now is the idea that if my neighbours start up with their 4am loud parties again, I can always get the trumpet out and start practicing in the garden. Now, where did I put that mute?