I danced, sang, and did anything to distract people from my mum’s crazy behaviour and until recently, I thought this was normal and “cute”. However, conversations with a therapist who is helping me process the death of four close friends and the sudden passing of my dear dad, have made me realise that it was anything but normal. It was a coping mechanism, sure. It was a way of making me feel happier by banishing the “scary monster”, OK. But it was the result of having a dysfunctional mum whose erratic, unpredictable behaviour made me want to hide in cupboards and tear up tutus. It was the behaviour of a little girl going through mental health problems which were never spotted because she was so good at hiding them.
This is a hard blog to write and I’ve been wondering about sharing experiences and insight, but as it’s Children’s Mental Health Week it feels like the timing is right.
Creating fantasy lands, disappearing into fairy tales and imagining life as a princess or ballerina sums up my early life. I hated school. I found teachers ridiculous. I stayed away from the other kids who would make “crazy” gestures whenever my mum turned up at school or sent me to school in weird outfits. Who’d have thought that a yellow T-shirt, bright red hot pants and wellingtons would mean another day in the school office with Mrs Partridge? She was sweet and I asked her once why she walked like a dinosaur as she held her elbows tight into her waist and let her hands droop down in front of her, making her bottom stand out. (Ooh, I said “bottom”). I can remember her being very amused when I showed her how ballerinas held themselves properly and her frowning face when I demonstrated how she should do it to look more normal. OK, I was 6. I didn’t understand that you shouldn’t say things like that to grown-ups in case they got upset. But most grown-ups were upset, weren’t they? Cross and bemused people getting in the way of my stories. Silly people. I inherited a bit of my mum’s no-filter approach to life because let’s face it, grown-ups were weirdos, so you might as well have fun turning them into fun characters and story inhabitants, right? So what if they got their angry face on? Twirl, point, hop and twirl.
Cope, cope, hide, dance, cope, cope.
I remember loving the game of hide and seek. I got good at it. I could find places where nobody could ever find me until I sneezed or coughed. I managed almost a whole day at junior school and only emerged when I heard unfamiliar male voices shouting my name. And whenever I needed time out to de-tox from Mum’s craziness I could hide in my fantasy world where I was a princess and nobody, not even Mrs Partridge could make me concentrate on lessons or take anything seriously. And there were times that I did what the teachers told me: leave the classroom if I wasn’t going to concentrate or take part. Well, they DID say to leave, but they didn’t say that I had to stay in the corridor outside the classroom did they?
Mum was going through a particularly difficult emotional episode when I was in my early teens. I was aware that she’d not been around as much and, to be honest, I was having more fun with my friends than with anyone in my stressful family at the time. I was living with my Dad who’d recently married my stepmother. Dad told me to go and visit Mum and was greeted with my, “Nah, another time.” response. He insisted I went to see her, which was unusual for Dad as he normally cursed her existence under his breath whenever I spoke about her. Go and see her? Ohh Kaaay, whatever. She was in her room in the guest house with two or three friends. Sitting in a chair near the window, wrapped in a blanket, she saw me, stretched out her hands and beckoned me to her. I froze. I just couldn’t go to her. I was angry with her for causing all the fuss and put my hand up in the classic “talk to the hand” gesture that hadn’t yet been invented. She buckled, her face crumpled and she started crying. The more pleading her friends did, the more adamant I was to stay in the doorway and not go in. I did eventually, but I really didn’t want to and on the way home I went into the cinema instead of going straight back to Dad’s. Mum was worried I’d been kidnapped and had called the police, Dad was furious with my disappearance and I just wanted a cupboard to hide in to get away from the whole lot of them with a big fat key to stop anyone coming in. I’d never really forgiven myself for being so cruel to my mum and I’ve realised recently that silence, a steely stare and a metaphorical “talk to the hand” has become my default for dealing with difficult people in my personal life. Occasionally the angry monster has emerged if I’ve been pushed into losing my temper, but I have to be really pushed. The odd mug-throwing or stomping off is OK, isn’t it? But that pent-up emotional repression isn’t.
Talking that episode through recently, I came to see that I was far too young to understand what was going on, too young to be the one to forgive my mother’s mental state and I have been hanging on to that guilt all my life. I went to see Mum the next day and recently it was pointed out to me that forty+ years ago I’d made sure that Mum was looked after, Dad was OK and not going crimson in the face when talking about her and my stepmother might stick around if I made her smile with my dancing and singing. But who was looking after me during that time? The answer? Well, I’ve always thought it was me. The proper answer, of course, was no one, because everyone assumed I was OK. I think Mrs Partridge was probably the only one who saw what was going on, which is why she would sneak me the odd biscuit, and a cup of orange and ask me if I wanted to talk about anything whenever I was dumped on her for whatever reason. I ALWAYS wanted to talk about being in Cinderella or dancing for the Royal Ballet and I’ve often wondered if things would have been different if I had been encouraged out of my fantasy world. Would I have been so good at dealing with VIPs, creating children’s stories and coaching people to be more confident by having conversations with their younger selves? Probably not, so I’m not wasting any more time wondering. I’m on a mission to dig deep, share and encourage myself to be more honest and hopefully encourage other people to speak out and share their own experiences as the children of mentally unstable parents.
Talking to other people my age who’ve experienced a tricky parent, it’s apparent that children’s strange behaviour or demonstrations of underlying stress weren’t recognised, let alone spoken about openly in public back then. How great that today we have Children’s Mental Health Week where the well-being of young people is top of the agenda.
The angry monster will inevitably appear at times, but she won’t look quite as scary if I imagine her in a red tutu and yellow ballet shoes whenever she threatens to de-rail me.
I wrote a little poem for my darling Dad’s funeral and nearly got through it without crumbling into a soggy heap. For safety I printed out two sheets of A4 – one with “We apologise for the interruption”, followed by “Normal service will be resumed soon.” When I lost my composure, it gave me a couple of seconds to take deep diaphragm breaths and the packed chapel a moment to giggle at something that Dad would have found hilarious. What a sense of humour he had. Often inappropriate, constantly erupting and breaking any tension around him. Laughter has a wonderful way of restoring balance, doesn’t it? He would be deeply philosophical, sometimes probing the inner-most bleakness of the soul and would then round it off with a pun or a quote, but mostly a silly expression, creased up face and inner laughter that was infectious. There is one precious memory that I try to bring to the front of my thinking whenever a wave of grief threatens to de-rail any plan or mundane action. It works on every level – visual, sound and emotional. Dad and I sharing a joke (often something that only we would understand), both in fits of hysterics, tears streaming down our faces, knowing looks between us. Accompanied by the sound of high-pitched, agonised screeching laughter, followed by a weak plea of “please, no more …” Then the utter joy of being questioned about what was so funny, when we both knew that neither of us could remember and the look of understanding between us when we were eventually urged to calm down. Oh Dad, I’m going to miss that so much. Luckily my darling husband is an entertainer and we laugh together every day at something, And it’s the best times with my darling sister too when we’re both in “Dadsterics” about something that wouldn’t amuse anyone else. Joy.
When I was about 6 Dad started to teach me to play violin and the first tune I scraped out was “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. You can hear it now can’t you? Loud rasping notes vibrating in protest from strings being assaulted by a heavy bow. I think I eventually got to Grade 3 violin, however I stopped when I couldn’t get the image of my Dad’s face in hysterics at some violin beginner’s concert. He couldn’t stand badly-played violin, him being a professional player and even though he would never have said it to me, I really did sound terrible and I knew deep down that I’d rather have Dad laughing at a common joke, than at my terrible fiddling. That memory inspired this poem.
Oh, and he also loved pork pies, even though he knew he shouldn’t really eat them. But he ate them anyway and made naughty faces behind the backs of anyone who told him otherwise.
This poem is called TWINKLE, TWINKLE, GIANT STAR
I’ve loved my dad for sixty years, Well, 59 if truth be told,
We laughed together, reduced to tears with the jokes and anecdotes he told.
He played with words and had great fun with silly names and risque rhyming.
He gave me the gift of the painful pun and the delicate art of …
C urious, clever and
H alf of me
A lways up for a cup of tea
R obust, riotous
L oving and kind
E ver amazing with his
S prightly mind.
Aged four I’d creep around our flat, not jumping or bumping or anything like that.
Because Dad would be playing his 78s. “Don’t scratch Yascha Heifetz!” or any of the greats..
He’d put on a record to tell a story – Noddy and Big Ears in all their glory,
And The Happy Prince was all the rage – “Sit back and listen, now turn the page.”
I remember him practicing the violin for hours as music was life’s soundtrack at Audley Towers.
“You sound like Pagannini” I laughed and teased. Although he was laughing, I knew he was pleased.
What joy when one day while at Radio 2, I booked him to play on a show – like you do.
My lovely Dad and the Fortuna Quartet, A moment of music I’ll never forget.
My father Charles, our Charlie, Dad. Although today I’m sensationally sad
You always taught me to look ahead and bouncing around are those words you said.
Open yourself up for the joy of success,
Don’t brace yourself for failure.
Always upbeat and stressy seldom, this marvellous man, Charles Edward Beldom.
Keep twinkling, twinkling, giant star and I’ll keep looking up wondering which one you are.
Up above – keeping watch from the sky. In the perpetual search for the perfect pork pie.
“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.”