Listen … do you wanna know a secret?

Listen … do you wanna know a secret?

Let me whisper in your ear … I’d love it if you tuned in to the MUMBELIEVABLE podcast, because every little listen helps, and it got me thinking back to my earliest memories of storytelling. My darling mum wasn’t very good at bedtime stories as she got bored with the traditional tales and would wonder off into a fantasy story that was usually very scary or had something inappropriate at its core. I remember an incident with a junior school teacher (the one who cried when Mum marched in with the porridge that I hadn’t eaten that morning). We were supposed to write a short version of our favourite fairy tale. Mine was and always will be Cinderella. Somehow I identified with the lonely girl who was always trying to do good and could get animals to sew dresses and help with the washing up. It made the story even more personal when I was lucky enough to have my very own stepmother who wasn’t cruel and didn’t make me scrub floors. Yes, the kids used to tease me with “cruel stepmother” taunts, but I think I stepped on their toes or something a little bit painful, but not bad enough to get me into trouble. My short version of Cinderella was based on the version my mum had told me the night before and her version got muddled up with the original. My story went something like this. Cinderella did everything in the house. Her stepmother ordered her to wash the dishes and scrub the floor. Cinderella asked her Daddy why the stepmother had come and Cinderella’s dad said it was because Cinderella’s own mother didn’t like cuddles or having things put inside her, so the new mummy came who was very happy with “all of that stuff, thank you very much.” The teacher gasped when she read that bit and a few minutes later I was back in Mrs. Partridge’s office with a biscuit and a cup of orange. This snack would happen at least once a week and I was surprised when I found out that none of the other kids had the same treat.

I haven’t told that full story yet on MUMBELIEVABLE, but I will. I’m just waiting for the right guest who has an equally inappropriate mum story to share. I’m astounded and flattered that the guests so far are willing to share very intimate details of their maternal relationships. Not all the interviews are upbeat. Some are quite sad and go temporarily into a deeper place, but ultimately, we look at these events and try to re-frame them, with a good dose of laughter and new eyes.

I’m hearing that one of the great things about my particular podcast is that it’s good to listen to as you snuggle down to sleep. A bit like a bedtime story to get you thinking as you drift off the sleep (not that it’ll make you fall asleep I hope). One listener drifted off to sleep after hearing Su Pollard getting a little emotional about sharing her love for her mum Hilda and another listener loved the insight into Bobby Crush’s family which he had never spoken much about in public before.

So, please have a little listen if you fancy something different and maybe you’ll recognise your own mum in one of the episodes. And if your mum ever told you that Cinderella had to ride side saddle because her legs were quite sore, think of me as a five-year-old trying to work that one out. And spare a thought for my teacher who has probably been scarred for life by the fairy tales re-written by a mother with un-diagnosed ADHD and a penchant for turning most stories into a sexual fantasy.

And as for … promise not to tell … forget that! Tell everyone you know about the podcast if you like it, because one day it might get more listeners than “Dad wrote a porno”, but … oh, wait a minute. Maybe I’ll ask those guys if they fancy coming on and I can tell the Cinderella story in full.

MUMFORGETTABLE

MUMFORGETTABLE

“Once met, never forgotten”, is one of the phrases used by a special guest on my new MUMBELIEVABLE podcast about our challenging, courageous, confusing and cherished mums.  Margaret was a one-off.  For anyone who met her, she wasn’t one of those women who merged into a beige memory – oh no, she was a bright red, luminous green kind of woman.  A woman not afraid of speaking her mind, flirting with any man within winking distance, demanding money off strangers or brazenly stealing bunches of flowers from flower stalls or front gardens.  The only thing that scared her was that I could become well known and get my house burgled.  She was convinced that if anyone knew my name they could look me up and break in.  I think secretly she knew that she was capable of doing it, so was suspicious of the world of Margarets out there.

Today being Mother’s Day is a mixture of celebration and sadness as Mum is no longer with us, but her memory and life is the basis for the new podcast which has already had dozens of famous faces agreeing to come onto talk about their own mums.  We are officially launching today and put up a couple of episodes online for people to get a flavour of what’s to come and the reaction has been overwhelming.  With 24 hours we had 900 downloads, so that’s a good sign in podland, so I’m told.  That’s the happy bit.  The sad bit is that Mum isn’t here to listen to the stories.  She would laugh her head off at the memories I have of her antics, because she always told me that she had no real recollection of doing or saying the things that caused me so much embarrassment in my childhood.  I suppose it was because she was doing them all the time, not just to me, but to my long-suffering dad, mixed up brother and anyone around her.  I think what’s making the podcast so appealing is that it’s a celebration of our mums, mixed in with more poignant, deeper stories about how their lives were so different to ours.  The first two episodes on the podcast feature Steve Nallon and Kerry Howard.  Steve was the definitive Maggie Thatcher on the original Spitting Image and we learned from him that around the time he lost his mum when he was 9 years old, he realised he had a skill for  impressions.  His story about how unbelievably open-minded his mum and grand parents were is a lesson to us all.  Kerry’s mum sounds incredible and a TV star in her own right as she has been accompanying her son, Russell Howard (Kerry’s brother) on screen around the world and getting her teeth into adventures she never would have dreamed of having.  Another insightful and moving story that reinforces the message that life’s there for living, if we choose to live it.

This blog will soon become part of the MUMBELIEVABLE family as it’s too confusing for my little brain to have so many concurrent blogs and pods going.  The podcast is inspired by the stories I’ve been telling about Margaret here and I want the podcast to become an archive of generational stories that help tell us who we all are, through the lens of the mothers who brought us into this world.  I’m thankful that my cancer journey completely missed Mum.  She would have been beside herself. because in one of her lucid moments when I was about to go into hospital for a gall bladder removal, she said. “Now, don’t you die on me, Sonia darling.  That’s not a gift a mother wants from her daughter.”  Looking back, I went into hospital on the Monday after Mother’s Day which must have been behind her thinking over 30 years ago.

I’m on a mission now to include stories of our mums, good, bad or ugly (stories, not the mums) to help support people who may have had tricky relationships, amuse those who love a giggle and to help us all dig a bit deeper into our own lives.  One guest said that we only really think of parents from the moment we were born.  Their history isn’t relevant to us until we’re much more enquiring as adults.  I sometimes regret not sitting down with my dad to ask him more about his upbringing from a working class family who were supportive, but confused by his career choice to be a classical violinist.  I did ask my mum about her early life, but to be honest, the stories were so fantastic and mostly made up, I’ll never really know.  

In my bones I feel that I may get to know more about her through the podcast as I’m hoping that friends and family will tell me stories of their own encounters with her.  And I can build up an album of pictures and stories that make more sense than the tale she told me of living on a yacht on the French Riviera, dropping in for lunch with Prince Rainier and learning how to ride a horse on the golden beaches.  Do you know what?  I’m going to believe that’s true.  It’s the sort of thing my mumfomgettable mum could have done.  I’m also really looking forward to people sharing their own mum stories, so if you feel inclined please drop me a line and we can chat. 

To quote the great Nate King Cole, one of Mum’s favourite singers … “Like a song of love that clings to meHow the thought of you does things to me, Never before has someone been more…”

Happy Mother’s Day = to our mothers near and far.

 

 

Take five

Take five

Mum passed five years ago and it seems like the day before yesterday. I stayed and talked to her for hours after she died and even though I know she’s gone, I always feel her mischievous presence everywhere.

I’m sitting in the chemo clinic waiting for treatment and Maura has just taken my lunch order. When mum worked as a a cleaner and domestic in Edgware General she used to bring me home whole meals on china plates, covered in clingfilm. Sometimes the food was a bit mushed together. That’s because she traveled everywhere on her bike, swearing at careless drivers and flirting with police or traffic wardens when she was told off for taking liberties.

She was terrified of being a hospital patient, but loved working in them, Sometimes, if I didn’t find a wrapped meal in the fridge there might be a handful of chocolates and even a get well card once. She’d tell me tales of getting patients out of bed and taking them for walks, despite protestations from nursing staff. And a midwife once confided in me that Mum had a magical effect on scared new mothers. She had suffered severe post natal depression, so she would have seen someone suffering and felt it was her mission to cheer them up, probably by bringing them chocolates that she’d nicked from another patient.

I remember going into her room at the care home and seeing her windowsill covered in model boats. She was never that keen on boating and I asked her about them. “I know you love the water and and Frank didn’t need so many, so I’ve borrowed them.” Did he mind? I asked. “He was furious, but it’s all part of the fun of living here.” she laughed. A little later in the day she produced a ‘going home bag’ containing thawed garlic bread, three sandwiches wrapped in foil, a can of Pepsi and three incontinence pads.

She’s with me today in spirit and there are chocolates on reception … I sense mischief.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health Week

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.

 

Flights of Precious Angels

Flights of Precious Angels

When my mumbelievable mum died it 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.”

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