Essay: Why I Heart: My Mum

This piece was commissioned by much-missed feminista pop collective TYCI, for International Women’s Day in 2015 – they asked me to write about a woman who inspired me. Their site has sadly closed now, so I’m posting it again here…

When I think of the things that my mother has taught me, here are some scenes that spring to mind:

Her being caught stealing; her charming policemen; her willing dodgy cars to drive, fuelled by fresh air and hope alone. Her getting us marooned up the Wallace Monument; her prolific use of celery salt; her glamorous sunbathing in Stirling, like it was the Costa Del Sol.

I write and talk a lot about women who I think are amazing, in print and on the radio – Neneh Cherry, Sleater-Kinney, Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey, Beyonce, Bikini Kill, St Vincent, Kim Gordon, Martha Reeves – I could (and do) go on. So this time, I figured I’d impart some wisdom from the one I’ve known the longest, and admire the most.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from my mum.

* Pretending to be brave is the same as being brave.

My memory of this is sketchy, but some time in the early 1980s, my mum took my wee brother and I to see my uncle in Australia. There was a bomb scare on the plane en route, I think it was in Abu Dhabi. I was five, my brother was two, my mum would have been around 30, and I cannot imagine the panic she must have felt when she was told that there was a problem.

We had to evacuate and move away from the aircraft, but all I can recall is my mum turning it into a great adventure and reassuring us that everything was fine – that we were, in fact, just stopping off for a picnic. So we sat on the ground, in the blinding heat, and it seemed like an odd place for a picnic – compared to, say, the Laighills in Dunblane – but otherwise I felt quite calm. I remember her smiling at us in the sun.

For years afterwards, I thought my mum was amazing for pretending to be brave like that, when she must have been terrified beyond words. It took me a lot longer to realise that being brave and pretending to be brave are pretty much one and the same. If anything, the latter is more impressive: it implies a lack of choice.

(See also: pretending to be confident; pretending to be sociable.)

* Never become entangled with someone whose principles offend you.

I spent a good part of the 1980s trying to encourage my mum to entertain at least one of her many suitors. She was having none of it. There was this one chap in particular of whom I approved, but when I pressed my mum as to her intentions, she flattened his chances, thus: “I could never get involved with a Tory.”

Many years later, in my 20s, in London, I became acquainted with a man who was Princess Diana’s cousin or some-such, replete with a Lordship (which may have been bought). I briefly flirted with the notion of being his bit of rough for a laugh – purely so I might subvert, infiltrate and argue with all that he stood for – before coming to my senses and recalling my mother’s words. (We met at a rave in a Dalston warehouse, incidentally – he probably didn’t need subverting).

* Epitomising a Roxy Music album is a righteous life goal.

Things I genuinely expected to happen when I magically turned into an adult overnight: I’d become sophisticated and wealthy; I’d drive a bright yellow Porsche; I’d look like Fallon out of Dynasty (NOT Emma Samms – Pamela Sue Martin, the original one). My entire sexy, high-powered life would play out like Roxy Music’s Avalon – all elegance, seductive lighting, black-ash furniture, stockings with seams up them, loosened tuxedos, neon geometric cocktails, balconies, sunsets and satin sheets. Jacuzzi life.

It bears noting that such ambitions were hatched while my mum was raising my brother and I in a one bedroom flat near Stirling, and that we watched Dynasty on a black and white portable telly a suitor (see above) had given her in exchange for a set of trestle tables.

Despite this, my childhood was instilled with glamour, and the potential thereof – from my mum’s use of exotic sun cream (Bergasol) as she swanned around the River Allan like it was the Riviera, to her copious use of the ultimate swish 1980s seasoning, celery salt – not to mention her insistence that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up, including a Roxy Music cliche, replete with yellow Porsche. She still points such cars out, encouragingly, every time we pass one.

The fact that I have yet to even learn to drive highlights the gulf between my adulthoods real and imagined. Thankfully, there’s room for both.

* Be kind.

This one was passed on by constant example. Be kind to people. We are all fragile. Even when we pretend to be brave.

* Always wear matching underwear.

“Even though no-one will see it.” (Thanks for the vote of confidence there.)

* Honesty, and the meaning of irony.

My mum often took my brother and I for a walk up the back of Bridge of Allan. She was always gathering lavender cuttings from the woods, pilfering bluebells, that sort of thing. But her “borrowing” from nature came to a head in a country lane called Coneyhill Road.

The cottages there don’t have front gardens, just window boxes. When my mum encountered a plant she’d been seeking for ages on one of said windowsills, she couldn’t resist: she took a surreptitious clipping. Its leaves were white and round, like tracing paper. She put it in her pocket.

The owner came out of her front door to enquire as to what my mum thought she was doing. And that is how my mother got caught stealing Honesty, and lied about it. I learned about irony that day too.

* Barbara Dickson is the greatest.

This is self-explanatory.

* * *

My mum also taught me that nobody’s perfect – and, with this in mind, herewith a few counter-arguments:

* Mothers are not always right about science.

Have you ever been in car that runs out of petrol? This was a recurring theme of my childhood. (If you don’t have any money, and you absolutely have to get somewhere, it’s worth a try, right? But sometimes the car wins.) Science can put the kibosh on hope. You cannot power a car on positive thinking alone.

(You can, of course, blag petrol from a fellow motorist, and accidentally set your car on fire, but that’s a story for the pub.)

Sometimes her old 2CV headlights wouldn’t work either, or the tax disc would be out of date, and so policemen would occasionally pull my mum over on the motorway, or turn up at the door, and every time she would somehow: a) get off the hook, and b) get their phone number.

* Mothers are not always right about geography.

A variation on the above scenario concerns the time she took us on an “adventure” up the Wallace Monument woods, guided only by her “instinct”. Suffice to say we got stuck in a landslide in the rain and had to cry for help.

Were were rescued by two handsome strangers with whom my mother and her legendary best friend – also a hero, and not just because of her water-bed – went gallivanting later that evening.

* Mothers are not always right about manners.

My mum spent my childhood trying to drum manners into me, which is fair enough (I now do the same with my own kids), but some of them were quite archaic – including her insistence that if I didn’t use cutlery properly (I’m right-handed but have always used my knife with my left hand), no one would ever take me out for dinner.

I have thought of this warning on several occasions. Like the time I was wined and dined in Cannes by the rock ‘n’ roll multi-millionaire who set up the Bowie Bonds. Or those culinary evenings in the Groucho Club with the pop star. Or that night on an Amsterdam canal boat that involved a 22-course meal served up by a famous TV chef. None of these characters (or the others) seemed unduly offended by the way I wield my cutlery.

(I was unimpressed by all of them, incidentally: I married an archaeologist I met in the Co-op in Killin.)

She was right about always saying please and thank you, though. It’s amazing what you can get in life if you ask nicely enough. (This philosophy has not, as yet, extended to a yellow Porsche.)

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