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Noises Off


It must have been about the tenth toaster we had: I don’t know why we went through toasters at such a rate; but from the earliest version of the species – brown, clunky, unable to toast evenly – to a variety of gimmicky toasters, each from a different genus (our mother did love a gadget) we eventually arrived at the perfect ‘70s version of the product: sky blue, with hippyish coloured dots along the bottom.

Anyway, for some weeks the toaster hadn’t been achieving too well. Because most household machinery had been erratic in performance throughout my life, and as our house was rickety in the extreme, I had learnt to do minor DIY repairs from a tender age. So I opened the crumb tray. Which is when I discovered that it IS possible to fry a live mouse; because on the crumb tray of that toaster, adhering grotesquely to the metal base, was the petrified form of a dead mouse.

As I recall, the dead mouse was largely skeleton; and had clearly been an

ex-mouse for some time. You could tell that from the amount of charred flesh on the perfectly preserved bones. So the thought had to be entertained that the mouse had been part of our daily bread for rather longer than was comfortable for ten-year-old me; but what is remarkable about this story, is that my mother made light of it and smoothed it all over: true, she didn’t much like me to tell the story in later years, and true, the episode was all but hushed up at the time; but I would tell the story readily to anyone who cared to listen…and frankly, who cared if the toast orders went down significantly at the time?

In artsy Barnes, we must have been the only family without a TV. Probably lots of people had mice in their toasters; but no one, absolutely no one lived without a TV. Catriona and I probably stood out at school with all those ‘did you see what happened on Coronation Street last night?’ conversations that went on in front of us; but strangely, I don’t recall minding at all. I probably didn’t join in with ‘no, but did you hear the latest installment of War and Peace on Radio four, because I was faintly aware that the family tradition of listening to radio drama, news, comedy programmes and debate show such as Any Questions, was rather niche.

However, that tradition of listening to the radio as a family did embed a strong cultural foundation in us: a love of Russian literature in my sister; a love of crime drama in me – all those Lord Peter Wimsey stories that had been so stylishly serialised with such wonderfully vivid actor voices; and above all, an entrenched streak of argument in all of us – to debate current affairs in real time, if only, in my father’s case, to disagree vigorously with pundits like Malcolm Muggeridge or Marghanita Laski.

I don’t know why those two particular people wound him up to such an extent; but it probably had something to do with a comment on Any Questions that MM once made, about ‘blood being thicker than water’. Since my father was adopted, this view was guaranteed to rile him enormously; and I can still hear him saying ‘My parents gave me away. The people I love and remain grateful to took me in. That’s much more important than “blood”!’.

The thing that I look back on with huge affection and nostalgia, is the open and free communication we grew up with: Catriona and I were not simply tolerated as children in this energetically verbal environment; we were encouraged. Encouraged to speak out, to engage with adult views and opinions, and to put our own nascent thoughts forward. We risked being argued into oblivion by doing so of course, but the only way to learn about expressing an opinion and defending it, is to practice. And we did.

To have parented the two most argumentative and opinionated of women was some source of pride to our parents; and had they known that their two grandchildren turned out to be, if it’s possible, more argumentative and opinionated still, they would have been delighted. To an extent, that capacity to argue must have partly devolved from our maternal grandfather Lord Moncrieff, who was paid to argue, first as an Advocate, later as Lord Chief Justice Clerk of Scotland; but as he died in 1949, we will never know how close we could have run him in verbal jousting.

On one occasion, a violinist who played in a piano quartet with our parents, announced that he had become a vegetarian. Nothing particularly strange about that, although in the ‘60s this was only just becoming a recognisable trend; but at the age of nine, I found myself talking to this chap during the post-rehearsal supper in our house, and as he talked me through the issues of factory-farming, I became convinced that I really had to worry about those exploited cows. All of which was fine; except that the following week, a pile of bumf arrived from an organisation called The Anti Factory Farming League, to which I had apparently been joined by the violinist.

I was rather tickled by this, because it indicated that I had been treated with adult respect; but my mother, no doubt apprehensive about being required to shop for bogwort and beans by way of replacing our meat-heavy diet, quashed the idea in short order. The violinist went on to become a vegan, so maybe it was best to stall idealism at the time; but I credit him for awakening my interest in how animals should be treated, and now that veganism is so fashionable, I often think of Tony Howard and his attempts to bring me into the vegetarian world. Whichever planet you are on Tony, don’t imagine your words fell on deaf ears – I’m listening still.

A strange combination of ultra sensible with slightly fey, my mother adhered firmly to the homeopathic persuasion: an ancient cousin of hers had been a homeopathic doctor, so Catriona and I grew up under the aegis of homeopathic ideals. This meant, for example, that we were not inoculated against the childhood diseases that had been the scourge of the early twentieth century.

A fine ideal; but less satisfactory when I developed whooping cough at the age of nineteen in my first year at the Royal Academy of Music. At that stage, whooping cough had been labeled a ‘dead’ illness for some years, so my doctor took six weeks to work out what my problem was, by which time I had probably passed the illness on to many others. What is certain is that both my sister and my mother caught it; and were, as I was, extremely unwell. Catriona and I both developed asthma in our thirties as a result of the damage to our respiratory systems; but the great news is that neither of us has developed smallpox yet.

A well-meaning friend of the family once drew up astrological charts for all members of our family. She delivered the news to my mother that unfortunately, even though they had been married for over twenty five years at the time, my father and mother had very ill-matched birth signs – air and water.

My mother snorted, and then said ‘Nonsense! We make very good soda water!’.

As these things go, I reckon that’s the best sort of epitaph; and yes, they did.