Hazel McHaffie

How many Camels are there in Holland?

Today, come with me into the big tent, the Main Theatre, to listen to two well known people – both octogenarians. There are 570 seats and it’s packed to the gunnels. Every year I’m astonished and heartened that thousands of people pay so much money to listen to writers. But then, this is the world’s leading literary festival.Audience in Main TheatreFirst, at 10.30, it’s Phyllida Law, mother of Emma and Sophie Thompson, and a well known actress in her own right, talking about life with her mother, Mego, who developed dementia.

Phyllida is known to her Rwandan grandson as ‘ancient lady‘; I could only dream of looking as sparky and being as entertaining as she is at 81. Even walking in she stops to quip! When an emergency vehicle momentarily drowns her out, when something goes bang at the back of the tent, she has a witty aside ready. Journalist Jackie McGlone has her work cut out keeping the actress on track, but does so beautifully when she can stifle her own mirth.

I didn’t know until I researched the family that Phyllida is a Scot: born in Glasgow; moved to the village of Ardentinny to look after her mother Mego when she needed care; still keeping a remote cottage in Argyll as a retreat. She confides that she loves the warm embrace of the Scottish people who formed a team of carers to help her shoulder the responsibility when her mother needed watching at night as well as by day.

How many Camels are there in Holland: Dementia, Ma and Me is her account of life with her mother as her mental acuity diminishes; using the scribbled notes she kept during that time. It’s her second memoir – she also wrote things down when her mother-in-law ‘Granny Annie’ was living with them for 18 years (by her own account, not the 40 years Wikipaedia reports). Annie was very deaf and Phyllida resorted to handwritten notes to communicate with her. As she admits: ‘I can’t do any of that laptop rubbish.’ On neither occasion were the scribbles intended for public consumption, but when Phyllida wanted unusual and special gifts for her two daughters on their 50th birthdays, she hit upon the idea of a compilation of these family anecdotes. What a uniquely precious gift! Now shared with the public.

The title comes from the ridiculous questions asked to test the deterioration in Mego’s mental ability. ‘How heavy is an average hammer?’ ‘How long is a necktie?’ Phyllida berates them as such ‘male questions‘. Far better to ask, ‘What’s your bra size?’ I confess I’ve never heard such questions asked in any mental state assessment, but then Phyllida’s take on dementia differs from my understanding in a number of ways. She’s a consumer speaking from a single personal perspective, instinctively resorting to hyperbole and the witty one-liner.

In reality reviews have been very mixed and one sneakily wonders if it would have been hyped as much had it been written by your average Mrs Joe Bloggs. But in person the author comes across as delightfully scatty, witty, frank and fun. She says her mother was always slightly dotty so the transition into dementia was barely perceptible initially; there’s a strong suggestion that her zaniness has passed to her daughter.

Caring for someone with dementia can be gruelling and disturbing, but Phyllida says life on stage, and being married to the writer and narrator of The Magic Roundabout, equipped her with a lively sense of humour, and in her book she demonstrates a delightful capacity to laugh at the absurd. Indeed she’s been accused of not taking the subject of dementia seriously enough. I love the example of Mego preparing to go out. ‘Ma, you’re not wearing your distance specs.’ ‘Oh, that’s all right, dear, I’m not going far.’ And the occasion where her husband exclaims: ‘The pudding’s moving!’ Phyllida adds: ‘The polite term is weevils!’ And their brief experiment with marijuana in scones (as a possible treatment for Mego) where they managed to overdose themselves, had the audience roaring with laughter.

But as she says, it’s not the craziness that is sobering and heartbreaking, it’s the moments of clarity. She instances many in the book. Awaking from sleep one day and not recognising anything or anyone Mego says: ‘I think I must have been a little bit nearly dead.’ Asked on another occasion if she needs anything from the shops she says, ‘A new brain … I’ve lost mine.‘ Imagine knowing.

A questioner asked if her relationship with her mother changed once the dementia really took its toll. Phyllida replied with disarming candour that there was always a distance between them because she had been sent away to boarding school from the age of 7, so her mother was a sort of ‘half-term treat‘. This space between them meant caring for her later was easier than it might have been. Nevertheless Phyllida admits to a ‘thread of fear for the future‘ running through her life, lest she has inherited the condition herself.

Jackie McGlone described HMCATIH as written with ‘a clear head and a loving heart‘, allowing the reader ‘to smile with not at‘. What a lovely tribute.New seats for book lovers

Just time for ten minutes in one of these new seats and I’m back queuing for the 1.30 event in the same tent: Roy Hattersley talking about the Dukes of Devonshire. He’s been attending the EIBF annually (talking about his 19 books) for all its 30 years – maybe that’s why he was allowed to chair his own session.

Having recently visited Chatsworth, the seat of the Devonshire’s, I was looking forward to some illumination of the family history. Hattersley spoke with erudition, fluency and great knowledge, but it was a whirlwind history lesson covering a 500 year history. I fear I can’t possibly do justice to it or make it interesting for this blog, so I won’t even try to. Rather I’ll select a couple of gems: The 8th Duke was the only man who’s ever yawned during his own maiden speech! In Hattersley’s view, MPs today should learn a lesson from the Whiggs of the past: go by their own personal judgement and conviction not by the voice of their constituents.The audience spill out of the big tent

I leave the crowded square with my head whirling.




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