Sunday, 14 March 2021

'A Life in the Day of' Peggy Musson: guest post by my late mother, at (more or less) the age I am now...!

The other week I had the loft partly boarded, an extremely messy and noisy undertaking which took two days and a lot of heavy exhaling by the installer - something which wouldn't normally raise an eyebrow, but which has acquired an altogether more unsettling aspect in these strange Covid times. Once I had got over my concern about a lingering 'Corona miasma' on the landing, I was able to focus on the fact that for a relatively small outlay I would a) likely add value to the house, as the loft is like a cathedral, and b) be able to declutter the bedrooms and make it easier to have a part-time lodger again one day, who could enjoy more than just enough space to hang precisely three shirts. Also, I think I am still 'haunted' by several readings of Marie Kondo's 'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up', and am all too aware of the psychologically oppressive nature of having umpteen bags and  boxes of wool, tiles, toiletries, bedding, perfume accessories, rolls of wallpaper, and even a spare toilet seat under the bed. Hmm, Marie probably wouldn't approve of adding more storage space to a house on the grounds that it is merely displacing clutter, but then I doubt the Japanese have the temptation of lofts to use.

Anyway, while fishing out plastic bins of old papers from the equally rammed cupboard under the stairs for rehoming in the loft when my hand is better - I have been banned from lifting heavy things for now - I found a file with several typewritten stories and articles by both me and my mother. Of particular interest, in faded, old-fashioned type, was a piece she had written in the early 80s, describing what she gets up to in a typical day, and pondering the question of how one should spend one's time in retirement. She had split up with my father a couple of years previously, and was living alone in a tiny two up, two down terrace off the Lisburn Road in Belfast. 

I was fascinated to re-read this piece after nearly forty years. By way of background, in 1977 The Sunday Times launched a column called "A Life in the Day of", in which mostly famous people documented an ordinary day in their lives. Here is a screenshot of one entry by Tom Baker, of Dr Who fame.

I don't know if there was a call for "civilian" contributions which my mother answered, or whether she thought it would be fun to write something similar just for herself. If she did send it in, I can't remember if it was actually published, as it was all so long ago. (And if her column was featured, I don't know if she would have assigned away the copyright, but I doubt the newspaper will come after me, if they even see this post!) And whatever the circumstances behind her impulse, my mother has created a personal record for her family to enjoy years later, along with a snapshot of life in Belfast during The Troubles.

I was prompted to publish this now, partly because it is Mother's Day in the UK (though I only realised that after I had written the post!), and partly because I went round yesterday to see the vegan friend who fell for Hiram Green's Lustre. Val the Cookie Queen had very kindly sent us both some Vivacious to try (mini-review coming up soon, together with one on Papillon Perfumes Spell 125), and I was delivering my friend's sample by hand. We had a bit of a chat, and at one point she asked how I was finding this in-between stage of not being officially retired, yet not having any work either. I said it was strange, and a bit guilt-ridden at times, but that I was trying to embrace this transitional period of my life, where circumstances seemed to be conspiring to make me wind down, professionally at least. I could resume my Airbnb sideline or have another lodger as I say, especially if it turns out that my market research work doesn't come back after Covid. It is so hard to know what the future holds.

Now of course my mother would have accessed her state pension when she turned 60, a few years before she wrote this, meaning that unlike me with four years still to go, she had in fact officially retired. Even so, as you will see, Mother is not entirely at ease with this new era of leisure.

"I usually wake at 6.30am and turn on Redhead and Timpson on Radio 4. Then I luxuriate in the knowledge that I don't have to get up at any particular time and float up and down in half sleep.

Breakfast I have in my newly furbished kitchen, which gives me so much pleasure when I remember what I lived in for two years with a sink and one cold water tap. Then I have a bath where there was once only a W.C. in the yard. Friends were very kind about offering me baths and I had five or six bathrooms to turn to; I could have written a sort of Michelin guide to their different qualities - five stars here for hot water, five stars there for fluffy towels etc. Now I can wallow in my own five star hot water.

I look to see if there is any post, especially from my son in Edinburgh or my daughter in England. Then I slip over the road to buy the Times to check up if I have won anything with my Portfolio cards, Portfolio being an upmarket bingo, and I have a quick look at the crossword to see if there is any chance of solving it later.

My little house is in a side street running from the Lisburn Road down to the railway. The house rattles slightly when a train goes by and the 8.05am to Dublin is really good value.

I sometimes think I could never live up a mountain and buy food enough for a week at a time when I am so used to having Jim's shop on the corner open until 9pm seven days a week, so that in the middle of cooking when I realise I haven't got some ingredient I can just nip out for a minute. The bank is across the Lisburn Road as is a row of some of the best food shops in Belfast.

The library is only five minutes' walk away and a visit there is one of my chief pleasures. Why is it that some days one walks up and down and finds nothing and yet on others one scarcely has enough tickets for all the books one wants to take out? I hardly need fiction when there is so much interesting, not to say dramatic, in the real life that goes on in my street. There was the rape of my next door neighbour at 5.50am by the man across the road, which led to representatives of every branch of the R.U.C. being in my front room with the victim. And next door the other side there was a noisy family and friends who did not go to bed until 4am. I can only think that there being only two bedrooms they went to bed in relays. Fortunately they have departed and now there is only one man living in the house who is quiet but is visited from time to time by a big bruiser of a man, who has served a term for murdering Catholics.

If it is a windless day I go for a cycle ride, preferably on the tow path by the Lagan in the Lagan Valley Park. In high summer the white cow's parsley is shoulder high. Always I walk some part of the day. Sometimes I walk into town, trying to avoid being too dependent on the car against the day when it finally disintegrates. 

After two years battling with the Housing Executive to get my house fixed it is now complete and finished down to the last detail, and having resigned from being the Secretary of a voluntary organisation I am confronted by the problem of retirement. How does one cope with that Puritan work ethic that needles one on to feel always that one must be doing Something Useful? Maybe one is facing up to something really fundamental about Life and its Meaning. I suppose it is easier when one's energy runs out and there is only enough to get through the basic activities each day.

In the meantime I take myself off for a midday swim in the Queen's (University) pool. I might see a film in town in the afternoon when OAPs get in for a mere £1. In the evenings there might be a concert or a foreign film at Q.F.T. (Queen's Film Theatre) and always there are friends to visit and conversation to enjoy.

Bed calls about 11.30pm and I wait for the midnight news before drifting off to sleep. If I am lucky I might wake up between 3 and 5 am and be able to hear something interesting on the World Service."

Oh Mother, I hear you on the noisy neighbours! The police are also no strangers in my street. And I go to bed at 11.30pm, or try to in my new regime (to be featured in an insomnia update soon). Then your life sounds more physically active and cultural than mine, and you probably do more cooking, and have time for a physical paper, but there again this was well before the life-sucking vortex that is the Internet and social media. ;)

Finally, here is a photo of me at 22 with my mum at 61 - ie my current age - even if her article is from a few years later.  

(Photo of Tom Baker article from, other photos my own.)


Tara said...

This was just WONDERFUL Vanessa. It struck me how similar you and your mother are both in terms of being interested in people and in writing style. Particularly the part about rating the neighbours' bathroom facilities!

What a lovely insight
to have into her daily life. I agree it was a cultured and active life, especially as 61 was older than 61 is now.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Very good spot about the interest in bathrooms - I completely missed that, but it is indeed yet another thing we had in common! And yes, she was quite intrepid for her generation, cooking curries from scratch back before they were popular, and taking holidays on her own right up until the end.

Vanessa said...

PS Also, she seemed to be getting by on similar amounts of sleep to me at this age, which is encouraging. I am probably managing a core of about 6 hours now, plus some light 'drifting'!

Pats said...

Oh i loved reading A Day in the life of your mum. It was especially interesting because i know all the places she talked about and know the general area in which she lived. You must miss her a lot. Here's to all the mums who are not around any longer! - Pats

Catlady1649 said...

I loved reading this. Thank you for sharing X

Vanessa said...

Hi Pats,

I thought exactly that as I was writing the post - or my mother was, rather ;) - and very nearly tagged you on Facebook to let you know!

Vanessa said...

Hi Catlady1649,

Aw, glad you enjoyed it.

Tara said...

Yes, I thought that was a shorter amount of sleep than the norm but she seemed to thrive on it. She even liked to wake in the night to catch something on the World Service!

ScentScelf said...

This is altogether wonderful, Vanessa.

Additionally, a great delight to drop in after a passage of time and find a fresh form of bonkers on Bonkers.

There are predictable comments about powers of observation and talents with words being in the DNA rumbling about in my brain. I will avoid forming them and simply say, heartfelt and large, Happy (Belated) Mothers Day. To you, and to your mother.

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

How lovely to hear from you! I have been toying with the idea of doing a retrospective looking at the blog titles and their associated community from ten years ago.

Thanks for your maternal good wishes. I must say that whenever I hear the word DNA these days, my mind is instantly drawn to thoughts of spike protein vaccines. ;)

Vanessa said...

Tara, yes - maybe she and I have a genetic sleep requirement? And I immediately thought of Val at the mention of the World Service in the middle of the night. ;)

Undina said...

Do you know what I especially love about you posting your mom’s article? That unless you take special steps. It’ll stay in Internet archives for decades and will be much easier accessible than it would have, had it been published back then in the paper. Make sure to “advertise” it everywhere you can - to friends, relatives, neighbors.

I think you should do a follow-up post with more pictures of your mom, if you have them and a link to this post.

It is very genuine and not boring. I enjoyed very much reading what your mother wrote back when I just started enjoying reading :) I agree with others’ observations about family traits.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Am pleased you found the post an engaging read, and what a good point you make about the greater accessibility of my mum's article for having been uploaded digitally. She wrote many diaries too that are tucked away somewhere at my brother's, and one day I would love to read those.

There is a follow up post about her I was thinking of doing later in the year, about what she got up to in the war.

I hadn't realised how alike we both are! I sense it may be one of those things it is easier for others to see.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story and tribute!


Vanessa said...

Thank you, Joyce!