I have just spent a week with my mother – or so it felt. In fact she died 34 years ago when she was 78 and our time together now came courtesy of her biography. Professionally she was an actor and March 4th this year saw the publication of ‘The Performer’s Tale: The Nine Lives of Patience Collier’ (Head of Zeus ) by Vanessa Morton.
As the title suggests, the book focusses on my mother’s life as a performer. Seven years in the writing armed with boxes of my mother’s archives, Morton’s biography is a treasure trove of information painstakingly researched, beautifully paced and written, fully referenced and packed with illustrations; it could hardly be better.
Biographers know well how their work can affect the relatives of those about whom they write and, not surprisingly, I found sections of her biography very moving. In addition, it taught me much about my mother and, en passant, my father, and a lot about me too. This blog is about some of my more personal discoveries – some sad, some warm.
The most harrowing revelation was the extent to which my parents disliked each other. The book tells how they began quarrelling soon after they first met, with my father cruel and controlling and my mother demanding and manipulative. Apart from the occasional respite, their toxic marriage, which was peppered with each other’s infidelity, continued until they separated some 40 years later – the nature of the thread that kept them together for so long is a mystery! Reading about their relationship really hurt; that I could have lived for years so unaware of my parents’ disastrous union has cast a horrible shadow.
The biography also revealed a second and sadder reminder of my failure to see what was going on. By its very nature, the book is brimful of details about my mother’s acting achievements of which, when she was alive, I was almost oblivious. Again and again, and with feelings of regret, I asked myself how I could have known so little.
Until my late teens she was simply a mother who went out to work. She was on the radio and television, in films or on the stage, but I paid little attention as I took it all for granted. I went to see her acting on ‘first nights’, and occasionally I visited radio studios and television sets, but was never aware of her celebrity. In response to comments that I had a famous mother, I would shrug my shoulders and go back to whatever I was doing.
This lack of interest continued into my adulthood. She died when I was 45 and we rarely talked in detail about her work, her family or even her upbringing. Indeed, it would not have been possible for her to tell me everything that now appears in Morton’s book, but just a portion would have been good. How very much poorer I am for being so blinkered.
My first two regrets were related to facts, my third more to fantasy with a touch of phobia. With its descriptions detailing my family life, I started to read the book worrying that there would be unknown others also reading it and discovering intimate details about my mother, my father and, through them, about me.
This concern came as a surprise. For years I have shared with others details of my private life – look no further than this blog. Indeed, sharing has been part of my drive for openness and honesty. Worrying how others might see me by reading the book goes against these firmly-held values. Importantly, with time, this once real concern has now faded.
Now for warmths – much joy came from the discovery of my mother’s extraordinary diverse acting record over a career lasting fifty five years. But it was a real treat to read stories that made me chuckle or reminded me of things we had in common. Typical of Patience was her outrageous, possibly foolhardy, demand of a gruff American customs officer to “Say please” if he wanted her to open her luggage. How precisely damning her assessment of her husband’s mistress: “I gave Harry three beautiful children – she carries his bags”; or of another actress: “She had loads of talent but never harnessed them.”
Patience was always very demanding and knew what she wanted, so how reassuring it was to learn from someone who worked with her on a film that “if she was difficult it was because she was right.” Finally it tickled me to discover the origin of my antipathy towards guests who stay too long. She would, it appears, invite people to dinner stipulating beforehand a set time at which they should leave, say after two hours, and loudly congratulating those who left on time.
Reading my mother’s biography has been a wonderful experience. Inevitably, it has brought sadness and created challenges, but these have been far outweighed by warm memories and new insights. Importantly, through the book, I am much prouder of her now than ever I was when she was alive.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Jo, Zach, Vanessa, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration shows a much-enlarged photo of me and my mother in our garden in the summer of 1949; I would have been 7 years old.