When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.
After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.
My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.
There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.
There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.
There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.
When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!
Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.
These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the woman I am today. There are many, many more. I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.
As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look. I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!