This is the original article I wrote about this blog way back in 2014. The Daily Mail published a sensationalised version of it on Monday 12 January 2015 to "fit better" with what they believed their readers "expected".
For anyone interested, this is what I actually wrote...
For anyone interested, this is what I actually wrote...
|My mother, Sally Blake, with me - Fairhazel Gardens, West Hampstead, 1965|
Aphorisms are like aphids. Swarms of them attack Facebook and Twitter daily. Bumper sticker philosophy, Haikus, inspirational sayings - all invariably set against a backdrop of a sunset, or a suitably deserted, idyllic beach.
I usually scroll past them as quickly as possible, yet a few weeks ago, one did catch my eye:
“Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got.”
It pulled me up, because as I read it, I realised that in writing my late mother’s Perfume book for her, this is exactly what I have been doing. At least lately.
In September this year, I turned 50. I have not married, I have no children, and I have no property. I have accepted that this is just the way things turned out. I’ll admit that in times past, I’ve been pretty upset about it. I’ve cried real tears over it all, but you know what? I’m willing to take some of the rap. I’m low paid because I’ve chosen to settle in a part of the UK where jobs are scarce but the countryside is beautiful, and I live in rented accommodation because I haven’t saved my pennies for my own bricks and mortar as we’re all told we should. But as to meeting, marrying and mating, the fact is that during the years I should have been doing those things, I was at home with a mother who drank, and if a boyfriend braved a trip across our threshold, I rarely saw him again.
Of course, now I realise she couldn’t help herself. She was ill. For the worst of those years, she was actually dying, and nobody realised it.
Born into “a decayed branch of a once noble tree” (the Wyndhams of Llandaff), my mother was beautiful, volatile, and headstrong. Against the wishes of her family, she married a penniless actor, my father, Gerald Blake, in 1955. When she gave birth to my older brother Adam, my parents were in Panto at The Theatre Royal, Lincoln. They made up a makeshift cot for him in a drawer at their digs, and he would sleep peacefully as the after-show drinks and laughter went on into the night.
By the time I was born however, my father was on the up at the BBC, directing Doctor Who. He swung a mansion flat for us in Regent’s Park for a rent of just £12 a week. Our flat was always full of actors, and there were often parties that went on into the early hours. At one such, my mother kicked out Trevor Eve and Sharon Maughan for over-enthusiastic canoodling behind a sofa.
Cut to 1977 and my father had left us to shack up with actress Jill Gascoine - who he had directed in The Onedin Line - and who in turn left him for Alfred Molina.
Cut again to 1991, and he was dead. A massive heart-attack in the street. Brought up to park my own emotions when it came to giving a performance, I sang Puccini’s “Vissi d’Arte” at his memorial at St Paul’s Covent Garden in front of an audience of celebrities. My mother had invited Jill to the service via Peter “James Onedin” Gilmore. Jill later said she was stunned by such immense class and generosity of spirit.
But the loss of my father hit my mother hard. Over the years, they had fallen into a routine of coffee and dinners, and their reconciliation had been such they had even been talking about retiring to Spain together. His sudden, unexpected death was a vicious blow. The fact was, no matter what had happened, my mother simply did not want to live in a world without him in it. Suicide was out of the question, so she drank instead. She would open the Scotch for News at Ten, and still be drinking at 5 in the morning before she finally passed out.
Miraculously though, around this time, she had also started to get her immense knowledge of the glamorous world of designer perfume down on paper. She’d been passionate about scent all her life, but she had played down her knowledge for fear of being thought “trivial”. But this was a knowledge that was consulted the world over. Auction houses, film companies, dealers – all knew that if they needed to know something about an old forgotten scent, Sally Blake would be able to provide the answer. She began to plan a book about it all. Escaping into the unfettered luxury of the world of perfume was her only remaining true joy. I began to find old exercise books, notepads, backs of envelopes – all covered in scribbles and anecdotes about scent.
But as life went on, every day a struggle to keep up with the rent, the scribblings I would find on the kitchen table in the mornings turned from excited pages on the magic of scent, to bitter letters to people she felt had let her down, drenched in whisky and covered in cigarette ash. I destroyed as many of them as I could, but some got through, and more and more friends deserted her.
Afraid of the dark, she refused to go to bed before dawn. Sometimes she would make it to the bedroom, sometimes she would fall into a mirror or over a chair and split her head open. I would lie awake, listening to see if she was going to get up again, or if I was going to have to haul myself out of bed and see to her. More often than not, it was the latter. Then I would either patch her up and put her to bed, or find a taxi to take us to hospital before I would have to crawl to whatever job I was doing at the time.
When I was finally offered the chance to rent a friend’s flat in the East End, I have to say, I did not hesitate to take it, but I hadn’t been there long when I got the call from my brother on holiday in Dorset to say he thought that something was wrong at home.
It was late and I was ready for bed, but I got dressed, and caught the Number 30 bus from Hackney to Baker Street - to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table with a gash in her head, dripping blood onto the linoleum, and calmly doing the Times crossword.
Somehow, I got her to St Mary’s. They kept her in. The next day, they told me they had done a scan, and there was nothing they could do. She had a brain tumour. They showed it to me. It was the size of a satsuma. They told me it would have been growing for at least 8 years. She had four weeks to live.
Although she had never been on time for anything in her life, she checked out exactly four weeks to the day. We tried to keep her death quiet to give us time to make arrangements, but someone squealed and the landlord’s agent was on my case before her body was cold. If either my brother or I stayed over whilst we worked on clearing the ‘property’, they would charge us market rent. Our sprawling flat comprised two reception rooms, entrance hall, kitchen, pantry, two bathrooms, servants’ quarters, and 3 further bedrooms. My mother had been a sitting tenant for years. The weekly ‘market rent’ for it at the time would have amounted to more than my gross salary per month. So I sprinted from my temp job to the flat to pack every day, returning to Hackney on the midnight bus to do it all again the next day. I stuffed the perfume files and notes in several massive boxes, whilst, unable to house it myself, her famous, extensive, and magnificent perfume collection went to her friend, the perfumier, Roja Dove.
Three years later, I suffered a massive nervous breakdown. I was afraid to sleep because of the nightmares that I was back home and she was on the floor, covered in blood again, and I didn’t want to wake, because then I would have to face the fact my home was gone.
So I drank too for a while. I ruined a promising career as a Jazz singer. Often drunk and argumentative, promoters simply stopped booking me. I moved from place to place - some 8 times before I landed up in Hampshire. Each time, I dragged the sealed boxes of perfume books and notes with me, and just stacked them wherever I was living.
It was a near-miss car smash in 2012 that finally focussed me. As my car spun through the air with me in it, I thought of those boxes landing on a bonfire if I died, and all her work and her knowledge going up in smoke. I thought: “If I live, I will write it.”
I’ve laughed and I’ve cried as I have tapped out the chapters, but as “Through Smoke” takes shape, the strongest feeling has been of joy. The joy of forgiveness for someone who was so very special, and who was too ill to know how to stop herself from hurting those around her.
I’d love the blog to become a published book. But whatever happens, those boxes have been the greatest gift my mother ever gave me.
(c) Emma Blake - July 2014