Phyllidia Law on Alzheimer’s and her new book

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When Phyllida Law’s “deliciously dotty” mum Mego began her descent into the thick fog of Alzheimer’s, the actor and writer discovered the power of community.

When Phyllida Law’s daughter, the actress Emma Thompson, turned 50, she wanted to give her something special for the milestone birthday. She looked out a shoebox full of amusing and sometimes poignant notes she’d written to her mother-in-law – Thompson’s grandmother – and had them bound together into a little book as a gift.

That little book became Notes to My Mother-in-Law, which was published in 2011. It occurred to her when she finished working on it, however, that her younger daughter, Sophie, also had a 50th coming up, and so How Many Camels Are There in Holland? was born.

Law’s second book addresses her own mother, Mego, and her gradual descent from “deliciously dotty” into a thick fog of Alzheimer’s. When Law’s “Uncle” Arthur, Mego’s second husband, dies, she returns home to the village of Ardentinny on the western shore of Loch Long to look after her mum with the help of a cast of colourful locals and the occasional G&T. It’s warm and witty and moving and filled with all the hilarity and mundanity of everyday life.

Law, 80, calls it “the small littleness of life”. Actor, mother and grandmother, she is a person at home in, and delighted by, the everyday: “I’ve lived my whole life in the domestic area, really, with the small things which are always funny anyway if you note them down.”

She doesn’t keep a diary, but she does keep a notebook “to write down when the cuckoo comes, how many red squirrels I saw, and what my grandson said about the recession. Even one word takes you fizzing back and your memory’s technicolour.” It’s these notes – interspersed with recipes, observations, ideas – which formed the backbone of the book.

When I call her, she picks up the phone in her London home with a loud chuckle. She is laughing, she says, because I phoned right “on the dot of three”, the appointed time for our interview. She takes Nat King Cole off the turntable in the background (“I thought he wasn’t quite the thing”) and throws another log on the fire, then we get started.

“In the old days there was always somebody batty in the village, wasn’t there?” she says, her Scottish brogue occasionally keeking through the curtains of her velvety London theatre world accent. “You didn’t use the words dementia or Alzheimer’s. You just got on with it. But now it’s extraordinary. It’s very public, which is great, in a way, but it also scares the living daylights out of all of us. You think ‘oh I’ve forgotten that person’s name; that’s the beginning...’”

Mego, who once ran a tearoom in Ardentinny, was always a little batty but her dottiness slowly becomes more marked. At times it’s amusing. She looks at a photograph of a friend’s grandchild through her monocle and asks how old the puppy is. She wakes up, slightly confused, and announces that “I may have been a little bit nearly dead.” While driving home one night she thinks the lighthouse is an oncoming car and veers into a ditch. She decorates a trifle with potatoes.

There are darker moments, however, mostly towards the end. She doesn’t think she’s in her own home and makes her daughter drive her around looking for her “real” house. She complains that old age “isn’t doing its duty” and asks her doctor to “do the decent thing”. The sense that her house isn’t her own never diminishes and the transition from a little bit muddled to afraid and confused is inevitably sad.

Was it painful, I wonder, to revisit those moments? “I don’t remember having difficulty writing it, but I did have tremendous difficulty reading it out for the audio book. I wasn’t expecting that. I absolutely went to pieces. It was extraordinary. It was round about when my brother [James, who died from a head injury after a car accident] was dying in hospital. I couldn’t read that bit without falling apart. It’s like singers. They can’t sing when they’re weeping.”

While Mego gets on with getting on, Law balances acting jobs with managing her mother’s life in Ardentinny, sometimes helped by her daughters who visit from London. They laugh together frequently, cry occasionally. The strain, the weight of responsibility, threatens to overwhelm her at times. It was an experience, however, that she sort of knew would come one day.

“I remember filming something and one actress was very late. She came roaring in and was in such a flap because her mother-in-law had died, I think, or slipped off the loo. In the telling of her tale I remember listening with my hair standing on end thinking ‘that’s going to be me’. I’m going to be looking after two mothers; my mother and my mother-in-law. It was a very clear signal from somewhere that that was going to happen to me.”

The book is punctuated with odd moments of forgetfulness on her part which she worries are symptomatic of her own deterioration and as such a reliance on her own children, something she hates the thought of.

“Oh for heaven’s sake I do not want to be looked after by my daughters,” she exclaims. “Every single elderly person doesn’t want to be a bother. So it really stops us from growing old disgracefully. There’s no way you’re going to do a parachute jump in case you break both legs and the children have to look after you. You would think, wouldn’t you, that we would all want our daughters to look after us but I don’t think I do. I’d rather know they were getting on with their lives and having a nice time and that some charming person I didn’t know at all was coming round to sort me out.”

She snorts with laughter. She certainly could be the kind of grandmother who might consider a parachute jump. She has a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes and one-liners about family members, friends and Ardentinny characters. The book, she says, “shouts of dirty laughter” and she’s quite right.

There’s the retired PE teacher who does a handstand at every opportunity and the man who did a three-point turn into the Clyde. There’s their old blue van with the dodgy doors that were tied shut with a pair of Uncle Arthur’s old trousers and the aunt who married a millionaire and died on a luggage trolley in Glasgow Central Station: “another aunt died in Harrods which I think is very distinguished. In the art department. Well the ladies loos are just off it, at least they were. It’s very different now, as you know.”

The subject of her own grandmother was banned around the dinner table because she was so fascinating that stories of her antics threatened to monopolise conversations. Do her grandchildren talk about her in the same way now? “Oh I hope so.”

I wonder if they know about the time their grandmother had a bad trip on some “herbal” scones. A particularly amusing chapter sees Law acquiring some marijuana to help with her mother’s glaucoma. A tea party is arranged to sample the goods and some naughty scones are baked and served with cream and bramble jelly. After some giggles, Law becomes convinced that she is dying. A GP is duly called who gives her a stern telling-off.

The incident has surely gone down in family lore. It’s a memorable one, certainly, but there are many smaller moments which might be lost were it not for Law’s fastidious note-taking. Though she acknowledges that “if you trawl around in your brain for a dedicated half hour some very extraordinary memories do come through” it’s the little notes which jog memories of little things.

Take druggets for example. One entry (I say “entry” but there are no dates because “I don’t do dates, I don’t do names”) features an odd document “found in mother’s knicker drawer”, a British Rail survey for sleeper car passengers on the usefulness of druggets.

What’s a drugget, I wonder? “It’s like a bathmat. It’s some sort of hefty linen which is laid down on the rather rough carpet of the sleeper so you can stand on it in your delicate bare feet as you’re getting into your pyjamas, which I never did of course.” Times have changed, I remark. “Times have changed very much! There used to be hooks for men to hang up their pocket watches.” Beneath the survey, Law has noted: “Good word for Scrabble, ‘Drugget’”.

How Many Camels Are There in Holland? (the title comes from a question a doctor might ask to determine if a person has Alzheimer’s) is not so much a tribute to her mother as a document for her daughters. It does also pay tribute to the power of community, to the people who support you when you need it most. It takes a village to raise a child and to care for an elderly person rapidly losing her faculties.

The way in which the people of Ardentinny rally round – taking on night shifts, running errands – is particularly touching. Law calls the people who helped her the “golden girls”. “They were lovely people. Scotland’s good for that, don’t you think?”

The family still return to Mego’s old cottage. Law will be travelling up in a few days for a holiday. “Scotland is very vital to us all. I think we would have been sad creatures had we not had that to go to.” I ask why Ardentinny is so “vital”. She pauses. “There’s nobody there. There’s about seven sheep and the hills and we need to go there otherwise we’d all be ill.”

Though her accent betrays it only occasionally, Scotland is in her soul. I ask her if it’s snowing in London today. No, is it snowing in Glasgow? I tell her I’m calling from Edinburgh. “Oh I’m so sorry,” she exclaims. “That’s very hurtful.” I assure her that I love both cities equally before confirming that it is snowing all over Scotland. “Ooh lovely! I like a little bit of snow. I’ve got my crampons in the luggage.”

She likes Edinburgh, but she’s a west coast girl at heart. “Edinburgh is a gorgeous city. But then they’re posh. Jenners! I love the people in Glasgow. I love them. They’re very special. They talk to you in a queue! On the bus! It’s extraordinary.”

How Many Camels Are There in Holland? was almost called A Voyage Round My Mother, a reference to the John Mortimer play A Voyage Round My Father in which someone asks the son how he felt when his father died. “Lonely” is his one-word answer. She closes the book with this poignant reference, following Mego’s death. It’s a fitting conclusion to a book that’s moving and amusing in equal measure and as such it’s the perfect 50th birthday gift. “Well, what do you get them?” she says wryly. “I was up against a wall, really...”

Mego and me: notes from Phyllidia’s memoirs

Caught mother doing a “boarding school strip” this morning, or what she calls “washing her forks”. I nearly fainted. There was a long dark gash on her stomach as if she had been shot or her appendix scar had exploded. It turned out she had put a felt pen in her trouser pocket and it had leaked through three layers. I’ll never get the ink out of her breeks. They’re in the soak “for the now”.

Dear Em! It would be good if you phoned around 6pm when I fully intend to be thoroughly inebriated and Ma will have had her G and T. She is remarkable really. Tonight she is cooking a new recipe she found and wishes me to sample and pass comment. I don’t like to tell her I have had it every visit for the last couple of years. It is fillet of fish – I think it is cod – and she bakes it spread with tomato ketchup. I know. Sounds disgusting. Looking up mother’s recipes in the old filing box I found this re game: “Daudet compared its scented flesh to an old courtesan’s flesh marinated in a bidet.”

The days are getting longer but Ma still gets depressed around teatime. “Be a sport, Phyllida, give me the pills.” She means Death. I say OK, but shall we have a cup of tea first? “Oh, yes!” she says. “Let’s have tea.” Later on I can distract her with the offer of brandy and ginger ale. She has asked the doctor to do “the decent thing”. He says he can’t face a prison sentence. She thinks it would make a nice change. After her evening drink she’ll say wistfully, “Old age isn’t doing its duty.” It’s heartbreaking. Words are no use. We both sit and stare at the loch. Flat. Gunmetal grey.

• How Many Camels Are There in Holland? is published by Fourth Estate, priced £12.99.