This memoir sounded so intriguing and had such a great write up from other authors who I love, so I was very keen to read it. This is the story of a woman who didn’t live life by society’s rules. Even with a child in tow, she lived life on a knife edge in the hope of fulfilling the childhood belief she was destined for greater things than the poverty she was born into in 1930s Liverpool. My mum’s side of our family are from Liverpool and this was my grandmother’s era so I had a real sense of the sort of poverty the author’s mother might have experienced. As one of five in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a miner, it can’t have been an easy life. I had thought my Great-Aunt Connie must have lived an interesting life having become pregnant as a teenager, yet managing to keep her daughter and bring her up as single mum. It would have been brave of my great-grandfather and ‘Mother’ (as she was known) to accept the stigma from neighbours and their church community. Connie had earrings that looked like mint imperials and was incredibly glamorous, always ready with a laugh or a joke and always had an admiring gentleman in tow, right up into her seventies. I thought she was fabulous. However, this author’s mother was in another league altogether and I loved hearing these incredible and mysterious escapades.
The best word I can think of to describe Sarah Aspinall’s mother Audrey is incorrigible. Our opening chapter takes us to a Hong Kong hotel bar in 1965 when Sally (now Sarah) is eight years old. The opening conversation between mother and daughter really sets the tone for the type of woman Audrey is. A piano player is softly running through his repertoire of Frank Sinatra tunes. Sally knows them all, she’s heard them in every piano bar she’s been to, but something about this song makes her ask her mother:
‘Why is she a tramp? I ask.
‘ She wants to be free to do her own thing’ she says, ‘you know’, then she croons about having the wind in our hair and being without a care’.
This small conversation opens a window onto a life that is far from conventional and often, shocking, like what transpires next. Audrey calmly identifies a lone man at the bar to her little apprentice who lets her Mum know she’s going to the bar for a Coke. Sally then wedges herself onto a bar stool next to the man and calmly asks him if he will ‘look after’ her Mummy when she goes to bed. When she’s pointed out, Audrey pretends to be bemused, but in a heartbeat turns herself into a fascinating femme fatale. She apologises for her bothersome daughter and says she must get her settled in bed. The man is hooked – could they possibly have a nightcap? Back in their room, Sally watches her mother refresh her smokey eye make-up and step into a mist of perfume, then she departs. Sally knows she won’t be back till morning, so settles to read herself a book, wondering what scent she will wear when she is older. Books are Sally’s only education and she is fascinated with love, currently studying the love story in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
I didn’t want to ask my mother, as she didn’t like to talk about things in books, but […] why didn’t one of those men who my mother met ever love her, when she was so beautiful and could sing and dance and tell funny stories and make the room light up? It must have been a run of terrible luck.
The author is brilliant at occupying the mind of a child, who is by turns naïve and innocent, but also knowing and wise beyond her years. Often she can see when an ‘opportunity’ is going sour before her mother. She is definitely a willing accomplice, but is that down to her mother’s training or simply a family trait? The pair flee from one country (and prospect) to another, via luxury travel and the best hotels if lucky, or on a wing and a prayer if not. It is glamorous, exciting and full of adventure, as Sally mostly presents it. However, it must have been destabilising and possibly even scary at times, especially in her youngest years. For me there was something touching about this little girl, taking herself to bed in a strange hotel while her mother works on their chosen ‘mark’ down in the bar. Sally treads a very careful line; this is no misery memoir, as she makes clear in the afterword. She writes truthfully, but stops short of outright criticism of her mother. Nevertheless, I sensed loneliness in a little girl who only has adults to converse with and is reading books she manages to find left in hotels, some of which are way beyond her years and understanding. This is how she gets an education of sorts. Although the book really does celebrate the glamorous and irrepressible Audrey, there is a hint of anger and resentment too.
Even back in Southport, Audrey isn’t the settling down, cosy type of woman at first. She’s something of a local celebrity. What she doesn’t seem to recognise is the void opening up in her daughter – that need to know who you are and where you’re from – coming from the lack of knowledge around her father and his death. She doesn’t remember him, but has enough skill at reading people to know that just under the surface of her mother’s party personality, is a deep sadness and even perhaps, depression that surfaces from time to time. This keen sense of perception is what drives Sally forward, into completing the jigsaw puzzle that is her mother’s life, for herself and for the reader. I was deeply engaged at this point, eager to understand both of these incredible women. When, finally, Audrey does find some contentment in life and Sarah has the settled family she has always craved, the anger and resentment does start to surface. Audrey appears none the worse for her escapades, but Sarah has paid a heavy price including her lack of education and structure. Now she rebels against rules that are being imposed for the first time. Yet, this is such a generous book. Although she tells the story honestly, Aspinall never judges and shows incredible compassion towards her mother. Yes, this is a very unorthodox mother and daughter relationship, but she didn’t want her memoir to be a grenade lobbed backwards, detonating the past. She allows Audrey to shine out of the pages as the beautiful, dazzling and vivacious woman she was. Meanwhile she shows herself at peace with the past and her mother, by becoming a smart, capable woman with a beguiling set of storytelling skills.
Meet The Author
Sarah Aspinall is a producer and documentary maker. She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.