mental health cat


Somewhat cliched, but it was written to be read at a funeral, the most indulgent of venues. Here it is for the record.

We’re here to remember my mum, Hazel Irving.

I had a tough time putting down these words - of course I did, for all kinds of reasons - but one reason I had a tough time was because I kept realizing I’d forgotten entire chapters and subplots of her life.

You all know mum very well. Many of you know her far better than I do - I’ve only known her for half her life. There are almost 40 years I know about only through faded photos and legend.

Here’s who she was as far as I can make out.

She was an artist and a teacher. She was a musician and a performer. She was a great cook and an aspiring tractor driver. She was a cultural revolutionary; a shaper of cultural values. She was a hostess whose parties live on in infamy. She was a carer and a nurturer, not just as a mother but as a daughter, and later professionally in her role at the Park Lodge nursing home, I think because she couldn’t give it up. (I don’t recall her title, but you could call her “Quality of Life Manager” and you’d be close enough.)

She would not be fucked with (not that she was immune). She was bloody minded and not afraid to speak truth to power. She saw tact as a symptom of weak character.

She was not always right, but she knew her own mind, and was not afraid to share it.

She was my mother, and in important ways, at important times, she was my mentor.

Once upon a time, I was sent home from school with a violin, after scoring well on a pitch test at primary school. Later, she would tell the story that by this time she had pretty much given up on me as unremarkable and average. So this was like Christmas for her.

In the years that followed, she drove my musical career hard. She would have me set up my music stand in the kitchen to practice. Quality control was a kind of audio/visual feedback system - I played, and no matter what she was doing, how busy or focussed she seemed to be, her visceral responses were my hard metrics. If my intonation was off, she would suck in her breath like I’d stabbed her with a fork or something.

When I got it right, particularly after working hard at something for a stretch, her pleasure would fall upon me like mana from the gods. There was no richer reward.

(Unconditional love is all well and good, but conditional approval is much better ego food.)

Last week, as she lay struggling to form her thoughts, I played to her on a rented violin. Time and neglect have not been kind to my skills, but the time came at last when 10 minutes of “hard slog” paid off and a hard bit yielded to my will. Her approval sprang from nowhere (it wasn’t clear she could even hear me) and fell upon me again.

I can tell you frankly and with no shame, at 43 years of age, I have found no reward since which I cherish so dearly as the approval of my mother when I play a few bars of music beautifully.

I lived without it for 25 years, so I know I can. But now it’s gone for good, and I will miss it.

I called her as a cultural revolutionary. I don’t think she thought of herself that way, but she was part of a movement which was in my opinion revolutionary.

She helped bring modern theatre to Leeds, and Leeds to the national theatre scene. She was central to the arts scene in Leeds for most of her adult life; as a performer, a campaigner for the first Leeds Playhouse at the University, and the current West Yorkshire Playhouse. Later, as a fund raiser and a volunteer - she created the Playhouse costume hire department and ran it voluntarily for many years. Even after her so-called “retirement”, helped raise money through her work with the Friends of the Playhouse - where she found many of you, her best friends of the last couple of decades.

She was a founding member of the Leeds Art Centre, and remained a vice president until she died.

When she finally stopped volunteering for the Playhouse, they gave her a lifetime season ticket.

It is true that life happens to us, sometimes in ways over which we have little or no control. But our lives belong to us. Terrible things may happen, leaving us depleted and damaged. But what we do with our experiences, and where we go next, these things are exclusively our property. Our choices belong to us and no other.

After she and dad split up, in some ways she never recovered. She had no interest in finding another partner, she really just wanted the original contract honoured. But she would not be defeated.

She refused to be forced out of her home by the inevitable loss of income. As well as taking the job at Park Lodge, she turned our family home into a boarding house for international travellers, artists, actors, students, lecturers, possibly even a couple of eastern European spies. She didn’t just take them in, she made them her friends - sometimes not necessarily with their full co-operation.

Later, when her body was devastated by two strokes so that she could no longer work, she remained defiant. She kept driving until we had the courage to make her stop (after a rather spectacular accident causing damage on both sides of a fairly wide road).

Like the weird eastern European spies, she turned her stroke from enemy to friend. She became a stroke association activist, supporting and counselling new stroke victims. She would not be defeated.

She refused to presume upon the favours of her friends, despite their frequent offers of help. And the offers were frequent indeed - if there was one thing she collected more of than her seemingly infinite owls, it was people.

My mother was a strong and fiercely independent woman. And I choose my words carefully - she was fierce, and she was independent. She was a contradiction, born into a gender role our culture still can’t seem to shake, but unafraid to take on the intellect and wit of all adversaries, male and female. She taught us to be uncompromising, while living a life of compromise, but she would not be patronized and she would not be marginalized.

She spoke her mind, and she taught me to speak mine. She was and is a fine role model, and I miss her.