Fourth Estate £12.99
Review: How Many Camels are There in Holland? Dementia, Ma and Me, By Phyllida Law
Memoirs of a failing memory
The title of the actress Phyllida Law's book refers to a question that dementia specialists put to their patients to help determine whether they have Alzheimer's. Law spent two years caring for her nonagenarian mother, Mego, in the tiny Scottish village of Ardentinny, with occasional help from friends, fellow villagers, and her daughters, the actresses Emma and Sophie Thompson.
Mego's memory was already failing when her husband Arthur died. She had been known to put her shoes in the oven and bacon in her sock drawer. Now she was brushing her teeth with shampoo and trying to exit a room via the window rather than the door. "Mother was lost," says Law.
The book is partly in diary form, with a scattering of watercolour sketches alongside written vignettes that veer from cheerily acerbic ("Ma has now developed a snore that sounds as if she is calling me. 'Phy ... lli ... daaaah.' So I get to be awake even when she's asleep") to more reflective and nostalgic.
Dipping in and out of her family history, Law recalls Mego's childhood as the daughter of sternly Presbyterian parents, her unhappy first marriage, the death of her son (and Law's brother) James from a head injury, and her habit of visiting her daughter at boarding school in "an embarrassing hat on loan from Penelope's". Meanwhile, doctors and community nurses come and go, as do friends with funny names (her best friend is called Mildew), and Mego's moods shift from sweetly benign to bewildered and irate.
For the most part, Law remains determinedly chirpy – sometimes a little too much so. Her and Mego's exchanges often have the ring of a daffy sitcom. At one point she shouts after her glaucoma-afflicted mother "You haven't got your long-distance glasses on," as the latter totters out the door for a stroll. "Don't worry dear," Mego shouts back. "I'm not going any distance."
Only occasionally does Law let the cheerful mask slip, and, in doing so, actually gets to the heart of life as a carer. Listening to her famously stoical mother sob, Law says: "Grief, like arsenic, stays in the system where we store all the unshed tears from long-ago life. Some things are too terrible for tears so we keep them there for later."
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Secret Cinema: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
- 2 Christians: The world's most persecuted people
- 3 The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
- 4 Danish TV reporter is all business up top, all party down below
- 5 Ross Burden dead: MasterChef and Ready Steady Cook star, dies aged 45
Top Gear Burma episode breached Ofcom rules over Jeremy Clarkson's racial slur
Secret Cinema: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
Game of Thrones season 4 blooper reel unveiled at Comic-Con 2014
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 teaser trailer sees Katniss lead rebellion against the Capitol
The Simpsons Family Guy trailer: First look at crossover episode after Comic-Con debut
The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Were 'Poor Doors' added to mixed developments so wealthy residents don't have to go in alongside social housing tenants?
A new Russian revolution: The cracks are starting to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace