On my mother’s last trip to London she travelled up with my long-suffering father from my hometown to attend her friend’s 70th birthday party in Hampstead Heath. Being a big fan of their pal’s, and realising I hadn’t paid my parents a visit in far too long, I said I’d swing by to have a drink with them all.
When I arrived, I spotted her immediately; you usually do. There she was, my 65-year-old mother, head-to-toe in leopard print, glass of bubbly in one hand, screeching in her Australian accent while she held court.
So we drank, we laughed. She told all her friends that the guy I was seeing was a “waste of time”, then she stole all my cigarettes. She quit years ago but enjoys a “party smoke” (her words, not mine). Later, when I made my excuses because I had to attend a friend’s birthday in Islington, she announced that she would be coming with me. While most of the other guests were heading home, she was just getting started.
My friends were delighted that she had joined us; she tends to have that effect. And so, over the course of the next couple of hours, she plied everyone with rosé, announced to the table that she thought she had better boobs than me, and then, when someone couldn’t find a lighter, pulled out a blowtorch from her bag (she’d brought it to caramelise the top of the crème brûlée she’d taken to her friend’s) and started lighting everyone’s cigarettes in the pub garden with it. I ordered her into an Uber not long after.
I’m not sure when I first realised my mother wasn’t the traditional matriarch, like, you know, Pippa in Home and Away. It might have been when I noticed all my friends wanted to come over to my house after school. Maybe it was when she started wearing matching leathers to the local pub. Perhaps it was after I first watched Mermaids, the cult film charting the fraught mother/daughter relationship between Cher and Winona Ryder, and it became a favourite because, notwithstanding Winona’s character, Charlotte, wanting to become a nun, I related to having a mother that could easily outshine you.
Alannah – that’s her name – is certainly a good time girl. Originally from Perth, she met my thoughtful, bookish Irish father in the 70s in London when they worked at the same company. The story goes that he walked into his boss’ office for the traditional Friday night drinks and there was his future wife, flashing everyone her new green knickers and performing a parody of the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line” that included the lyric change: “I keep my pants up with a piece of twine… Because you’re mine, please pull the twine.” I'm told it was not love at first sight.
Almost 40 years later and you’d expect things to have changed. And yet. At every turn-of-the-decade birthday party she has thrown, she has performed “Simply The Best” while taking her top off. Perhaps filled with impatience at having to wait a few more years for her big moment, she also did her skit at my 21st. But, then, she was being cheered on by her biggest fans: my friends.
Ever since I was a teenager, my friends have been obsessed with my mum. One story my schoolpals still churn out is when they all went to see Boogie Nights at the local cinema and were sat two rows behind my mother and her friends. They ignored the Paul Thomas Anderson opus, and instead spent the entire film watching Alannah’s overexcited reaction to the racy flick. They tell me that during the final scene in which Dirk Diggler finally reveals the sizeable contents of his underpants, she roared with laughter and screamed to her friends: “It’s not as big as [insert my poor father’s name here.]” I think they made that bit up. I hope they made that bit up.
Pop culture is certainly not short of embarrassing mothers. As well as Cher’s Rachel Flax in Mermaids, there’s Amy Poehler’s Mrs George (“I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a cool mom”) in Mean Girls, and the Queen of Embarrassing Mothers, Absolutely Fabulous' Edina Monsoon.
But I’m certainly no Saffy, so having such a good time mother does have its benefits. Dinner with her is genuinely a hoot and I’m allowed to be remarkably blunt and open with her about my love life and she won't bat an eyelid. (Ever since she went into excruciating detail one night about all of her past lovers – including a famous racing car driver and another called “Chris the Thief” – it’s anything goes.) Fortunately, my father’s adoration of her only grows year on year, which is great because while it’s obviously nice to have such loved-up parents, I also hate to think what she’d get up to if she was single.
Sometimes she likes to joke that I was swapped at birth. Not only do we look nothing alike, but our interests are pretty different. While I adore music and literature, she still thinks ABBA is the best band in the world and occasionally will pick up a Maeve Binchy book. Everywhere she goes, people fall under her spell. I'll be two feet behind her, rolling my eyes.
There’s a scene in Mermaids in which they’re at a high school event and Charlotte’s friend Mary O’Brian rushes over and points out her own frumpy, drab mother in the crowd. “See that woman right there? That’s my mother,” says Mary. “When I grow up, I want to be just like yours,” before the camera falls on Rachel in a suffocatingly tight outfit, surrounded by admirers, as she gesticulates wildly. Just for a moment, Charlotte looks proud. That pretty much sums up my situation.
Because she might tell everyone about the time she was given a “sex pill” in Australia just five years ago (I think it was ecstasy; she says she didn’t take it.) And she might get so drunk on Christmas Day that, even though my friend is cooking us all lunch, she has to go to bed at 5pm. And she might write ridiculous comments under all my friend’s Instagram pictures. And I am forever telling her to rein it in and be quiet. But, really, I admire her refusal to leave the party for a life of Bake Off and orthopaedic footwear. And then, when she’s not looking, I will be just like all the others. Looking on in quiet awe.