Friday, 12 March 2010

Guest Blogger Fiona Dunbar: a Mother's Day Tale

It's Mothering Sunday this weekend and to mark the day, my guest blogger and friend Fiona Dunbar has written this moving tribute to her mother, who herself had writing aspirations. Fiona is the author of the Lulu Baker trilogy which has been turned into the TV series Jinx, and the Silk Sisters trilogy which features a girl with the power to change like a chameleon. You can follow Fiona's blog here. Welcome to the Slushpile, Fiona!
I have killed my father. 

He lies over the desk in the study. The angle of his neck is wrong and from where I am sitting, I can see the side of his dead eye and thick blood at the corner of his mouth…

So begins a science fiction story called The Medusa Plant that, to my knowledge, has never been published. Or maybe it was – if so, it’s all lost in the mist of time now. It was written by my mother.

For years, I strenuously avoided turning into my mum. Having completely idolised her as a child, I then morphed into a teenager, and the rose-tinted spectacles came off. I vowed not to be loud and embarrassing in social situations like her, or have such disastrous relationships with men, or fail repeatedly at achieving goals, such as getting one’s work published.

I really don't know why Fiona doesn't want to turn into her yummy mummy

Not that I had any such ambitions at that time. In those days, my creative impulse was channelled not into writing, but drawing. (I have always written, but back then, the words were a mere adjunct to the pictures). Everything I produced was pronounced a marvel by my mum – and therefore, as far as I was concerned, utter rubbish.
Cornwall 1971: Interesting this photo because grown up Fiona so looks like her mum (see black and white pic below of Fiona with her kids)

This is the First Law of Motherhood:
You can’t win. 
Say your kids’ work is lousy? Consign them to years of therapy. Say it’s wonderful? Ha! What do you know? "You would say that, wouldn’t you? You’re my mum." (I’ve had that one too, from my own teenage daughter).
Fiona and her own kids (taken a few years ago)  

As for my mother’s own creative endeavours ... well, she never fully realised her ambitions there. Why? It’s not as if she wasn’t talented. In fact, I think she was really good. Good enough to have had an agent, and to have had a couple of things published ... but knowing her and her work as I do, I think there was a great deal more that could and should have happened, and never did.
One of her mum's manuscritps

I think she’d have made a good YA author – only back then, there wasn’t really any such thing. She was most at home with short stories, citing Saki as an influence, and wrote both for adults and for children.

Her writing was perceptive, lyrical, macabre and darkly funny. As far as I can remember, she had just two short stories published: a riveting children’s science fiction story called The South Gate Sea, and an adult story about, ahem, losing her virginity. (Yes, I actually read it. And yes, it was thoroughly cringe-inducing). There was also a TV play with Dennis Waterman that I didn’t rate much – but I was pleased for her that it got made.

As you might judge from the above, it probably didn’t help that she was so diverse.

Her concept for a children’s TV series called The Upside-Down People, (featuring characters called Sagacious, Prod and Umpulk) never saw the light of day; nor did a ghost story called Walking To Coverack, inspired by a holiday we took in Cornwall in – oh wow, I’m dating myself here – 1971.

An 80s Fiona poses with her mum

Reading it recently gave me goosebumps – not just because it’s spooky, but because it evokes so wonderfully the sights, sounds and smells of a part of the country I first fell in love with then. And more than anything, because it was written by her.

The last twelve years of her life were hampered by ill health. But she took a keen interest in my own nascent literary efforts, and when, in 2004, she was invited to the launch party of the first of my Lulu Baker books, The Truth Cookie, she was as excited as I was.

Wooden spoons for invitations! Yes, we were going to do this in style. Alas, the party never happened; the night before it was due to take place, she was struck by a brain haemorrhage. She died two weeks later.

So, did I succeed in not turning into my mum? Well, I don’t think I’m loud and embarrassing in social situations – though my kids might disagree. I’ve fared more happily on the relationship front: my husband and I have been together for nearly twenty years. As for the publishing: well, like most of us, I have a drawer full of stuff that didn’t go anywhere. But The Truth Cookie is still in print, has been followed by six other titles, and has inspired the CBBC TV series, Jinx. I have a contract for a new series, and right now, I’m about to embark on one of them…a ghost story, set in Cornwall.

The Lulu Baker books re-released with the Jinx covers

So you might say that yes, I succeeded in that objective.

Except that this is not the whole picture, of course.

There were so many wonderful things about my mum – her warmth, her humour, her wit and compassion ... even, yes, the economy and cleverness of her writing – that I aspire to myself. The big difference is this: she didn’t believe in herself enough. I’m not doing better than she did because I’m more talented – I don’t think I am. I’ve just stuck with it.


  1. Thank you for this. It's made me cry. A lot. What a bittersweet post.

  2. Lovely post Fiona. Very moving.

  3. i'd forgotten about what happened on the eve of your first book launch. gosh. your mum sounds really cool. you must miss her.

  4. A beautiful post, Fiona. I'll miss my mum this Sunday too. Thanks.

  5. Fiona, that is so moving. I thought your mum was fabulous.

  6. I'd love to see some of her work published posthumously. If anyone hears of an anthology that might be suitable, I'd be interested. I have some more stuff to read through; for a long time it was too painful to do that.

  7. Excerpts of comments from Facebook:

    Vanessa: Fiona this is wonderful, I have just come home from hospital where my mum has been for the last 6 weeks.She is no longer the mother I knew ... Thank you for such pertinent (sp?) blog and Candy thank you for inviting Fiona.

    Fiona Dunbar I feel for you, Vanessa. My mother was operated on but never regained consciousness, despite our strenuous efforts at stimulation (music, talk, touch). We were devastated, but at the same time relieved that we were spared the nightmare of having her wake up and be severely brain-damaged ...

    Harriet Goodwin ... it was a wonderful blog - very, very moving. Thank you.

    Keren David ... I was so moved by this blog and so sad about your mum and the party. Very happy though about the tv play and Dennis Waterman, she must have been thrilled.

    Philip Ardagh Thank you, Fiona. x

  8. How wonderful that your mum was a writer and that you have her writing still. My mum is a sculptor and I will have her work to keep, but somehow, writing, to me seems even more personal - to express truths about the writer and you can search within it for their influences.
    I cried when I read how and when she died, what a terrible shock it must have been... Tricia

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this. This struck a real chord with - my own mother died when I was quite young - one thought that makes it easier is that there will always be a part of her in me and in my children. And so it is with you - both beautiful, both talented and I bet she was warm and sociable, just like you, and notloud and embarrassing at all! xxx

  10. I loved this post and the wonderful photos of you and your mother - you do look so alike. Isn't it strange how parts of us stay tied to our parents and parts move on and away.

  11. A bit late to reply, but can I say that I read the South Gate Sea as a child and it was one of my favourite stories. The moment when the "real sea" breaks through still brings a tear to my eye, it was incredibly powerful stuff. I hope that it is some comfort to you that your mother's writing did reach some people, and I for one was very moved by it. All the best, Mike


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom