Oh Mandy! – Amanda Solloway M.P.
Amanda Solloway is a longstanding resident of Borrowash and can often be seen out and about in the village alongside her husband Rob and their dogs. She is a Parish Councillor, but in May 2015, the Solloway family experienced something of a collective tsunami when Amanda narrowly defeated sitting Labour MP, Chris Williamson, to become the Conservative MP for Derby North. The Labour MP had been widely expected to win; it was the shock result of the night in Derbyshire and nobody was more surprised than the new MP who was anything and everything but the stereotype of a female Tory politician. She had no Politics Philosophy and Economics degree from Oxford (or even a Geography degree from that university like her present boss,Theresa May) had never worked as a Special Advisor to a Cabinet Minister, at the Bank of England or even as a diary assistant or lowly caseworker to a Backbench MP.
Unlike many of her future MP colleagues, Amanda had never been employed as a journalist by a national newspaper or the BBC. Neither was she a practising barrister, a QC or a judge. Those of us working on the ‘Unexamined Lives’ project were delighted when she agreed to be interviewed, but what follows is not a star-struck account of life on the famous green benches or a sentimental rhapsody about encounters with the heroes and villains of British politics. In fact, it is not about Amanda Solloway MP at all. This is about a girl called Mandy.
Mandy describes her mother’s side of the family as ‘small and contained.’ Her grandmother, Louisa Annie Alcock was a striking figure whose ‘blue-black hair’ made her the butt of unkind teasing in an era when awareness and consideration of diversity and racial equality was all but unheard of. Louisa’s contemporaries jeered and sneered at her because she looked like a gypsy (‘today we’d say it was travellers’).
Money was scarce and Louisa’s father took the precipitous step of crossing a picket line in the General Strike of 1926 so that he could continue earning money to feed the family. The Alcocks were not rich. Crossing the picket line manned by a unionised workforce is unlikely to endear a person to their fellow employees today, but the stakes were much higher in 1926 when the striking miners (who were attempting to force Stanley Baldwin’s Tory Government to stop the mine owners reducing their wages by 13% whilst increasing their shifts) were supported by solidarity strikes from many other industries. On the first full day of action on 4th May 1926, between 1.5- 1.75 million people downed tools and went on strike; the armed forces were drafted in and violent fights between the strikers and police erupted throughout the UK causing chaos. The decision of Louisa’s father to cross a picket line, thereby snubbing the strike action and betraying his co-workers had dire consequences for him at work and for his family at home:
‘He then got ‘black sheeped’, I think it’s called (or something) by the rest of the workers and subsequently he went home and he would take it out on his family.’
‘Taking it out’ on a wife and two small children usually means violence and Mandy has no doubt that the consequences were severe and long – lasting for Louisa and her twin brother, William:
‘I’m not sure whether I believe in Nurture or Nature when it comes to people who have mental health issues, but it certainly had an impact on both their lives.’
The frightening climate of brutality seems to have affected William particularly severely; in effect, rendering him incapable of independent existence and he became totally reliant upon his sister Louisa. He resided with her throughout her entire married life until the death of her husband when she could no longer care for him and the end of his life was as sad as its beginning:
‘He went into the Salvation Army and died there, homeless and penniless.’
Whilst the crippling impact of his upbringing made him unable to thrive and prosper, William’s twin, Louisa, appears to have developed a certain eccentricity that manifested itself in an attention – seeking behaviour pattern that was often bizarre. Mandy calls her ‘a character’ who ‘didn’t really mind as long as people were paying her attention. I think this is where I get my character from.’ Whether it was becoming the proud owner of one of the first motor bikes; dressing from top to toe in white leather to show off her blue-black hair (which was more of an asset for a young woman than a child) or making an exhibition of herself in public, Louisa lived by the principle that she’d rather be looked at or laughed at’ than disregarded.
Sometimes her free-wheeling antics could be embarrassing for her family, and Mandy describes an excruciating incident on a train as told to her by her own mother who was clearly still smarting from the memory:
‘I know one day to Mum’s great dismay, they were travelling on a train and, all of a sudden, she saw everybody in the carriage looked a little bit miserable. So she stood up and screamed at the top of her voice ‘Ivanhoe!’ And everybody … my mother was incredibly embarrassed by that, but my Nan just seemed to take it quite normally.’
However, Louisa’s extrovert propensities came alongside a kind heart. She married a handsome, clever young man called James Campbell Cresswell who enjoyed boxing as a hobby, and Mandy adored both of her maternal grandparents who played an essential role in her childhood and that of her two siblings. In essence, they brought them up.
‘Now they were very, very special to me… they would care for us; they would take us on holiday and I think that they recognised the complexity of my Mum and they were always very, very, mindful of bringing us up as a three.’
The stability that young children need was supplied by her grandparents, and to this day Mandy acknowledges its importance, because whatever the total sum of her qualities, ‘stable’ is not an appropriate word to use to describe her mother.
‘Complex’ however, is an apt term to convey Mandy’s own feelings about her mother; they are contradictory and she experiences difficulty in articulating them. On the one hand, the daughter admires ‘this clever, vibrant, bright woman’ and at the same time states that she was ‘vindictive and hateful’ and in retrospect concludes that ‘I now don’t blame her. I think for a lot of years I blamed her and I thought my Dad was weak but now I realise clearly that she was very poorly.’ It is of course perfectly possible for all three shades of emotion to be experienced simultaneously and for any one of them to be in the ascendant at a particular time depending on circumstances. What does emerge, is that the ‘eccentricity’ in Mandy’s Nan and dependence manifested by her Great Uncle William took on a much more frightening aspect in Mandy’s mother, with predictable and inevitable consequences for Mandy herself as a child and teenage girl.
Mandy’s mother (whom she does not name) was an intelligent girl who passed the 11 plus twice, but there were no grammar school places near to home. She therefore went to school ‘out of area’, returning at weekends ‘which meant she never really had any friends.’ She had a love of Shakespeare and kept detailed diaries throughout her life, but seems to have shown signs of depression and personal neglect as a teenager – aligned to creativity:
‘She used to talk about how she used to wear her pyjamas all weekend. So she would come and just wear pyjamas and just paint.’
Mandy’s Aunt, Sylvia Iris, her mother’s older sister was ‘just incredibly sensible, had a very good job and everything’ in contrast to ‘My Mum who was always the enigma.’ Perhaps as Mandy now believes, creativity and mental health problems are linked, but the theory remains unproven. What is true is that at the age of 17, Mandy’s mother was so unhappy that she attempted suicide. She did not succeed.
Two years later, the life of the woman who would become Mandy’s mother took an upturn – in the form of a handsome young architect who worked for Plessey’s. Mandy is not sentimental about either of her parents and says of her father:
‘He had always been a bit of a womaniser and, since she has died, he has reverted to type (I have tales I could tell about him).’
Yet his Casanova propensities and priapic urges were curbed during his marriage because ‘It was absolute pure, dedicated love. They were meant to be together’ and this was just as well. The young husband’s patience would be sorely tried by daily co – habitation with an unstable wife. By temperament, he was a self-styled ‘go-getter.’ Working for Plessy was never going to satisfy all that drive and he set up his own construction business ‘making his first million’ by the time he was 30. However, a year later, he had lost the lot due to a mixture of poor business decisions and the insatiable demands of an extremely extravagant wife. The unpredictability of family life is captured by Mandy:
‘I can remember at the age of two moving into a rather lovely house that my Dad extended, called The Croft in Attenborough and then I remember at the age of six having to leave that house because they could no longer afford it, going to a smaller house. Then, when we went to the next house, which was still in Attenborough, that’s when my Dad’s financial problems started to really hit.’
The fluctuating nature of the family finances (Mandy had by now been joined by a brother and sister) began to be matched by the increasingly erratic nature of the way Mandy’s mother behaved. Both parents were serious smokers but for her mother, smoking was something of a crusade:
Mum used to smoke ‘cigarlettes’ and she used to get these Dunhill cigarlettes and she would smoke 80 a day. That’s’ a hell of a lot of cigars – it’s quite a lot! And also, clearly from a money point of view. I remember having to walk down to the shops, because you could buy cigarlettes in those days for people, and coming back with all these cigarlettes.’
Mandy does not smoke – for now (and in her childhood days, smoking did not attract the social stigma and health warnings that surround it today) but the regularity of purchasing her mother’s cigarlettes must have made a deep subconscious impression:
‘I can remember when I started smoking, I was 15 and … it was Number 6, the cigarettes that you had and I can remember going to Goose Fair… The family smoke, everybody smokes and I went and bought a packet of Number 6 cigarettes and I just really liked them. I am going to start again when I’m 70. I can’t wait for that first drag of Marlborough Red! I’m excited! That’s my reason to get to 70 I think.’
However, there was more to unsettle a young child than a household reeking of smoke. Mandy’s mother was turning into a recluse:
‘Gradually, she began to lose her nerve to go out. She’d never really liked people and she would only ever drive us to school, but gradually even that confidence went. So she stayed more and more in the home, and in the end, as we ran out of money, more and more people would knock on the door. She would therefore drink more, take more tablets and her life was just really living in a room as they moved from one house down to another house, trying to raise some cash.’
Financial insecurity combined with mental instability is a toxic cocktail. Mandy’s father found it hard to get a permanent job and her mother became increasingly reliant on prescription drugs in an effort to shut out the reality of the situation. As with attitudes to smoking, alarms had not yet been properly rung about the likelihood of drug addiction and doctors were happy to deal with a difficult patient by writing out a series of ‘scripts’. Mandy does not think that her mother’s situation was unique for the era:
Going back to the 70s and 80s, people would take the benzodiazepine types of drugs. That would be Valium, Librium. Nobody ever really knew what the consequences of those would be. But the consequences would be horrific. You would get addicted and the addiction was great. So much so that my Mum was on the highest prescription in Wales by the time she died, where they moved maybe 20 years before she died.’
The social patterns of earlier decades were also unhelpful to a woman like Mandy’s mother who may have inherited a propensity to instability. In those days, it was quite usual for the man of the household to have his dinner and then decamp for a night at the pub – or in Mandy’s father’s case, the golf club. His wife (who was developing agoraphobia and in any case had three small chidlren on her hands) did not accompany him – but had no intention of ‘missing out.’ Mandy’s memory is vivid:
‘But what this meant was that she was drinking a bottle of Cinzano a day and Mum would always say, ‘If you’re going to the golf club, I want a pint of sherry.’ They used to sell sherry on draught in those days, so she’d have a draught of sherry so she was literally drinking an excess amount.’
The constant presence of a drunken mother must have been unnerving for her children and it put them at risk in more ways than one:
‘There was one incident when I was about 7 or 8 where she used to get the sherry, because it was draught sherry, it used to be in, like, a lemonade bottle or a Coke bottle. And one morning we got up, because she never used to get up, and I went down to feed my brother before we went to school, and he helped himself to a glass of Coke, not realising that the Coke was this sherry! And he ended up consequently paralytic and he got sent home from school at lunch time with a hangover! So needless to say he didn’t really touch Coke very often since then.’
The ‘laissez fare’ atmosphere of the 70s and 80s, known colloquially at the time as ‘letting it all hang out’ clearly extended to school as well as smoking, drinking and the operation of health services. It is inconceivable today that a small child could turn up at the school gates drunk and just, in effect, be told to go home and not do it again. Today he would have been escorted off the premises by a posse of social workers and when, on depositing him at home, they had discovered that his mother ‘couldn’t really get out of bed – she just used to sit and plait her hair and then fall asleep,’ in all likelihood, discussions would have revolved around taking him and his siblings into care. Yet the home from hell was not always hellish and Mandy has some brighter memories:
‘I remember, I suppose, first of all, when I was about 7 or 8, just being really, really happy. And I think childhood….. I think that’s why I do so much with kids really because I just think childhood should be cherished and enjoyed. I just remember running in the garden and summers seemed longer and, I don’t know, there just seemed to be more butterflies. I don’t know really. But I do remember thinking how idyllic it all was round about 7 or 8, just really lovely.’
Children are resilient and are naturally programmed to love their parents – whatever they are like – and now, in her fifties, Mandy’s recollections of her mother are not all bad. She recalls a woman who hid her tears when her baby boy was born with a club foot:
‘I don’t know how Mum must have felt but when you’ve had a baby and then you find out that the baby has some kind of illness or deformity, it must be quite difficult and she blamed herself, I know she did.’
The question now was how to help the baby and Mandy’s mother swung into action, seeking out consultants and personally supervising foot exercises:
‘They used these callipers and they straightened out his legs and every single night she had to do a foot exercise to push his foot back to where it is.’
Maternal devotion paid off – Mandy’s brother is world champion in Martial Arts, he became a golf professional and played many other sports ‘and it was all down to my mother’s dedication.’
Yet Mandy’s emotions towards her mother remain qualified as indicated in the praise she bestows:
All credit to the woman I probably hated most in my life.’
The duality of feeling and uncertainty at home may have manifested itself in other ways as well. Mandy ‘was not particularly confident – I lost my confidence I suppose.’ Her mother was an undermining presence, whether consciously or unconsciously:
I can remember one day sat in our front room and the Avon lady – ‘cos the Avon ladies used to come and visit you. I can remember the Avon lady coming in and chatting to my Mum and her saying ‘this is my daughter, Mandy,’ and it was as if I wasn’t there – and she was saying ‘Oh, she’s got nice eyes. She might not be the best looking but she’s got a good personality.’ I’m thinking. ‘Well, I’m in here, actually, in this room,’ and I think that it’s little things like that that started to make me, not doubt myself … but I was really skinny and I think I gradually got more and more nervous as I went on.’
Again, the child Mandy and her relationship with her mother may be typical of the era, but today such comments would be relevant to an article on body-shaming. What is significant, is that such a comment, probably careless in intention and even well-meant, could be remembered with such clarity over 40 years later, making it important not in its own right, but for what it demonstrates about the mother-daughter relationship. Unease, unhappiness and uncertainty were asserting themselves in other behavioural ways:
‘I know that probably when I was very young, I used to wet the bed for a long, long time until I was about 5 or 6. The reason I say this is because my Mum and Dad were very concerned.’
At the time, rather than seek the underlying cause for bedwetting which today would include probing into the possibilities of mental, physical or sexual abuse, attention was directed towards simply stopping it and therefore preventing countless changes of bed linen. Mandy ‘had these blooming contraptions that you could have. There was one that, if you wet the bed, these sirens would go off. Clearly they’re never going to help you think about anything and they didn’t help at all, so in the end, they actually took me to a psychiatrist. I guess I would have been maybe 6 or 7.’
The psychiatrist’s remedy was swift and effective:
He just took one look at me and said ‘You’re a perfectly normal young lady. There’s nothing wrong with you.’ I never wet the bed again.’
In retrospect, Mandy is convinced that the root of her problem was psychological:
‘I just think I needed someone maybe to say that I was perfectly normal. I’d probably got myself into a bit of a pickle.’
It is a pity that it couldn’t have been her mother….
The duality and contradiction in Mandy’s perception of her mother is deep rooted and persistent. Education was a maternal priority and ‘she was so determined that we would get into the Grammar system that she wrote letters and I think some people had dropped out of the Grammar School and I was quite high so then I consequently ended up going to Grammar School as well.’
The downside of such creditable parental dedication was that, once safely ensconced in a good school, Mandy’s home life made it difficult for her to settle and thrive. Aged 13 and 14 and experiencing all the hormonal changes of puberty, she had no reassuring role model in her mother. By contrast Mandy’s mother ‘was never the adult, she just reacted to my teenage angst, if you like, which hopefully I have never done with my kids and so it gave us a complete and utter breakdown.’
She expected her father to be more of a bulwark and regarded his lack of involvement and tolerance of her mother’s mood swings as ‘weak’ but with the benefit of hindsight considers the way he dealt with matters as a sign of strength and resilience.
Instead of leaving the marriage and opting for an easier life ‘he would try and keep her calm and he’d just say ‘Just leave, just go for a minute.. He stayed with her all those years.’ However, despite the ameliorating effect of the passage of time, Mandy’s recollection of those years is raw and vivid:
‘Even things like borrowing anything of hers to wear, we weren’t allowed. I remember hiding clothes at the bottom of the garden because we had no money, not a penny. Hiding it so I could sneak in while she was asleep or knocked out from alcohol, putting at the bottom of the garden so I could go out. We weren’t really allowed to eat and so I remember my brother and I, we used to… she used to get – she was absolutely compulsive, so she’d have a fad, like she’d got to have 10 tins of crab to eat a day, or she’d got to have so many different things. At one point, I remember buying loads of Birds Eye beef burgers because we were so hungry, and because we were hungry, we could take one out of each pack, so that she didn’t know that we’d been eating when we shouldn’t have been.’
Now Mandy considers that these experiences made her stronger and closer to her brother. For anybody outside the events she describes, her childhood appears bleak and the pressures she faced were unrelenting.
With no external professional involvement, Mandy’s father’s priority was at all times to look after his wife and calm her wilder displays. Meanwhile, his teenage daughter needed help, wasn’t getting it and began to lash out herself:
‘My Dad said to me last year, ‘Why were you fighting? Physically fighting?’ and I thought, ‘God, imagine that I was fighting with her! Because I would never do that but I must have been, because he remembers it and I remember it, so I must have been fighting, you know.’
A crippling lack of confidence underpins most of her memories of home. On one occasions, her mother praised a visitor to the house for ‘having the gift of the gab. Everybody likes him, he knows exactly what to say, he’s a great guy.’ Being fluent, even glib is not usually considered to be a sign of moral rectitude ( con men are generally fluent!) but Mandy took her cue from her mother and once again another person’s ‘talent’ formed a yardstick by which to measure her own sense of insufficiency and inferiority:
‘I really thought about it and I thought ‘Do you know what, I’d love to be like that. I’d love to be able to talk to people like that’. And I certainly didn’t do that.’
At the Grammar School, Mandy continued to be beset by uncertainties, making her prey to the bullying behaviour of others. Again, these memories are vivid:
‘On my first day, we had some bags and as I was walking along, I caught one of the older girl’s tights and laddered her tights. She got hold of me by the blouse and said ‘What have you effing done that for? You’d better bring some tights with you tomorrow, otherwise that’s it, and you’re going to be dead! So of course, I believed her and I actually carried a pair of tights with me in my school bag for the next three or four years, just in case she recognised me. And of course, she didn’t mean it.’
She didn’t really fit in. A well-worn anecdote about the journalist and broadcaster, Dame Joan Bakewell has her arriving at Cambridge University, feeling handicapped by her strong northern accent, closing the door behind her in the student communal toilets and then coming out ‘speaking posh.’ Mandy by contrast was hampered by a posh accent courtesy (naturally) of her mother:
‘Mum always said she paid for my education so I could speak properly, and clearly I’ve dropped that now. I endeavoured to lose my posh accent over many, many years. People used to go ‘Ay up!’ as they do in Nottingham and Derby and I can remember going ‘Hi!’ and clearly that wasn’t cool at all, so I suppose over the years, I’ve managed to learn to say ‘Ay up!’ as well as the next person, really.’
Mandy’s mother wanted her daughter to do well at school and Mandy thinks that she may have been ‘quite bright’ (like her mother) but it must have been well nigh impossible to pursue academic goals when your mother was being admitted to mental institutions on a regular basis. A natural optimism sustained Mandy, but visiting her mother at Porchester House in Saxondale was searing. Instead of poring over and learning to conjugate a string of Latin verbs, or writing an essay about Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Mandy was rubbing shoulders with drug addicts:
‘I remember walking down the road going to see my Mum in this place and it was awful and there were a lot of heroin addicts.’
The horror of her surroundings made her feel ‘happy to be alive’ and she recalls a heroin addict responding by saying ‘never lose that’, but expecting a teenager to process the grotesque environment into which she was thrust is a tall ask. What she did acquire was a sceptical outlook on mental health institutions in that era. On the one hand, her mother’s medically-advised stays in them bear comparison with the experience of some prisoners – which is to confirm them in their criminality rather than rehabilitate them:
‘My Mum learnt more ways to get substance abuse from being in these institutions than not, so there’s like Gee’s linctus that you can get which was a cough mixture which gets you high very quickly …. So my Dad had to go to different chemists to pick it up. Apparently TCP can do the same. I don’t know how true that is. She described what it was like when the meds came round and how she wanted to have them all and they’d find ways to try and get them. So they were quite… she learnt more, probably from being there.’
On the other hand, Mandy admits that:
‘I also have to say that, because she was taken away from the environment, which was the upsetting environment of people knocking on the doors demanding money, because she was actually taken away from that, she became quite normal in these places dependent upon what her medication was.’
Mandy was, on the surface, holding her life together – just – using a combination of religious faith and (like her mother) writing a diary:
‘And I do believe that what I used to do in my darkest moments was keep a diary but I always used to write to (it sounds a bit melodramatic) God. And he was always my friend and you know, so therefore I used to find prayer really helpful. So at times, when Mum would be particularly vindictive and nasty –‘Please God, help me.’
Mandy’s father, the quiet man in the background, did not come from a privileged background despite his later attempts to make money. His parents were never homeowners and their second son was ‘very, very loved’ because his older sister, Angel was stillborn. Unfortunately, Mandy’s father was born with only one eye and was subjected to bullying at school that was extremely vicious, so his parents took the momentous decision for somebody in their financial circumstances ( Mandy’s Nan was a secretary) to send him to a small preparatory school in Attenborough. The fact that there were only 12 children per class allowed him to become more confident and Mandy was sent to the same school for primary education – a practice she has since followed with her own children.
As with her maternal grandparents, Mandy thought her father’s parents were ‘great.’ Another similarity is that they were also rather ‘exotic’:
‘My Nan wanted to be a ballet dancer and she went to ballet classes… and when she came to be 14, she was putting on a show and she was doing an arabesque, going across the stage and she hit the corner of the stage and unfortunately, what that did was to cause a compound fracture of her ankle or something like that. Today, of course, she would have been fine, but unfortunately, in those days it got sceptic, she then had to have to scraped, have all of her ankle taken away and was never able to walk properly.’
Yet Nan ‘did not allow that to stop her’ and she had a rich and varied life going on holidays with her husband who ‘just wanted everyone to enjoy themselves’, becoming president of the Notts Bowls Society and dying at the grand old age of 97. On Mandy’s father’s side of the family, the legendary hero was Great Uncle Doug who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his exploits in the Second World War. Doug had what Mandy describes as a wonderful sense of ‘joie de vivre. Wherever he went he would always light up a room.’ Yet Doug’s life took a tragic turn when his plane was shot down over Malta, leaving him paralysed from the neck down and unable to have a family – although he and his wife later adopted a child. It was a sad mirror of his own father’s fate in World War One who wrote from the trenches to his wife:
‘I’ve been gassed but luckily I think my fingers are going to be able to move and I’m not going to lose a hand.’
His good fortune did not hold, because he was later shot – but escaped with his life courtesy of a halfpenny in his pocket:
‘The bullet that would have gone straight through his heart ricocheted off this halfpenny and went into his arm. So he lost an arm as opposed to losing his life.’
The stability offered by both sets of grandparents probably saved Mandy from the all too predictable outcomes of her immediate family life because she struggled on, taking her O levels at 16 but wavering about continuing with formal education:
‘So I got to 16, did my O levels. Probably should have left school then. I went along to a bank, got a job in a bank. But I didn’t actually leave school.’
Instead, Mandy got a part time job in an off-license whilst studying A level courses in the sixth form. Like her maternal grandmother, Louisa, she started expressing her personality through her appearance:
‘I was certainly very individual. I’ve never liked to be the same as everybody else.’
Flouting the school rules, she sported platforms ‘wore really odd clothes, had blue eyebrows’ and followed the music trends of Punk Rock and Northern Soul. She liked working at the off-license too;
‘I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the off-license …usually, even though I was only 16 or 17, I went with a hangover.’
A diligent performance at the off license, however, was not matched by a similar work ethic at school and she admits that ‘I did my A levels incredibly badly.’ The example of her mother (however detested) was beginning to make its imprint in other ways:
I probably wasn’t at school very often at all… I paid lip service to going to school. I usually had a ‘dental appointment’ so I could go down the wine bar instead.’
Meanwhile, matters were coming to a crisis at home, culminating in Mandy’s mother not only throwing her eldest daughter out, but trying to prevent anybody else giving her somewhere to stay. For a 17 year old to be, in effect, homeless in the middle of her A levels, and to cap it all, be evicted by a parent who was supposed to care deeply about her education is bitterly ironic. Mandy relives it all as if it had happened yesterday:
‘So, eventually, she threw me out when I was seventeen. Luckily I’d got a friend who took me in but it was only for a few days … but to show the vindictiveness that she did she phoned the mum, phoned everybody to say, ‘Whatever you do, do not take Amanda in,’ because she didn’t want me to have anywhere to go. She wanted me to be on the streets.’
Whatever her mother’s motivation may have been, it resulted in ruining Mandy’s educational opportunities and the woman who had written letters to attain a prized grammar school place for her daughter acted as an academic saboteur:
‘I can remember that I was taking my A levels at the time, but I remember her walking out in some kind of drunken stupor and screaming at me ‘I hope you effing well fail!’ And, of course I did. I mean, I went in and I probably walked straight out of the school gates.’
Applications to university were unlikely to succeed and although Mandy was given a place at a couple of polytechnics her heart wasn’t in it. In fact, she seemed to be in danger of emulating her mother’s reliance upon and devotion to, alcohol:
‘I just did dreadfully, really …. I got taken on at Sainsbury’s Management so I went on to Sainsbury’s Management Scheme. I was quite lucky ‘cos it must have been a day when I was sober when I went for the interview, because on the whole I usually was not. .. So, I got selected on that and I did go to John Lewis’s a couple of weeks later, knowing I’d got the job at Sainsbury’s. I don’t even know how I didn’t fall through the door ‘cos I was very, very drunk.’
She seems to have regarded the job with little enthusiasm (apart from the fact of earning her own money) and her personal circumstances were still in flux – she subsequently returned to the family home. Yet working for Sainsbury’s had some perks:
‘With Sainsbury’s you get to move around, so I moved to Leeds when I was 19 which was quite nice, I like Leeds. And then I came back.’
Still unable to settle – either in a location or a job, Mandy’s next career opening was with the Army. She passed all the entrance Commission Board tests, got sponsorship and out of a field of 6,000 applicants ‘got all the way to the pre Regular Commission Boards’ – no mean feat for a girl who had struggled with a lack of confidence throughout her life. She now experienced communal living as the entrants shared a barracks. Mandy had wet the bed as a child – now her snoring was the night time problem and the other girls took desperate measures:
‘All the women had all the beds. And I’m a terrible, terrible snorer and apparently, throughout the night there was, I don’t know, 20 of us in the barracks – nobody slept but me! I was snoring away so much that they tried rolling me over; they tried turning me over. They even tied some cotton around my big toe to try and pull it. So the next day, when we had all the tests, I woke up fresh and perky while everybody else was knackered! So that apparently is one of the legitimate stories as to why I got through and nobody else did.’
It didn’t last because by now, Mandy had met her future husband, Rob. He was aged 19 as was she and they were both in The Bell pub in Derby with their respective fathers while Mandy’s mother was engaged in ‘burning or cremating the turkey at home.’ Mandy found herself at something of a crossroads; tiring of trying to impress on the Nottingham club circuit:
‘I’d done a lot of soul-searching because we’d been to all the clubs in Nottingham and, you know, you’d have to be in with the In-Crowd and everything you know, and I just thought, ‘Do you know what? I’m not really sure I am really impressed by these people, and I just want somebody ordinary.’
She was also attempting to tackle her drinking:
‘I’d been drinking far too much at school. So I was sober for a few hours and I popped out for a Coke to the pub with my Dad.’
Once ensconced in The Bell, the two bumped into a friend of Mandy’s father, called Bob and his son Rob. It was an auspicious meeting and many years of marriage and two children later, Mandy recalls:
‘Dad said, ‘This is my weird daughter, Mandy and then Bob said, ‘this is my weird son, Rob.’
In Mandy’s opinion, he didn’t look weird at all and talking about her husband today, she says:
‘There is nobody I’ve ever met who is as kind, who is as decent, who is as normal as Rob. He is just a lovely, kind man.’
‘Normal’ was perhaps not the norm for Mandy and choosing such a man to marry was certainly out of character for her:
He was not my type at all! Not in the slightest way should we ever have been together, but he said that he was drunk and when he sobered up, he realised we were married which I think is very rude. I like to think that’s not the case at all.’
Perhaps she is wrong though. Amidst all the chaos and extremity of her upbringing in her mother’s household, there was always another element; ‘normality’ and stability as represented by Mandy’s two sets of grandparents. In the end, she had a choice to make, whether she knew it or not. She had lived her own life very close to the edge. Would she continue in that vein and replicate her mother’s pattern of addiction and alcoholism – or would she opt for stability and order by following her grandparents’ example? In deciding to marry Rob Solloway at the age of 22 she opted for the latter and has never regretted it.
The relationship began slowly after a date on New Year’s Eve:
‘On our first date, he put his arm around me and said ‘Do you mind?’ and I said, ‘Actually, I do, yes.’ And he didn’t touch me again for nine months.’
After that halting start, things progressed, Mandy moved to Leeds and the couple decided to get engaged and threw a party to celebrate which suited Mandy down to the ground as she behaved like a ‘social butterfly’ leaving her fiancé in the role of reluctant wallflower. Rob determined to attract her attention, but decided, unwisely, that the best way to do that was to career down the road on a bike at top speed, with Mandy’s brother riding pillion. Maybe they were going too quickly, or maybe the obligatory party drinks had impaired their judgement, but the two hurtled into an unsuspecting lamp post and spent what was left of the engagement party in hospital.
It was bad enough for Mandy’s brother who had acquired a smashed face and lost his teeth, but for Rob the consequences were far more serious. Initially, in Mandy’s words, he walked away from the accident ‘absolutely perfect’ but when she turned up at the hospital to visit him, things took a dramatic and terrifying turn for the worse:
‘I went in and said hello to Rob and all of a sudden, something happened and they just rushed me out and I just heard this almighty screaming. And what they had to do because he was so poorly was to puncture his lungs because they were full of blood. And you can see where they literally punctured his lungs to drain them. … He couldn’t breathe, he had a tracheotomy, he had dialysis; he was in intensive care for three months.’
It was by no means certain that Rob would survive; in fact, Mandy (who had arranged a job transfer to Nottingham to be with him) was told by the doctor:
‘This is it. He won’t be here tomorrow. You need to come back.’
In the middle of all her turmoil, she left the pub (‘think I’d been out with my friends for a drink because it was just shit’) hailed a taxi and found herself talking to the driver about God:
‘And we got talking about religion, I don’t know what it was, we weren’t talking about Rob or anything and he said ‘Oh, I don’t believe in anything,’ and I said ‘I do. Absolutely I believe.’ And then I told him that my fiancé was in hospital; I’d been told that tomorrow was his last day but I believed that when I walked in the following day that I knew that he would survive.’
It was a chance in a million – but she was right.
‘When I walked in next day….they couldn’t believe it. They were able to take out the tubes, gradually get him breathing, and gradually get rid of all the dialysis. And then, you know, we went on and were told we couldn’t have kids. We had two kids which was really lovely. So you know, it’s sometimes… I can’t say it’s been the most perfect of marriages but clearly some of these things are meant to be.’
The two married on a shoestring, or rather, a single mattress (‘but you don’t care, do you, when you’re in love?’) Mandy rang the changes on her jobs; from Sainsbury to ten years at Help the Aged, then a post with Save the Children followed by 10 or 12 years at a men’s suit company:
‘And then here I am today. So there we go!’
Amanda Solloway, Conservative MP for Derby North, had rather liked Tony Blair, but signed up to David Cameron’s Conservatives when the former Tory leader announced that he wanted prospective parliamentary candidates to be chosen from a wider and more representative pool that the ‘male, pale and stale’ ranks from which it could be argued he had himself emerged. Amanda Solloway, who regards each minute spent in the Palace of Westminster as a ‘privilege’ is certainly not that – it is a Borrowash legend, for example that she held a christening ceremony for her new puppy in The Nag’s Head pub and her guests toasted the animal with Pedigree beer!
That particular incident (before her election to Parliament) made its way onto the pages of ‘The Metro’ newspaper. What merits serious newspaper coverage, however, is Amanda’s unstinting efforts on behalf of the helpless mentally impaired children who suffered physical and sexual abuse at Aston Hall hospital in the 1970s. It was Amanda, the daughter who had lived under the shadow of a parent with mental health problems who brought those victims blinking into the light to seek justice and Amanda who raised their plight with David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions. It is Amanda who will not rest until people who suffer mental illness are treated fairly and sensitively; the daughter who was herself so powerless to cope with her mother’s frightening and fluctuating behaviour:
‘I wish I’d understood. Could I have done? Of course I couldn’t because as a young person, you don’t understand these things. What I can now do is hopefully help people go through these things.’
Being an MP is ‘a funny old job’ with more swings and roundabouts than the average funfair and its’ often not ‘fun’ at the time. The highs are heavenward and the lows are deeper than hell itself; a ‘good press’ can become a ‘bad press’ within 24 hours and social media such as Twitter cannot be relied on to be favourable or even impartial. Every MP’s experience is different and what they bring to the job will be the result of what they have made of life beforehand. History (and the electorate) has not yet passed judgement upon Amanda Solloway MP and like the other 600 plus of her colleagues from all parties, she is as subject to what Harold Macmillan described as ‘Events, dear boy, events’ as to the consequences of her own actions.
Looking back on her young life, she says ‘I could go on for hours and hours, you know! I could tell you lots!’
As she copes with the bouquets and brickbats of public life, I have a feeling that she will be sustained in it all by a girl called Mandy and I hope she will not forget Mandy.
That girl had guts!