To say that I was looking forward to reading Sue Johnston’s memoir ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ when I heard it was coming out would be something of an understatement. I can still remember her on the telly in the early days of my childhood as Sheila Grant in Brookside, before being in The Royale Family, Jam and Jerusalem and my very favourite TV show Waking the Dead. This was always going to be a must read book for me (and this was before I knew I was going to be in conversation with her at Waterstones next Tuesday, yikes).
What I think I was really expecting from Sue Johnston’s autobiography were that it would be funny in parts, have some insights into the TV worlds of Brookie, The Royales, being Grace in Waking the Dead and from the title ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ I hazarded a guess that either Sue had some skeletons in her cupboard or her relationship with her mother might be a fraught one. That would easily have been enough, indeed it is the later that makes up a lot of this book, and really if I was to say Sue’s book is about anything then it would really be about the difficult relationship they shared. This was much more interesting than any gossip of any TV set could have in store.
There are of course the tales of the television work that Sue has done, and I will admit I wanted a little more than the snippets we got, but there is a huge amount of other stuff in store for anyone picking up this book, and I don’t just mean the stories of her mother. Sue struggled to find what she wanted to do after her childhood, which sounds wonderful, and after a stint at the Tax Office found herself hanging out at The Cavern in Liverpool with The Beatles and working for Brian Epstein’s company where she discovered ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’. We look at her two marriages, being a single working mother, and the struggles that could bring, as well as her political involvement with the Labour Party and how she protested and rallied for the miners and gay rights. Sue Johnston is a woman with a lot more going on than just being a wonderful actress who has become a national treasure.
The heart of Sue’s thoughts and memories are really those of her mother. A woman who whilst making her only child have a good, happy, secure childhood could never show her affection or full approval and it’s this which really comes to life in the pages and almost haunts the book with its echoes throughout. What Sue Johnston doesn’t do is make all this maudlin, yes there is some regret and anger on occasion, on the whole where possible you do feel Sue is looking at life with a glass half full attitude, there is a certain wryness here amongst the serious stuff.
“It doesn’t matter, though, as one of my most magical moments in childhood was to do with my grandfather and his steam train – Flying Scotsman or no Flying Scotsman. My mother and I were standing on the platform at Eccleston Park station waiting to catch the train to Liverpool. A steam train soon approached and the train driver was hanging from his cab, whistling to my mother. ‘Margaret!’, he shouted. My mother gave him a disdainful look. Who was this uncouth man hollering at her at the train station?
‘Take no notice, Susan,’ she said, taking my shoulders and positioning me away from the train. As the engine came to a stop we both realised it was my grandfather. My mother quickly changed her tune.
‘Hello!’ she said, suddenly all smiles to her dad. ‘I was wondering who was shouting at us. Come along, Susan.’”
I was a fan of Sue Johnston before I read ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’, I am even more of a fan now that I have finished the book. I loved the books honesty and clarity I think the only thing is that I would have liked more of it. I felt like there was so much that Sue had to say, and so many other interesting stories in the background, it almost didn’t all fit in the book and could have gone on much longer, I could easily have read another few hundred pages.
I am certainly left looking forward to being ‘in conversation’ with her in a few days (September the 6th, 7pm, Manchester Deansgate) as I think there is so much to possibly talk about, and I have a feeling that Sue is a woman after my own heart especially after reading this rather bookish paragraph.
“I love books, and not just reading them, I love owning them, some might say hoarding them – I can never throw a book away and always feel it has to go to a good home or stay on my shelf. In fact my mother once commented to my friend Margot, ‘Our Susan would rather read a book than clean her house,’ as if this was the ultimate besmirchment of my character.”
Maybe Sue is just the person I need to talk to about bringing something like ‘The First Tuesday Book Club’ to British shores. We will see. Read ‘Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother’ it’s a great memoir from one of Britain’s best loved, and most down to earth, actors (I nearly said actresses there, that wouldn’t do) and don’t be surprised if you find yourself shedding a few tears along the way, there’s much laughter too.