16 Jan 2018

Tom Scott's 'unforgettable' mother

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 10:10 am on 16 January 2018

Cartoonist and author Tom Scott has created an affectionate portrait of his "maddening", "funny" and "fantastic" mother.

Joan Scott readingone of her favourite books.

Joan Scott reading one of her favourite books. Photo: Supplied / Tom Scott

Scott's latest play, Joan, traces his mother's life from an "idyllic" Irish childhood to raising six children in Feilding in challenging circumstances.

As a young woman Joan was glamorous, her sisters said, wearing furs and beautifully cut clothing. Scott's father had been "film-star good looking" when she met him.

"There's pictures of him, he's better looking than Bill Clinton, he's a very a handsome man," says Scott. "Mum was besotted with him. They did the deed once and he got on his motorbike to Northern Ireland and Mum found she was pregnant with twins."

To get away from the shame and ignominy of being an unmarried mother in Ireland, carrying two children fathered by a Protestant from Northern Ireland, and to stop the twins being put in an orphanage, she used some money from her father to go to London.

Scott, his twin sister Sue and their mother lived in a home for fallen women which had been bombed during the war.

Twins Sue and Tom Scott.

Tom Scott and twin sister Sue Photo: Supplied / Tom Scott

"One end of the room, this big stone ward, was blue tarpaulin and Mum said snow swirled in during the storms and covered the bed."

To survive she worked as a cleaner, taking the twins in a pram along with her.

"Her brothers tracked down my father and according to my father they beat the crap out of him, and they had a shotgun registry office wedding. He took off to New Zealand and she followed him out.'

His mother was unforgettable, he says. "Mum was indelible. She was just funny and different and eccentric."

The play came about in part because actress Ginette McDonald, who had met Joan, said people at dinner parties begged her to do "Joan stories". McDonald's daughter Kate McGill plays the younger Joan.

But Scott says his mother would have hated the public airing of her life. She would ask why people had to go on about their lives - maintaining she kept her suffering to herself. "Which of course she didn't. She talked on and on and on. When I was about six or seven I remember Mum sitting on the couch, crying, and telling me that her life was terrible."

Later, his mother tried to explain why she'd had so many children when she had no money. "Mum said: 'I stuffed myself with toilet paper but your father's sperm always got through'. And she was telling the truth, she had no control over her own biology."

"We've had a couple of read-throughs [of the play] in front of young girls, who have been shocked. They can't believe there was a time where women were not in charge of their own biology."

"The Kimbolton Road [Feilding] wives ... they knew Mum's circumstances ... and they very gently dropped off food and preserves and vegetables and clothing and they did it in such a way that Mum didn't feel hurt and didn't feel like a charity case."

Tom Scott

Tom Scott Photo: Supplied

After leaving her heavy-drinking and bullying husband, Joan lived with one or other of her children from her mid-50s.

"At the same time she was being looked after by her kids, all of whom felt we owed her a huge debt, Mum would say 'I will never be a burden, I've never been a burden and I'm not starting now'.

"At the same time Mum would go on and on about how frugal she was, how self-reliant she was.

"I think Mum felt that her generation built all the hydro dams themselves. I think Mum felt honestly that ... she built the Clutha Dam."

The play tells the story as he remembers it, he says. "I hope it's affectionate, it's certainly funny.

"She was a fantastic Mum with limited resources. She did an astonishing job. Even though she could be maddening and infuriating she put up with a lot and we all turned out pretty good really."

  • Ginette McDonald and Kate McGill - Playing Joan Scott
  • Get the RNZ app

    for easy access to all your favourite programmes

    Subscribe to Summer Times 2020/2021

    Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)