We may be on the cusp of Mothering Sunday but, says Kate Griffin, Tina Baker’s debut novel Call Me Mummy may not be the ideal gift
11 March, 2021 — By Kate Griffin
THE first scene of Tina Baker’s compulsive first novel Call Me Mummy takes place in the branch of Peacocks in Holloway Road. It should have been Mothercare, but the national chain disappeared from high streets everywhere in the early days of 2020.
“I was furious when it went,” says Tina. “It wasn’t a joke exactly, but the black comedy of stealing a child from Mothercare really appealed. I had to change it in the edits. I wasn’t happy.”
Tina’s indignation captures the bleak humour threaded through an almost gothic tale of child abduction. Warning: this accomplished book is probably not the ideal Mother’s Day gift.
The story is told (mainly) through three distinct voices. We follow increasingly chilling events through Tonya, a spiky, sharp-tongued, snaggle-toothed five-year-old left to roam too freely in Peacocks in the chaotic days before Christmas; the eponymous Mummy – a child-snatching vortex of psychological damage assuaged by designer goods – and Kim, Tonya’s real mum, whose devastating descent into grief and guilt alienates everyone around her.
Foul-mouthed, belligerent and utterly broken by her failure to protect her child, pregnant Kim is definitely not a poster mother. Tina deftly skewers the red-top obsession with “scummy mummies” by charting the way in which a woman from a grim north London estate is vilified by the press and public for failing to conform to the “apple-pie” ideal. The book is cleverly interspersed with a Greek chorus of judgemental social media exchanges about Kim that contrast sharply with the reality of her loss.
Tina admits that in many ways, she is writing what she knows. Brought up in a caravan after her mother, a fairground traveller, fell pregnant by a window cleaner, she is familiar with Kim’s gritty background.
But it’s her portrayal of Mummy – a woman gnawed to the bone (almost literally) by the grief of childlessness – that occasionally catches the reader unawares, eliciting a sympathy that shouldn’t be there.
“The thing is, I know that feeling,” Tina explains. ‘“When I met my partner Geoff it was too late. Our life is lovely here in Crouch End with the cats [they have four], but there are still really low, hard days when I think: ‘why couldn’t I have a kid?’ When I did my novel-writing course at City University, we were set an exercise to go to a place you normally wouldn’t visit and write about it. I went to that branch of Mothercare in Holloway Road and had a complete sobbing fit. But then I found myself thinking: ‘would it be worse to lose a child than never have a child at all?’ And that became the first scene of the book.”
Call Me Mummy’s gimlet-eyed portrayal of the media circus surrounding the abduction is also rooted in reality. Tina spent many years working as a journalist and broadcaster. Coincidentally, she has a particular fondness for the New Journal (in its earlier incarnation as the Camden Journal). She explains: “When I first came down to London from Leicester in the 80s to do my post-grad in journalism, the editor of the Camden Journal was one of the visiting lecturers. We knew it was really right on and, of course, everyone wanted to work for it.”
Although Tina never joined the Journal, she carved out an impressive niche for herself in the 80s and 90s specialising in entertainment, particularly soaps, which she credits for her skilful handling of character. In Call Me Mummy, the principal players shed their secrets like the layers of an onion. The reader gradually realises that “scummy” Kim and monstrous “Mummy” are bound by much more than a kidnapped child.
“That was just from years of working with the soaps,” Tina says. “It teaches you everything you need to know about how to reveal motivation. It’s actually precise and delicate as opposed to something huge and immediate like a James Bond film. It’s quite a skill. I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves.”
Another skill repurposed from her media career is the structure of the book. Tightly and beautifully written, the narrative unfolds through short sharply focused chapters, each told from different viewpoints.
“I think that’s journalism too.” Tina says. “Brevity – getting the story over – it’s good training.” She admits that the book’s dark humour is another legacy of the newsroom. “I know this sounds awful, but if something terrible happened it was usually about half an hour before someone on the newsdesk cracked the first bad taste joke. It’s a way of coping.”
Tina worked as a television critic for the BBC and GMTV and also at Camden-based TVAM in the glory days of Roland Rat.
“It was like a mad cowboy unit when Greg Dyke ran it,” she recalls fondly, “because you’d all do everything, ranging from the really silly stuff to serious news. To be honest I was always happiest messing around with the puppets, although no one ever got the better of Roland!”
She’s probably best-known for winning ITV1’s gruelling reality show Celebrity Fit Club 15 years ago, during which she shed a total of 2 stone and 7 pounds. The success of her weight loss and the positive way it made her feel about herself prompted her to train as a fitness coach.
“It came at the right time,” Tina explains. “I’d always been a plate spinner with all these different jobs on the go, but during the last recession all the free-lancers were axed. Really, the media gave me up, but thank God I had another string to my bow.”
In recent years, she has built up a fitness practice across north London which at one point included regular sessions for women at the Finsbury Park Mosque. The classes partly inspired the gentle, sensible character of Kim’s Muslim friend Ayesha, who is everything the other two “mummies” aren’t.
Throughout lockdown, Tina’s been continuing to give Zoom fitness lessons from her flat to regulars, including a 90-year-old.
Asked what prompted her to write a book, she says that although the intention was always there, the time wasn’t.
“Switching from a mental to a physical job finally gave me the headspace to think about it and then I did the novel course at City, who gave me a discount because I’m an alumnus.
“That’s my mean working-class streak coming through.”
Unfortunately, like all debut novelists at the moment, Tina has been unable to get out to promote Call Me Mummy.
“I’ve got cabin fever really badly,’ she says. “Because of my asthma I’ve been shielding for a year. Crouch End is so busy I haven’t been further than the end of the road for six months. Then again, launching a debut novel now is maybe not so bad as I don’t know what I’m missing,” she grins. “But I am desperate to get out so bring it on.”
If Call Me Mummy gets the attention it deserves, Tina will soon be going a lot further than the end of the road.
- Call Me Mummy. By Tina Baker, Viper Books, £12.99