'I was a kid, I'd be in bed when it was all happening' - Singer Linda Nolan on her alcoholic father
Linda Nolan speaks to Julia Molony about clawing her way back from despair, and coping with her diagnosis of incurable cancer
For an autobiographer, you could never accuse Linda Nolan of being short on material. Starting from her earliest days, born into a working class family in inner city Dublin, hers has been a life crammed full.
Full of people, family, stories, music. Full of sorrow and trauma.
So when she sat down to write her book, From My Heart, she set about weaving together all those tangled threads: the warm, chaotic childhood, the heady years of chart-topping fame as part of the Nolan sisters, the bittersweet love story of her marriage, the rift (played out in public) that fractured her family for several years, and all the pain; grief, bereavement, depression, alcoholism and toxic family secrets.
"When I was doing the proofreading of the book, I kind of put it down halfway and thought, 'oh my god, I'm stronger than I think'," Linda says, over tea at a central London hotel. She writes in a spirit of full, unvarnished disclosure. "It has to be true and open and honest," she says. "I've had an amazing life, I've had a great career, and I've also had some really down times. I'm not ashamed to share them now and to say that you can move on from them and climb back up the ladder. Because at times I was hanging on by my fingertips."
As a long-time sufferer from depression, she knows all too well the feeling of being unable to cope. But, she says, finishing the book afforded her a shift of perspective, an appreciation of her strength. "I realised all of a sudden - I've had terrible times, people do have terrible times, but I've crawled my way back up quite a few times."
The book took her about eight months to write and the project was prompted, in part, by another calamity - her recent diagnosis with secondary breast cancer.
Last year, after falling and injuring her hip, Linda discovered that the breast cancer she'd been diagnosed with over a decade before had returned, spread to her bone and was now incurable.
"I did crumble initially," she says. "There were tears, there was 'why me?' And, of course, 'why not me?' is the answer to that."
But her "biggest thing", she says, was that she was "so upset for my brothers and sisters. I was absolutely devastated for them. I sent them a text, that's how I told them: It is secondary breast cancer, I am so sorry to put you all through this again". To which their logical reply was to point out that it was hardly as if she'd done it on purpose.
Linda's late husband Brian had a nickname for the Nolan family clan - he used to call them the cavalry. "He used to say," she says that "'when anything goes wrong they all come and form this big circle around you and just protect you and help you out and make you better'."
It has been ever thus, since the earliest days growing up in Dublin, in a house filled with children, where her mother slogged all day over the stove, and her father worked his day job before they both went out at night to perform - singing in music halls.
When Linda was four the family moved to Blackpool where quite a few of the Nolans still live - several of them within a few streets of each other. There are two new generations now as well. Though Linda never had children herself, she has a huge brood of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews to whom she's very close.
Her home life was both happy and hard. As the girls grew up Anne, Maureen, Denise, Linda, Bernie and Coleen began joining their parents on stage. They were talent spotted and offered a record deal, had an international smash hit with the song I'm In The Mood For Dancing, and toured with Frank Sinatra.
There was a lot of love, but their father's drinking problem and violent moods cast a long shadow. In 2008 the eldest Nolan sister, Anne, went public with the revelation that he had sexually abused her when she was in her teens, an issue that Linda addresses in From My Heart.
"Anne's story wasn't my story," she says, "but I appreciate what she's said and I believe her - that was never a question. But I hope it came across in the book that I love him as well. He was like a Jekyll and Hyde." At some point in her childhood, she felt overlooked and unfavoured by him. "I cried at one point thinking he didn't love me enough." Now she realises that she was lucky. "I was little when he was at the height of being an alcoholic," she explains. "I was a kid, I'd be in bed when it was all happening… you'd hear shouting or whatever. But it was harder for the girls .. and obviously for Anne."
"I don't expect Anne to be like I am," she says. "Because it didn't happen to me, and I completely respect her for that if that's how she feels. I wanted to make sure that people knew that I loved him. And when he stopped drinking, which was when I was becoming an older woman, he was great. I had a great relationship with him because he was a different man." She never brought up the abuse with him. "I never mentioned it to him, because I didn't want my bubble to be burst. And it wasn't for me to mention it. It wasn't for me to bring it up."
It seems a bitter blow that just after she'd begun to recover from the death of her beloved husband and manager Brian, whom she married in 1981, and the crippling depression which followed, she got the news that her cancer had returned. She had been having something of a second youth, after a facelift (documented in detail on ITV's daytime chat show Loose Women) and had even had her first kiss since her husband - after a man she'd known as a teenage starlet in London got back in touch decades later. He was, she says one of "a group of croupiers who used to go to Mike's Diner in London after work at about 3am and we'd come over... me, Maureen and Anne. So we got to know them as mates, really. There was about 10 of us and we used to walk along the embankment singing at 4am. It was just great - our youth, you know. And I had a little thing for him then, but I was 16 and I was scared to death." They met up when he was passing through London and had a date which left her giddy. The man in question lives in Australia now so there was never going to be any future in it, but it was a nice moment that came at just the right time for her.
She gives an account of her relationship with her late husband Brian as a fairy-tale romance. But in her book she reveals for the first time that, despite the tireless way he took care of and protected her during their marriage, he nursed problems of his own, specifically a drink problem. He died of liver failure in 2008. "I struggled a bit with Brian's chapter and saying about his drinking. I really struggled with that, because I cried with my counsellor and said, 'I feel like I've betrayed him'. And she said, 'you haven't betrayed him, you've owned up to yourself what everybody knew, that he had a drink problem'. And that made me feel a little bit better really."
Physically, she is feeling good. Her regime of drugs means she can be active and her pain is well managed. "I get a bit tired," she says. "My hip gets painful, but I've got painkillers for that. It's not unbearable. The medication that they've given me has worked." But she looks fresh, young and vital.
Emotional resolve comes and goes. There's pressure on people who are going through traumatic things to tidy up their feelings into something uplifting - mainly because it's easier for other people to handle. And though the overall tone of the book is positive, she doesn't deny the depression and despair that can sometimes blind-side her in the middle of the night. But what the diagnosis has thrown into sharp relief is the fight that's in there, underneath it all, and her determination to live.
"I'm scared to death. I don't want to die," she says. "I don't want to die alone. I've decided that I want to go to a hospice - Trinity Hospice. It's fabulous. Bernie (her younger sister who died from secondary breast cancer aged 52 in 2013) was there for three weeks, but they sent her home, that's what she wanted. Because I'm on my own, I don't want my brothers and sisters to be nurses. They can come and visit me with chocolate and gin, and I'll be happy then. You're allowed that in a hospice. They came around at night offering a nightcap. It's a beautiful place."
But she does have wobbles. "It's normally when I'm on my own. I wake up in the night and I think - first I think 'Brian, I wish you were here'. Then I think, 'Bernie, how did you do it?' It's hard, how did you do it? And then I cry and then go to sleep and then get on with the next day.
"Sometimes it's hard, sometimes I don't get on with the next day. Sometimes I pull the duvet over my head and I think, I'm not going to get out of bed today." But the cavalry always comes. She's staying with her sister Denise at the moment. "Denise wasn't around originally with my depression," she says. "But she'd spoken to Maureen, who said, "she'll have these days, but she only has them one at a time. Don't let her have two. Two we have to drag her out of the bed".
In her family, her nickname is Lucky Linda - a wry, ironic nod to the mishaps and calamities she's experienced. But if she's had her fair share of bad luck, there has been no shortage of blessings too. Not least the one that is only really apparent with hindsight - the grit that has got her through.
The good news is that she is stable, and though her cancer is not curable it isn't currently spreading either and, she points out, some women live with secondary breast cancer for a decade or more.
"I have a scan every three months," she says. "My next one is on March 27. And that's to see if (the cancer) is still the same or if it's spread. What I'm trying not to do is to worry. Because there's no point, and otherwise I'm wasting valuable time being down and depressed. I'm having counselling again," she says. "Which is brilliant."
She's watched her sister fight this fight, but says that it's important for her to remember no two diagnoses are the same.
"They said to Bernie exactly what they said to me, which was, 'it is cancer, it's treatable but it's not curable'. And I said, 'that's what you told my dead sister'. I felt terrible afterwards. But then they said to me, 'Everyone's cancer is different'. And Bernie's came back and it was all over and it came back within a year of her diagnosis. So mine is completely different."
Raised a Catholic, she no longer practices, but has adapted those roots of belief into an interpretation of faith from which she draws comfort.
"I know that Brian is up there and that I will see Brian again one day. I'm not a practicing Catholic, but when Brian was dying I was going 'GET THE PRIEST!' It was like mad panic, we had to have the priest there."
Sometimes, she says, she talks to God. "In my own head, I talk to him and say, please give me more time. I've asked him 'why?' Sometimes people will send me religious stuff - that's a bit much for me. People say, don't they, that "he only takes the good ones", and I go, "well I wish he'd take some of the a***holes. Because there's enough of them around".
She's even going so far as organising her funeral. "Bernie did it, down to who sat in what car. Oh, it was fabulous," she says, meaning that those left behind were not left wondering if it was what she would have wanted.
Ultimately though, confronting her mortality has given her a sense of freedom. "I'm doing what I want to do," she said. Last Friday, she was invited on to The Late Late Show to talk about her book.
In the past, she'd have cancelled all plans to be there, but that day, she'd arranged to surprise her sister Coleen for her birthday, so she turned it down. "For me it's more important to be there with her than The Late Late Show."
For now, she's enjoying a period of pretty good mental health.
In the past, her depression has driven her to the brink of suicide. "The irony is not lost on me in the book that halfway through I want to kill myself and towards the end I'm clinging on to life with desperate hope."
She credits the antidepressants she's been on for six or seven years with keeping her balanced. "They're not a magic cure, but what they've done is made it easier to talk about Brian and not cry. And to wake up in the morning and smile about things and not just cry."
She's even hopeful about the prospect of new love. Her counsellor has suggested trying the Saga dating app. "I said that's for old people! She said 'I don't mean it like that. It's for men in your situation who have lost their wives of 30 or 40 years and they just want companionship and that's what you said you wanted'. And it is. It's for going to the movies with someone or going out for dinner… or even sitting watching the TV and having someone to put their arm around you and go, 'it's OK'. And it's not about sex. And it's not about finding another love. If love came that would be great but I've had the love of my life. And I know that most people don't have that."
From My Heart, by Linda Nolan published by Pan Macmillan, priced €18.99