Excerpt from The Woman I Was Born to Be
My name is Susan Boyle. A year and a half ago, if you weren't from Blackburn, the village in West Lothian, Scotland, where I have lived all my life, you would almost certainly never have heard of me. Today you've probably heard all sorts about me, some fact, some speculation, some pure invention, so I'm writing this book to tell my story from my point of view, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it.
Every story has a beginning and maybe mine started when I was in my pram forty-nine years ago. Whenever my mother put on a record, she noticed that I would sway slowly in time with the ballads, and jiggle faster to the rhythm of the quicker tunes. Or maybe it started with the toy banjo she bought me when I was a wee lassie. I used sit in front of the television mimicking Paul McCartney when the Beatles were on Top of the Pops. But I'll go back to all that a bit later.
For you, my story probably started on 11 April 2009 when I first appeared on television, but it was actually a couple of months before, on 21 January, that they recorded the Glasgow audition for Britain's Got Talent. I've been on quite a journey since then, and it was actually quite a journey getting to the audition itself…
I'd had one of those sleepless nights that seem endless when you know you should be resting but you can't find a comfortable position. Your stomach's all butterflies, then, just as you've nodded off, it's time to get up and you're in a rush. It was still dark outside and my bedroom was cold. Any other day, I might have been tempted to close my eyes and cosy down in the warmth of the duvet, pretending I'd overslept, but I had a bus to catch, and there was no way I was going to let this chance slip away from me.
The air in the bathroom was so chilly my breath steamed up the mirror as I stood there barefoot on the cold lino, trying to make myself beautiful. My hair has never done what it's told, and that day it looked like a straw hat. When I tried to style it with a hairdryer, I ended up resembling a fluff ball. I could hear the rain sheeting down outside, so I was going to have to wear a headscarf anyway. There was nothing to be done about it.
At least I had a nice frock, even it was a wee bit dressy for six o'clock in the morning! Gold lace, with a gold satin ribbon at the waist, I'd bought it for my nephew's wedding the previous year. I'd found it in a shop in the nearby town of Livingston and it had cost a tidy penny, but it was a special occasion and I thought I looked good in it. At the reception, I'd worn the dress with a white jacket, white shoes and natural coloured tights, but the morning of the audition—I don't know what possessed me—I decided to pull on black tights. Black tights and a gold dress with white shoes, for God's sake, Susan, do not match! But I didn't know that then. I put my head round the living-room door to say goodbye to my cat, Pebbles, but she was sensibly fast asleep in the hearth. Just before leaving the house I touched the gold chain round my neck that has my mother's wedding ring on it. Wearing it makes me feel she's close. 'Here we go then,' I said, closing the front door behind me.
Sometimes when I look back at that moment, I feel there must have been some sign that my life was about to change, but if anything it was the opposite. There was nothing auspicious at all about that rainy, grey dawn. In fact, it felt like one of those days when the sun never seems to come up. They call this part of Scotland the Wet Valley because we get more than our fair share of rain. Some people say the next generation is going to be born with webbed feet! Sling-back, peep-toe white shoes are certainly not the most suitable footwear on a rainy winter morning and the water was seeping in through all the gaps.
There were one or two lights on in the neighbours' upstairs windows, but it was still too early for most people to be up and about. A dog that had been out all night shivered in the dripping shelter of a doorstep. I saw a couple of men leaving their houses for the early shift, their coat collars up, lunchboxes under their arms. They didn't take any notice of me, which was just as well because, teetering along on heels like stilts, I was in quite a mood.
'If you put yourself in the arena, you've got to take the chance, haven't you?' I'd defended myself.
'Oh my God! Don't go there! Not with that Piers Morgan!'
'Just leave it,' I'd told them.
'Well, don't be surprised if you don't get through.'
'Thanks for your faith in me. Smashing people, you!'
I'd stuck up for myself all right, but inside I'd been thinking, 'Oh my God! What have I done?'
As I hurried along, dodging puddles and potholes, half of me was wanting to turn back to the safety of my nice warm home and the other half was desperate not to miss the bus. When I reached the main road, the bus was nearer to the stop than I was and I had to run like mad, which is not easy with cold, wet feet in three-inch heels. The doors opened with a hiss and I climbed on, my chest heaving, face pink, and my hair plastered down under my scarf. 'Well,' I thought to myself, sinking gratefully into my seat. 'My worries are over now.'
The bus from Blackburn took me into Glasgow, where I had to change and get another bus to the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC), an enormous complex of halls in the middle of the city beside the River Clyde. The rush-hour traffic was building now and the bus wasn't making much progress. I kept looking at my watch, then out of the window. I could see the conference centre in the distance, but it seemed to be inching further away, not closer. It suddenly dawned on me that I was on the wrong bus and I had to push through the crowds to get off. I got on the next one that came along, but that was going in a different direction as well.
Now I was beginning to panic. Calm down, Susan. I told myself the logical thing to do was cross the road and take a bus going the other way.
'There's plenty of time.' the bus driver told me.
'The world's not going to blow up.'
'It's OK for you, but I've got an audition to go to!'
He gave me a look.
It was lucky I had a bus pass because I travelled on six buses that morning before I finally arrived!
There was a queue outside and a young lad next to me was shivering in a short-sleeved shirt. 'I tried for The X Factor,' he said, 'but I got nowhere.'
'Well, never mind,' I told him. 'Perhaps you'll do better in this.'
Then the doors opened and everyone cheered. As we all went in, there was a great banner saying 'Welcome to Britain's Got Talent!'
The letter I had received about my audition said it was at 9.30 and I was there by 9.30, just, but the lassie at reception looked at her list, her eyes running up and down several times before she said that she hadn't got me down for the 9.30 audition. She suggested I go home and come back later. 'And go through all that rigmarole with the buses again?' I protested. 'You've got to be kidding!'
'Well, you'll have to wait in the holding room,' she said, looking at me warily. 'We'll try to fit you in. But it may be some time,' she warned, as she handed me my number.
From time to time they'd call a list of acts to go through to the audition and those people would get themselves lined up. The air would be thick with nerves and a hush would fall for a wee while as they left. One by one, you'd see them come back, some crying, some snarling with anger, others screaming with joy! It was a great feeling to see the Yeses being put through, but as the day went on I started to wonder how many Yeses there were and whether there would be any left for me.
As I'd had such an early start and hadn't thought to bring any food with me, I was beginning to get very hungry. I could feel my stomach going, but I said to myself that I'd better stay put in case they wanted me. I couldn't risk going and getting myself something to eat in case my name was called while I was gone. When one of a group of dancers standing quite near me opened up her lunchbox, I must have looked over, because she asked, 'Would you like a sandwich?'
I said thank you very much. It was a nice salad sandwich and it went down a bomb! I didn't realize I was being filmed as I sat there munching away, but the camera stayed on me for some reason. I thought they'd forgotten all about me, actually. I could see Ant and Dec wandering around, which was exciting at first, because I'd seen them on Saturday Night Takeaway and they looked just the same—better, in fact, but don't tell them that!—but they didn't seem to be interested in me. I watched them talking to the guy in the white suit. I saw them interviewing lots of other people, and I was starting to think that maybe they didn't want me. The funny thing was that, instead of making me feel depressed, it seemed to put me in a fighting mood. I thought, I'm not going home now—why should I? They're not going to get rid of me that easily!
Finally it was my turn to be interviewed. I told them that I lived alone, with Pebbles of course. Then, I don't know what possessed me, but I mentioned that I'd never been kissed. It was not, as I said at the time, an advertisement! That really got me into trouble, and I'll tell you all about that later. I've learned to be a wee bit more reserved when I'm interviewed now.
At about 7.30 in the evening I finally heard my name called out among a whole list, so I took my turn in the queue and handed over the CD of the backing track that I'd brought with me. I hadn't actually felt nervous most of the day, but now my tummy started going nineteen to the dozen. After all that waiting, suddenly there wasn't any time at all and I was standing at the side of the stage with Ant and Dec. They asked me if I was nervous and I told them I was in a fighting mood, but my hands were shaking, my mouth had gone dry and I was wishing I'd gone to the toilet. Then they told me to go on.
I said to myself, well, you can either be damn cheeky or you can be nervous and let yourself down, but for heaven's sake get yourself out there somehow! And so I marched on to the stage, hand on hip, this wee wifey from Blackburn with the tousled hair and the gold dress, knees knocking.
The glare from the lights meant I couldn't see the judges at first, but when Simon Cowell spoke to me he was to my right, with Amanda Holden in the middle and Piers Morgan on the left. Simon started on the usual stuff about who I was and where I was from.
'My name is Susan Boyle,' I told him. 'I am forty-seven years old.'
And then I added, 'And that's just one side of me.'
And I did a wiggle, which was aimed at Piers, because I like Piers. He was one of the reasons I wanted to do the show. Piers just stared at me, his lips pursed.
I could see that they were thinking, 'Oh my God, who is this apparition?' But I hoped that maybe they were also thinking, 'At least she's different!'
Simon asked me where I was from and whether Blackburn was a big town, and my mind went blank. I was so nervous I forgot the word for village, and I could see his eyes were rolling. I learned later that the judges were in a bad mood because it had been a long day and they'd seen very few talented acts. Simon was ready for a cup of tea. I could hear a few titters in the audience. I was aware that I was being laughed at, but I've been ridiculed a lot in my life so I've learned how to be resilient. Instead of being hurt and saying, right, I'm coming off, I thought I'd show them what I could do.
Simon asked me what my song was, so I told him it was 'I Dreamed a Dream' from Les Mis´rables. I'd chosen that song because at the time I could identify with a lot of the emotions in it. I had recently lost my mother and I was still getting over the shock of being alone, because she'd been with me all my life. So I was lonely and depressed because I didn't think my life would change. It's a powerful song.
Simon said, 'Are you prepared to do another song?'
They cut this bit out of the video that appeared on television. That threw me. My second song was 'The Power of Love', but I didn't think I sang it as well as 'I Dreamed a Dream'. I didn't want to miss my chance, but 'I Dreamed a Dream' was the song I wanted to sing. So I looked Simon in the eye and said, 'Well, I'm prepared to sing another song if required, but what's in the machine is "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Mis.' To my relief, he heaved a weary sigh and told me to go ahead. I gave Ant the thumbs up.
As I listened to the pretty opening notes of the introduction, I became aware for the first time of the size of the audience in front of me. There were thousands of people, row upon row banked up behind the judges, and they were all watching me in anticipation. I knew what they were thinking. 'Just look at her! She's got a bum like a garage, a head like a mop, I'm not too sure if her teeth are her own, and she's claiming to be a singer! She cannae sing. She cannae! Well come on, let's hear you then...'
So I opened my mouth and showed them what I could do...
Welcome to the Boyle Family
My story really starts on 1 April 1961, the day I was born.
Whenever I go past it now, Bangour Hospital looks a sad, deserted place, because it has been closed down and all the services transferred to St John's Hospital in Livingston. The listed Victorian buildings stand derelict and abandoned awaiting development into flats, if the local economy ever starts to turn around.
In 1961, however, Bangour was a thriving model hospital built in the form of a village on a hillside. It led the world in some medical fields and the maternity unit served the whole of West Lothian. When my mother arrived there in labour, the hillside was bright with golden daffodils and the sight of spring lifted her spirits for a moment. She was apprehensive. Having given birth to eight children over a period of twenty-three years, she had been advised not to have any more because of physical complications, but when she was forty-five along came yours truly. The doctors considered the danger so severe that they offered a termination, but, as a devout Catholic, that would have been unthinkable for my mother. She wanted to give this new life a chance.
It was two weeks before I was due and my mother was suffering from high blood pressure and oedema. During the birth it was touch and go for her as well as for me, but, eventually, I was born by emergency Caesarean section. When my mother came round from the anaesthetic, the doctor was looking at her very seriously.
'You have a girl,' he told her. 'She's very small and she needs help with her respiration, so we have her in an incubator.'
There was none of the usual, 'Congratulations, Mrs Boyle! A beautiful baby girl!'
When my father appeared at my mother's bedside, she knew immediately that something was wrong.
'She was starved of oxygen for a wee while,' he said.
Although the words hadn't yet been spoken, my mother was an intelligent woman and she knew what that meant.
'She's all arms and legs, like a wee frog!' my father told her, smiling.
It was a few weeks before my parents were allowed to take me home. The doctors had explained that it was likely that I had suffered slight brain damage caused by perinatal asphyxia. 'It's probably best to accept that Susan will never be anything. Susan will never come to anything, so don't expect too much of her.'
I'm sure they had the best intentions, but I don't think they should have said that, because nobody can foretell the future. What they didn't know was that I'm a bit of a fighter, and I've been trying all my life to prove them wrong.
In those days, people like my parents thought that doctors knew everything. It must have been very shocking news, especially as my mother was still fragile after the birth. They'd had eight kids who in their eyes were perfectly 'normal', although their second little girl, Patricia, had died in infancy. Then along comes this baby with problems. How on earth were they going to cope with that at their late stage in life?
In the mornings my oldest sister, Mary, who, at twenty-three, had recently qualified as a teacher, used to bathe me and dress me, and during the long summer evenings she would push me round Blackburn in my pram. When I was settled, I was a smiling baby with a head of soft, dark curls. Neighbours used to look into the pram and coo over what a lovely wee curlyhaired thing I was—the ones who weren't within earshot at night, that is.
The Boyle family were fairly recent newcomers to Blackburn. It's a small town about fifteen miles outside Edinburgh, just off the M8. My parents originally came from Motherwell, a larger industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow. My father, Patrick Boyle, served in the army during the war, but afterwards he found employment as a miner. Every night he used to catch a bus from Motherwell to the pit near Whitburn, the next town along from Blackburn.
My sister Bridie tells the story of him tucking them up at night, saying, 'It's all right for you lassies going to your bed when your daddy's going away on a cold, cold bus...' And she and Mary chorusing, 'Don't go, Daddy, don't go!' In 1949 the bus was discontinued and my father had to decide between unemployment or moving closer to the pit. I don't think my mother was very happy about leaving her roots in Motherwell, but she had no choice.
Blackburn was like a lot of small communities. If you haven't got ancestors in the graveyard, you don't belong, and so my father and mother were always very anxious to be seen as respectable members of the community. My mother, whose Christian name was Bridget, was Bridie to her friends in Motherwell, but she was always Mrs Boyle in Blackburn. She dressed and behaved like a lady. My parents lived in a brand new council house with a garden and a lawn that my dad tended so carefully that his growing family of children weren't allowed to play on it.
At the time, Blackburn was a wee village with no streetlights, and to Mary and Bridie and their younger siblings Joe, Kathleen, John, James and Gerard, who arrived at regular intervals throughout the forties and fifties, it was a country playground. They used to roam the nearby fields, dig up potatoes and bake them in little campfires. As teenagers they used to reminisce about the idyllic times they'd shared in their first house, and I used to listen entranced, wishing I'd been around when they were all having so much fun together.
When my mother fell pregnant with me, the family needed more room, and this is how we came to move to Yule Terrace and the house where I have lived ever since arriving back from Bangour Hospital in my Moses basket. It's a standard semidetached council house with a dining room at the front, a living room at the back, a small kitchen downstairs and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. My four brothers were in the back bedroom, my three sisters in the small room at the front. It was the beginning of the sixties. Elvis Presley was on the radio. You can imagine the noise. And that was before I arrived!
Traditionally, as a ninth child, I should have been baptized by a cardinal, but a new Catholic church was being built in Blackburn and it wasn't ready, so instead I was baptized Susan Magdalane Boyle by our local priest, Father Michael McNulty. My godmother was my sister Mary. During the day, my white Moses basket was set in the corner of the living room at the back of the house. My babysitter was a budgie called Jokey. I can't remember him, of course, but my mother insisted that the wee bird used to know when I was about to cry and he would ring his bell. That would distract me as I looked to see where the noise was coming from. You could call it my first musical training.
There is a photograph of my mother holding me, taken when I was about six months old. I am still small for my age. I'm wearing a bonnet and a white matinee jacket and booties. Unusually, I am asleep. My mother looks very thin and frail. You can tell she has not been well, but there is determination in her eyes. She looks like a woman who has not had an easy time, but has found the strength to go on. She has both hands firmly clasped around me. For me, the photograph sums up our relationship. My mother guided me and I relied on her. She was the lodestone of my life.
Memory is like a jukebox: push the right button with a song, a photograph or even a smell and you're transported straight back to a time and a place.
The contrast between my life now and my life before Britain's Got Talent could not be greater. One of the many things that's different—one of the nice things, actually—is having my hair and make-up done. It's quite calming to sit in a chair getting pampered. What woman wouldn't want to get used to that? When the finishing touches are being made to my hair, the sweet, sticky scent of the hairspray always takes me back to the choking cloud of Bel Air in the girls' bedroom at home.
'Where are you going?'
'Don't know,' Bridie would tell him, with a defiant shrug. But she did know. She was going out dancing to the Palais in Bathgate.
'What time will you be back in?'
'Well, I'll tell you what time you'll be back,' says my dad.
'You'll be back at ten o'clock!'
Sometimes he wouldn't allow her out at all. It was tame by today's standards, but the Palais had a reputation for fights and my dad was protective. Once, when he thought Bridie was safe upstairs, she put a mirror up on the grill of the cooker to check her make-up and, with a quick whoosh from the squeezy bottle of Bel Air, she hoisted up her mini-skirt and climbed out the kitchen window!
I can still feel the tingle of terror and anticipation when my dad discovered that she'd gone out, and the rest of us kids tried to cover for her. She got a row when she came in! One day, she didn't dare to come back but spent the night at a pal's. When my dad found her, she told him she wasn't coming home because she wanted to be able to go out dancing. Not many people were brave enough to stand up to my dad, because he could make a bit of noise, but he told her, fair enough, you can go out. He wasn't an ogre or a bully and he was only strict because he loved his children and wanted to do the right thing.
One by one, my older siblings began to spread their wings and leave home. A year after I was born, Mary was married and moved to a flat of her own. She raised a family of five children as well as teaching at our local primary school, Our Lady of Lourdes. My oldest brother Joe, who is the most academic of the Boyle children, went to university, married and moved away. He was training to be a teacher too, but was put off when some of the pupils at the school where he was doing teaching practice trundled a piano down a corridor and pushed it into the swimming pool. That's when he decided teaching wasn't for him.
As the youngest child, I watched with curiosity as the older ones got themselves dressed up ready for exciting adventures in the world outside. It was a mystery to me what they were doing, because my experiences of the world outside our house weren't very pleasant at all.
At that time, the word 'Edinburgh' to me meant a silent journey, dressed in my best clothes, in a car that felt as if it was crammed with words that couldn't be spoken. It always seemed to be raining, and as I peered out through the rivulets running down the window, dark sooty buildings rose like straight-sided crags, so high I couldn't see the sky above, however much I craned my neck.
Inside, the hospital smelled funny, and there were long corridors with squeaky floors.
It was always, 'Be quiet, Susan!', 'Don't do that, Susan!' I didn't like it at all.
Sometimes the doctors would give me toys to play with and watch what I was doing, but then they'd take the toys away. If that was designed to make me scream, it worked.
One day, as a treat afterwards, we went for a walk by the sea in Portobello, one of Edinburgh's coastal suburbs. A salty sea breeze blew the nasty hospital smells from our clothes. My dad bought me a wee teddy bear. I called it Boo Boo and I hung on to it for dear life. I wasn't going to let anyone ever take Boo Boo away from me.
I was diagnosed as hyperactive, and I was slower at learning things than other children because I was easily distracted. Nowadays it would probably be called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but in the sixties they didn't have the knowledge that they have now and if you were hyperactive it was treated as a mental illness. I believe it was wrong to give me that label, because it had a particular resonance for my mum and dad. There was much more stigma attached to learning disability in those days. My mother had a younger brother, Michael, who suffered from learning and emotional problems. He had been sent to a special school and then kept in an institution for most of his life. I think my parents assumed that I would be like him, and that narrowed their expectations for
But I'm not like Uncle Michael—not that he wasn't a very nice man. You'll meet him later on.
Susan Boyle's wild ride