Did smoking cannabis every night give Cherie Blair’s father dementia? That’s what Till Death Do Us Part star Tony Booth’s widow STEPH BOOTH fears – as she reveals in a rawly honest book
Nothing in my life could possibly have prepared me for Tony Booth. I met the irascible Till Death Us Do Part star – who also happened to be Cherie Blair’s dad – in 1996, on a glorious August evening at a mutual friend’s garden party. It was not a meeting of minds, despite Tony later claiming it was, for him at least, love at first sight.
He had a strange way of demonstrating it. He asked if I had any holiday plans, looked horrified when I told him I was taking my four children camping in France – then proceeded to lecture me on the foolhardiness of this venture. I was taken aback by Tony’s rudeness and, fortunately, managed to escape. I later learned he had never forgiven the French for the Norman invasion in 1066.
Pictured: Tony Booth, far right, with his second wife, the Coronation Street star PAt Phoenix, far left, and Tony and Cherie Blair in 1983.
In fact, the first signs of Tony’s dementia passed me by. I was more concerned about the effect his smoking was having on his heart and lungs. He was certainly becoming more forgetful and confused, but I put that down to his increasing age, writes Steph Booth (pictured)
That conversation was the start of it all, the clash of two opinionated, strong-willed people. Looking back, I’m not sure how we made it – but we did and I miss him so very much.
When Tony and I met, I had been divorced for several years. Tony, then 64, was divorcing his third wife, Nancy Jaeger, whom he had married perhaps a little too quickly after the death of his second wife, Pat Phoenix, the Coronation Street legend. I bumped into him again soon after I returned from France, and this time he was the charming, solicitous chap that only he could be. He asked me out for lunch and we really enjoyed ourselves, talking non-stop for hours. Despite the 23-year age gap, we moved quickly to seeing a lot of each other and, within a year, he had proposed.
Tony was not the world’s most sensitive or tactful man, but he was always very protective towards me. If I leaned into him, he would automatically kiss my forehead, a deeply comforting action.
Sometimes he would look at me and say, ‘You need a hug’, and I’d find myself enveloped in his strong, caring arms. When things weren’t going his way, however, Tony could be an egotistical monster. My goodness, did he love a dramatic – even histrionic – moment. However, I got used to it. When he kicked off, I would offer to go and get his bag for him, beating him to his favourite punch line: ‘That’s it, I’m leaving.’
One of the things I did initially struggle to cope with was the extent of Tony’s dope smoking. I was used to people smoking dope occasionally, but when I first met Tony, he was smoking every night.
One of the things I did initially struggle to cope with was the extent of Tony’s dope smoking. I was used to people smoking dope occasionally, but when I first met Tony, he was smoking every night, writes Steph Booth
It wasn’t always pleasant being around him. Quite often he would just pass out in his chair. Thank goodness I was blissfully unaware of the damage it was going to do to his brain and the effect that would have on both our lives.
In fact, the first signs of Tony’s dementia passed me by. I was more concerned about the effect his smoking was having on his heart and lungs. He was certainly becoming more forgetful and confused, but I put that down to his increasing age. What I had begun to notice was that he was becoming a less skilful driver – even crashing the car while taking my son Sam to the airport.
Luckily, neither were hurt but I began to have little niggles of worry about Tony’s concentration. Piecing together all the other little moments of forgetfulness and confusion I had not really considered significant, I decided it was time to get him to see a doctor.
The checks revealed that physically Tony was as fit as a fiddle, but the doctor was worried about dementia too, so he referred us to a psychologist who I made aware of Tony’s dope habit. The psychologist was clear this made any diagnosis much more difficult and meant he could not provide a definitive result. What damage had the drug done to Tony’s brain? How many of his current problems were the result of dementia and to what extent was dope responsible for brain-cell destruction? I still clung to the hope that Tony’s mental decline was all simply the decrepitude of old age, and we carried on as we were. Whether blase or simply naive, perhaps it is a good thing I had no idea what was coming down the track. But it meant that when, in 2002, Tony was offered the part of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my only concern was that it would be too physically demanding.
The initial rehearsals were in London which meant Tony could stay comfortably with Cherie in Downing Street. But Tony’s agent, John Markham, quickly realised Tony was becoming stressed and miserable, and was struggling to cope with the demands of rehearsals.
I came to keep him company but collapsed with stress myself.
Tony Booth celebrating with Cherie Blair, one of his eight daughters, after she was sworn in as a QC in 1995
Enough was enough, and John pulled Tony from the production. But after we returned home, Tony was angry and tired. Each day was a continuous pattern of his rage and frustration – and I was the butt of it all. Obviously, I objected to this and we had blazing rows. It was a horrible time, and Tony refused to get out of bed until well into the afternoon.
I know now depression is another symptom of dementia. At the time, I simply thought he was being selfish and stupid. Looking back, this was the point at which Tony began to lose his resilience; and he would never again do stage work. There was a similar moment when he was still using buses. He could no longer drive and his bus pass was the gateway to some independence. On one occasion, bundled up against the cold, he could not immediately find his pass after boarding. Losing patience, the bus driver told Tony to go and sit down, but before he could reach a seat the irritated driver drove off and he almost fell over. Tony was so shaken he refused to travel on a bus again.
Lack of understanding. Thoughtless behaviour. A life undermined.
At least we finally learned what we were dealing with when, in 2010, I enlisted Cherie to encourage Tony to have a scan. It revealed the tell-tale plaques and tangles in the brain that indicate Alzheimer’s. But there was no advice or offers of support. At the end of the appointment the psychologist simply said: ‘Take him home and get on with it.’ It was my first lesson in the inadequacy of the medical profession in treating and understanding dementia.
With Alzheimer’s, you never know when the next crisis will occur – and they often come out of left-field. One day it crossed my mind that Tony and I should really make our wills. When I couldn’t engage Tony on the matter, I eventually called our solicitor to make an appointment. She confessed, somewhat surprised, that Tony had made a will just days earlier.
At least we finally learned what we were dealing with when, in 2010, I enlisted Cherie to encourage Tony to have a scan. It revealed the tell-tale plaques and tangles in the brain that indicate Alzheimer’s, writes Steph Booth
In it, he intended to leave his half of our house to Cherie – and if I wanted to stay there I would have to pay her rent.
I went completely ballistic and, for the first and only time in our married life, I left Tony and went to stay with friends, leaving him to stew for several days before returning.
It was in the summer of 2010 that Tony made a bombshell announcement. We were sitting in the garden, on our favourite bench by the pond. Unusually, he did not look at me as he started to talk, and spoke so unclearly I had to ask him to repeat himself. Turning towards me, he shouted, ‘I have to stop working. I cannot be an actor. My memory isn’t good enough any more.’ I tried to take his hand, but he shook me off.
His announcement was like someone loosening the keystone in an arch. One of the chief certainties of our life together had always been that Tony was an actor. I felt myself becoming tearful. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Tony angrily insisted no one was to know of his decision, particularly his agent.
We never spoke of this conversation again. If anyone asked about future acting roles, he would laughingly insist he was ‘too old for all of that now’. Having made the decision to retire, it was almost as if Tony now gave himself permission to give in to dementia.
His condition played out in small, sometimes virtually imperceptible, changes. We did not tumble headlong into catastrophe. Our lives would bumble along from one fairly contented plateau until, out of the blue, another event would plunge us towards the next. Tony’s rage and frustration would calm down, but some part of his personality and skill set would always disappear – lost for ever. One day he’d struggle to get his socks on, or be unable to fasten the buttons on his shirt.
As a carer, this really is tough. It means watching someone disintegrate in front of you. You have to learn quickly to make the best of what’s left. I’d had plenty of experience dealing with Tony’s eccentricities even before his Alzheimer’s. I was used to him inflicting embarrassment, but on one occasion he was so excruciating even I blanched.
We were in Berlin with friends, on a busy tram to the Brandenburg Gate when Tony suddenly said: ‘I think we did them a favour bombing the s*** out of them during the war. Look at how fantastic the city is now.’
I was horrified, but he insisted no one spoke English. Then a German voice carried across the tram: ‘Some of us do.’
Of course, I understood what no one else on that tram did – his dementia, and increasing loss of social inhibition, was causing him to behave like this. Even so, I couldn’t wait to get off.
There were tensions in Tony’s family as his disease escalated and, heartbreakingly, he began to forget who people were. Cherie would always help if I asked, and offered me practical support including, in the early days, taking him to stay at the Blairs’ home in Buckinghamshire.
But there was little contact with the rest of his eight daughters during his illness. A lot of the difficulties between us arose from what I felt was a lack of understanding and support.
Cherie would always help if I asked, and offered me practical support including, in the early days, taking him to stay at the Blairs’ home in Buckinghamshire, writes Steph Booth
It’s strange yet true that even after 20 odd years of living with their father, I don’t really know them. Tony had seven daughters, including Cherie, with four different women when I met him; Lucy, who came from a brief affair and whom no one knew about until she emerged from Australia in 2001, made it eight.
Yet despite a long history of abandoned women and daughters, Tony did want his children to love him. I tried over the years to build bridges but Tony made no real effort.
He believed his children should come to him, not the other way around. It meant that when I could no longer cope, a good friend suggested Tony go into respite care for a week, so I could have a complete rest.
He believed his children should come to him, not the other way around. It meant that when I could no longer cope, a good friend suggested Tony go into respite care for a week, so I could have a complete rest, writes Steph Booth
Tony was not impressed, and became convinced I was planning to go away with another man. He’d tell anyone, including complete strangers, about my ‘unfaithful’ behaviour. One morning, having been subjected to yet more questions from Tony on the matter, I told him to go and have a shower.
I was firing up my computer in my work room with my back to the door and didn’t hear Tony come back inside. He came up behind me and smacked me hard around the back of my head.
MY IRREPRESSIBLE FATHER-IN-LAW EVEN SMOKED DOPE IN DOWNING STREET!, WRITES TONY BLAIR
Tony was an unusual father- in-law. One of the first times I met him, when I was just beginning as a barrister, he came round to see me at home and casually asked if I wanted to smoke a joint, writes Tony Blair
No mere details of biography could ever constrain or contain the outsize, extraordinary, colourful, irrepressible character of Tony Booth. There are people about whom it is hard to say a lot, and people about whom it is impossible to say a little. Tony was definitely of the latter sort.
I’ve certainly never met anyone like him, which at times I was thankful for. But, in time, I came to know him, to like him and to admire him.
Tony was an unusual father- in-law. One of the first times I met him, when I was just beginning as a barrister, he came round to see me at home and casually asked if I wanted to smoke a joint. When I declined, he said he assumed it was OK if he did, and thought it very odd when I said: ‘Actually, no.’ So he said: ‘All right then, let’s have a cup of tea.’ I made it. He told me it was disgusting. And then proceeded to give me a lesson on how to make a decent cup of tea, something I have never forgotten.
People said he was always difficult with me politically, but he wasn’t. In fact, given the provocations of New Labour to such a long-standing Labour activist such as Tony, he was immensely restrained. More than that, he showed me a kindness and solidarity throughout my time as Prime Minister, which I found of great comfort.
The pot-smoking, however, remained something of an issue. There was a time in Downing Street when I came up to the flat for a meeting with a senior civil servant and, as we both wrinkled our noses, the civil servant said ‘If I didn’t know you any better, I would think you had been smoking weed, Prime Minister’, to which I laughed nervously. Mind you, Tony always reminded me that he had been in Downing Street long before me, as indeed he had been, in Harold Wilson’s time.
His politics were unashamedly on the Left, but from that progressive side of politics that embraced social liberalism and a fierce defence of human freedom.
He was always a rebel. Never a conformist. He was huge fun, full of stories, a passionate Liverpool football fan, and with a charm that was legendary.
Steph looked after Tony, tended him with love and care, especially through the difficulty of Alzheimer’s, and I know he lived as long as he did and with the joy he experienced in his old age as a result of Steph and her love for him. Shortly before he died, he saw his grandson Euan and, from his deep love of Shakespeare, which remained with him to the end, he quoted the words of Polonius: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true.’
It is a fitting epitaph: nothing about him was ordinary, and not much was conventional. That is why, despite it all, we loved him and will miss him deeply.
It caught me entirely by surprise. The force of the blow hurt my eyes and I bit my tongue hard. There was blood pouring out of my mouth, but more than anything I was completely shocked.
Tony had locked himself in the bathroom and was insisting he hadn’t hit me. He wouldn’t let me in so I had to rummage about in the dirty washing basket for a T-shirt to mop up the blood.
Things had really gone too far. I could not and did not want to cope with Tony’s behaviour any more. I phoned the GP who suggested that, for my own safety, Tony would have to be sectioned. I was upset, but knew there was no other option. I had done everything I could to look after Tony and yet it had still come to this.
Some of Tony’s family were angry at this decision, but they had very little understanding of the day-to-day reality of living with his illness. Tony, too, was enraged at being taken to hospital, and looked at me like he hated me as a psychiatrist and a policeman escorted him away.
I felt such shame. I remember Tony Blair saying to me once that he would believe anything he heard about my Tony other than that he had hit a woman, yet he had done it to me. My hurt was emotional as well as physical.
I slept solidly for ten hours, then went for a long walk across the hills with my dogs in the hope that fresh air would soothe my wounded spirits. In the wide-open and deserted space, I stood on a rock and roared into the wind.
It became clear that I would be offered a lot of support should I decide that Tony could come home, and that the decision was entirely mine.
We can never know the answers, never predict outcomes, especially concerning someone who has dementia – and, in the end, the only thing I did know was I wasn’t ready to give up on him yet.
Looking back now, I know I made the right choice, no matter how tough it became. In the end, I also benefited from Tony coming home because I needed him, too.
I put some new strategies in place, including not walking down the stairs in front of him in case he pushed me. I was also more ready to confront him when he was being particularly unreasonable rather than always hoping to soothe him.
Tony liked going out and we would head out together once or twice a week right up to a couple of weeks before he died.
As well as visiting gardens, Tony enjoyed going for a drive which gave him the opportunity to see lambing time on the hills around our home – big softy that he was.
There was, however, a terrifying moment on the motorway once when, in the middle of a traffic jam on the M6, Tony suddenly decided to get out of the car.
‘What the hell do you think you were doing, you complete screaming idiot?’ I yelled, once he was safely back in the vehicle.
‘I was bored,’ he replied.
I lashed back: ‘You’ve got dementia – you can’t get bored!’
Back home, Tony became needier than ever. It was no longer simply a question of knowing where I was at night, that I was in bed next to him should he need me; but having to know where I was at every moment. This was an exhausting new phase.
If I was out in the garden, he would stand at the front door watching; I knew he was willing me to come back indoors. The concept of my returning after ten or 20 minutes was beyond him. Time meant nothing any more.
It is difficult to explain just how stressful it is, having someone following you around, needing your presence constantly – even if it is someone you love and care about.
One evening I really had reached the end of my tether. Tony had driven me crazy all day with his mood swings, petulance and demands. I had to get away from him. I knew I couldn’t leave him alone in the house, so I hid in the dark at the bottom of the cellar steps, secure in the knowledge that he would never think of looking for me there. I rested my head against the freezer and the steady thrum was comforting.
All I wanted was the obliteration afforded by hours and hours of sleep – and I knew I was not going to get it. I could hear him calling for me, yet I just sat there in the dark, listening. Eventually I took myself into the back yard and pretended I had been there all the time.
When he found me his relief was palpable. Some part of me felt desperately sorry I had been so mean to him, while another part wanted to scream and scream at him to leave me alone.
Tony died on Monday, September 25, 2017, at 10.40pm, aged 85. His end was peaceful; he simply stopped breathing and his life was over.
Cherie had arrived from London a couple of hours earlier and we sat on each side of the bed, holding his hands and singing to him, as we wanted him to know we were there.
We played and sang along to songs he loved such as Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. It was our song. And Bette Midler’s The Rose, which had always made Tony cry. He was terribly sentimental, so Cherie and I put our hearts and souls into it. We followed with Wind Beneath My Wings and it was during this song that my Tony died.
I don’t know if this was corny or beautiful, but I do know that if he’d been able to, he would have looked straight at me, squeezed my hand and kissed me.
I will never be able to find the words to explain just how much I loved him.
© Steph Booth, 2019
Married To Alzheimer’s: A Life Less Ordinary With Tony Booth, by Steph Booth, is published by Rider, priced £12.99. Offer price £10.39 until March 10. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. For Alzheimer’s information and support, please call Alzheimer’s Society’s National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122 or visit alzheimers.org.uk/getsupport.
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