The world according to… Sally Magnusson
The broadcaster and novelist, 67, on life at home with her husband – and whichever of her five children are staying
I come from two lines of great storytellers. My late father [the former Mastermind host] Magnus Magnusson was born in Iceland, where historical fiction goes back to the sagas of the Middle Ages. My mother, Mamie, a Scottish newspaper journalist, was a wonderful raconteur of stories about her family from the Isle of Mull.
So I grew up drenched in story, and then went on to become a journalist with stories of a different kind, seeking to tell them in a truthful way.
The hot seat
I inherited the original black Mastermind chair when my dad died [in 2007], and it takes pride of place in the hall of our farmhouse near Glasgow, where everyone, including repair men, asks if they can sit in it and take a selfie. It was originally a basic office chair, but the wheels had to be changed to something solid as nervous contestants kept going round in circles.
Dad was presented with it when the BBC cancelled the show [in 1997]. Since the show has been back, John Humphrys and Clive Myrie, who are both good friends, have done a wonderful job.
The catchphrase, ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’ is still used, which is great as it means there is still a bit of my dad there. But it was the bane of my life as a teenager – as soon as someone heard my name, they would say it.
I’ve been asked to go on Celebrity Mastermind but always politely declined. If I ended up with no points it would be a newspaper story I could do without!
As one of five, I’d always thought it would be lovely to have a big family. My mother always put her children first and I have carried that through although, even when I had five under-tens, I kept my toe in the broadcasting waters.
When, tragically, one of my brothers died in a road accident when he was 11, my mother’s reaction to that amid all her grief was, ‘My other children are not going to lose a mother.’
His death when I was 16 was the formative trauma of my life. At uni, I was crying myself to sleep at night when others were working out how many pints they could drink. I think it made me more serious.
Being a grandmother – to Atli (15 months) and Wolfie (21 months) – means being able to enjoy that glorious feeling of having a baby nestle in your neck all over again.
But 30 years makes a big difference in terms of your energy levels. So it is nice to hand them back.
At one point, my children – four sons and a daughter from 28 to 37 – were all over the world. Now they are all in the UK and there are always some of them staying with me and my husband Norman [a drama director].
I love the joy of having the people you love around you, but it’s difficult to get any peace. When I need to write, I’ll go to the islands or to Iceland, which feels like a second homeland.
My new novel, Music in the Dark, is partly inspired by my great grandmother Annie, who was evicted by landowners from her home on the Isle of Mull in 1863 and finally settled in Rutherglen [near Glasgow], where I also grew up.
She was a feisty, difficult woman who fought to make ends meet taking in washing. When her third child out of four died, she had a spare bed so took in a lodger.
She was in her fifties or sixties, and he was a lot younger. They married and she was redeemed by this late-flowering love, which seemed a great theme for a novel.
My mother had a great store of music and Scots ballads. When she had dementia, my two sisters and I, who were caring for her, began naturally singing them with her.
We noticed certain songs would perk her mood up and right to the end it was music that kept her connected to us. When she died [in 2012], I wanted to share what we had learned, so I set up the charity Playlist for Life.
Anyone looking after someone with dementia should make them a personal playlist made up of music that has mattered to them in their lives.
As told to Pam Francis.
Music in the Dark by Sally Magnusson (John Murray Press, £16.99) will be published in hardback on 11 May.
This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.
Written by Sally Magnusson