Friday, 3 September 2010

Cookson in Christchurch

I'm now here in Christchurch, in alternating sunshine and bitter showers, and working hard on a Preface for a book of scholarly essays on the novels of Catherine Cookson, though it seems a rather odd location!  It's quite a long time since I wrote my biography of Cookson (1999) , although I wrote a sequel in 2003.   But it's one of the interesting things about writing biography that the people you write about never leave your life, but continue to follow you around.   Catherine Cookson was a big part of my life for five or six years. I still own small objects that used to belong to her, have tapes on the shelf  that once recorded her voice - strong, vibrant, rather low-pitched with that instantly recognisable 'Geordie' accent.  I have her birth certificate, her wedding certificate and a traycloth embroidered by a fan as an anniversary present.  We have other oddments too, the result of an amazing stroke of luck.  When Catherine's belongings were auctioned off after her death, I couldn't afford to buy any of the memorabilia and most of the really interesting material was already earmarked for museums and archives.  But Neil bought a couple of carrier bags of electronic bits and pieces from the Cookson garage. The miscellany inside them included Tom's camera, the family slide projector and a whole collection of slides - intimate photographs of Catherine and her houses, which we still own.
The tapes were another surprising windfall.  I knew that her first agent, John Smith, had written a biography authorised by Catherine herself, which had never appeared.  But it proved impossible to trace him, as he had retired and it seemed no one in the Cookson camp wanted me to meet him.  I was invited to Catherine's memorial service and there, by a wonderful coincidence, I met John Smith.  He was an extremely interesting man, who told me that Catherine, who had requested a 'warts and all' biography, had hated the result, which he had agreed to destroy.  He said he would be very happy to talk to me about it.  A few weeks later, a jiffy bag arrived in the post with a collection of tapes which Catherine had recorded for him, talking frankly about her life and discussing areas of it that she had never talked about publicly before.  It was the most remarkable gift for a biographer and it altered the whole character of the book because the tapes revealed the difference between Catherine's actual life and the public version of her autobiography she had always preferred.
She was, without a doubt, one of the 20th centuries most remarkable women.  Born before women's emancipation, an illegitimate child in one of the poorest communities in the western world, given little education, she nevertheless became one of the richest women in Britain, and one of the world's best-selling authors.   
Catherine's vast output of novels and memoirs has always been sneered at by critics and the academic establishment, despite the fact that she created her own genre and wrote some excellent books.  Now a university press in America is giving her the attention she deserves as a writer, rather than just a remarkable woman.  Her stories of the 'social history of the north east' are going to be put into the context of the regional novel, alongside Walpole, Hardy, Scott, Gaskell and many others.  It's a totally new field of research, called 'Cookson Studies'.
I'm finding the Preface difficult though, because my head is so full of  that other Katherine, and I'm not at home in my office with my books and papers around me, but working in a strange library, or on someone's kitchen table.  No point in complaining though  - as a writer you have to meet deadlines whatever is going on in your private life. 
The new book is to be called, Catherine Cookson Country:  On the Borders of Legitimacy and should be available from Ashgate next year (if I ever finish the preface!)

2 comments:

  1. Oh this is fascinating, Kathleen. My mum's a Geordie and champions Cookson as you do. I wonder if she's read your biography. If not, I will have to find a copy for her.... I understand what you mean about the subjects of your books following you around. People still think I'm fascinated by/an expert on whales...

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  2. So looking forward to reading this next year, Kathleen. We've exchanged emails about Catherine Cookson in the past and, as you know, my daughter and I have a particular fondness for her work - not least because of her Northumbrian roots. We've probably learned more about the lives of our ancestors through reading Catherine C than almost any other author.

    But not sure if I mentioned to you that, back in the mid-1970s, I was working as an information and press officer for the National Council for One Parent Families (originally the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, which had launched a campaign to remove the last vestiges of legal and other pockets of discrimination against people born out of wedlock. Catherine lent her full backing to the campaign and was enormously supportive of what we were trying to achieve. There is no doubt that her support raised the profile of the campaign - an public awareness of the level of discrimination - significantly. And the campaign succeeded . . .

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