Inspiring sense of place

She has often been called the new Catherine Cookson, and has even written novels on the Jarrow-born author.

She has often been called the new Catherine Cookson, and has even written novels on the Jarrow-born author. But Janet MacLeod has a distinct voice of her own. Hannah Davies finds out more.

Growing up in the historic city of Durham Janet MacLeod has always been surrounded by the echoes of the region's past.

The mother of two, who now lives in Morpeth with IT trainer husband Graeme Trotter, makes her living by bringing those stories to life, and thousands are devotees of her North-Eastern sagas.

It is these which have led to the Catherine Cookson comparisons which Janet is honoured by but disputes.

What the two women have in common is a passion for the region and the tales which exist along each street, by every dockside and inside each village.

A mixed Scottish-English heritage and a life-long love of history has given Newcastle-born Janet plenty of inspiring material her for her books.

Janet grew up in Durham, moving there as a small child,

where her father, Norman, whose family are from the Isle of Skye, was a history master at Durham School.

Her mother Sheila Gorrie had been a RADA-trained actress but she quit after marrying Norman to raise Janet and her four brothers: Donald, now a journalist for the Guardian; Torquil, a copywriter living in North Shields and Rory and Angus, both chaplains in the Army.

Until she reached school age girls did not play much of a part of Janet's life.

Janet laughs: "I was always around a lot of boys. I grew up with four brothers and 70 other boys!"

She recalls her Durham childhood as idyllic, spent around the grounds of the school playing with her friends, brothers and surrogate brothers.

"Durham School was a great place to grow up in," she says".It was like a big playground to me."

Childhood holidays were spent on Skye visiting her father's relatives while back in Durham she developed a huge love of the Beatles.

She has written an early memoir on those times called Beatles and Chiefs.

"It was like I inhabited two worlds; growing up in Durham as a young girl obsessed with the Beatles then up to Skye on holiday which was so removed from the modern world."

The strange duality of these modern and old worlds encouraged Janet's burgeoning interest in history. One incident in particular, when Janet was eight, stuck in her mind.

Janet explains: "One of my father's old pupils, John Irwin, decided to make a documentary about miners.

"Called Gala Day it was set in the 1926 strike.

"John got my dad to be Lord Lambton and I got to be dressed up as Lady Lambton.

"In one scene we were driving past the striking miners in a car. I was told to look scared.

"The miners were played by real miners and they were banging on the window.

"I was genuinely frightened. The memory of that and thinking about why the miners were like that has stayed with me all of these years."

John went on to be a Hollywood director, directing Hamburger Hill, Ghost Story and Dogs of War among others.

After finishing her A-levels at Durham Johnston School in 1976 Janet took a year out to travel on the "hippie trail" to Katmandu.

"I didn't know it was the `hippie trail,' she laughs, "I grew up on stories of my grandparents who had been born in India. I had this romantic notion of going East."

Visiting Deli, the Taj Mahal and Katmandu Janet had a "mind-blowing experience," but disaster struck when the group arrived back in Deli for their flight home.

"The bus company which arranged the trip had gone bust," Janet explains, "and with that our plane tickets were void - so we were stranded. The embassies had shut up for the New Year and didn't want to get involved.

"My parents had gone to Skye for Christmas so it was impossible to contact them. I tried to contact my grandmother in Edinburgh to be told she had died while I'd been away. It was horrific."

After a week spent trying to get home a friend Janet had made on the trip managed to contact her family and to get money sent back for a ticket for Janet as well.

After her travelling adventure Janet was happy to settle down to university and she accepted a place at Edinburgh, where her mother was from, to study social anthropology and Scottish history.

It was while she was a student she again met the man who was to marry - Graeme Trotter, an IT trainer from Wallsend.

Janet first knew Graeme when he was a pupil of her father's, but it wasn't until a chance meeting outside a chip shop on Skye that romance blossomed.

They married in the chapel at Durham School in 1984 and have two children Amy, 17, and Charlie, 13, who are both pupils at Morpeth High School.

After graduation Janet moved back to the North-East, to Newcastle, with Graeme.

"I was working for months in telesales in Newcastle," says Janet. "It was then I started writing in my spare time."

Janet began a correspondence course in creative writing.

"It was a get something published or your money back kind of thing," she laughs. "Well, I got nothing published so they offered me either more tuition or my money back - I decided to go with the tuition."

Janet didn't finish the second course as she managed to get commissions from DC Thomson to write photo stories for girls magazines, such as Jackie, Blue Jeans and Patches, which she had read herself as a child.

Buoyed up by this success, in 1989 Janet tried her hand at writing teen fiction.

She wrote a novel, Love Games, which was accepted for the Heartlines series of books.

"Unfortunately the Heartlines Series stopped pretty much after that," she recalls, " I was one of the last people to write for them.

"That's when I changed direction and had a go historical writing."

In the same year Janet wrote her first historical book, The Beltane Fires, on witchcraft and set in the time of James VI.

Sadly the publisher decided to cancel that series of books.

Janet recalls: "They went back to publishing books on Scottish whiskies."

A break from novel writing followed as Janet became the editor of the international Clan McLeod magazine and also took on freelance writing jobs.

But with a developing interest in local history Janet turned back to the memory of filming the 1926 miners' strike.

She decided to turn this memory into the development of The Hungry Hills.

"It was my first North-East saga," she says, "it takes place in a mining village in West Durham during the 1926 miners' strike." Janet's London agent found her a publisher who was doing sagas and it was published in 1992. She's not looked back since.

She comments: "Luckily for me in this area there is so much interesting history.

"I'm very drawn to recent industrial history - so much has gone on in the last 150 years.

"And places like mining villages are such close places there are always interesting things to write about."

In the books following The Hungry Hills Janet has followed a familiar method.

She explains: "I like to take historical events and relate that to what happened in the North-East."

Janet used this method in one of her most successful books, The Jarrow Lass in 2001, based on novelist Catherine Cookson's life.

"I'd originally thought I'll do a novel from Catherine's mother's point of view," she adds.

"There was so much written about Catherine's experiences of growing up I thought it would be interesting to look to how her mother's life had developed. It had been ruined by her situation and the way she was treated.

"As I researched I thought `granny's story is also important'. So I delved further back into the past of Jarrow and South Shields in the 19th Century, to discover that. I fictionalised that part of the story much more."

Janet's research uncovered many details of how people had lived in South Tyneside at the time.

"Jarrow had grown so suddenly from a small village into this huge industrial boom town, with a vast number of people flowing into it, who ended up living in these terrible conditions," she explains.

"Especially affected by this were the Irish community who weren't welcomed. Locals resented spending money on them so the conditions people lived in were appalling. And of course Catherine Cookson comes from that Irish shipbuilding background."

Janet's trilogy The Jarrow Lass, A Child of Jarrow and Return to Jarrow, were a great success.

Her most recent novel, A Handful of Stars, deals with fascism on Tyneside before the Second World War. It explores the controversial rise of Oswald Mosley's black shirts through the eyes of a female journalist on Tyneside who falls for one of them.

Janet explains: "I've been wanting to write something about the fascist era for quite a while.

"I had a chance conversation with someone in publishing who got really offended by my suggestion there would have been British people who would have collaborated with the Nazis.

"But I read a very interesting book by Nigel Todd called Hungry Times which is about Oswald Mosley and the North-East.

"It is full of interesting information about how the fascists set up an office in Newcastle after targeting industrial towns with high unemployment, much as the BNP do now.

"Mosley put out this almost socialist agenda to attract people on the left.

"Then he appealed to the right with this notion of rebuilding the British Empire, saying Britain should be great again."

Janet's husband Graeme and his family are a useful source of information on shipbuilding and another of her books The Suffragette drew on inspiration from her family.

"I've two great-aunts who were involved in the suffragette movement in Edinburgh," she adds.

"My family have always been very supportive of my writing, my parents in particular. It is such a privilege to be able to share stories with other people - and of course to live in a place which is such a constant source of inspiration."

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer