Writer touched so many lives

Kathleen Jones is the author of Catherine Cookson: The Biography, which put forward controversial theories on lesbian relationships in the famous author's past.

Kathleen Jones is the author of Catherine Cookson: The Biography, which put forward controversial theories on lesbian relationships in the famous author's past.

"Catherine Cookson changed my life. Biographies aren't big sellers and my three respectable literary `lives', earned little money.

"I still needed a day job to survive. It didn't occur to me, when I accepted the commission to write Catherine Cookson's biography, this was going to be any different.

"The draw for me was the story - which had parallels with my own family history.

"My great grandfather was a merchant seamen born and brought up in South Shields. My grandparents lived in North Shields, in circumstances not dissimilar from Catherine's. Knowing where she came from I was in a unique position to understand her achievements.

"Catherine was one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th Century.

"Born in 1906 to a family that had little education, Catherine herself went to school irregularly and left to start work at 12.

"The shipbuilding industries of the Tyne were already in decline at the beginning of the 20th century and it was arguably one of the poorest communities in the Western world.

"So how did an illegitimate girl from this background become one of the richest women in Britain and one of the best selling authors of all time?

"That for me was the fascination. That her life spanned almost the whole of the 20th century and the history of women's emancipation was another interesting subject.

"Catherine never subscribed to `women's lib' as she called it, she just got on with the job. But her conviction that women could do anything they wanted to do was unshakeable.

"In order to write the biography I read and re-read all Catherine's books and quickly realised how much better they were than she'd been given credit for. There's a lot of literary snobbery around, and she suffered under it.

Catherine was scathing about her critics, claiming that her books would be remembered long after their so- called `literary' efforts had been consigned to the bin.

"She was right - though out of more than 100 books there are probably only about 15 that will last, including the `Jarrow' novels; Kate Hannigan, The Fifteen Streets, and her best historical fiction.

"I was vilified for revealing aspects of Catherine's life that had not been made public before, though she'd written about them and dictated these events on to tape for an earlier, unpublished, biography.

"It was a difficult time, but suddenly my book was in the top 10 bestseller lists.

"Its success gave me a measure of financial security I'd only been able to dream of. For the first time I could give up the day job and write. I know, every time I pick up the pen, that I've got a lot to thank Catherine for."

* Angus McDonald is a museum assistant at South Shields Museum which houses a vast Catherine Cookson collection.

He comes into regular daily contact with Catherine Cookson fans and gives talks on the author.

"Visitors often refer to our museum as `the Catherine Cookson Museum.'

"Her life story is integral to the museum and has been since 1986. Our displays of Cookson memorabilia are unique.

"Telling Mrs Cookson's life story is very important to us. We are committed to keeping Catherine's very dramatic story in the public gaze.

"Our museum also played a very important part in Catherine's life. It was here in our building, the town's Public Library at the time, that Catherine read Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son. These letters were the inspiration that Catherine was looking for, and were a very great influence in her future success.

"As a person interested in local history, Catherine's story is inspirational, and as I point out in my local history talks, her story is an example of what can be achieved.

"Mrs Cookson emerged from the poverty and squalor of Tyne Dock South Shields, to become one of the 20th Century's most popular writers. Her novels sold over 100,000,000 copies worldwide and she became one of the richest women in the world.

"Catherine was also made a Dame. This was an extraordinary achievement for a women brought up in such adverse circumstances.

"Her motto was `I can and I will.' Catherine was a strong woman who did not suffer fools gladly, but it was her drive and determination that drove her to become a very successful writer and a North-East icon."

* Piers Dudgeon is the author of the best-selling 1997 biography The Girl From Leam Lane, a revised version of which was published this March.

"Catherine was an important part of my life from 1985 when I produced her illustrated memoir, Catherine Cookson Country.

"Then, in 1997 I wrote the only biography of the great lady written with her complete co-operation.

"The Girl From Leam Lane sold 130,000 hardbacks alone, but it didn't come without a special relationship between subject and biographer.

"We got to know each other very well. Over nearly 15 years of our friendship, she came to trust me and I fell under her spell.

"She became something of an inspiration to me, not only through the example of her life.... but in our meetings and especially her phone calls. They would always leave me with a powerful sense of her will, her strength, the mettle that got her through life, which in her later years, when I knew her, she was bent on passing on to others.

"That was her great thing, the power of her will. That and her humour. What she liked was banter. You would have the kind of light, to- and-fro teasing or joking with Catherine that normally only subsists between close male friends, a kind of jostling for ascendancy coupled with great respect. And then she would leave you with something serious, a word of encouragement or an insight.

"What I took from Catherine was what millions took from her books and many thousands of her readers took who wrote to her and received replies.

"A great fan of hers and namesake, Sister Catherine of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San José in California, who appears in The Devil and Mary Anne incidentally, once wrote: `She was willing to share her brokenness with the world and as a result became a giant, cosmic fountain from which all others could drink.' I can imagine no better memorial to Catherine than that.

"And it is a memorial that should be hers, for incredibly only yesterday I was telephoned by her closest relative, Sarah Sables, now in her 80s and freshly aggrieved that there is no final resting place or memorial for her cousin.

"Seventeen days after Catherine died, Tom, her husband, also died, and their wish was for their ashes to be put together. But there was no burial ceremony.

"It is an undignified aspect of the centenary that there is no monument or memorial to Catherine and Tom. But it is still not too late to organise one."

* Ray MarshallL of Festival Films proved that Catherine Cookson's stories could make popular television by turning 18 of her novels into hit ITV dramas starring the likes of Robson Green, Catherine Zeta Jones, Niamh Cusack and June Whitfield.

"I first met Catherine Cookson in 1988 to discuss the possibility of making a film of her book The Fifteen Streets.

"Her agent had already told me that it was unlikely she'd be interested, so it was with some trepidation that I visited her and Tom's lovely home in Northumberland. I needn't have worried because she set me entirely at my ease - and after a good deal of gentle persuasion on my part and a great deal of gentle interrogation on her part, she finally set out the terms of the deal: "I'll let you make one and if you get that right, you can do some more!"

"Fortunately, I did get it right. The Fifteen Streets moved her to tears and for the next 11 years, my life was exclusively dedicated to bringing Catherine's novels to life on the small screen. By the time we finished in 2001, we had made 18 of her books into films or mini-series and my own professional, and indeed most aspects of my life, had been transformed.

"I have always told people that Catherine Cookson changed my life, because it's true. There seemed to be no time to do anything else. It became a great `family' affair, with the same North-East crew returning year after year to make `another Cookson.' It was a time in my life I will never forget.

"Catherine always kept up her interest in the "fillums," as she called them. She was always kind and supportive but if she thought you were wrong, she'd tell you.

In the early days, I can remember more than one tense evening sitting by the phone in London waiting for her to call to tell me what she thought of the latest script.

"Her books, like her, will be remembered for years to come because they touched and moved so many people. She had an amazing ability to tell stories that made you want to turn the page and conjure up characters people cared about - Cissie in The Dwelling Place, Annabella in The Glass Virgin, Rory O'Connor in The Gambling Man and the wonderful Riah Millican in The Black Velvet Gown to name just a few.

"For a film maker, those characters are an absolute Godsend, which is why Cookson fans tuned in in their millions to see them brought to life.

"Catherine Cookson was an extraordinary lady - full of passion and full of life, despite the problems with her health that dogged her for so long. Her life - from laundry girl to Dame of the British Empire - was a testament to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and disadvantage.

"Catherine Cookson certainly changed my life, but with her novels and her philanthropic work, she changed so many other lives. Knowing her and Tom and to be counted as a friend was an enormous privilege."


David Whetstone
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