In the latest of her literary excursions, Lorna Hogg visits many of the locations made famous in the works of Catherine Cookson
Over the centuries, the most popular fiction has often been associated with a sense of place. A town, city, or an area of countryside or a region, can become integral to the story. These days, of course, it is much easier to visit the sites of our favourite books, and indeed, tourism regions encourage us to take the relevant `trails’. Add to that, the TV adaptations and films which help us visualize the stories which we enjoy – and you have an entire and expanded literary experience.
Catherine Cookson was one author who always had a strong sense of place. Her work was influenced by the northern English city of Newcastle, and the surroundings and countryside in which she grew up. Her childhood experiences gave her the backdrop – plus experience of the strong characters, to portray the Geordie spirit of survival and determination, plus their values. Cookson had too strong a sense of realism to opt for easy happy endings – her characters came to terms with their lives, compromised, and made the best of their options. This helped, of course, to give a strong sense of realism to her work.
Cookson would become a top selling author – with over 100 published books, 20 translations out of English, and 23 books filmed for screen. Such an achievement would have seemed highly unlikely in her early life. She was born on 20th June 1906, the illegitimate child of a young mother, who was deserted by her lover. Of course in those days appearances had to be maintained – and Catherine grew up with her staunch Catholic grandparents, Rose and John McMullen, thinking that her birth mother was her sister, and that her grandparents were her birth parents.
Home was in a part of the city which was famed worldwide for its coal exports. Noise and dirt were ever present. The family home was a tiny flat in Leam Street, near to the famed Five Arches bridges in Tyne Bridge. Young Catherine would be lulled to sleep by ships’ horns, and woken early each morning by coal wagons trundling across the arches to the staiths by the River Tyne. Noise, dirt and overcrowding were everywhere.
She did not have a happy childhood. Collecting driftwood from the Tyne, and pawnshop errands were regular occupations. At just seven, a spiteful local child told her of her illegitimacy. To comfort her, a family member told her real father was a `gentleman.’ This started her on a course of self-improvement. She also challenged her youthful birth mother – who then started to drink. Catherine was bullied and taunted by catcalls at the local school for her illegitimacy, and the suggestion has also emerged that she may also have been sexually assaulted by a boyfriend of her birth mother.
The family next moved to William Black Street in nearby East Jarrow. Catherine was a bright child, and she worked hard, spending time at the local library. However, she left school at 14, as was the norm, and entered domestic service, typical work for a girl from her background. By 18, she was a laundry checker at Wharton Workhouse. It was sited near to her home, in the area now occupied by South Tyneside District Hospital.
Lonely and confused, she had some unsuccessful relationships, and 1927, she decided that her best future lay `down South.’ She moved, to become manager at a laundry in Sussex. She also attracted the attention of a young woman, Nan. Catherine may just have viewed her as a friend – but Nan’s possessiveness would prove a problem. Astonishingly, thanks to some enthusiastic financial saving over the next years, she was able to buy a fifteen room, run down house in Hastings. In 1933, aged just 27, she rented out rooms to lodgers. She was soon joined at her house for long periods by her birth mother, and Nan. Shortly afterwards, her future husband, Thomas Cookson, came to lodge. A shy, gentle man, he gave her security and encouragement, and despite the jealous rages of Nan, they fell in love and married in June 1940. Yet again, happiness eluded her. A series of four failed pregnancies, possibly due to a blood disorder, led to depression. Physical, plus emotional ill health lasted for over a decade.
After some ECT – Electro Convulsive Therapy sessions, her doctor advised that she turn her interest in writing into therapy – and her first book, Kate Hannigan, appeared in 1948. She would later say that unsurprisingly, it was the most autobiographical of all her books. Catherine had found her true calling, and realised that her books could bring her the freedom and security she sought. She wrote obsessively, with Tom helping her with grammar and style. Constantly researching, she was ever on the lookout for news ideas. It was to be her route out of poverty.
Critics would later debate her style. She was dismissed by some as a `popular novelist’, with dramatic plots, often involving class conflict. Catherine opted for the term `historical’ novels. She did not view her work as `arty’, and continued through her life to work at her `craft’, constantly researching. Her plots covered a wide range of the human condition. As one critic remarked, the strength of her characters came with their realisation that life had was no `happy ever endings’, and that true happiness came from appreciating the possible.
Catherine and her husband came back to Newcastle in her later life. After spells in the city’s Haldane Terrace and the attractive market town of Corbridge, they settled in Langley West, near the pretty town of Allerdale. Her work was adapted for film, radio, stage and television. She remained a highly popular author – with 123 million in book sales. New readers were drawn in by TV productions including The Glass Virgin, The Cinder Path.The Fifteen Streets and The Rag Nymph. They introduced her (and the youthful Sean Bean, Catherine Zeta Jones and Robson Green), to a new, international audience. Many of the adaptations of her work stream, or are on DVD.
Cookson died shortly before her 92nd birthday, in June 1998. Ever generous, she left a considerable sum to the University of Newcastle, to research blood disorders. She also endowed ear and nose research, plus a Library. With an ironic touch, she funded a memorial garden, in the grounds of South Tyneside District Hospital, on the site of her old workplace – Harton Workhouse.
Setting the scene
Much of Cookson’s Newcastle has changed, yet plenty of buildings she would have known can be seen in the city. The splendid Beamish Museum, used in filming her books, is a good first stops. Spread over a considerable area, the latter allows visitors to walk around carefully re-constructed aspects of `life’ in early twentieth century Newcastle. South Shields Gallery and Museum is another on the `must visit’ list. Also – short trips to some of her other homes, set in beautiful scenery – Corbridge Market Town, and Langley village