Hi Kath, thanks for taking time to chat to me. You're a Liverpool Lass! Tell me a little about growing up in Liverpool during the ‘50s and '60s
Growing up in Liverpool during the '50s and '60s were exciting times, what with the Beatles and the football team enjoying spectacular success. Liverpool seemed to be the centre of the Universe and there was a great buzz. I lived in an area called Old Swan, about five miles from the city centre, which was actually countryside when my mum was a child, but had grown and changed rapidly; we had two cinemas and a library at the end of Blackhorse Lane, where our house was. It was just mum, me and my two sisters as sadly my dad had died suddenly when I was just two. Life was sometimes a struggle, but mum’s side of the family lived close by and were always on the scene.
Did you write back then as a child?
The first words I wrote, with any purpose, was a letter to my mum in hospital when I was six, hoping she was getting better and letting her know I’d fed the budgie and cleaned his cage, but had also made a mess of the house in so doing! At Junior School I enjoyed writing the stories our teacher set us; The Story of a Penny, or The Story of a Letter. Sounds boring now, but back then my imagination ran wild! I also kept diaries, and wrote poems throughout my school days and beyond.
Did your childhood in Liverpool inspire your writing as an adult?
Mum was an avid reader and the library became an important part of our weekly routine, which is where my early love of books must have started. My mum was born in 1914 and had lots of stories to tell us about her childhood, as well as stories from her parents, who were born in the 1880s. I was interested and listened and so yes, my Old Swan childhood, along with her reminiscences, inspired my first poetry collection Sugar Butties on the Doorstep, to which I added a brief biography of Margaret Beavan, an English politician and the first female Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1929, which then became Sugar Butties and Mersey Memoirs.
My mum also told me about her dad’s sister Catherine, who ‘died of a broken heart,’ when she was very young. That was all mum could tell me about Catherine at that time, so later, in my twenties, I did lots of research and discovered lots more facts, and eventually Catherine's story went on to inspire my fictional novella, Catherine of Liverpool and its forthcoming sequel Ladies of Liverpool. I wanted to preserve the ordinary; my early life was not a remarkable one and my memories were the simple happy ones stored away in the depths of my consciousness, which could have been lost, together with Catherine’s existence, had I not written them down.
You trained to be a teacher?
Yes. I was a pupil at Saint Agnes Catholic School for Girls and have very happy memories of my time there. Most students left after fifth form to train as nurses or secretaries, others left earlier after fourth form to work in shops, factories or Littlewood’s Pools. However, when I was thirteen none of these possible futures inspired me, Then one day two older girls came to talk to our class; they were going on to Sixth Form and hoped to become teachers. The seed was sown.
After finishing high school, I went to Endsliegh College, a teacher training college run by nuns in Hull. The year I started was the first year they allowed men to join, so there were about six males to five hundred females! I studied English Literature, Language and Theology. It was hard, at the age of nineteen, to have to control a class of lively ten year olds and I almost left during my first teaching practice. But Sister Mary Joan, the Principal, advised me to go on a trip to the zoo with the class, and my career was saved. And I've been teaching ever since!
That's over forty years ago, are you still teaching?
Yes, still teaching! I’ve been teaching in Vietnam for seven months now and will be here until 2018. However in the year 2008 I took early retirement after thirty years teaching in the UK after a cancer diagnosis which required major surgery. It was during that period that I began writing much more. Writing helped me through it. When I recovered it became clear I needed a full time position and that was unlikely to happen in the UK, so on a whim one evening I scanned my CV and documents onto a website for posts in the Middle East. A response came the following day and, three months later, my kids were waving me off at the airport on my way to a teaching post in Bahrain, where I was to spend the following three years. My writing really stepped up a pace in Bahrain with my contributions to a book titled My Beautiful Bahrain and membership of the Bahrain Writers' Circle.
Tell me about your very first writing engagement.
While teaching in Bahrain I wrote some stories for my students, in a effort to make a history project more entertaining. I thought no more about them until the Deputy Head called me to her office one day to meet two men from a publishing company in the Lebanon at the school to promote their products. I gave them my stories and two months later signed a contract, and to date two have been beautifully illustrated and published.
Tell me more about your first collection of poems; Sugar Butties and Mersey Memoirs.
In some ways these poems are a product of dark times. In 2007 I became so ill that I took long term absence and eventually resigned from my post at a school I was teaching in Carlisle. During that time I read and wrote a lot to stave off depression and found AllPoetry, an on-line poetry site. Until that time I had never shared my writing with anyone, but I nervously added a poem about my grandma; the image I had was of her making huge sugar butties, with fresh crusty bread, and my sister and me sitting on the doorstep tucking in. The feedback was encouraging. So I then wrote a poem about my granddad with his pin-striped suit and silver watch on a chain. Again, it got the thumbs up. One of the members then suggested I write an anthology. I needed fifty poems. Fifty memories. So I decided to plunder my early childhood memories.
And tell me more about your novella, Catherine of Liverpool.
As I mentioned earlier, Catherine had been part of my life since my mum told me about her when I was nine, and the fact she died of a broken heart was probably the reason she stayed with me. The book was born of a desire to commemorate her existence. After lots of research I was horrified to discover that Catherine, together with my granddad Alfonse and their brother Billy, had been placed in the Liverpool workhouse aged, twelve, eight and ten respectively, a fact that my granddad had kept from his children. It was years later, when my own three children were the same ages, that I really began to dwell on the tragic event and wonder what could have caused it to happen as I knew their father was alive at that time, but that their mother had died. I initially wrote the first chapters of the book years ago, but life was seriously hectic with my children and full time teaching, so it wasn't until much later, when I was living in Bahrain, that I decided to complete the story. To help me stay with it I wrote a blog about my progress, but still it was two more years before I felt ready it was ready to publish. It was an really exciting time. I was interviewed by two radio stations in Liverpool and felt very happy to have achieved my goal of making Catherine’s name known and remembered.
Does Liverpool still inspire you?
Yes, Liverpool still inspires me. When I visit the City now, I see the layers of its history and that of my family. I loved writing Catherine and its sequel because I could submerge myself in 19th
Century Liverpool. I have travelled so much, so travel inspires me too. In fact, many things have the potential for inspiration.
What is the process of transforming that initial moment of inspiration, or idea, into actual words on paper?
I have never really forced inspiration; usually ideas and images accumulate until I think it’s time to write them down. Sometimes as a poem, sometimes a story and occasionally a play, which was the case during my years as a drama teacher. It takes time though, for instance I wrote the poems about Bahrain only after some time living there.
Do you have a particular writing location?
When I’m at home in Cumbria, I write in my conservatory, or in bed; wherever I can find some quiet. When choosing a place to live on my travels, I do tend to question if it would be a good place
to write, I like lots of natural light and birdsong, which I have here on the veranda in Vietnam. Finding the time to write is always more of a challenge, as I have my day job to fit in, which has to
take priority. I would love to spend a year full time writing, but can’t afford the luxury. Usually I write at weekends and sometimes devote a complete weekend to a project. Also I get up at five in
the morning and write if I’m feeling particularly inspired.
What are you working on at the moment?
As mentioned earlier, I have recently completed Ladies of Liverpool and my plan is to continue the family story, bringing it into my mum’s generation and, perhaps, eventually my own. However, it’s a long process. I’ll keep chipping away at it and carry on when I retire.
Name your THREE most favourite books and why?
There are so many! Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce was my favourite children’s book because I was fascinated by the two different eras and Tom the boy being able to communicate with his grandma as a young girl. Tess of the D’Urbervilles marked the start of a Thomas Hardy binge read when I was fifteen and The Power and the Glory, led me to read all of Graham Green’s novels,
Lastly... what does writing MEAN to you?
For me, writing is like meditating. I clear my mind of everything and absorb myself in the task of capturing the thought and finding the words. Anywhere I am, I can pull out a note pad and pencil and start to write. It’s a great companion.
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