Catherine Cookson was one of the most successful authors of all time. Born into considerable poverty in the northeast of England in 1906, the illegitimate daughter of a barmaid, Catherine received little formal education, but still went on to write over a hundred books - almost all of them bestsellers; she was made a Dame of the British Empire and became one of the most highly paid authors in the world. Her phenomenal success has generated endless fascination. Catherine herself admitted that she was driven to keep on writing by bleak internal forces, and that her determination to succeed and become 'somebody' was rooted in childhood rejection and the shame of her illegitimate birth. The fame and fortune she set out to win was a long time in coming. Although she had been writing stories since she was a child, her first novel wasn't published until she was forty-three. For a long time she tried to escape her roots - of which she was deeply ashamed - and write the kind of ladylike novels she found on the library shelves. Her first efforts were disappointing, mainly because her stories lacked the illusion of reality that readers were looking for. Catherine simply didn't know enough about the people whose lives she was trying to describe; she didn't understand their concerns or their motivations. Desperate to get published, she joined a local writers' group, and once a week in the public library subjected her work to collective criticism. The results weren't encouraging. She even sent a play she had written to an agency that promised a professional reader's report. It came back with these words scribbled on the back page: 'Strongly advise author to give up writing'. This comment would have daunted most people, but not Catherine. She was even more determined to be published. The pivotal moment of Catherine Cookson's career as a writer came in 1947, one wet, windy night in Hastings. Members of the writers' circle, bracing themselves for yet another awkward saga of the rich, landed gentry whose lives Catherine could only hazily imagine, never forgot how the forty-one-year-old author read a powerful, moving story called The Girl who had no Da'. It was her own story, an account of the moment when, taunted by children in the street, she discovered that she was illegitimate, the child of an unknown man who had deserted her mother before she was born. Catherine had never before written with the intensity of painful personal experience and she was so afraid of her audience's response that she had to read the story sitting down because her legs were shaking so much. But its impact was immediate and Catherine remembered long afterwards how the group stood up and clapped and clapped. She left the library that evening knowing that this should be the real material for her stories, the rich seam of childhood experience that she would mine again and again for over a hundred books. It was the golden lode that made her one of the best-selling novelists of all time and one of the richest women in the world..Fifty-two years after that momentous night in Hastings, on a cold November afternoon in 1998, I attended Catherine Cookson's memorial service in Newcastle's Roman Catholic Cathedral. The church was already packed and there were still people outside waiting to come in. Everyone in the north-east seemed to want to bid a final farewell. In the days and weeks after Catherine's death there had been numerous tributes in newspapers, magazines and on television and radio. As her biographer I had studied them all. Catherine's voice came over clear and certain, talking about her life, her childhood, and in particular the fact that she was illegitimate. It was increasingly apparent to me, as I researched her life, that her unknown father's absence and his rejection of both Catherine and her mother Kate went to the root of her character and was at the heart of everything she did. She returned to it in every interview she gave. 'I wanted to make something of myself,' she said repeatedly. T was going to show them.' It was the driving motivation that took her away from the northeast to live in the south, and the mainspring of her imagination. The mystery of her father's identity became an obsession. Catherine spent her whole life imagining and inventing him for herself. As a young child, her favourite means of escape from the difficult circumstances in which she lived was a fantasy that her father was a rich aristocrat and that one day he would come to look for her and take her away to live in the luxury of his stately home. It was tragic that, in a life that spanned over ninety years, Catherine was never able to get over the fact of her illegitimacy. The social stigma was one she shared with a great many other people in public life, as well as on the streets of Jarrow - there were a lot of 'baskets', as her mother Kate euphemistically called them. Perhaps it was the feeling that her unknown father had abandoned her because he considered her worthless that had cut to the bone. As I sat in the pew at the memorial service and listened to the tributes and to Catherine's recorded voice talking about her life, I wondered who her father had been - and whether there was anyone in that church, among Catherine's extended family, who actually knew. It was the last great mystery of her life - and one I decided to try to solve. I began with the story that Catherine herself told about her mother's love affair with a mysterious, handsome stranger.
© Kathleen Jones