The dark side of fame


Caroline Moorehead THE SPECTATOR

Some time in the mid-1980s I was sent by the Times to interview Catherine Cookson, already one of the world's best-selling writers. Tom, her husband of 40 years, cooked lunch: large steaks and, apart from three sorts of potatoes, six different kinds of vegetables. There was an immense apple tart. The house was light, airy, with solid, dark furniture; upstairs, the bathroom and bedrooms were thickly carpeted in white; everywhere, on chairs, in corners, against walls, on beds, were life-sized stuffed children's toys: cats, dogs, rabbits, monkeys. The fluffy toys were absurd but cosy, and the Cooksons were welcoming and seemingly content, though Catherine Cookson's autobiography, Our Kate, published not all that long before, was bleak and troubled. Last June, at the age of 91, Catherine Cookson died; Tom died three weeks later. They had been married 58 years. The Cooksons had always dreaded the day they would be apart.

Without Our Kate, which was largely about her tormented relationship with her mother in the Tyneside where she grew up, it might have been possible to imagine a life of relative happiness, even if there was something dark and driven in the novels Cookson turned out so rapidly one after the other, most of them filled with incest, rape, drunkenness and violence and the presence of strong, gutsy women. What Kathleen Jones has done in her biography is to add a number of personal details, helped by the extreme good fortune of finding through the Internet unpublished segments of Our Kate and some unpublished taped interviews. It seems that Cookson wrote eight drafts of the book, each toning down the bitterness and hatred she felt for her mother, but then destroyed much of what she had cut out. Kathleen Jones's intention seems to have been to make the dark darker, but there is often little beyond innuendo to help her.

It is, in any case, without any embellishing, a tragic story. Born illegitimate, in a community in which illegitimacy was the ultimate stigma, Catherine Cookson believed for many years that her mother was her sister. Her childhood was one of poverty, fear and illiteracy. At 22 she fled south to work as a laundress manager. Confused and scared by the unforgiving Catholicism into which she had been born, prey to the attentions of married men, she had the luck to meet Tom, an Oxford graduate in mathematics and logic. They married in 1940. She was 34, he 27. In her high heels she stood six inches taller. She started writing, soon turning out two novels a year, and, though dismissed by critics as lacking in intellectual content, they were loved by readers. By the time she died she had 97 novels in print, had sold 123 million books, was receiving 3,000 letters a year and had been made a Dame. She was also one of the richest women in England, and Tyne-side's most famous industry. One of those very rare natural storytellers, her strength lay not in plots but in characters and their setting, the smells and horrors of hunger and misery.