The WI, Jerusalem and Going Home

Last weekend I was the guest speaker (get me!) at the WI’s district summer rally in my old home town of Hoyland Common. From the moment I passed through the swing doors of the Rockingham Centre, I found myself being greeted by scores of friendly Yorkshire women, of the kind that I recognised instantly from my childhood. Any worries I had at the prospect of  standing on a stage in front of them, microphone in hand, and speaking uninterrupted for 20 minutes, dissipated entirely in the warmth of their welcome. We all sang Jerusalem, just like in Calendar Girls, and there were cakes and chutneys for sale (to the delight of my husband; few things in life please him as much as a home made date and walnut loaf). Outside in the sunshine, a cricket match was in progress. It was all very English and comforting, and I was very happy to be there. What follows is my speech. (Alas, you don’t get my fantastically witty, off-the-cuff asides that had everyone in stitches. Sorry.)


Like just about everything else round here, the Rockingham Centre isn’t how I remember it – it’s improved, no doubt, but different. I find as I walk around Hoyland and Hoyland Common that many of the landmarks of my childhood are gone. When my children were small, I used to drive them up here from London to see their Grandma and Grandad, and we would always slow down at Hoyland Common Junior School to say, yet again, that that was where I used to go, and to laugh at the Victorian precaution of giving boys and girls separate entrances – not that that policy was in practice when I was there, I hasten to add. The infant school’s also long gone, and Kirk Balk too – the Kirk Balk I knew, anyway: the Kirk Balk that my dad and Auntie Jose went to, and where my sister and I followed in their footsteps. Even the pub where my friends and I spent many a Friday night ekeing out half a lager and black and honing our pool skills is now, I’m told, a dental surgery, and last time I went for a run round here, setting off from Mum and Dad’s, I got so disorientated by the changes to the landscape at the back of the old graveyard, that I was half way through Birdwell before I realised I was running in the wrong direction.

One of the main changes to the local landscape though is the fact that the collieries are gone too  – there are dual carriageways and retail parks where the pit yards and winding gear used to be. Rockingham Colliery once dominated the view in this area – even more so than most pits, perhaps, because of its aerial ropeways that carried coal from the pit to the Thorncliffe distillation plant five miles away. If my dad were standing where I am now, he’d be telling you how he and his friends used to ride in the big metal buckets, which here and there on their journey dipped low enough to grab hold of, although there was always a risk that – if he didn’t jump down at the right point – he’d end up a long way from home, and in very hot water with my grandma which – believe you me – wasn’t funny.


Anyway, what I’m getting round to saying is that because the world changes so relentlessly and so inevitably, we need as many ways as possible to remember how it used to be and I think one of the reasons that writing my novels means so much to me, is a sense that I’m somehow helping, in a small way, to preserve the past. I confess I didn’t pay the past much attention when I was growing up in Hoyland – then, I suppose, I only had an appetite for the present and the future.  But the day I had the idea of writing about a miner’s widow called Eve Williams who sold her baking to keep the children out of the workhouse, was the day I started asking all the questions I probably should have asked long ago and never had.

The story – Netherwood – was rooted in fact. I’d been thinking, over that mindless activity that is the weekly ironing, about my grandma’s cooking. Nellie Sanderson lived at number 5 Beaumont Street and, as far as I’m aware, she cooked something delicious every day, always from scratch. Nothing fancy, mind, just good, plain, Yorkshire food. Her kitchen always smelled lovely, because there was always something simmering on the hob, or baking in the oven. I spent hours there, watching her cook, or keeping a respectful silence until Wagner’s Walk had finished, or watching her play Patience while I waited for Dad’s shift at Rockingham to end, when he’d come and pick me up. And all these memories of early childhood are laced with the smells and flavours of Grandma’s dinners: Stewmeat gravy, hash and Yorkshire pudding, meat and tatie pie, parkin. She never looked at a recipe book – there wasn’t one in the house – but everything seemed to turn out flawless, in my memory at any rate. We lived in Sheffield Road until I was six, and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawn round the corner to Beaumont Street by the certain promise of something to eat. When Mum went to teacher training college and I was faced with the appalling prospect of having to have school dinners, Grandma saved the day by allowing me and my sister to go to her house at dinnertime instead. The only small black cloud was that we weren’t allowed to go there on Mondays because it was washday, and the mangle was out in the kitchen and Grandma would be far too cross and busy to be bothering with cooking.  When my sister and I were older, and no longer in need of Grandma’s cooked dinners, she used to send food up to our house in big jars, so that she could be sure we were all eating properly. My mum isn’t here to defend herself, but Grandma had no faith in her daughter-in-law’s cooking, because once, when she was babysitting, she found some tins of cat food that dad had bought for the strays at the pit, and she jumped to the VERY unreasonable conclusion that mum was using Whiskas as convenience food.


Anyway, many years before I came along, grandma was married to Joseph Sanderson, who was a miner at Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery. They lived in a three-up, two-down terraced house with a shared back yard and an outside privy. In 1942, the worst happened: Joseph was killed in an underground accident and my grandma’s life was suddenly turned upside down – although, goodness knows such things were regular enough occurrences, in those days. So, widowed, and with three children dependent on her, she had to make ends meet. She’d been given the princely sum of £300 to compensate for the loss of her husband – these were the days before widow’s pensions or proper benefits – and she chose to have it in small, weekly sums, which she eked out to keep the children fed and clothed, until her youngest child – my dad – was 14 and old enough to work. Only at that point did Grandma go out to work herself, and it struck me, as I stood there ironing, that instead of going to a factory in Sheffield, Grandma could have sold her delicious food to make a living. I’d read about ‘back door shops’ where people sold bonfire toffee, or jam, or whatever was their speciality, to make a few bob, and I went off on a bit of a flight of fancy, imagining grandma behind a trestle table that was piled high with all her delicious pies and puddings, and I even imagined it evolving into a little café, with tables in the parlour, and customers coming in through the front door.


I can tell you now, that in 1940s Hoyland Common, this would NOT have happened. Paying good money to eat out? Not a chance. However, the marvellous thing – one of them – about being a novelist, is you can make things up. You’re required to, of course. So, my heroine, Eve Williams, was born: a lovely, resourceful, Yorkshirewoman, who cooks like an angel and turns adversity into opportunity. I remember my agent saying, let there be no limit to your ambition for Eve: so there wasn’t, and it’s not spoiling anything to let you know that in Netherwood, there’s a happy ending – another privilege of the writer of fiction.


At the same time as all this thinking about food, I was reading a book called Black Diamonds – I’m sure you all know it – by Catherine Bailey, which told the story of the rise and fall of the coal empire of the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth. I’d read about the evictions at Denaby Main in 1903, when the colliery owners turned hundreds of miners and their wives and children out of their homes, in an attempt to break the strike that had staggered on by then for 26 weeks. They were striking because, at Denaby, there was a thick seam of compacted muck and dust that had to be shifted before anyone could start hewing coal, and the pit owners had decided that no one would be paid for bagging up this muck: they would only start earning once they got to the coal. The men wanted to be paid not for how much coal they produced, but for how many hours they’d worked – and doesn’t it seem extraordinary, now, that this wasn’t their absolute right?


So, in appalling, freezing conditions, in January 1903, they were evicted. Their Methodist minister tried to house them in army tents, and in his chapel, but it was overcrowded, unsanitary, inhospitable, and before long, those who weren’t killed by the experience, went back to work on exactly the same terms that had fetched them out over six months previously.


This story made a huge impression on me. This, and the fact that Earl Fitzwilliam, who owned three collieries in the area where I grew up (back in the days before the NCB) would never have treated his men the way they were treated at Denaby Main. I liked the idea of an honourable aristocrat, with a sense of obligation as well as entitlement, running his affairs and following the rules of the same time-honoured feudal system that his family had done for generations. I liked – as a novelist – the contrast between the vast wealth and the extraordinary lavish life of the Fitzwilliams, and the hard graft and humble circumstances of the men and women whose livelihood depended on them. I also liked the fact that, even though Billy Fitzwilliam was considered a good employer, he still forbade union membership, and fought tooth and nail to keep his collieries free of interference by the Yorkshire Miners Association. Even the good guys, in those days, wanted the working man to know his place and stay there.


So all of these issues – extreme poverty, extreme wealth, the stirrings of dissent that would ultimately result in the Labour Party, and – last but certainly not least – my grandma’s pies – all came together in the form of Netherwood. I set the book in 1903, and off I went. I had a sort of amalgam of Hoyland Common, Elsecar and Wentworth in mind as I wrote, and Eve’s house in Beaumont Lane was – in every detail – my Grandma’s old house in Hoyland Common. It was fascinating and exhilarating to be writing about my own past, my own heritage. Suddenly I was doing what we all know we should do – talking to my parents about their memories, which in turn got them digging out photographs and remembering long-forgotten anecdotes about the past.


Dad was key to the process, and fortunately for me, he has extraordinary recall, for names, events, and the tiniest details of his working life. He went – the day after his 14th birthday – to work at the same pit where his own father was killed four years previously, and from the moment I set about writing Netherwood, I plundered his wealth of knowledge about conditions underground, all the many and varied characters of the men he’d worked with, the things they said, the snap they ate, the feeling in their bellies when the cage dropped down the shaft from the pit head, the things they suffered, the camaraderie that comes from risking your life every working day, the pit ponies and their different, distinct personalities – endless recollections which have added such priceless authenticity to my books. Obviously he didn’t work underground at the turn of the century – he’s not that old – but he worked, as a lad, with men who had, and in any case, not so very much had changed in the mines by the time he got there. He put me straight many a time. He rewrote an entire passage of Netherwood, at one point. There’d been a rockfall, resulting in a fatality, and I’d got it wrong, he told me (very bluntly!). He emailed a sort of stream-of-consciousness recollection of being in a tunnel and detecting the first signs of an imminent fall: tiny flakes of shale, drifting silently from the roof. No drama, just this sinister little snowfall. When that happened, you downed tools and got moving, fast. This sort of stuff – the things you know not because you’ve read it, but because you’ve lived it – is absolute gold dust to a writer. You can find a lot of what you need in the history books, but you can’t find everything. I dedicated my second book, Ravenscliffe – which is the sequel to Netherwood – to my Mum and Dad, because without them, the books wouldn’t be what they are.


Of course, just as life moves on and changes for all of us, so it does for my fictional characters. Ravenscliffe picked up exactly where Netherwood finished, and follows the upward trajectory of the characters’ lives. And in September a third novel – which I’ve called Eden Falls – comes out which travels further still, into the diverse worlds of politics, women’s suffrage, the banana trade and the early days of tourism in Jamaica. It’s amazing where the imagination can take you, when you give it full throttle. It’s amazing, too, how a story grows from the first seed of an idea into all those different strands: like a tree, with its roots firmly planted in Netherwood, but its branches arching out into the world. I didn’t know, when I began Netherwood, that the story would take me to the Caribbean, but if you’ve read Ravenscliffe, and can remember the dashing but rather dastardly Silas Whittam, you’ll understand the connection. And if you’ll indulge me for a couple minutes more, I thought I’d read an extract from Eden Falls – a world premier! – which is still so new that I don’t even have a copy, so I’ve printed something off.  I just wanted to demonstrate how far it’s possible to travel, from a story about a miner’s widow who can bake a perfect pork pie…


(Thanks for reading – and watch this space for an extract from Eden Falls)