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Classic with a capital C; CATHERINE COOKSON, THE STORYTELLER SUPREME WHO WENT FROM THE BACK STREETS OF NEWCASTLE TO A pounds 32M FORTUNE, DIES AGED 91.

BEST-SELLING author Dame Catherine Cookson died yesterday, just nine days short of her 92nd birthday.

After years of fighting a blood disorder she passed away peacefully at home with beloved husband Tom at her side. A worker to the very end, the tape recorder she had used for the last decade to dictate her novels was also at her bedside.

Born on the "wrong side of the tracks" in Newcastle's Shields Field, she was an inspiration to all women, but most especially those from her native North East.

She possessed the ability that Geordies most admire, a determination to do well for herself yet never forgetting or betraying her background.

It was reflected in every word she wrote about her tough Tyneside upbringing. To read one of her novels or see their TV adaptations was to know the tragic story of her illegitimate birth, her drunken "ma" who for many years she believed was her sister. Or the "da" she longed for but was never to know.

It was childhood that left its scars. As a "bastard" she learned the heartbreak of being the kid not invited to play street games or get an invite to birthday parties.

She recalled once how, as a little girl, she saw friends turn up to enjoy balloons and cake at a friend's party. In her innocence she failed to see why she should not join in the fun. She put on her frock and turned up on the doorstep anyway.

She learned that day how children can be capable of the utmost cruelty when she was turned away with the words "You can't come to my birthday, you haven't got a da".

She left in tears but with an inner resolve that she would "larn" them a lesson, she'd make something of herself. And she did.

Those memories cost Catherine Cookson a river of tears but they were never wasted. In time they would be crafted and used in novels that made readers laugh and cry in equal measure.

What is most astonishing, perhaps, is that she never even put pen to paper until she was 44. The years before had been haunted by the demons in her past. As a businesswoman she had been successful running old folks' homes but as a person she was a mess and finally suffered a severe mental breakdown.

It was to be her making. She realised that the only way to escape the ghosts of her tortured lonely childhood was to exorcise them on paper. Those long-buried emotions came gushing out in torrents, and the author of 104 - seven yet to be published - books was born.

Her novels are food and drink to generations of women, in fact you'd be hard pushed to find a Geordie girl who hasn't read a Catherine Cookson story, or seen one of the many that have been so faithfully recreated for major television series, and been proud that she's "one of us".

I can remember the first time I picked one up. Arty book critics with their fancy literary tones have sneered at her work but to me it opened up a bygone world of Jarrow in the depression, a life in Newcastle's dockland populated by an Irish community who had fled there during the famine to face a life of poverty.

Her words painted a picture of raggedy-arsed children, proud and desperate people hungry for food and work.

It conjured up the sort of existence my family - large, Irish and also from Jarrow - must have experienced in the Twenties. She brought alive faded sepia photographs of Newcastle street life as we'll never see it again.

I think, as a teenager, I must have gone through her repertoire. Certainly the memories of Our Kate, the anguished tale of her once beautiful mother ravaged by drink, are still as clear and fresh to me now.

It was apparently the most painful book she ever wrote, and in it her own raw emotions were exposed.

For many years Catherine and her mother were estranged. She remembered too often how as a child she had been expected to run down to the local pub for a jug of ale that her "ma" wanted but could ill afford.

It was Catherine's husband Tom, who was to be the calming influence on his wife and before "Our Kate" died there had been a reconciliation.

To the end of her days, Catherine was devoted to the quiet man she married, and he understood her creative need to "cleanse" herself.

They had met "down south" in Hastings, but it was Tom who recognised that the most cathartic move Catherine could ever make was to go home to her people and to the landscape she loved. The multi- millionairess gave back to Newcastle much more than it had ever given her financially. The city's university created the Hatton Art Gallery after a donation of pounds 250,000. Hospitals and many, many worthy causes were quietly given much more out of her pounds 32million.

She and Tom shared not only triumphs but tragedy. They remained childless, and Catherine was bedridden for her final years.

But anyone who loves the rugged Northumbrian countryside as I do, will know that Catherine Cookson must have found only joy at her home in Langley, not far away from the banks of the River Tyne.

And that was fitting, because giving joy was something Catherine Cookson did in abundance.

Voice of The Mirror - Page 6

THE DWELLING PLACE

Sarah, standing apart from the others, gazed at the black- clad, fashionably dressed man, the gentleman, the Lord who was going to marry their Cissie, to give her his name.

THE MALLEN TRILOGY

The name of Mallen the curse in itself, people never seem to forget it. Tat Serrier called my children the Mallen litter and I''ve hated him ever since. And he''s been repaid in kind

THE BLACK CANDLE

And such was the look in her eyes and the pleas in her voice that his heart was stirred as she had never stirred it for years and, bending towards her, he again took her face between his hands
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Author:Carroll, Sue
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 12, 1998
Words:1023
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