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A LIFE STORY UP ON STAGE; Emma Johnson talks to a much-loved author.

Byline: Emma Johnson

TOMORROW night is an important one for Liverpool author Helen Forrester. Because it is the first-night performance of the musical which sees her life story up on the stage.

Tickets for Twopence toCross the Mersey the musical, written by Liverpool musician and writer Rob Fennah and his brother Alan, are nearing sell-out.

But when the band strikes the overture at the Empire Theatre there will be one very important person missing from the audience.

Helen herself.

``Sadly I have not been too well this last winter (she was diagnosed with thyroid problems last year), so I am unable to see this one,'' she explains somewhat forlornly.

``I did see the original and it was strange to see my life up there on stage. It did not feel like it was my life,of course they have to embroider the story for a musical -but it was quite exciting.

``My grandchildren think it is weird that there is a stage show about me. The childhood I had couldn't be further from theirs.''

When the show first premiered here in Liverpool in 1994,it broke box office records with more than 27,000 people watching it during its ten-day run.

Helen herself made the journey across the Atlantic for the occasion and with tears in her eyes was the first on her feet to lead the standing ovation.

And even though she won't be here to witness for herself the success of this year's run, that's not to say she won't return to her home town.

In fact, the next time you are enjoying a coffee in a Liverpool cafe,deep in conversation with a pal,beware who is listening.

Because Helen could be hanging on your every word gleaning material for her next bestseller.

``I could do with sitting in bars and cafes and talking and listening to people -seeing how they view life these days,'' says the prolific Liverpool author.

Helen, who left Britain for Canada almost 50 years ago, is not writing at the moment.

``It's good sometimes just to let your mind rest and see what comes up,'' she says.

Instead she is currently enjoying the delights of Victoria,British Colombia, where,now 84, she is visiting to escape the ``dreadful'' Canadian winters.

But it it is hard to imagine the woman who enthralled generations with her novels and tales of her own childhood poverty, remaining quiet for long.

She has written some 15books, from her first,Thursday's Child, to her most recent,A Cuppa Tea and an Aspirin, which was published in paperback in January.

She has conveyed tales of children growing up in Canada,of women just surviving through prostitution,of Liverpool's immigrant communities and of war widows'grief.

This year is the 30thanniversary of Helen's seminal work, theharrowing,autobiographical Twopence to Cross the Mersey, the book for which she is mainly known.

In this and the three books that followed,Helen described in moving detail how from a life of relative prosperity in leafy Hoylake she was thrown into the abject poverty of the Liverpool slums when her father became bankrupt.

But Helen, who was forced to leave school at 12 to bring up her six brothers and sisters while her father and mother struggled to cope,never pictured herself as a great author.

``I began writing out of sheer boredom,'' sheexplains.``My husband was very delicate but very famous and he needed a lot of practical help, typing and so on.''

Helen's late husband was the East Indian-born theoretical physicist Avadh Bahtia, with whom she moved to Canada in the 1950s after losing two fiances in World War Two.

worked for him from home. I had a little boy to look after (her only sonRobert) but I would find that in the afternoons when he had gone off to school and my husband back to work,I had a quiet hour to myself.

``So I thought I would try to write a book. I thought I would write the sort of book my mum would read and enjoy.

``I found that writing just gave me something to do. I never thought anyone would want to publish it,but I put together a manuscript and sent it off to publishers Hodder and Stoughton. ``They had it for about a year and didn't even acknowledge it. Then a telegram arrived to say they had accepted it and I didn't have anyone to tell the good news to.''

That first book was Thursday's Child,although then it was known as Alien There is None, a title later changed to reflect the change in meaning of the term. Buoyed by its success Helen embarked upon a second book TheLatchkey Kid -the story of a little boy left to fend for himself while his mother climbed the social ladder -but writing her own childhood memoirs was not yet a consideration.

It took the harsh words of a Canadian critic to provoke that endeavour.

Says Helen: ``Somebody criticised me . ..a Canadian journalist ...over The Latchkey Kid, said what did this frail old lady know about life?

``I was very angry and I sat down immediately and started to write Twopence to Cross the Mersey.''

People queued to buy the book. But still the criticism did not stop. There were those both in literary circles and Liverpool circles who refused to believe Helen's published recollections.

Recollections that included having to hock clothes for money for bread,of her father with his coat so tattered he worried he would be picked up as a vagrant, of sleeping seven to a bed under tattered old coats,of stealing milk to soothe her baby brother and of teenage Helen praying to the Goddess Minerva to look kindly upon her.

ut I knew I had to be careful not to overwrite it (her life story) and I knew there would be people who would not believe it,'' she admits.

``They said `I was alive at that time and I lived in that district -those things didn't happen tome'.

``But they didn't have my parents.

``These days highly- learned people have researched the areas I wrote about and that research confirms the things I had written.''

Despite the negative elements of the book,Helen's ownLiverpool family are happy to have been immortalised in literature.

Helen said at the time of Twopence to Cross the Mersey's release:``My mother actually encouraged me to write the book. I told her it won't be very nice, but she said `goahead and be as kind as you can'.

``All my relatives have read it except my middle sister who died before it was published,'' says Helennow.

``They are all okay about it. I changed everyone's names (Helen's own real name is June),and said to them `all you have to do is keep quiet and it will be all right'.

``But they boast about it all over the place. Sadly there are only three of us left now. I have one brother and a sister; the last year has been tough -we lost two brothers.''

Her memoirs may have closed in her fourth book in the series -Lime Street at Two,in which Helen was still but a young woman -but she will not be chronicling any of her more recent experiences.

``Not if I'm wise,'' sheaffirms.``I'd probably be sued for libel.''

Twopence to Cross the Mersey runs from tomorrow until April 24. Call 0874 606 3536 for more details.

From poverty to world fame

HELEN Forrester was born in Hoylake in 1919, the eldest of seven children.

Her father was a public-school educated businessman, but when his business went bust following the Wall Street Crash the family was forced to move in 1930 to a cramped attic in a Toxteth tenement.

Helen was pulled out of school at 11 to look after her brothers and sisters, but waged war with her parents to attend night school when she was 14.

``The worst thing for me was missing out on school,'' she recalls.``I have tried to overcompensate by reading and reading, but there are still things missing.''

At 16 and armed with 120wpm shorthand Helen landed a job in an office. She met her husband to be,Avadh Bhatia, when he was a physics student at Liverpool University and they were married in India in 1950.

Two years later the couple moved to Canada when Avadh was offered a post by the Canadian government.

Her first novel An Alien There is None (Thursday's Child) was published in 1960 followed by The Latchkey Kid in 1970, which is now taught in Canadian schools.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey was first published in 1974 and became an instant bestseller.

The follow-ups LiverpoolMiss (alsoknown as Minerva's Stepchild) and By the Waters of Liverpool followed in 1979 and 1981.

Her last autobiographical work Lime Street at Two was published in 1986 and since then she has written the novels: Madame Barbara,Mourning Doves,Liverpool Basque,The Lemon Tree,Yes Mama, threeWomen of Liverpool,The Moneylenders of Shapur,Liverpool Daisy and last year's A Cuppa Tea and an Aspirin.

In 1988 Helen was awarded an honorary degree by Liverpool University.

Helen's husband Avadh died in 1984 and Helen now lives in a con do in Edmonton, Canada, where she is visited regularly by her son Robert and two grandchildren.

CAPTION(S):

BACK HOME: Helen meets fans in Liverpool in 1990. Right,Twopence to Cross the Mersey stars Liz Robertson, left,and Jamie Clarke. Far right,Helen at the time Twopence to Cross the Mersey was published.; HELEN FORRESTER: ``My grandchildren think it is weird that there is a stage show about me.''
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 12, 2004
Words:1611
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