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Friday, September 8, 2017


When I hear people complain how boring their lives are, I realise just how lucky I have been. My life, trials and tribulations all, has been at worst interesting – at best, fascinating – never dull.

Recently, I went on a nostalgic trip while downsizing the junk that was taking up far too much space in my office. With a few treasures, there emerged memories galore; some writers who had been personal friends or acquaintances; some non-writing people who had had a great impact in my life. The experiences I had with these people made me what I am. Without them I could have grown up to be the shy little mouse that I was, with her nose always in a book or a pencil in her hand. Some of them made such an impression on me that they later turned up in my novels. My grandparents – Granddad in particular; my three maiden aunts, sisters in their nineties – perfect material for secondary characters in my historic books – one of them was mortified to be fined at the age of 85 for driving too slowly. Then there was the nightmare marriage to my first husband who…well, you’ll find out all about him in my memoirs, if and when I write them.

Now, here are a few anecdotes about some of the other people who touched my life and who I feel honoured to have known:

ARTHUR APPLETON, sports journalist who wrote The Story of Sunderland - Centenary 1879-1979 but the book he was better known for was the story of the murderess, Mary Ann Cotton. I got to know Arthur when he was President of the Newcastle Writers’ Circle [N.E. England]. Over the years I attended his tutorials at Beamish Hall in Durham where he used to organise writers’ weekends. White-haired, softly spoken – he was the ultimate ‘gentleman’ and everybody who knew him, loved him. His experiences while researching for the Mary Ann Cotton book were not always pleasant as her descendants were reluctant to cooperate. The research took three years to complete, but he kept at it and succeeded in the end. Being a journalist and a writer wasn’t enough in this case. Arthur had to be a detective too, but writing this amazing story left its mark.

Another lovely old gentleman whom I met through the Newcastle Writers’ Circle. Historian and writer of books on pele towers and castles and a stand-alone book: “I Travelled Through Spain.” When I met him he was already 89
and had just published his first crime novel, “Said The Spider to the Fly”, which I enjoyed reading and was surprised to find some sexual content in the prose. Bob was hoping to have his second novel published, but unfortunately died before this could be achieved. He had a mind as sharp and clear as a thirty-year-old, but I remember him shaking his head and saying: “You know, June, old age isn’t so great. It’s the legs that go first.” How right he was, and this is especially true with writers.  I speak from experience.

GORDON PARKER is a British novelist and playwright. He has been a literary critic for Tyne Tees Television and BBC Radio Newcastle.
I met Gordon at a writers’ weekend at Beamish Hall, though I doubt he will remember going for a walk with me through knee-deep snow, talking about the difficulties of being a writer. Gordon was already published then. I was still a ‘wannabe’. He wrote somewhat controversial books about local politicians. His books, apparently, sold well in Russia at the time, but he could only spend his royalties there in Russia. It’s good to see that he is still writing and being published after all these years.

BENITA BROWN, best-selling novelist whose sagas were, and still are, loved by many. I met Benita through my husband, Brian, who had known her and her husband for some years. Their children and Brian’s son attended the same school. Norman Brown was a photographer and had photographed my husband [manager of Sir Peter Scott’s wildfowl park in Washington, North-East England] on many occasions. They became personal friends and Benita, encouraged me in my writing. She was the person who kept on insisting that I should join the Romantic Novelists Association, but I stubbornly refused as I never considered myself to be a writer of ‘love stories’. However, I finally gave in, joined the association and, with all the help and support of the many members, ended up writing my first romance and getting it published – though I sneaked in a bit of suspense. Benita was a great loss to the Association and to all her friends when she died a few years ago, but I see that her books still go on. Thank you, Benita, for giving me that very necessary push that led me to my own success.

T. Dan Smith aka ‘Mister Newcastle’ was a notorious councillor with a questionable past, but an admirable passion for his fellow Geordies and his town, Newcastle upon Tyne [N.E. England]. He had great charisma and was an undeniable enigma of a man, adored by some, hated by many. How I became his personal secretary at the age of 23 is a long and intricate story. He was a workaholic, totally dynamic, and I was expected to be ‘on-call’ 24/24 as part of a team headed by a man who later became Lord Mayor of Newcastle. He was famous, rich and powerful and Newcastle was a better place for him. He dealt with a variety of businesses, and fought for the ordinary people. He would  stop to shake hands with a lowly tramp in the street as well as have meetings with the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. He was a great orator and politician, but to me he was just a man who could sit and talk to me for hours about painting and poetry. I had already moved on when Dan was charged with bribery and corruption and, eight years later I found myself giving evidence for the prosecution at his trial. This was a pretty scary moment standing in the witness box looking at a grim-faced judge, a tiny man smothered in a long white wig and scarlet robe, who stared at me accusingly over his bifocals and ordered me to speak up because my terrified voice was so weak it was no more than a whisper.Microphones in court didn’t exist then. “You have nothing to fear,” he told me, then added: “Or do you?” Dan Smith pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 6 years in an open prison. The pleasant experience was how well I was treated by detectives of Scotland Yard. And when I was reported in the local newspaper as being the winner of the annual Catherine Cookson Award, Dan sent me a letter of congratulations.

The above biography was written by Chris Foote Wood, who came all the way to the Hautes Pyrenees in France in 2010 to interview me about my time, short though it was, as Dan’s secretary. I had plenty of anecdotes to relate, but after so many years some of my memories were a bit blurred around the edges. Still keeping to writing, I discovered that Chris Foote Wood was the brother of the lovely comedienne, writer and actor, Victoria Wood. I had already thought that if ever my book, When Tomorrow Comes, became a film, she would be perfect as my favourite heroine, Hildie Thompson. I sent her agent a copy of the book and was graciously thanked and she said she would enjoy reading it. But, of course, that can never be as she has recently died.

Jonathan David Edwards, CBE is a British former triple jumper. He is an Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European champion, and has held the world record in the event since 1995. No-one, yet, has beaten this record.
Before he became known as an athlete, Jonathan, at the age of 19 came to work in the Human Genetics Department where I was P.A. to the world famous human geneticist Professor Sir John Burn. He was a laboratory technician, shy and retiring – and I was given the job of being something of a ‘mother hen’ to him during his first weeks. I’m so proud to have played just a very small role in this lovely young man’s life.

Sir Peter Scott was the son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. As a young man he was an expert skater, sailor and hunter, until he lost his taste for killing wildlife and became one of the most famous naturalists in the world, setting up the charity, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust – and he was my husband, Brian’s, boss. Brian was the manager of the Washington [UK] branch of the trust where there was a hundred acres of wetlands, woods and lakes. We lived on site in an old farmhouse with 1200 endangered wildfowl for company.

His wealthy background allowed him to follow his interests in art, wildlife and many sports, including wildfowling, sailing and ice skating. He represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sailing in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the O-Jolle dinghy class.

Steam Gun Boat, MGB S309, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Peter Scott, underway at sea

During the Second World War, Peter served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. As a Sub-Lieutenant, during the failed evacuation of the 51st Highland Division he was the British Naval officer sent ashore at Saint-Valery-en-Caux in the early hours of 11 June 1940 to evacuate some of the wounded. This was the last evacuation of British troops from the port area of St Valery that was not disrupted by enemy fire. Then he served in destroyers in the North Atlantic but later moved to commanding the First (and only) Squadron of Steam Gun Boats against German E-boats in the English Channel.[7] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery.

Peter and his wife Philippa [who took the photograph for this book cover] often came up to Washington for meetings. I remember the first time I met them. I had rushed home from work [I was then a medical secretary for Newcastle University] and was changing my clothes – standing in my underwear – when I heard an almighty crash from the kitchen. A wall cabinet full of my precious collectable crockery had fallen to the floor, knocking over the kettle, which in turn knocked over a tea caddy and there was an unholy mess. We were still mopping the floor when the Scott’s arrived, but they were very sweet about it and Peter even found time to congratulate me on the painting of a bird I had done. Peter was quite a character, loved wearing bright red socks and often played practical jokes on people.

Which brings me nicely to the end of my name-dropping blog. I met HRH Prince Charles, President of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, on two occasions. One meeting on the coldest January day in the north-east of England when he came to open a new wing of the Washington branch. We were all frozen to the bone, waiting 45 minutes while the official photographers assembled us into the correct positions. I was first to be introduced [husband Brian is standing next to me in this photo] after Charles had signed the register. He muttered an aside in my direction, saying that he was having bother joining up his letters that day and announcing to me that he had caught baby William’s cold. I gripped his hand a little tighter than I perhaps should have, but I was perched on the top of a flight of stairs and my heels were hanging over the edge. All I could think of was “Please don’t let me fall and pull HRH on top of me!”

Our other meeting was at the AGM of the Trust in Slimbridge. We were last in the queue, waiting to be introduced, but were then told that there wasn’t time as lunch was about to be served. We were disappointed, but by some quirky act of fate we found ourselves alone with Prince Charles as the two men he had been in discussion with both left him standing there – unheard of! We put on a brave face, not knowing what to do and walked towards the prince, who spun around on his heel, smiled broadly and came to us, hand outstretched. Brian introduced himself and [we weren’t married at the time] simply introduced me as “This is June”. Prince Charles grasped my hand – he has a very firm handshake – and said: “Hello, June.” He had a few words with Brian, then turned to me and asked me what should be done about the north-east of England. “There’s a great lack of culture,” I told him. “They need more.” He looked thoughtful, smiled and nodded. I’d like to think that my remark had a little bit to do with the wonderful cultural place that the north-east of England has now become.

The three of us walked slowly towards the dining room, I by the prince’s side and Brian bringing up the rear. I had no idea of protocol and Charles knew that without being told. He placed his hand at my back, bent towards me and whispered: “You go first and I’ll follow.’ Any protocol I might have recalled went right out of the window as I simply whispered back to him: “Thank you!” The minute we reached the dining room all eyes were on me and my cheeks were burning as the ladies in their Ascot and Wedding hats crowded around, desperate to know what HRH had said to me. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life – a few personal moments with the future king of England.

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