During the dark days of the depression in the 1930’s, when Catherine Cookson was a young woman struggling to survive in the back street overcrowded houses of the North East of England, street crime (mugging) and burglary were comparatively rare. As I write the current crime figures for the UK show incidents of robbery and violence up 21%. I myself can clearly recall that my grandparents left the front door to their house open for friends to just walk in. They had no fear that some thug would enter their home and rob them. They lived within a community that may have been relatively poor by the standards of today but to them it seemed safe. The people of the fifteen streets of Foulridge, near Colne in Lancashire where I was born enjoyed in the 1940’s and 50’s, the last decades of decency. Since then the spiritual heart of our country has been eaten away, replaced by an avaricious consumer society where ownership of material goods and property is valued and compassion devalued.
In 1990 Catherine Cookson published a collection of poetry, prose and pictures that she said were intended to be understood by ‘the people’. In this book titled ‘Let Me Make Myself Plain’ she sets out a simple view on the meaning of life gained from her hard experiences: ‘All the while I was learning something, a philosophy you could say. I was learning that philosophy isn’t the prerogative of the academic, the intellectual, all those supposedly knowledgeable people who blind you with the science of the mind. Philosophy is, as I saw it then and still do, the essence of the thinking of every ordinary man and woman. It is the sum total of what they have drained out of their living whether through sorrow or joy, satisfaction or frustration. I have come to my own particular philosophy by being educated in a hard school where lessons of poverty, shame, inferiority, fear and ill-health were hard to learn’.
Here are some examples of Catherine Cookson’s poetic philosophy: On Friendship: ‘Give me your hand to help me on my way/Give me your hand to get me through this day/Give me your hand to face up to life/Give me your hand to clasp in the night/When dreams bring fears more real than day/Give me your hand to let me know I am not alone/Don’t wait for an anniversary to tell me that you care/Without your hand now, when that comes I may not be there.’ In that verse of the poem Catherine sets out what she knows a true friend would do, give a hand in a time of need. Friendship is about that, it is about helping and supporting those that we call friend.
On Strife: ‘Lord, beckon me to joy/My mind is weary/My body sick/Who can I employ/To ease my spirit/And lift my heart. And give me strength/To combat this strife/And the energy/To work at life/Lord, beckon me to joy. In those two verses Catherine Cookson recognises that there is a higher power that can, in conjunction with personal effort, help one to succeed in this work of life. She is saying, do not despair we are all at some time in our earthly existence in need of help and it will be there. All we have to do is believe and be the best that we can possibly be.
On Death: ‘The greatest mystery in life is death/The greatest fear of life is death/The greatest sorrow in life is death/The greatest probe in life is for death….Again, why are we born/If not to learn how to die?’ Catherine Cookson knew that the one thing that concerns all people above everything else is the mystery of death. Yet there is no mystery, we will all die. What most fear is dying alone, yet there can be no other way to die, we are all destined to make the ultimate transition between physical life within a corporeal body and the etheric realms where our soul lives on eternally. Here we may shed tears but in time our sorrows will melt into infinite understanding as the glory that is the Truth opens before our everlasting eyes.
We in the UK live today lives free of the threat of physical starvation. We have proper sanitation, a free health service, free schools and support from the welfare state should we require it. In the early years of Cathrine Cookson’s life those conditions that we take as a basic right were restricted to the wealthy. Yet crime and violence have not decreased with the virtual extinction of real need. They have instead exploded into a massive problem that is dividing our society, terrorising our old people and degrading the fabric of daily life.
If those that offend against society, the thugs, street muggers, thieves, con-men, louts and bully boys only realised that they are inflicting damage upon their immortal souls by their actions they would perhaps be reluctant to proceed. The problem is that their values are confused by the immoral media, take a look at Channel 4 on a Thursday night after 10 p.m. Then the maze of consumer goods available in the shops is just inviting avarice. So many people seem locked into a debased value system that places material possessions above the spiritual. In the early days of Catherine Cookson there were no such things as DVD players, surround sound TV and the designer drug of choice would be Newcastle Brown Ale. Of course there was violence then, but not the mindless yob culture that seems almost the norm today. Is it drugs? Is it greed? It certainly is not need, at least not the real need experienced by ‘Our Kate’ and the millions of others like her that struggled through, working at life and not succumbing to the depraved behaviour so prevalent today. The solution is, I believe, spiritual truth. We need people, all people, to understand that life is not about materialism but about developing our eternal souls through meaningful experiences here on earth. We could all learn a great deal from the simple philosophy of Catherine Cookson.
‘Let Me Make Myself Plain’ By Catherine Cookson (Corgi Books) ISBN0552134074