I was born in Ilkeston, Derbyshire in the year that rationing ended, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile, and Ian Fleming wrote Live and Let Die. I was a grammar-school girl, and wanted to be an actress. RADA accepted me, but I never went. Instead, I did lots of different jobs – in the early 1970s there was plenty of work – from working in a florist’s, at a wholesale flower market, in pubs and, like almost everyone in Ilkeston, at Trowell Services.
After I took an Open University degree, I started teaching at South East Derbyshire College and then, after getting my PhD in 2001, I got a teaching post at the University of Manchester in the Department of Drama, where I specialise in Performance History.
I have always been a reader. My first library book, from the Children’s Library at Ilkeston, was Enid Blyton’s Children of Sunnybrook Farm. I changed my books every Saturday morning, though I’d already read them all by Monday! I was impressed by Swallows and Amazons and disappointed by Mary Poppins. I liked Agatha Christie, reading my dad’s Reader’s Digest copies secretly behind the settee, aged 10. I had a teenage passion for Roman and Biblical novels – Lloyd C Douglas, Frank G Slaughter – then any historical novel – Jean Plaidy, Mary Stewart, Frank Yerby, though I never took to Georgette Heyer. I studied Graham Greene at A level – The Power and the Glory – and went on to read everything he ever wrote. Greene has been a favourite writer all my life. It was a combination of an early series of graphic novels sold by Woolworth’s – Classics Illustrated – and the BBC Classic Serial broadcast on Sunday afternoons. Here was my introduction to the 19th century – to Jane Austen, Dumas, the Brontes, George Eliot, but above all Charles Dickens. I had a large collection of those distinctive glossy-covered Classics Illustrated; some were better drawn than others, but every one was a window into the world of ‘long books’. And the Classic Serial inspired me to go and borrow the book and read it alongside wPride and Prejudice or Oliver Twist on the telly.
I’ve always been a writer. At junior school, I filled exercise books with stories. Everything was a potential story: fishing for minnows, holidays in Skegness, seeing my first (amateur) play at Ilkeston Town Hall, watching Rawhide on television. I was a prize-winner at 13 in a national poetry competition, receiving my prize from John Betjeman and Stevie Smith. I wish now I had realised how remarkable that was – two great British poets on the same platform, and I shook hands with and talke to both of them! I had plays published in my teens – not very good plays at all – and wrote scripts for pantomimes, church youth club dramas and an amateur production of Oliver! Still fascinated by Dickens, but inspired also by my research into the world of Victorian entertainment and writing academic books and articles, I started to write historical novels 10…