I look forward to Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister one day, says bestselling Colchester novelist Maureen Lee
When Maureen Lee first saw the man destined to become her husband, they clicked instantly and got engaged a fortnight later.
While this is the first year since 1994 that Maureen Lee won’t have a new story published, her legions of fans need not fret. A new tale, her 31st, is in the pipeline. The author tells Steven Russell about the march of time and how she’d like to see Jeremy Corbyn installed at Number 10
When Maureen Lee first saw the man destined to become her husband, they clicked instantly and got engaged a fortnight later. What convinced her, so unequivocally, he was The One? “The night Richard and I met, at a dance, he said, ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’, and I was so impressed I married him,” says the Liverpudlian author whose sagas often feature women who triumph over adversity.
The Lees moved to Essex in 1965, with Richard working at the university in a technical post. The family spent two or three years in Wivenhoe and 18 in Thorpe-le-Soken, before moving to Britain’s oldest recorded town.
“We have lived in Colchester, in the same house, for 30 years,” Maureen reports. Gosh. It seems only five minutes ago that she and I last spoke, on an icy spring morning, but it was eight years ago. Time has marched on – and left its imprint on us all.
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“Colchester is a town we like very much. We find most people very friendly, and since my husband began to walk with a stick they are very helpful too. Cars stop for no other reason than to let us cross.”
The place has changed, though.
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“What is very noticeable about the town is the enormous number of properties that are being built in every conceivable empty space. The property boom contrasts sharply with the ever-increasing number of empty shops.”
Maureen had an established daily routine in the past – beginning with clearing the decks of household chores – but that’s altered, too. “The pattern of my days has changed considerably. I used to go down to my office in the garden around midday and not return to the house except to make several cups of coffee throughout the day, have tea around five, then go out until around seven o’clock. Nowadays, I write indoors with my husband present.”
In 2008 she was working in a cobwebby shed – a l0ft by 6ft haven at the bottom of the garden that she called her favourite place in the world. Has that gone, then?
“My old shed is still there – now occupied by even more spiders – my office is empty and I am in the house.”
There was an exercise bike, ridden for 15 minutes a day, I remember… “I have had a new exercise bike for months. It languishes unused in my unused shed,” Maureen admits. It’s more than 20 years since she cracked the big time, with a trilogy set in Liverpool during the war.
“Orion commissioning what is known as The Pearl Street Trilogy, which followed my first novel, Stepping Stones, was indeed my big break. I am now writing my 24th saga, Violet’s Children, having also had two humorous novels published, an historical saga, two QuickReads, and two thrillers, Dusk and An Eye for an Eye, (both only available on Kindle).”
Maureen’s been a Sunday Times top 10 bestselling author and by now must have sold getting on for two million books.
Her nostalgic saga The Kelly Sisters came out in paperback in time for last Christmas. It’s set in 1925, with Patricia, Tara and Aideen excited about leaving Dublin with their dad, bound for a new life in Liverpool. But, the day after arriving in England, he puts them on a vast ocean liner heading for New York… and then he disappears halfway across the Atlantic.
Although Maureen had started to write at the time she got married, more than 53 years ago now, it wasn’t until 1990 that she got down to it full-time – her three sons having left home.
In 1981 she’d had a full-length musical play, When Adam Delved and Eve Span, produced at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester; and the following year a novel was published in America.
In 1990, once her youngest son had left for university, she concentrated on writing, in a room made available by Colchester Labour Party. When those offices were sold, she decamped to an upstairs room at an estate agent’s. When that block changed hands, she brought her writing back home about 13 or 14 years ago.
In 2000, Dancing in the Dark was named Romantic Novel of the Year. The story followed the lives of two women three generations apart, with a lost lover and a secret child along the way.
Irish Catholic girl Maureen was born during the war – to a working-class family in Bootle, Liverpool. Home was an end-of-terrace house near the docks. She remembers being poor but not poverty-stricken. Children played in roads largely free of traffic, there were street parties, dogs mooched about without leads, and everyone seemed to know everyone else.
She went to an all-girls’ convent school, and enjoyed her home city in the 1950s – an era of dance halls and theatres – including the Playhouse, where you could buy a ticket for 9d.
As a teenager she was in a dramatic society and dreamed of becoming an actress when leaving school at 15. But Mum put her foot down. Going on the stage was “as bad as selling your body on the streets”.
Maureen went instead to secretarial college and on to a job at the English Electric company. She also signed up for night school and got two A-levels, including English literature.
She wasn’t ready to settle for a predictable life, however, and at 16 hitchhiked to Europe with a friend after temping in London. They found work with the United Nations as secretaries.
Maureen hasn’t been back to the city of her birth for a few years, and feels it.
“I miss it badly,” she admits. “An old friend, Margaret, died just before Christmas. I had three friends called Margaret and now there is only one left.”
Is Merseyside still magical? “I don’t think the spirit of the people has changed. It’s still as lively and as funny as ever. We’ve never had any wish to return, as our sons are all southerners and we wouldn’t want to live so far away from them.”
There have been physical changes, though, in her old stamping grounds.
“A friend drove us around Bootle, where I used to live, and it’s nearly all been replaced by new property, though the pub we lived opposite was still there, with boards on the windows.
“It was very noisy in its day and I remember women in their black shawls waiting outside, calling for their men to come home and spend their money on their children rather than beer.”
Maureen was in Liverpool on Wednesday, January 16, 1957, when a warehouse cellar that would become immortalised in the history of pop music welcomed its first revellers.
“The Cavern on the opening night was exciting – different to anything me and my friends had ever known. We were used to dance halls with bright lights and an orchestra, and here we were in a cellar with bare brick walls and musicians playing jazz. The Beatles didn’t arrive until after I had married and moved to London.”
Maureen’s fictional stories invariably have strong female characters. Is that a conscious choice?
“It just seemed to happen that my main female characters were strong-willed. During the Second World War numerous women joined the forces, went to work in factories, became bus and tram conductors.”
She once said her mother wouldn’t have liked the books. Why not?
“My mother wouldn’t have approved of the sex. No way!”
Quite a few of her female characters end up killing men who have done them wrong in one way or another. Is it hard deciding to include a murder in a story, and is it difficult to establish the right tone for the reader?
“I hadn’t realised so many of my female characters were murderers, always of men who had misused them. I reckon they do this because the plot calls for it. I don’t think about capturing the tone.”
Even after 30 books, does writing give as much of a buzz as it ever did? “Yes, I still get a thrill when I finish a novel – though I haven’t done so for quite a while. It’s wonderful when you get an idea for how to continue the plot or what you think is a brilliant ending. I’m not very good at endings…
“Plots, on the whole, just appear out of the blue. Sometimes I have ideas for years until the time seems right to turn them into novels.
“I feel exhilarated when I finish a novel, mainly because there is another one I have been aching to start.”
Does Maureen think she’ll ever want to set a stopping date and declare “That’s it… I’m done”, or can we look forward to several more Merseyside-based sagas?
“Not every one of my novels is set in Liverpool! I do stray from time to time. I hope to continue writing until my brain seizes up and I can write no more.”