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Interview: Carmel Thomason writer, biographer

09 January 2015

'I love this job. I'd do it for nothing'

For as long as I can remember, I've always enjoyed reading or hearing stories, and I've always enjoyed writing.

Recently, I was sorting some papers out in my office, and I found some of the writing I did when I was at school. When I was about 13, I got involved in a new community magazine for young people called Off the Wall. It was a fantastic experience. I got to interview local singers and business people. I even managed to get an interview with the late Dudley Moore, which amazes me now, looking back, and I'm grateful for his encouragement at such a young age.

I started my writing career in journalism, and it's a form of writing I still very much enjoy. It's opened up so many experiences to me: people I have met, and places I've been able to visit.

I've been very fortunate to have been able to make a living from writing. I do lots of different sorts: journalism, books, copywriting, academic writing, medical writing, and technical writing. Some types of writing are more fun than others. I remember when I got my first job as a reporter on the Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough, and saying to my parents: "I love this job. I'd do it for nothing." Of course, I do get paid, thankfully, but, if I'm ever having a bad work day, I always remind myself of that.

I first met Mary Butterwick when I interviewed her for the Evening Gazette. She sold her home to set up Butterwick Hospice in Stockton-on-Tees, which was the first hospice care available in the north east. Her story struck an instant chord with me, because my grandmother died following a very short illness, aged 52, in the same month that Mary lost her husband, John, at age 54.

It happened at opposite ends of the country [but] the lack of care shown to many patients in hospital during that bitterly cold February of 1979 was exactly the same. Of course, it would have been a shock to lose someone so close, almost without warning, but it was the careless words, the lack of dignity and respect for life, that created even deeper wounds, that were so hard to heal. If we both had experienced this, I knew that there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of others who felt the same.

Many years later, my grandfather died in St Ann's Hospice in Manchester. The contrast in care, while it didn't make the loss any less, meant that we were able to spend his last days enjoying our time together. We all felt loved and cared for in a time of vulnerability; so I understood something of the great gift that Mary had given to the community. The care which we now very much take for granted wasn't even a possibility in large parts of the country only 35 years ago.

Mary is 90 now, and still lives independently in sheltered housing in Stockton-on-Tees. Since writing her biography, we have become great friends, and she continues to be an inspiration to me. The book was among the monthly top ten books in the Church Times in 2011.

Mary lives by the simple command to love your neighbour as you love yourself. Her faith is a practical one - she does her part and trusts that God will do what she can't.

Often we tell ourselves that, if only we had more money, power, knowledge, or influential friends, or were younger, then we could really make a difference. Mary had none of those things. She didn't have any formal education, and worked part-time in a tea factory. She had no influential friends. But she believed in the power of love, recognised the importance of our smallest actions, and had the strength to speak her mind and take action.

I worked with the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, nearly three years ago on John Sentamu's Faith Stories. I hadn't met an archbishop before, so I was a little nervous; but I had no need to be because he has such a warm and welcoming character. He has a wonderful sense of humour, and the first time I met him I was surprised at the amount of laughter there was when he was around.

The 20 people whose stories I tell in the book were chosen by the Archbishop from within the diocese of York. There's a real mix, but they all have one thing in common: a love of God which translates to a love of all people. Each in their own way has reached out to others in need and, through those first steps, has achieved extraordinary things. The diversity of the Church, and the good work it does, shines through.

I'm currently writing another book for BRF [the Bible Reading Fellowship], which is due for publication in 2016. It's my most personal book to date, and takes inspiration from my own spiritual journey. I'm also going to be working on another book with the Archbishop of York, which I'm looking forward to.

My own top ten books? Great Expectations, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Little Women, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom, The Great Gatsby, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Donald Miller, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

I'm not a big reader of crime writing, mainly because I'm very squeamish, but when I interviewed the crime writer Val McDermid, my writing did take a completely different direction. She has a second home on the Northumberland coast, and that would be my dream writing-retreat. I complimented her, saying that she was living my dream life, and she replied, quite matter of fact: "Well, what are you waiting for? Stop talking about it, and just do it." It was the best advice she could have given me.

I grew up in a Christian family; so I suppose that I'm lucky that I can't tell you about my first experience of God: I've never known a time when I wasn't aware of God in my life. Of course, my faith has changed, as I have, over the years, and I see it now as something that will always be growing and developing.

It's easy to take it for granted. It's also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone has heard the gospel and knows about Jesus's teaching. I recently spoke to a young woman who had only started learning about Jesus in the past year, and she was overwhelmed by his inclusiveness, and how he never judged anyone. It's good to be reminded sometimes just how good the good news of the gospel is.

I grew up in Durham, which was a big mining community. My granddad was a pit deputy, and I grew up during the strike. My parents are retired now and still live in Durham; so I get to visit the area a lot. My dad worked as a head teacher, and my mum as a teacher; so it wasn't surprising that I stayed on at university to research for a Ph.D. My mum grew up in Salford, where I live now.

I have one brother, and he lives in Greater Manchester, too. We both moved here for work, initially, but I think that it is because of the family connection that we both ended up settling here. The north-west is another area that's close to my heart, and I think it's a fantastic place to live. I enjoy exploring exotic locations, but my favourite place in the world is still the Northumberland coast.

I'm a theatre reviewer, and judge for the Manchester Theatre Awards. Theatre's a real passion for me, and I also enjoy being part of the area's arts community. 

My favourite sound is the sea hitting the shore. I've always found something very calming about it, in a meditative way.

I'd like to play the piano better. I've always enjoyed music. When I was a teenager, I played the clarinet and trumpet in bands and orchestras every Friday and Saturday.

My parents have influenced me most in my life. They're both extremely kind, generous, hard-working, and resourceful people.

I've begun to think more about prayer in the way that St Paul writes in Ephesians 6.18, urging us to pray always, for all people and on every occasion as the Spirit leads. I don't think that prayer needs to be complicated, or restricted to a particular time, place, or form of words. For me, it is about being open to God and to where he might be working in my life.

If I'm locked in a church I want it to be with someone I can either pray or sing praise with; so I'm going to choose Dolly Parton, because I think it would be great fun to sing gospel songs together, and the hours would fly by.

Carmel Thomason was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Every Moment Counts: A life of Mary Butterwick (DLT) and Against The Odds: True stories of forgiveness and healing (BRF) are available from Church House Bookshop.

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