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