Monday, 12 May 2014

Features: Inspiration close to home

Catherine Howe has had an extraordinary career. The Halifax-born singer and author has dipped her toes into the world of acting, appearing in Z-Cars and Doctor Who as a teenager; she won an Ivor Novello Award in 1975 for her song Harry; and now she is receiving acclaim as a historian.

Her latest book Halifax 1842 examines what many historians consider to be the first general strike of workers in 1842 which culminated in violent riots in Halifax.

“I’m the first generation in Halifax - my family are southern, but I was born here,” says Catherine.

“Just walking along the back streets of Halifax, and just looking at all the buildings, looking up at all the incredible architecture - even the little rows of back-to-backs - it just oozes with history and atmosphere.”

Catherine was brought up in a house just on the edge of Skircoat Moor and would spend hours playing among the rocks with her friends.

“When I started researching this book, I found out that all the strikers, all the Chartists, all the demonstrators and all the rioters assembled on Skircoat Moor,” says Catherine.

“Hundreds of thousands of men and women gathered where I used to play as a child.”
Catherine started to write songs from the age of five, and it was evident early on that she was a gifted songwriter.

When she turned 12 Catherine’s parents looked for a way to hone her talent and sent her to drama school in London.

By 15 she was acting professionally - first in theatre and then on television - appearing on shows including Doctor Who, Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green.

“I did four episodes of Doctor Who when I was 16 - I was a bit bewildered by it at the time,” says Catherine.

“I was in what was probably one of the worst Doctor Who episodes ever made - there was a lot of strange filming involved of people swimming in some tank or other.

“I remember [the second Doctor] Pat Troughton standing there almost ready to blow his stack - it was just silly really,” she says.

“Acting gave me the chance to work with all sorts of fascinating people like Jack Warner, Diana Coupland, Catherine Lacy - all names that meant an awful lot 50 years ago.”

By 17 Catherine says the call of music was too strong and left acting to focus on writing songs and getting a publishing deal.

“I made a conscious effort to leave acting, which was probably quite a foolish thing to do as it was going quite well,” she says.

“You do these stupid things when you’re young,” says Catherine. “But thankfully I was as lucky with the publishing as I had been with the acting because I picked up a good deal with a good publisher who were instrumental in getting me a recording deal.”

Although in recent years Catherine’s songs have given the label folk music - she was never a fan of it growing up, and instead found inspiration in artists like Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frankie Valli, the Beach Boys and The Beatles.

“I’m not sure my music tastes have moved on that much since then,” says Catherine.

“I still listen to James Taylor and Tom Waits - James Taylor for me is a complete and utter hero.

“I like my music live - and not often - I read all the time, but I can’t listen to music all the time.

“I’ve got a local pub and they don’t play music - for me it’s heaven.”

Catherine signed to the Reflection label, a subsidiary of CBS Records and recorded her debut album What A Beautiful Place at Trident Studios, London, in February 1971.

However, the album remained largely unheard until 2007 due to a legal dispute between record executives which blocked the album’s release.

Unperturbed by the setback, Catherine recorded her follow-up album Harry.

The album was released in 1975, and received instant critical acclaim - Catherine was presented with a prestigious Ivor Novello Award for the album’s title track Harry. .

“When I won the Ivor Novello in the mid-70s, only one other woman had won the award,” says Catherine.

“Receiving the award was fantastic - it definitely helps, but what really matters is writing a good song that people like, and Harry just happened to be a song that people seemed to love.”

Catherine recorded two more albums during the 1970s -.Silent Mother Nature from 1976 and
Dragonfly Days released in 1979.
She released two further albums Princelet Street in 2005 and English Tale with Vo Fletcher in 2010 and has just finished recording a new album with Ric Sanders of Fairport Convention, Michael Gregory from Home Service and guitarist Vo Fletcher

“We went back to the old way of recording and did everything live,” says Catherine.

“We recorded it in about four or five days, which is the way to do it.”
Parallel to her music career, Catherine has established herself as a keen historian.

“When I had my daughter in 1990s, I did an Open University degree course in History and Religious Studies,” says Catherine.

“I spent six years doing that and, wow, did I love doing that - it was wonderful, it changed my life.

“Going to drama school when I was 12 meant that my academic education came to an end then.

“I think if I hadn’t gone to drama school I would have probably started my writing career a lot earlier.”

Her first book, 2012’s George Jacob Holyoake's Journey of 1842, was positively received and was praised for its careful research and engaging style.

“I’ve always known I was a good song-writer, but I was so flattered when I saw the positive reviews for my first book,” says Catherine.

“I get more of a kick seeing my name on the front cover of a book than on the front of an album.”

Her latest book Halifax 1842 was originally inspired by a song by the folk group The Unthanks called The Testimony of Patience Kershaw.

“Patience was a Halifax girl who lived up at Boothtown who gave testimony to the mines and collieries commission in 1841,” says Catherine.

“I was very aware that I didn’t want to write a dry history, and I start the book talking about Patience.

“I spent hours and hours in Halifax reference library.“I wanted to find about a lot of things - I wanted to find about mining, the canals, the railways, and local families.

“Once I had the groundwork done, I started looking at the actual event of 1842, which meant I had to do a lot of research in London to look at things like Home Office records,” she says.

“Halifax was significant, because although there were disturbances in other towns, but in Halifax it was particularly violent.

“I’ve found it very useful to hone in on a year - I lead up to it and lead away from it, but I’ve found it a really good way to do it.

“Halifax is just oozing with history and I want everybody to know about it.”

Halifax 1842 is out now, published by Breviary Stuff Publication.




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