Friday 17 August 2012

Novel Marathon 7: 1960s Factory Life as Inspiration

Unusual Friendships in the 1960s

Sandie Shaw  and the Millionth Marvell Cooker - The facts behind the fiction?

The Story of a Story -

This novel is about three women who meet on a cooker factory production line in the summer of 1965 when singing sensation Sandie Shaw comes to present the millionth cooker to one lucky customer.

But what, you may say, are the facts behind the fiction?  Factories - the manufacturing base of our economy before it was stripped away by politicians - get a poor showing in fiction and drama, appearing as unpleasant places where only unthinking people work.

I knew - and know different.

I was truly lucky in that as I wrote this novel I could draw on many facts from my personal experience.  

 Spennymoor, where I grew up, was dominated by Smart & Brown’s, a very successful domestic appliance factory which later evolved into Thorn’s, then Electrolux. All around the county mines and steelworks were closing down, so this so-called light engineering factory was not only a lifesaver, it preserved a community that would have just about died out.

The factory I knew was a driving, buzzing, exciting place. In the Sixties more than two thousand people worked there, so it was no small enterprise. At one point my own mother, brother and sister worked there.  I worked there myself in my college vacations. I later met a man who worked there, and, (to quote Charlotte Bronte) reader, I married him!

So all my life I have been witness  the comedies, the tragedies, the mirth and the malice of this extraordinary place, this welter of stories,  this common memory of people my home region. What’s more, I have enjoyed a very privileged inside view.  There is a literary snobbery about factories and the people who work in them, So often in fiction and in documentaries factories are alluded to as dingy, hopeless places, where downtrodden, exploited workers do boring jobs. Not so here! I knew from experience that this factory was no stereotypical satanic mill, or boring workplace: it was as fascinatingly complex and as buzzing with stories as any lawyer’s office, government department, or college campus.

Of course, to outsiders it could be an alien world. Here is the first view Cassandra, my central character, has of the Marvell factory:

'... At the factory gates the streams of workers, flowing from the dozens of of buses, merged into a river of people, pouring down the walk-way towards the flat grey hangar-like buildings that encompassed the great Marvell enterprise. I had to stop to take it in. Of course I’d heard about this place from my mother. And I’d seen it many times from the bus on the main road. But up close it was another thing: bigger and dustier, kind of seething with some life of its own. 
Straight ahead this long, high loading bay fronted the big cooker building: a big wagon was already parked there, its rear doors wide open. Two boys in warehouse coats over their drainpipe trousers were sitting with their legs dangling over the edge of the bay, having a last cigarette before they started and whistling appreciatively at the best looking girls as they passed.
‘Come on, Cassie!’  My mother nudged my arm and led me through a door at the side. While we stood in the queue waiting for her to clock I blinked round at in the inside of the building  and caught my breath.  Here the building was twice as big as it seemed outside. The long production lines stretched into the distance, overhead wires looping down like so many spiders-webs. No machine sounds. Just the echo of hundreds of people trickled towards their station, muttering, laughing, dumping out their cigarettes...'

I always knew I wanted to write an authentic tale about factory life. I tried for years to think of a way of doing this. But what I need was a single incident on which to hang my story. Then one day an insider recounted a legend to me, that amongst the other grandees who visited this important local factory to celebrate its success in the Sixties, Sandie Shaw had been there once, to make a presentation. I was truly excited at this, as this elegant iconic figure somehow expressed for me the optimism and surging creativity of the Sixties.

At first I thought it might not have really happened. But an article I wrote for The Northern Echo brought an email from the man whose very elderly auntite had been presented with a cooker by Sandie Shaw, So I was reassure. But my own fun was magining the impact of such a visit on just such a factory, which in this novel I have fictionalised as Marvells. In doing this I join the company of other writers with recent and projected plays with fictional references to the living Tony Blair, Messrs Brown, Blunkett & Prescott, and now even Margaret Thatcher. There are novels with fictional allusions to the Royal family – that one by Sue Townshend for instance,  about the queen living in a council house and then there is Alan Bennet’s  surreal ‘The Uncommon Reader’ about the Queen joining the library. And of course there are many fictional allusions to Elvis, but then he is no longer with us.

So, in my novel, Sandie is there in spirit and then briefly glimpsed from afar. The only time she is front stage is when she meets her worshipping fan Karen presents her with flowers:

'Sandie Shaw’s wearing these patent pumps with tiny heels and   is certainly tall, taller than Mr Cartwright the sales manager, and as tall as Mr Priest, who is hovering at her elbow with a  grin on his face as wide as Tynemouth   She looks young, younger than Karen even. Like Karen she’s wearing an A line dress, but hers is in swirling greens and blacks. Her hair is down, her fringe too is swept to one side and pinned with a slide.  She has these enormous eyes in a pale face that is pretty and strong at the same time. Strange though, there is this aura around her, like she is in the spotlight, although there isn’t one here on the factory floor.  The women applaud as she passes. Some of them shout and say, ‘Hey Sandie!’ ‘Take off your shoes, Sandie!’ And ‘Give us a song, Sandie.’ It’s as though they all know her personally.
It’s really weird.
The entourage slows down when it reaches us and Karen steps up to hand Sandie Shaw her bouquet. Sandie passes the bouquet to the smartly dressed woman beside her, shakes Karen by the hand and asks her name. Then she looks her up and down and says with a warm, broad smile, ‘For a minute I thought you were me!’

Although Sandie is very important to the novel in terms of being a symbol of the times and is significant to the characters in terms of their own identities, her only role here is as a brilliant  icon. It is what she represents, not who she is that is important to the factual basis of the novel.

This imagined event, with Sandie as a fairy tale figure just glimpsed from the sidelines, is at the core of the story.   My novel would be built around  the week at Marvell’s of such a great event. Sandie Shaw – that ultimately mysterious Sixties icon – would be a catalyst in the lives of my characters; the young Cassandra and Karen, and the older, more worldly wise Patsy.   

The first version of Sandie and these imagined events was as a play. I had this image of a production line rolling down centre stage, of back- projections of Sandie and Elvis in song, alternating with heaving halls of Rock’nRollers!  (One potential director mentioned the cost…) The Play nearly happened, but when I realised how much collaboration and compromise it would involve I backed off, deciding I really was the cat that walked by herself.  Only a novel would do.

So the novel finally emerged from the play like an explosion from a catherine wheel. The great thing is that as I wrote Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker, I was able to play, in turn, the writer, producer, director, and all the characters.  It’s pure fiction, of course, but each element of the novel is based on lovingly known facts of that place in those times and is a tribute to the fine people who worked in a real factory and live a real Northern town.

And, as I say, it is a tribute to Sandie Shaw and all of us who were young in those innocent days.                                          

  -----( The ideas behind this post come from and article I wrote for the Northern Echo when this novel first came out....)

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