Interview: Lena Cooper
IN this age of celebrity obsession, it is as well to remember that every one of us has a life story to tell.
Take Lena Cooper, who at the age of 88 has just seen her fifth book published.
Lena was born and bred in Fence Houses in County Durham, where she still lives.
Her latest book records memories of life in the village and surrounding communities from the 1920s-50s.
It is a timely reminder, when talk currently abounds of the recession, of when life was really, really tough.
“Times were hard and money was scarce, but we survived due to the spirit of the people,” she says.
The book is dedicated to her grandparents Thomas and Dorothy Bulmer, who raised Lena from the age of seven months after her mother died from TB on Christmas Day 1920.
Thomas and Dorothy had already brought up their own family of nine when they had start all over again. As a young child, Lena looked upon her aunt, Gladys, as a substitute mother.
“In my early years Aunt Gladys was always there for me and I felt that she loved me, just as I loved her,” says Lena. But TB was also to claim the life of Gladys at the age of 26.
Despite the tragedies, Lena has pleasant memories of home life in an age where people were more self-reliant than is the case today.
“Thursday was baking day with bread, teacakes, pies, buns, custard tart, jam tarts and occasionally a plate sponge cake.
“This produce had to last the family for quite a while, at least until the next baking day,” says Lena.
Friday night was bath night in a tin bath in front of the coal fire.
“Then always a clean night dress to go to bed in, feeling brand new.”
Christmas was home-made ginger wine and pork from the pigs which grandfather kept on his allotment.
“I remember near to Christmas people ordering their meat from him.”
When Lena reached 13 her grandmother passed away and in 1937 Lena’s “beloved” grandfather died – just before Christmas.
“I felt so lonely with no mother, no Aunt Gladys and now no grandma.”
She lived with her Aunt Lena and her family.
One endearing childhood memory is of having been sent to her bedroom as a punishment one early summertime evening.
“There was a tap on the upstairs window and a clothes prop appeared with half a turnip stuck on the end.
“I opened the window to get the turnip and waved at my friends who had made sure I was not going to starve. I never forgot that incident.”
Lena had passed the exam to attend Houghton Grammar School, but like so many young people of her generation, the need to find a job and contribute to the family economy took priority over what would be a waste of future personal potential.
At the age of 15 Lena was told to apply for a job at the Co-op bakery in Chester-le-Street.
“To keep the peace, I applied,” she says. It was a three-mile walk for a 6am start.
At 18, on the eve of war, Lena began training as a nurse at Preston Hospital in North Shields. Her last job was working in the chairman’s office of the National Coal Board in Milburn House, Newcastle, and later at Team Valley in Gateshead.
In conclusion, Lena has a choice piece of advice: “Remember that life is for living, not moping.”
All royalties from the book will go to cancer charities.
Thanks for the Memories: Recollections of Fence Houses, Lambton, Burnmoor, Chilton Moor, Dubmire and Bankhead, by Lena Cooper (Summerhill Books, £9.99).