1920s Soup Kitchen

John Cowell – Burnley’s Very Own Writer in Residence

by Andrew Liddle


John Cowell is a remarkable man, a born writer and raconteur who has done many things in his time.  It’s now a quarter of a century since he captured the public’s imagination with his acclaimed first work, The Broken Biscuit.

Author John Cowell

“I don’t profess to be a writer,” he had declared modestly in the introduction before going on to craft the most compelling of books, a vivid portrait of the life of Winfred, his mother, in Burnley in the first half of the last century.  He knows he inherited his literary gift from her, even though she never wrote much herself.  “She was a natural storyteller,” he says, “and all I did was scribble down things I recalled her telling me as a child.”

Listening to John, it’s immediately clear he writes as he speaks – and speaks as he writes, full of warmth, humour, insight and homespun philosophy.

Pick it up, and you will find it a powerful and captivating work, with the natural narrative interest and simple conversational style which make it hard to put down.  Her struggle to raise six children in the teeth of grinding poverty is heart-warming, as is her lifelong efforts to help others – but there are shocking elements, too, like the beatings she took from her violent husband, Jack, a rag and bone man.

Listening to John, it’s immediately clear he writes as he speaks – and speaks as he writes, full of warmth, humour, insight and homespun philosophy. Words flow from him in nicely turned phrases, full of rich imagery but nothing flowery or fancy. Unsurprisingly, his memories have been much in demand on local radio, and he is a popular speaker at libraries and local literary groups. He is also happy to spontaneously recite from his two published works of poetry, particularly the wryly humorous monologues.

He wears his fame lightly as an author and celebrity, though, and you are most likely to see him in town in a yellow high-vis jacket, collecting unwanted off-cuts from local timber merchants.  He takes them home in his trailer to chop up for fuel at his local community centre. Not for nothing is he affectionately known as the Timber King! “Every little helps,” he says, with a twinkle, “gas prices being what they are.”

A great nature lover, he will fashion the decent bits of wood into bird boxes and tables, using skills he retains from his days as a joiner. That was when, after eight years down the pits, he suddenly found himself redundant when the mines closed. Leaving the closely bonded mining community to experience the “back-biting of factory life” shocked and disappointed him. After running his own building business, he retrained as a state-registered nurse. He worked in A & E at Burnley General Hospital until retiring to tend to his wife, Ann, during her terminal illness.

Trafalgar Mill

From his house in an elevated spot on the outskirts of Burnley, he looks over the town and often remembers life as it was when a small, dark, damp terraced house in Albion Street in the Trafalgar area was his family home. Times were hard, but adversity brought out the best in John, his twin sister, Mary, the rest of the family and their contemporaries.

Times were hard, but adversity brought out the best in John…

He has brought colour and animation to this monochrome world of smoking mill chimneys, cobbled streets, clogs and shawls, coal mines and weaving sheds in several autobiographical works, including his best-selling Cracks in the Ceiling, a coming-of-age story chronicling life in the forties and fifties.

One of his earliest and most vivid memories is of the celebrations at the War’s end. Though not quite six at the time, he knew he was living through “the most wonderful of nights”, something uniquely unrepeatable. Anyone wanting to understand how Burnley turned out en masse to celebrate could have no better, more authentic first-hand account of the unbridled joy of “the crowd swaying in harmony as they merrily danced the night away … women unashamedly in their nighties … men playing mouth organs and clashing dustbin lids together ….”

…the crowd swaying in harmony as they merrily danced the night away … women unashamedly in their nighties … men playing mouth organs and clashing dustbin lids together ….

The book is also historically accurate.  “Oh yes, you’ve got to be bob on,” he says, choosing a pithy Lancashire expression to convey that much research went into getting dates and events correct.

He remembers, years later, sitting in the plush surroundings of the Savoy Hotel in discussions with his new London publisher, John Blake, on the eve of the book’s publication.  “There was some talk about it being filmed for television – a mini-series, but in the end, they went for something cheaper to produce without all the period details.”

In Elephant Grass, he shares his two-year National Service experience in the faraway Cameroons in West Africa, which turned out against all expectations to be one of the most uplifting and rewarding experiences of his life, a tale of camaraderie and friendship and the heights the human spirit can rise to in the face of adversity. What he saw of the travails of native life seemed to put his own in perspective.

Although he returned to his early years in 2020 in Clogs and Shawls, it would be a mistake to imagine all his works mine this rich vein of working-class experience.  His later books are sometimes surprisingly diverse in theme. Ever resourceful and keen to extend his knowledge, he studied Spanish at night school to better understand Iberian culture and further enrich his many pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. My Camino Amigo (2015) is a moving account of one of the most gruelling walks in the world.  Though physically demanding, it is a spiritual journey to inner peace for John.

Burnley’s tall chimneys

His most recent book, The Ups and Downs of a Poker Player, co-written with an expert in the field, stems from an interest in the card game he developed quite late in life while living in Australia. “I was so intrigued I played it every night,” he says brightly. He was fascinated by its essential simplicity in contrast to the psychological complexity of playing it. The book gives an insight into the lives of ten men from different walks of life who come together as equals to do combat in a game of Texas Hold’em Poker.

It was down under, incidentally, that he met and married his second wife, Suriname-born Elsina. They would have settled there if, at the age of 77, he had been granted a visa. “I thought I might have been an asset to them,” he quips, “but they wanted to charge me 15 grand just to apply – without any certainty of acceptance.”

So, Tasmania’s loss is Burnley’s gain, and he is back again on his native heath, his roots inextricably linked here. He believes his Mother’s genes fostered the strength to work hard and always give his best but also – in rare moments of freedom – to strive to better oneself and to care for others. “95% of people are very good people,” he firmly believes, “it’s the other 5% who spoil it.”

At 84, he is still doing his bit to keep people warm. Once, he hewed coal. Nowadays, he chops wood because he knows what it’s like to be out in the cold.

John the Timber King

His books, of course, will warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.

NorthernLife Sep/Oct 23