FEATURE – Crafty Folk. ‘It’s never too late to pick up a pen’

Paul Richardson in the study at his home in Littlethorpe near Ripon.
Paul Richardson in the study at his home in Littlethorpe near Ripon.

Laura talks to two authors from the Ripon area – Paul Richardson and Maggie Cobbett – about their life, their work and where they find their inspiration for their creative writing, including poems, short stories and novels.

As soon as you meet Paul Richardson, you know he is a writer.

His speech is punctuated with animated anecdotes, his hands constantly flit from one expressive gesture to another, and his eyes flicker with an impatient sparkle as if always searching for a metaphor, rhyming couplet or inspiration for a new protagonist.

In fact, as we sit sharing a pot of tea in Tiffin’s Café at Ripon Community House and his eyes dart around the room, I wonder who or what will be the source of the Littlethorpe resident’s latest inspiration.

“I go through stages of being very thoughtful for a few weeks and there is almost like a build up, a simmering beneath the surface,” Paul tells me in his recognisably soft Geordie accent.

“Then I just write a poem down and my mind feels exhausted afterwards. And for people who know me, they can see my personality and life running right through my poems.

“Poetry is so personal and emotional that if you don’t put any of yourself into it, you’re bound to fail.”

After being brought up in a vicarage in rural northeast England, working as a gravedigger, a financial controller for the lords tenants’ association in London and dedicating 12 years to representing Masham as a North Yorkshire County Councillor, you’d be forgiven for failing to see little of the man himself in his work at first glance.

The 64-year-old’s debut novel, Footsteps of the Brave, is an epic adventure story set mainly at the beginnings of the American Indian Wars.

But when you dig a little deeper, Paul’s life story becomes a palpably crucial aspect of his writing – especially his earlier poetry.

“My poem Who Will Bury Me is powerful for me, as I wrote it when my father Jack died,” he explains. “He definitely inspired me. I have got his imagination – he had a very vivid imagination.”

In addition to taking inspiration from his clergyman father, Paul spent years running a business in Boston, North America, before moving to Maine where he enjoyed ranching with his daughter, Lorna.

“I used to go all over America, and I developed a fascination with its history,” he says.

“For me, I don’t think you can write a book without life experience.”

And life experience is not only something Paul has in abundance – it is something he relies on as a writer who has never been enthusiastic about reading.

“I was always bottom of the class at school,” he says.

“I would love to just sit and write all day. It would be my dream. But I have never been a big reader and I hate reading poetry because I am a Geordie, a natural gimmick – it may colour the way I think,” he chuckles.

Paul’s dream of spending leisurely days dreaming up new exotic locations and characters in his study may just become a reality soon, as he retires from his role as Masham councillor next month.

And considering Paul has written two poetry anthologies – A Lone Voyager and A New Beginning – and his debut novel in less than 15 years since only taking up writing in his late-40s, he has a message for anyone who thinks they are not bookish enough to experience the joys of writing.

“It’s never too late to pick up a pen,” he smiles.

But for Ripon writer Maggie Cobbett, reading literature has always been a hobby.

The multi-lingual former school teacher lists Joanne Harris among her favourite authors for her distinctive achronological style, dashing between flashbacks and present tense, which Maggie says she finds “very appealing”.

Like Harris, Maggie is also captivated by her own experiences of France after spending time teaching English in French schools and going on a particularly inspiring A-level trip to the country when she was a teenager. A trip round Moscow in a double-decker bus when she was studying French and German at the University of Manchester is also credited as a place rich with mind-broadening possibility.

“I have a very fertile imagination and scenes often just come out of the ether,” she tells me as she sips coffee by the upstairs window of the café we’ve arranged to meet in.

“People endlessly inspire me. I often like to just sit in cafés and shops watching people going about their day to day business.”

And as the chairman of Ripon Writers Group, Maggie also finds it useful to get feedback from fellow local writers and hear other people’s experiences.

Maggie’s bank of memories has led to her winning a multitude of writing competitions, including winning a free place at the Writers’ Summer School in Swanwick – not once, but twice.

“I have been very lucky to have won twice,” she tells me with characteristic modesty. “I find it very helpful to meet other writers. It’s a place to kick around ideas and there is a lot of cross-fertilisation of thoughts.”

Maggie’s e-books currently include Anyone for Murder? – a collection of short crime stories – and Had We But World Enough, which chronciles a handful of hopeful souls who embark on new lives in a collection of seven short stories.

And as an extra for Emmerdale, it seems Maggie’s eye for lucid insights into people’s lives won’t be fading anytime soon.

“We travel to the Harewood estate village on location in Leeds in a minibus and there is such a great sense of spirit.There can be lots of time between scenes and I get the opportunity to just sit in the corner and scribble away. “It’s very amusing to see my colleagues trying to work out if any of my characters are based on them,” she chuckles.

l To see more of Paul and Maggie’s work, visit www.talulahpublishing.co.uk and www. maggiecobbett.co.uk