Title: The Princess of Felling
Author: Elaine Cusack
Published: 10th of April 2019 – Limelight Classics
Format: Paperback – 88 pages
Hello Hello! How are you?
For today’s post, I have yet again another nonfiction memoir for a #RandomThingsTours hosted by Anne Cater and I’ll be reviewing the lovely book The Princess of Felling by Elaine Cusack. This is my second nonfiction memoir of the week, and also the second one offered by Anne’s tours, aren’t I a lucky blogger?
When I first got Anne’s email about this book, I was a bit sceptical. I’m only just starting to read nonfiction and especially memoirs and I was worried that I would find it boring or not be able to rate it adequately. I always feel a bit uncomfortable rating nonfiction works because it makes me feel like I’m rating a persons’ life or a historical event for its enjoyability when it surely deserves more than a star rating. This is a book that everyone is going to love and I had absolutely no problem giving it the rating I did.
Thank you to Anne for letting me take part in this tour and for sending me the book! Keep reading to find out what I thought of this lovely memoir and to read my interview with Elaine Cusack, the author of The Princess of Felling.
The Princess of Felling describes Elaine’s childhood and adolescence growing up on Tyneside in the 1970s and 1980s. The book pays homage to her home town of Felling on Tyne and is an extended, loving letter to her late parents.
This illustrated poetic memoir features a Foreword by Michael Chaplin, photographs of Felling taken in summer 2018 by Rossena Petcova and unique maps by poet and artist Steve Lancaster.
The book contains reminiscences by Felling folk plus guest appearances by Nick Heyward, David Almond, Tracey Thorn, Sir Kingsley Amis, The Reverend Richard Coles, Lady Elsie Robson, U.A. Fanthorpe, Gyles Brandreth and more.
The Princess of Felling by Elaine Cusack is a unique nonfiction memoir about her life growing up in and around Felling on the Tyne in the North East of England. Through five chapters titled by the name of the street on which she lived or had memories of at various stages of her life, she goes over what it was like growing up in Felling, going to her grandmother’s house around the corner, going to school, how her love of pop music started and how her poetry and future career blossomed, all wrapped up with memories, jokes, anecdotes, lovely poetry and beautiful images.
This really is such a special book and I’m so glad that I decided to give it a go. I was born in the UK in 1999, but when I was 18 months old, my parents, grandparents (mum’s parents) and I moved to France, and apart from a few trips back to visit family or travels in my teenage years, I don’t have many memories of my home country. This book brought back so many memories and it made me aware of my heritage. I didn’t grow up in the country I was born in, I wasn’t born in the North East like Elaine was, but I feel British in my bones and this book reminded me of what that meant and what feelings and emotions went along with that. I can understand how she explains her life through different places in Felling because the memories I have of my own life are linked to a few family houses in the UK and they serve to remind me of where I come from.
I have to admit that the cover really drew me in, I’m probably only a 1999-baby but I still remember cassettes and used to listen to loads of music tapes in my Dad’s old 1998 Volvo. This cover brought back all those memories. I also loved looking at all the beautiful pictures, my favourite is the one with Elaine in front of Friar’s Goose Pumping Engine House, which she refers to affectionately as “My Castle”. The pictures and even the beautiful hand-drawn maps made this lovely story whimsical. Her poetry was so lovely and it reminded me of some stories that I wrote when I was younger, I just have to get them out and try my hand at them again!
I absolutely loved reading all about the pop bands she listened to, the different music and singers she liked growing up, the books she read and the TV shows she watched. Even though I didn’t get most of the references, it honestly feels like I grew up with her and with all these memories and I’m determined to listen to some of these songs and compile a proper soundtrack, music just isn’t what it used to be, is it (this is coming from a girl growing up with the Pussycat Dolls and Black Eyed Peas, you see what I mean? Nothing like The Police!).
MY THOUGHTS AND RATING
I absolutely adored reading this book from start to finish and it absolutely deserves 5 stars! This was such a special memoir, it wasn’t like those that you can never understand or you get bored reading, I felt like I had known Elaine for years and I could relate to many things she went through, struggles she faced, experiences she lived, feelings she had and the grief of losing loved ones. My favourite part of this book was reading about her and her father’s relationship, it reminded me of my own relationship with my father and it brought tears to my eyes. It would seem both Elaine and I have fond memories of our dads driving us to school.
This was such a beautiful, heartfelt, special, unique book and I can only recommend it to everyone. This is a book that I will remember for a very long time to come. I have never visited Felling or even been near the North East of England, but I feel like I know this place she grew up in. This book made me laugh, smile, made my eyes water, and brought back so many lovely memories of my own childhood and teenage years and I’m so, so glad that I got to read this book. It really is the beautiful story of a Princess, paying tribute to her King and Queen and the town in which her Castle is still standing today.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ELAINE CUSACK
What pushed you to write The Princess of Felling?
In early 2010 I responded to a call out for River Tyne memories from Michael Chaplin, then writer in residence at The Port of Tyne Authority, based in South Shields. I wrote a piece about my relationship with the River Tyne and sent it in. Michael emailed me with questions: “What are you going to call it? The Princess of Felling?” This title amused me, the name stuck and Michael shared the piece on The Port of Tyne’s website.
[Michael Chaplin is a theatre, radio, television and non-fiction writer and former television producer and executive. He grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne where he now lives and works again. He created TV series Monarch of the Glen and currently writes radio plays for Radio 4. His father was the writer Sid Chaplin]
After writing that piece for Michael I started keeping a folder entitled PoF, short for The Princess of Felling. I collated fragments of memoir and poems about my hometown and from time to time wondered what to do with it.
In spring 2017 I shared the concept of PoF with Ruth Sheldon who at the time was Project Co-ordinator at Gateshead’s Shipley Art Gallery. In August of that year we agreed on a plan of action: I’d write about my relationship with Felling and together we’d produce a limited edition pamphlet which would be available for free at a tie-in event at the gallery. I envisioned the finished project as a two thousand word essay and a couple of poems.
Within days of agreeing the action plan my Mam’s health deteriorated and she died on September 2nd 2017. She had been living with dementia for almost four years. Her death spurred me on to complete the book but by spring 2018 the manuscript was four times the size I’d imagined. I couldn’t squeeze it into the limited edition print run I’d agreed with Ruth. Luckily local publisher Limelight Classic Productions Limited stepped in to print my Princess.
How did you go about writing this book? What was the hardest part of the process?
After Mam died I knew I had to shape the fragments of ideas into a book but how? Mam had moved into a care home near to where I live in 2015. Whenever I visited her I ended up helping the home’s Activities Co-ordinator in a voluntary capacity. A year later I was offered the role of part-time Activities Co-ordinator at the sister care home a mile away. I’d never worked in this sector before but enjoyed the job. After Mam died I became full-time working between the two homes. It felt good to be working where Mam used to live but the job left me with limited time to write. On reflection this was a good thing as it concentrated my mind on writing. I would rise most mornings just after 5am and get an hour of writing time in before I had to leave for work. It was a happy time. I felt fulfilled. There was no “hard part” to the writing. I decided to concentrate on family homes and specific streets in Felling and the memories flowed. It sounds like a cliché to say the Princess wrote itself but that’s what happened. I wrote it in almost chronological order with little editing required.
If your book had one message to give to people, what would it be?
I call the book my illustrated poetic memoir. It’s not a local history book, a sociological essay about my home town or a detailed account of my immediate and extended family. It is a love letter to my late parents and my Mam’s older sister, my Aunty Maureen. It’s also a tribute to all Felling folk past and present. I believe that nostalgia and reminiscence is good for our hearts and minds. Retelling and rereading happy memories can soothe a grieving soul. I guess the message I am trying to relay is that love never dies. Use that love as fuel to power you through life.
What inspired you to use multimedia in your book (photos)?
Angie, my publisher encouraged me to produce the book of my dreams. She understood what I was trying to do and encouraged me to include artwork and photographs. It was her idea to have the fold-out map of Felling at the back of the book. Genius! The family photographs give insight into my life but the stunning one-page colour photos of Felling by Bulgarian photographer Rossena Petcova offer another dimension to Princess.
I first encountered Rossena when she volunteered to help with the second Newcastle Photography Festival in 2016. The festival was the brainchild of my partner Paul and I helped him by co-organising events, ticket sales, marketing and managing volunteers. I loved Rossena’s work and crowdfunded her first UK exhibition in summer 2018. I was uncharacteristically shy about asking her to contribute to Princess but she offered to take photos for the book. I loved the process of taking the photos with her and think they have a magical, timeless quality.
I’ve collaborated with artists, musicians and other writers over the years. I enjoy the process. I approached Whitley Bay-based artist and poet Steve Lancaster to turn my scribbles into enchanting maps used in the book plus the front cover. The look is Smash Hits Yearbook 1984 if that means anything to your readers! I also have Martins the printers in Berwick upon Tweed plus designer Kevin from Printspot to thank for turning my ideas into a bright pink book.
What would you say is your favourite part of the book and what did you enjoy writing about the most?
The second chapter Hetherwell Green about my Nan is my favourite piece of memoir writing in the book. I think the distance between us added muscle to the writing. She died in 1987 so remembering and writing about her was like drawing on a delightful dream. I had a smile on my face when I wrote that chapter. I’m smiling as I type this too! The happiness of our strong relationship stays with me.
I am a poet and am pleased I managed to include four of my poems in Princess. I believe they enhance the book and describe memories I could never shape into paragraphs. Sometimes writing in stanzas is the only way to express myself.
Thank you so, so much once again to Anne and Elaine for letting me take part in this tour and sending me this lovely book. I’ll keep it on my bookshelves, pride of place next to my favourites. Thank you to Elaine for accepting to answer my questions, I loved reading through them and the gave me even more insight into your life and experiences in Felling.
That’s all for now, I hope you enjoyed this review and will consider reading this book. See you soon, stay safe,