Bestselling author Josephine Cox will be enjoying all the trappings of Christmas with her family this festive season - but life hasn’t always been as kind to the hugely successful writer.
As one of 10 children growing up in Blackburn, in a poverty-stricken family, she recalls that Christmases were much more austere in her youth than they are now.
“Apart from a little bag with an apple and an orange in it, if we were lucky, we didn’t have Christmas,” says the 75-year-old award-winning novelist, whose books remain among the most borrowed from British libraries (ahead of John Grisham and Martina Cole).
“We didn’t have a tree or presents. We didn’t have a proper Christmas - but we didn’t expect it; it was part and parcel of our life. Our Christmas lunch wouldn’t have been turkey. We were immensely poor. Christmas to us was watching through other people’s windows and seeing the tree and the glittering lights. We didn’t have anything like that.”
Their clothes came from the rag and bone shop and if there wasn’t enough food, they would either go hungry or scramble on the floor of the local market for vegetables to take home for their mother to cook in a stew. The family didn’t have a single piece of crockery and used to drink out of jam jars and milk bottles.
They had a few unwelcome visitors over the festive season, too.
“Rats would come in and they would go into the cellar where the toilet was and, quite often, they would run around your feet.
“It sounds grim, but we didn’t mind because we had our family and each other - we were happy enough. There was a great love between the kids. We shared what little we had. I would never say my childhood was awful.”
She recalls her parents were hard-working - her father was a road sweeper and her mother worked in a cotton mill - yet she has revealed her dad was also a drinker.
“My dad was a wonderful man - funny, interesting, he worked very hard. But when he got his wages on a Friday, paid by the foreman in the pub, the money went over the counter,” she has said.
Her parents divorced when Cox was 15. She recalls that her mother simply upped and left one day, taking eight of the children with her and leaving two of her brothers in Blackburn with her father. While she says her stories are not based on her own life, they’re often full of emotion.
She eventually moved south with some of her siblings to live with an aunt, and was a teenager of 16 when she met and married Ken, in 1957.
Her early experiences of hardships, love and family have no doubt given her plenty of material for her family sagas, the latest of which, A Family Secret, centres on a woman who has a child from an affair with her friend’s husband, but keeps the child a secret from those she cares about most. Not wanting to continue living a lie, the repercussions of her actions reverberate through the whole family.
“When I’m writing, I like to think about families and the difficulties they have. When I was growing up on Henry Street in Blackburn, I used to sit for hours on the doorstep watching their lives, and that’s where my stories come from.
“When the characters have problems, either the problem destroys them or makes them stronger. That’s the same in life.”
Today, more than 20 million of her books have been sold and Cox is in a much more comfortable setting, living near her sons and two grandchildren in Buckinghamshire, but says she still doesn’t go mad with money at Christmas. She’s thrifty, a throwback to her early years.
“I’m not extravagant. We just pay the bills, get the groceries, feed the cat, look after the house. My husband and I made sure that when our children were growing up, they did have lovely Christmases. I love Christmas now.
“As we didn’t have a Christmas tree in those days, I now always have a big tree with lots of lights on, and presents. I make a difference now. It’s a very different world we live in.”
She doesn’t go mad on presents though. “I have a sense of reason. I listen through the year to hear what the grandchildren might like for Christmas. I’m very discreet about it.
“My family aren’t grabby and greedy. I usually spend around £40 on something, but if they want something particular, I might spend a bit more. I don’t have any things I particularly want for Christmas. When you’ve grown up with nothing, you don’t expect anything.”
She has been widowed for 13 years after a blissful 57-year marriage to Ken, who ran a haulage business, and misses him to this day.
“I try to keep Christmas the same but I miss Ken terribly, not just at Christmas, all the time. I fill the void by doing what I do, writing stories and doing whatever I can with the family.
“You could say I live on my own but the house is always full!” she adds. “People are in and out. It’s like a bus stop. It’s lovely, but if Ken was there it would be right. He was the love of my life.”
Cox went to college when her children started school, and was later offered a place at Cambridge University. She turned it down, however, because she didn’t want to move away from home, and instead went on to train as a teacher.
She says she takes a break from writing over the festive season, but will be back at it in the New Year, having already created the characters for her next book.
“I put a pen and paper profile of each character on my office wall, and I can hear them shouting, ‘Come on, what about us?’” Cox reveals. “So I have to get in there and crack on with it.”
:: A Family Secret by Josephine Cox is published by HarperCollins on January 12, priced £14.99.