Tuesday 25 December 2012


This post is for and about Kathleen- because she is with us, and not with us.

Remembering Kathleen as she was

Kathleen Herbert: 

Teacher, Writer, Friend

A teaching career of close on 40 years

When I mentioned Kathleen Herbert at my last Old Students' Reunion in June 2012, I was amazed and delighted by the warmth that I received on behalf of my friend- that unique and astonishing person Miss Kathleen May Herbert. She had touched so many lives, and changed them for the better, according to the many people who came to me and wanted to talk about how she had had a profound influence on them. She was a charismatic and caring teacher, a warm and witty friend and a subtle and moving writer. All that has gone, but what remains is a gentle, charming but slightly bewildered lady.

Some years before I got to know Kathleen really well, she nursed her mother through terminal cancer. Several years later, she did the same for her father. At this time I had returned to my school in East London to teach English and she was my Head of Department, but her father needed her and so she gave up the job in the school she loved, and went to work in a Catholic High School near her home. She is fondly remembered by pupils and staff from that institution too.

The writer emerges

Meanwhile, in 1982, she published her first novel, The Lady of the Fountain. In 1983, her second novel, Queen of the Lightning  won the Historical Novel Prize awarded annually in memory of Georgette Heyer. Bodley Head also published  the sequel, Ghost in the Sunlight in 1986. At around the same time, The Lady of the Fountain was republished as  Bride of the Spear. All three novels are set in Cumbria, Northumbria and the Borders of Scotland, during the period of upheaval and immigration following the withdrawal of Roman troops in the fifth century. This period is often referred to as The Dark Ages. Kathleen prefers the term Heroic Age.

The three books sold well and were translated into German and French. They were published in paperback by Corgi in 1989.

Following the success of the Cumbrian Trilogy, she concentrated on her scholarly research and produced several volumes on Anglo Saxon history and legend, which are still read and respected by a small but enthusiastic audience. Melvyn Bragg acknowledged one of them, Spellcraft, as a most helpful source in his Afterword to Credo, his historical novel about St Bega, set in Cumbria in the Heroic Age. (Spellcraft is still in print, now called English Heroic Legends, and available on Amazon and from the publisher Anglo Saxon Books, as are Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens and Looking for the Lost Gods of England)

She retired in 1984 at age 60 and was in her prime,  while her books were selling well. She devoted herself to studying, lecturing and writing. She learnt Welsh in order to read The Mabinogion and other early British epic tales, and she also studied Hungarian. I have the impression that the main reason she did this was because Hungarian is such a notoriously difficult language, and she relished the challenge!

She spent a great deal of time tramping the hills of her beloved North Country, particularly Cumbria, researching on foot the backgrounds for her novels.

Then in April 1994 she had a massive stroke. Her tenacity, strength and humour enabled her to rebuild her life and carry on for a while, but I didn't fully realise how much damage had been done until some years later.

My friendship with Kathleen has lasted for well over forty years. Like all friendships, it has changed, as I married and had children (to whom she became a much loved and affectionate "Auntie") and she became a well respected author. There were gaps, high points and low points. During the last few years there have been low points indeed, as the stroke started to take its toll, and she became prey to depression and delusion. During those dark years, we met rarely, and she allowed no-one into her house. She was often despairing and felt she was being watched. She bemoaned her own incapability- on good days with a joke, on bad days with tears. 

We had many long phone calls (I moved to Cumbria in 1980 while she stayed in London) and she frequently referred to her "Furness novel" and asked me if I could help her "sort it out". This was a fourth novel, completed in the late eighties or early nineties, which her publisher, Bodley Head, thought was her best, but in the economic climate of the time, they declined to publish it, as it was long, and not set in the South East! She said that a well meaning friend had offered to type it and that he or she had done a disastrous job of it. It sounded as if they had not just typed it badly, but lost some of it as well!
I often reiterated my offer to work on the book for her, and try to reconstruct it if I could, but although we tried to arrange meetings, something always happened to prevent it, and it wasn't until much later that I realized just how poorly she had become. She became more and more despairing and felt she was being watched. I reassured her as best I could, but she was reluctant to meet and I felt powerless. In 2009 she wrote to me, asking me if I could get the book published, and saying that it had got messed up when she was ill. At that point, I suggested she put it all into a box and send it to me, registered post. It took another year to persuade her to meet me and hand it over.

The lost book is found

Finally, in June 2010, gathering all her strength and all her pages, she managed to bundle the manuscript into two large carrier bags- "bags for life" - a lovely irony. And she gathered enough courage and energy to meet me outside Burnt Oak station with the bags. 

I hadn't seen her for several years and I hardly recognised her. A striking and lovely woman in her prime, with pale red-gold hair and a sense of the dramatic, Kathleen loved beautiful and exotic fabrics, rich colours and textures, and was always immaculately groomed.  Now she was thin and unkempt, with slightly grubby fingernails, and a stain or two down her coat. I said hello and touched her on the shoulder and we embraced briefly, but she didn't want me to see her: "I want you all to remember me as I was," she said. 

She had a week or two of great energy and optimism, when she rode on the wave that had buoyed her up to gather her book together but it was a very brief upturn in what proved to be a rapid decline in her health and spirits. She had been neglecting the physical world of eating, drinking and sleeping until she was found wandering, far from home with a dislocated shoulder, and taken to the nearest hospital. Although she is now physically comfortable, a second stroke, and the ravages of self- neglect and age mean that her mental capacity is declining. Her once powerful mind is now dark and clouded. It almost seems that every time I see her, a few more lights have gone out, and yet occasionally someone pulls the curtains open a crack and a beam of brightness strikes the back wall and I see her and hear her as she was. Sadly, these intervals are becoming more and more infrequent.

There seems to have been serious deterioration since that school reunion in June 2012. Immediately after the meeting I was able to tell her of how many people had said she changed their lives and how much she meant to them. That certainly got through and tears ran down her cheeks. I wept too for the loss of beauty, of intelligence, the sadness of humanity- sunt lacrimae rerum.

As a family, we find Kathleen's present state very hard to cope with, but we know that she is more comfortable now than she has been for several years; she is warm, well fed and free from pain. More than this, she is free from the despair and delusion which she suffered from for so many years. When my daughter Kate visited her last Kathleen said she was happy where she is now. After a life of such great creativity, energy and intensity, perhaps we should wish no more for her, than the peace she now has.

Trifolium Books 2011

I formed Trifolium Books UK in January 2011, and published Moon in Leo on 14th February 2011. The sorting of the manuscript and its eventual publication is another story, which you can read elswehere.

Moon in Leo is set in Northern England in Furness, on the southern edge of the Lake District, but encompasses the whole of Britain and Europe. The book has received excellent reviews, and is selling steadily. It is available from Amazon and The Book Depository worldwide, as an e-book from Amazon, and from any good bookshop.

I now have all Kathleen's notes and literary papers and am gradually working through them. I will be publishing some of her essays and lecture notes, to allow a wider public to benefit from her scholarship and wisdom. Her retelling of Guinevere's story is already available as an e-book: The Once and Future Queen.

In 2013, I intend to reissue the early novels as The Northern Kingdoms Trilogy, and Mike and I are hoping to publish an entirely new novel, Ghosts of Camelot, which we found, half written, and completely planned, amongst the many notebooks and boxes of papers which we rescued when Kathleen's house was sold. Although she was delighted at the publication of Moon in Leo, and still has a copy beside her bed,  Kathleen is now beyond understanding what needs to be done to bring this fifth novel to publication. I can do nothing for her now but make sure her work reaches the public as I believe she would have wished.