Jean was eight years old when she was evacuated to the country in 1939. Strong bodied and big for her age, Jean was a shy child and not very confident. She was picked out by a farmer and spent the next couple of years being worked from dawn till dusk and sometimes beyond to earn her keep.
When she went home it was to learn her father was dead and her mother was about to marry someone else. There was no room for Jean in her mother’s new life and she moved in with an aunt who used to beat her.
At sixteen she got pregnant by the first person to show her any real affection – and he promptly left her. The baby was stillborn. Later Jean married and had four children. She seemed to attract bullies. Her husband was part of the trend.
He died of alcohol poisoning after putting her in hospital. She struggled to keep her family together, working all hours to bring in enough money to feed them and keep a roof over their heads. Her oldest daughter went off the rails. The boys were often in trouble. Jean’s whole life was blighted by illness.
Now she lives alone in her council house. Her friends and neighbours are dying off and she’s surrounded by young families who ignore her; her family rarely visits.
Mary had an idyllic childhood. Her parents doted on her and when she was fifteen she met the love of her life, a kind, gentle boy who grew into a kind, gentle man.
Mary had two daughters. Like their father they were kind and gentle. When they grew up and had families of their own, they lived just round the corner and visited often.
In later life Mary, now a widow suffers with arthritis. She is in a great deal of pain which is unrelenting and not helped by the pills which in some ways make her feel worse.
She still lives in the cosy little semi that she and her husband bought when they first married. There are problems with the roof that she can’t afford to fix and a damp patch by the living room window which she keeps hidden with the curtain.
Her daughters can’t help. They are finding things tough at the moment, struggling to keep their own heads above water, so Mary keeps her problems to herself.
She used to go out in the evenings with friends, but tends to stay at home now. Since her fall she is less confident. And she feels intimidated by the kids that race past her house every night in their noisy cars and others that stand outside her gate talking in loud, frightening voices.
So what have Jean and Mary got in common? They both have The People’s Friend delivered every week.
This is where I’m going to add a disclaimer – I don’t know who the typical reader of the People’s Friend is. And I’m quite sure that among their readers they really do have people who have never suffered a day’s illness, never experienced the death of a loved one or never had to deal with a drunken abusive partner in their lives.
But for the most part their readers are real people who have lived through harder times than many of us can even begin to imagine. It isn’t because their readers are these untouched, angelic puritans that they require such safe, gentle stories. It is because their readers want to escape into a world that perhaps they once knew, or wished they’d known.
They want a world where if something bad (not terrible) happens, it can be easily sorted out by good friends or loving family. They want to read about real life, but not necessarily their life. They want to immerse themselves in nostalgia and they want it viewed through the rosiest tinted spectacles money can buy.
They don’t want to read about death and divorce and poverty and who can blame them? A lot of them have lived through it.
Jean and Mary don’t exist - well they do I’m sure, but my Jean and Mary are composites of People’s Friend readers that I have known. They’ve lived through similar things to Jean and Mary and worse.
Often when the knocking of women’s magazine stories is going to be done, the People’s Friend is waved about as an example. So what are we supposed to do? Write stories about gangs of kids setting fires to cars and kicking cats into oblivion? Social workers who come round and tell vulnerable old people that they aren’t going to be allowed to live an independent life any more? Sons and daughters who only visit when they want something?
Are we going to write stories that tell it like it is for the Friend reader? Or stories that tell it how people would like it to be?
Few lives are complete unremitting drudgery. Most have their happy moments, weeks, years. You take one of those shining moments and you write a story about it, sprinkle in a bit of conflict and add a happy ending. It sounds easy, but those are the stories I find the most difficult to write.
These days the trend with magazines is for real life stories where people can read about people worse off than them (blimey, my uncle Fred might have been a murderer but at least he didn’t chop Auntie’s head off and feed it to his pigeons – that makes me feel much better). I don’t really have an Uncle Fred, but you see what I mean?
One more thing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because the readers like gentle stories with happy endings that they are lacking in the brain department. If there’s one thing sure to get my back up, it’s looking down on readers, wanting to “better” them or give them a challenge. Real life can be tough enough to deal with and has its own challenges, who can blame some people for wanting to get away from it for a while?