Monday, 3 July 2017

Helen Cadbury - a tribute

The Poet's Soapbox was deeply saddened to learn of the death last Friday of one of the true stars of York’s literary scene. Helen Cadbury was a successful novelist, a very fine poet, a playwright and a motivator of all things artistic. Her passing will inevitably leave a large empty space in the lives of her partner, sons and her sister, and it will be keenly felt too amongst all of us in the local arts scene who have had the privilege of knowing Helen and working alongside her.

My first encounter with Helen and her beautiful poetry was at Speakers’ Corner. On a night that was (as sometimes happens) almost entirely dominated by men, Helen’s was one of only two female voices to rise to the challenge of redressing the gender imbalance. I think it’s fair to say I was a little intimidated at first; there was a strength and a self-assurance about her which made me feel she was destined for more prestigious places than our little grassroots open mic. But as I got to know her it quickly became apparent that Helen’s self-assurance came from a strong, still centre. There was never anything about her that was in the least bit pushy or arrogant. She was quick to offer praise and support to others; she listened sensitively, and when she spoke, she spoke wisely. In a field where many of us often feel that we have to push ourselves forward to be noticed, Helen was one of the most humble writers I knew.

It’s also fair to say that I didn’t quite appreciate just how good Helen’s writing was until I landed upon an anonymous short story entitled Hello, which I found in the creative writing competition postbag for the 2011 Malton Literature Festival (the forerunner of what is now Ryedale Book Festival). The story was a chilling little psychodrama written with a breathtaking economy of language and a light touch of the pen which elevated it from its dark origins to something truly special. “I was as unsettled as I was fascinated,” I wrote in the judge’s report. “It is clear from the outset that something terrible has happened, but the writer paces the story cleverly, never revealing any detail until it’s exactly the right time to do so.” It was a story that easily deserved its prize, and it was clearly the output of a writer of extraordinary talent.

That First Prize winner was Helen. The story had its origins, she told me later, in some of the tales she had absorbed and the characters she had met whilst working in a women’s prison. As it turned out, that background was also the perfect starting-point for Helen’s subsequent career as a crime novelist. To Catch a Rabbit, the first book in the PCSO Sean Denton series, was a joint winner of the inaugural Northern Crime Award in 2012 and was first published under the Moth imprint in 2013. Subsequently republished by Allison & Busby, it was followed by a sequel, Bones in the Nest. The third book in the series, Race to the Kill, is scheduled for publication this autumn.

As a keen, but very selective, reader of contemporary crime fiction, I was drawn to the Sean Denton books, not just because I knew how good the prose would be, but because there’s something very “everyman” in the central character. Sean is not a detective, not even a police officer, when the series begins; he’s a lowly PCSO unexpectedly plunged into a world of organised crime and police corruption. His very ordinariness makes Sean such an empathetic central character: he’s a council estate boy, an under-achiever at school, with no great ambitions or pretentions. What he does have – and where I think her greatest fictional character mirrors his creator in many ways – is a quiet, instinctive understanding of what is The Right Thing to do, to feel, to believe, to stand up for. That knowledge, that strength of character, guides Sean Denton through his fictional troubles. And similar qualities guided Helen, as anyone familiar with her work in our community and with her unshowy but wise and insightful Facebook posts will realise. She made no secret of her politics (her sister is Labour MP and until-recently front bencher Ruth Cadbury) but the moral and social convictions which underpinned them were always more important than any party political points scoring.

It is, of course, as a poet that I knew Helen best: whether sharing a stage with her, or sitting around a workshop table at the York Stanza sessions hosted by the amazing Carole Bromley (whom Helen credits as being the person who started her on the path to writing professionally). Helen wrote, quite simply, beautiful poetry. Like their author, her poems were never flamboyant; but they were deeply felt, beautifully crafted, alive with imagery and inner fire. So many of Helen’s poems are stories which uncover the epic, the mythic and sometimes the tragic in the narratives of ordinary lives, poems which grant a special dignity to the otherwise uncelebrated. She was considerate in her critique of others’ work, and humble enough to be grateful for critique of her own. She was also an indefatigable supporter of the writing efforts of her contemporaries. She visited York Writers a number of times to talk (with great charm and self-deprecation) about her journey into professional writing, and the pitfalls she encountered on her way. And she was a founder member of the York Authors co-operative, set up to help published local writers across genres promote and develop their books. Through that group she helped give a platform to many of us who wouldn’t otherwise have the knowledge, the network or the oomph to embark on the thankless round of sales and promotions unaided.

There is perhaps an awareness of mortality in the title of Helen’s debut poetry collection, due to be published by Valley Press in November. Forever, Now is a title lifted from Emily Dickinson’s aphorism that “forever is composed of nows”. It wouldn’t do for me to speculate on how Helen’s long illness may have affected her perspective on now, or on eternity. What is clear is that she remained to the end, not only fiercely creative, but full of possibilities, still excitedly discussing plans for her book launches just the day before she finally left us.

Thank you, Helen. For your wonderful writing, and the inspiration, strength and encouragement so many of us have drawn from you. We will miss you.

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