How Nana Helped Me Become A Writer

Or How One Adoption Played A Crucial Role In Three Generations Of My Family

A woman standing at a printing press
Kathleen Elizabeth Earlam

Kathleen’s arm rests on an old printing press at the Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, Yorkshire. She possibly worked this exact machine – a Colombian Letterpress Double Demi – when she was a young woman in World War II. She had one of those tough Dickensian childhoods that no one, especially her, ever spoke about. When Kathleen was a child, her own Mum was forced to take her to the workhouse. Luckily, if that is the right word, she was only in there for a day before being adopted. It was this adoption by Harold Black the local printer that proved crucial in Nana acquiring the skills that ultimately morphed and cascaded through three generations into my life.

Fought To Become A Compositor

After learning the family business, she moved to Wilmslow, where she fought to become a compositor – a person who arranges type in a printing machine – on her own terms at Richmond’s the local printers. In an all male industry she fought for her job, she fought to become part of the union and she fought to get the same pay as men. All of these battles she successfully won and undertook this ‘men’s work’ made vacant by the war.

A Woman Of Letters

Nana was as tough as old boots, yet there must have been something in her brain that made her good with letters too. She could say the alphabet backwards, read words upside down and her spelling was second to none. Mum told me she would often suddenly say to her, ‘How do you spell “this” or how do you spell “that”?’ and ‘How many pieces of paper are in a ream?’* Also she just couldn’t bear to see Granddad to pull the sports section out of the paper and move all the sections out of order.

Harold Black, Pickering, printer,
L to R: Maurice and Kathleen Earlam with their daughter Ann (my Mum) in front of Harold Black and his wife.

All of this, in turn, made Mum a great lover of words, especially the classics. The Yorkshire books (pronounced bewks) such as the Brontës were a staple of Mum’s childhood. Thankfully, in this case old habits die hard, and that meant it was my turn to fall in love with letters. I can remember from a very early age begging Mum at bedtime to ‘put her feets up’ and read one more book to me.

So here’s to you Nana! I hope all the letters are in the right place and the pages are in the correct order wherever you are.

Literally yours,

Your granddaughter Nikki

*The answer is 500 identical sheets

Many thanks to Mike Haigh, Print Room Custodian at the Beck Isle Museum

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