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The Interview

Sarah Courtney

Local writer and storyteller, George Murphy interviews local characters and personalities

Meet Calderdale councillor, Sarah Courtney, an offcumden who has thrown herself into improving the lives of others. Find out about her early life and times, as a trade union worker, post punk guitarist, scuba diver and lorry driver, her subsequent qualifications and academic success and work as a botanist and taxonomist.

From stand up comic to LGBT and Child Line fundraiser and foster carer, Sarah has had a fascinating career. She explains the twists and turns in her emotional and employment life since she arrived in Hebden Bridge 20 years ago, before becoming our council rep and music facilitator, alongside office management for a firm recycling plastic.

But can she bake a cake - and what's her taste in music? Find out below.

Sarah Courtney Q&A

How has lockdown been for you and your family?
Busy, intense at times, but we've been pretty lucky in that both my partner, Tamsin, and I have been working throughout. That's presented its challenges with home schooling our 10/11 year old son, but overall we've done OK. My Mum has found things hard though, as she was shielding and she's had some major health problems, especially last year. But we're all soldiering on!

How was childhood in Dartford?

OK, I had friends, we used to hang out. There was a lot of freedom - a gang of friends going off for the day on bikes with some sandwiches aged about 10, hanging out at the local stables and helping with the horses and horse muck - I remember enjoying standing with our feet buried in the dung heap on freezing winter days to warm up. I had an equally horse mad friend when I was at primary school and we used to build jumps on her parent's immaculate lawn using stuff from the shed, and then do show jumping rounds on our space hoppers.

And we'd do mock dressage routines on our bikes - mine was a Raleigh 20 called Rocky. As I got older I discovered there were lots of pubs in Dartford and that was fun. I also did choir and drama stuff through school, and also Dartford Youth Theatre, and the Geoffery Whitworth Theatre and sang in a couple of church choirs.

We used to have summer holidays in Cobh, Co Cork, staying with my dad's parents, which I really enjoyed even though I wasn't really able to understand my Grandad's very soft whispery accent, so I learnt to just smile. He thought I was really shy and his nickname for me was 'Smiler'.

My grandma was quite fierce and tiny, one of my uncles was a sea captain in the merchant navy and the other was monk and priest at Buckfast Abbey. I had lots of cousins or second cousins (or possibly first cousins once removed?) and we'd go swimming and fishing and larking around town.

Other holidays were spent camping at various places around Kent, and we used to go and stay in a caravan in Whitstable sometimes.

We also went on a mad narrow boat holiday once, when I was about 12; me, my brother (4 years older) our Battersea dogs home mongrel and our mum and dad. We started off in Nuneaton and my dad decided we were going to Llangollen and back. In two weeks. It was ridiculous and we had to just travel virtually all the time. My dad ended up in the canal at least once and he broke a barge pole. He was quite grumpy, but we did it, just about.
You left school early and started working for a film and TV trade union in Soho Square, whilst living in shared houses and squats. Can you tell us about those times?
Working for ACTT was really interesting. I learnt a lot about office politics, trades unions and politics. I met Tony Benn and some other high profile politicians and trade unionists, and learnt about collective action. I also learnt that often it's the lowest paid staff in an organisation that actually keep things running. It was great working in Soho and I met loads of interesting folk going to the pub after work.
In the housing co-op and squatting scene, there was a lot of going out, music, art, going to festivals (free ones like Stonehenge, and bigger ones like Reading Rock in '83 - seeing Suzi Quattro and Thin Lizzy - and Glastonbury in about 85 - seeing the Cure) and gigs - most of which were pretty home grown, either in the back room of pubs or student union bars, or even in people's living rooms. It was all very art school and counter culture, living in New Cross, Camberwell and Brixton in the early to mid 80s with artists and musicians.
Your partner Ian was a photographer/illustrator and you were playing guitar in a post punk women's band. Happy days?

Yeah, although I was not very confident (at least inwardly) in those days, but I played guitar and sang backing in a band called Some Sirens (a couple of my old friends from those days still call me Sarah Siren). We did some gigs, including a gig at the Cellar Bar at the Thames Poly in Woolwhich with a few other unknown bands, one of which might possibly have gone on to be the Levellers, or Carter, or something. We did a demo tape and then split up. I also used to hang out at the Albany Empire in New Cross and did some photographic and art courses.  It was good fun all good fun.

Ian was a lovely chap, we were together on and off for about 7 years, eventually moving up to Todmorden together in 1988 and then onto Liverpool in the early 90s. He did massive pictures and illustrations for lots of interesting companies, including New Scientist, English National Opera and 4AD records. He was really into music and we went to some pretty cool gigs, like Sonic Youth, the Cocteau Twins and Leibach as well as all the local stuff.
Then Spain for a year, teaching English, before returning to the UK to drive 7 tonne trucks. What's your most vivid memories of those jobs? 

Teaching in Spain was fun, I love the Spanish way of life and 'la movida' in Madrid at that time (1985-86) - it was a very cool place to hang out. I went to some amazing free gigs as part of Madrid's autumn festival, including seeing Laurie Anderson, David Byrne and Robert Wilson (the Knee Plays) and James Brown. I also did a bit of life modelling for drawing classes and then got invited to a massive fancy dress ball at the main fine art school in Madrid, that was a blast.

The driving was for a wholesale wholefood co-operative, Wholesome Trucking, a bit like Suma but smaller, that was based just around the corner from where we lived off Coldharbour Lane inbetween Camberwell and Brixton. I really enjoyed it - it was a very physical job, there were no tail lifts, everything had to get offloaded by hand and taken into the shop or cafe or community hall where it was being delivered to, often up or down flights of steps. So I got quite good at hoiking 25kg sacks of flour onto my shoulder and trotting up a flight of stairs. I got very fit! I also used the forklift and could re-stack a pallet of 50kg sacks of rice or lentils if it collapsed. Oh yes!

In 1988, you moved to Tod with Ian and got A levels at the FE college. You also took up scuba diving? 

Yes, I decided, during a brief spell of unemployment after I'd left Wholesome Trucking that I didn't really want to be a trucker for the rest of my life, although I did consider getting an HGV licence. After meditating on what I wanted to do, I decided I'd really like to be an underwater film camera operator - I really liked Jacques Cousteau when I was a kid. So I did some research and got advice that I'd need a film degree and a natural history degree. I decided that if I could only do one I'd rather do the latter, so I looked into what I'd need to do Marine Biology at university, and left for the north.

I enrolled at the Percival Whitley FE College in Halifax and over two years got four A Levels, one of which was Botany. I also worked at the Bear Wholefoods and met lots of lovely people. I decided that I would also need to learn to dive, if I was going to live my dream and joined the Tod sub aqua club and learned to dive. I did some dives in Scotland, which I'm glad about, but I think it's fair to say it wasn't my favourite activity. 

We used to go out in Hebden Bridge to the Trades Club (memorably seeing Desmond Dekker) and also out in Manchester to Flesh at the Hacienda, the Paradise Factory and Canal Street

With your A levels you were able to study botany at Liverpool Uni. How was the music scene there?

I enrolled onto the Marine Biology Course at Liverpool Uni and moved to a really interesting shared house by Sefton Park. I was the only student living in the house - I was 24 by this time, and didn't fancy living in halls so found an alternative place to live. We had some great parties - it was a massive mansion with 10 of us living there.

At first I had a little room that would have been the butler's room, but eventually Ian moved over too and we had a little suite of rooms, one would have been the original dining room and was massive, then the other two would have been the butler's pantry and serving room (between the kitchen and dining room) and Ian used that as his studio. We used to still go out in Manchester but not that much in Liverpool. It was more just going to Keith's Wine Bar on Lark Lane or to various pubs and the Casablanca or the Yuruba Club. I got back into singing and playing guitar, mainly with the help of another house mate, Shay Black (one of the Black Family, Mary Black's brother) who used to run a regular session at the Irish Centre.

I enjoyed university, and met a load of really lovely people, including my friend Hannah Lawson, who I met on my first day, and we are still really good friends now. I also really liked studying. Eventually I switched to doing Botany as the Marine Biology course was all about animals and not enough about algae, for which I had developed a deep fascination. In fact I loved all of the 'lower' non-flowering plants - fungi, mosses, lichens, liverworts... I also had done a summer job at the Natural History Museum in London and it was nice hanging out in London again for a few months. 

In your final year at Liverpool your life took  a different turn. You left Liverpool with a new partner and a botany degree. What next?

Yes, Ian and I both 'came out' about half way through my final year. We remained very close friends for years after, but eventually he moved down to Brighton and I started hanging out with lots of new lesbian friends in Liverpool and even bobbing down to London now and again for Pride or other events.

I got a temporary job at the Liverpool Museum in their botany dept working on a research project and further developed my love of taxonomy and museums. I then successfully applied for a master's course at Reading University in Pure and Applied Plant and Fungal Taxonomy and even got funding for it. 

I met a woman called Connie, who was training to be a teacher and we started a relationship, just as I was going off to Reading, so we had a long distance fling for a bit, but then we decided to move to London together. I got some short term project work back at the Natural History Museum, and then worked doing research for a gardening encyclopaedia with Reader's Digest. 

Here's a tough one - which record would you rescue from a shipwreck?

Album? Head on the Door by the Cure. Or maybe Hunky Dory by Bowie... or Shadowland by k d lang, or Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads, or  ... argggghhhh!

So you came to Hebden and were a stay at home mum for a while, then you did odd jobs, before suppporting children with Autism SD in schools. Did you also find time to enjoy the social scene in Hebden Bridge?

After Connie and I parted ways and were sharing the childcare, yes, I may have had quite a lot of fun going out. 

In 2004 you met Tamsin and in 2009 your son was born. You've written songs about your relationship - a public declaration of your happiness. Is there a good and bad aspect to living in the public eye?

I guess living in a small town lots of folk know each other's business. I'm quite an open person and luckily Hebden Bridge is pretty easy going for the most part. Sometimes, it can take me a while to walk through town as I stop and chat to people, and often I get left nattering and abandoned by my family who head on without me. But there's worst things in the world!

The split up with Connie led to you losing contact with your daughters when she emigrated to Canada. That must be tough? 

Yes. Although I never lost contact with them, they are thousands of miles away. It is tough.

You are rightly lauded for organising 'open mics'. As a performer and songwriter, you must be looking forward to post lockdown gigs?  

I've not really done any music during lockdown, and certainly not written any songs for a bit. But it has been lovely to do a couple of socially distanced open mic nights, even though numbers are limited, and be able to play and see others play live in public again. People are so happy to be doing that again and I'm really happy to be able to facilitate that. 

You were elected to Calderdale Council in 2018, and you're office manager at British Recycled Plastic. How's your time management?

I'm realllllllly busy. I'm doing this at 10.30pm on a Sunday night as I've been a delegate at the Labour Party Virtual Women's Conference this weekend, and had meetings and work all last week... I have to use a diary and remember to look at it every morning, and remember to always put things in, and I do book time to have evenings with Tamsin otherwise we'd never see each other. I just about manage to manage my time, some weeks are better than others. 

How tough has it been for the council with constant cuts in its budget?

It's really hard. Most people only think about the council providing services they use and see, like rubbish and recycling collections; tips; libraries; parks; and potholes. But 70% of the council's budget has to provide statutory services for Children and Adults Social Care. It is difficult to try to keep all the non statutory services going with less and less money. I think our cabinet, councillors and officers do a great job, given the circumstances.

I've seen recent photos of you walking in the hills around here during lockdown. Any favourite routes?

Some of my favourite routes are ones that not many people seem to go on, so I'm not going to tell you what they are! I love so many aspects of our area - the woods, the moors, the reservoirs. I like picking routes depending on the weather - having a dog and a good map app certainly help in finding interesting routes.

Can you bake a cake? How practical are you?

Oh, I'm really very practical. I love cooking and can whip up a batch of really good scones in 30 minutes, from thought to cooling rack. But despite being quite an accomplished cook, I have only learned how to poach an egg in the last two months. 

What question do you wish I had asked - and what would your answer be?

Sarah: What is your favourite time of day?
Answer: Early morning, when no one is about. Especially seeing the sunrise in the summer when you haven't yet gone to bed. 

Sarah, I can't let you go without asking you to choose a favourite musical video. 

Although I'm not a massive Aerosmith fan, I really like the video for Pink.

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