Daily Mail, Saturday 28 September 2013
How JK Rowling’s sob story about her past as a single mother has left the churchgoers who cared for her upset and bewildered
◾Author often speaks of her ‘tough time’ as a single mother in Edinburgh
◾But members of the church she attended dispute it
◾They say she was cared for and offered positions within the church
By Paul Scott
PUBLISHED: 23:38, 27 September 2013 | UPDATED: 01:08, 28 September 2013
The plotline has all the best-selling — if resolutely downbeat — hallmarks of the sort of misery memoir so beloved of the more populist end of the publishing world.
A hard-up single mother finds low-paid, menial work in an inner city church but bigoted, unchristian people make clear their disapproval of her unmarried status, and cruelly taunt her.
Then, as evening falls, she trudges through the snow, wheeling her baby daughter’s pushchair back to her grotty rented flat.
What’s the story? Author JK Rowling was helped during her time as a single mother, according to many at her old church in Edinburgh
But like all the best stories this is, ultimately, a tale of redemption and triumph over adversity. For it transpires our downtrodden heroine is a secret would-be novelist.
Fast forward a few short years, from the mid-Nineties to the present day, and she has gone on to achieve huge international success, earned millions and bought herself a mansion close to the church where she once worked part-time.
Which might cause raised eyebrows from even the most credulous of readers — were the story not, apparently, 100 per cent true.
The female protagonist is, of course, none other than JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series of children’s books which became the fastest-selling in publishing history, rewarding her with a £560 million fortune in the process.
The rags-to-riches story of how she made a cup of coffee last all day in her local café as she wrote, rather than going home to her freezing Edinburgh flat, has been endlessly told and re-told.
Back in the day: JK Rowling has often mentioned her struggles as a single mum in Edinburgh
But writing last week on the website of Gingerbread — the single parents’ charity of which she is president — 48-year-old Miss Rowling revealed, for the first time, her painful feelings as a single mother in the climate at the time.
She was paid £15 a week — the most she could earn without losing state benefits — while working as a part-time secretary. She wrote: ‘My overriding memory of that time is the slowly evaporating sense of self-esteem, not because I was filing or typing — there was dignity in earning money, however I was doing it — but because it was slowly dawning on me that I was now defined, in the eyes of many, by something I had never chosen.
‘I was a Single Parent, and a Single Parent On Benefits to boot. Patronage was almost as hard to bear as stigmatisation. I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother.
‘I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother? Ought I to be allowed in a church at all? Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?’
Miss Rowling, who described herself as, ‘prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life’, went on: ‘Assumptions made about your morals, your motives for bringing your child into the world or your fitness to raise that child cut to the core of who you are.’
All of which is suitably thought-provoking stuff. This is Miss Rowling’s bleak recollection of her life at the time.
However, members of the church in question, St Columba’s-by-the-Castle in Edinburgh’s city centre, recall going out of their way to make her welcome by taking it in turns to babysit her daughter, Jessica, so the hard-pressed budding author could have time to write her debut novel, Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. They remember inviting her into their homes for meals.
They pride themselves on being one of the most forward-thinking parishes in the country, who were at the forefront of the battle for sexual equality in the priesthood 20 years ago.
Young actors: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone
Indeed, the church had one of the very first women rectors in Scotland, the Rev Alison Fuller, and it was she who took pity on Miss Rowling — offering her the secretarial job in 1994 to help her out financially. None of which exactly fits with the impression of a congregation holding on to outmoded stereotypes about single mothers.
Miss Rowling, has remained a member of the very same congregation — even asking one of the church’s priests to officiate at her wedding to second husband Dr Neil Murray in 2001?
By describing her trying experiences as a single-mum, is the best-selling writer employing a liberal dollop of poetic licence?
Commenting on Miss Rowling’s recollections, Sheila Gould, says that the Rev Alison Fuller, then rector of the church, helped the wannabe author (who had not yet swapped her Christian name, Joanne, for JK) by offering her the role of vestry secretary, for which Miss Rowling says she was immensely grateful.
Mrs Gould, who with her cleric husband the Rev Bob Gould has been very closely involved with St Columba’s for more than 50 years, told me this week: ‘Alison went out of her way to help Joanne, and a lot of people in their congregation helped her, too. People looked after her daughter Jessica, babysitting her to give Jo the space to write.
‘She was also invited to dinners and lunches, which is the sort of thing we do within the congregation. It was a safe place for her and that’s what we provided. She needed a safe space for herself and Jessica.
Helping hand: Saint Columbas-by-the-Castle in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling is said to have received refuge
‘We offered her protection. When she came here, she wasn’t famous, she was just a single mum with a child and it was obvious that was not what she would have chosen for herself.
‘We knew she was writing and Jessica was only very small, in her pram, at the time and needed quite a lot of attention, so we helped out.’
So what do Mrs Gould and other parishioners think of Miss Rowling’s description of her miserable time during the period when she was working at the church?
‘It’s all quite confusing,’ she says diplomatically. ‘We have all sorts of different people in the congregation, including alcoholics who live on the street, and we would never stigmatise any of them in any way.
‘I don’t think that what Jo has said happened to her would be typical of the church at all. It’s a very open, friendly place. It’s a tiny church with a tight-knit community and small congregation.
‘I’m not aware that she brought her concerns to anyone here at the time and I can’t think of any member of the church who would have said those things to her.
‘To be honest, when I heard about her comments to Gingerbread, my reaction was she’d said it because of the audience she was talking to. As far as we’re concerned, this church has been a safe haven for her. We have tried to offer her a sanctuary.
‘Jo is still a member of the congregation, though she comes and goes depending on her commitments. None of us has gone around talking about her and we’ve always protected her.’
But perhaps she felt her surprising story of discrimination and stigmatisation was an appropriate platform for someone who gave £1 million to the Labour party in 2008, to attack the Tory-led Government’s welfare policies on behalf of Gingerbread — which published her article on its website last week.
Gingerbread is not without its critics. It has been accused of encouraging lone-parenting by offering single mothers detailed advice on to how to get the most out of the benefits system.
Gingerbread’s founder, hippy activist Raga Woods, who changed her name from Tessa Fothergill, served time in Holloway Prison in the early Nineties for breaking an injunction which stopped her joining protesters wanting to prevent the building of the M3 motorway at Twyford Down, near Winchester.
However, JK Rowling is a passionate advocate of the charity.
The writer, who was brought up an Anglican and has talked openly in interviews about her religious faith, arrived in Edinburgh in 1993 after the breakdown of her stormy 13-month marriage to Jessica’s father, Portuguese journalist Jorge Arantes, whom she met while teaching English in Porto.
Subsequently, a rather grim picture of her life in the Scottish capital in the years before she found success and money has emerged. However, not only did her sister Di live in the city, but it has emerged that it was Di’s husband, Roger, who owned Nicholson’s café where Miss Rowling famously did her early writing.
Significantly, a TV documentary a few years ago, which saw a tearful author revisiting her old flat, revealed it to be far from the dump we might imagine.
In fact, it’s a spacious two-bedroom apartment in the sought-after Leith district. But without doubt, her hard-luck back-story — and all the publicity it has generated — has not done her career any harm.
Another mystery is why the author has once more chosen to reveal details of her private life for public consumption. After all, she famously guards her privacy and appeared as a star witness at the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards last year, during which she complained bitterly about the attention of photographers.
However, Miss Rowling, who employs two sets of PR advisers, is not unknown to reveal titbits about her private life when she has a book to or film to promote.
Last year, for example, while doing publicity for her debut adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, she talked extensively in interviews about her troubled relationship with her estranged father, her unhappy teenage years, her failed marriage, her current husband, daughter Jessica (now 20), and her battle against depression.
The book, with its profoundly depressing themes, tells the story of a teenage girl in a fictional West Country town who lives on an estate with her heroin-addicted prostitute mother and young brother.
But the novel, which is being made into a mini-series by the BBC, has been slated by some critics for being vehemently anti-middle class and for portraying anyone with money as a dreadful snob.
Which some might say is a bit rich coming from one of Britain’s wealthiest women. She lives with husband number two, the bespectacled Dr Murray, a GP, in a 17th century mansion in an upmarket suburb of Edinburgh which she bought for more than £2 million in 2009.
They live there with Jessica and their two young children, a boy aged ten and an eight-year-old daughter. Last year, Miss Rowling applied for planning permission to build a pair of two-storey treehouses — said to cost £150,000 — for the youngsters.
Nor does she show signs of toning down her famous obsession with controlling every aspect of her work.
Last year, her publishers forced literary critics to sign five-page confidentiality agreements before they were even allowed to read The Casual Vacancy.
And in July, she brought legal proceedings against a London solicitor, working at a law firm she employed, after he let slip she was secretly the author of another book, a thriller called The Cuckoo’s Calling, which Miss Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
After she was outed as the author, the book — which had hitherto achieved very modest sales — shot to the top of the best-sellers list.
With such good fortune, perhaps it is time for Miss Rowling to thank her lucky stars for her gilded life instead of harping on about how terrible her lot was in the past.
Why, she might even show gratitude to those who helped her in those far off days.