Way back in 2007 I contacted Dr Sally Cline at Anglia Ruskin University to ask advice about writing a rock music biography. I was living in Cambridge at the time and had got to know about her work as a writing mentor for Jill Dawson’s Gold Dust Mentoring scheme.
Sally’s enthusiastic and helpful emails pointed me in the direction of our local Arts Council office. In summer 2008 I secured an Arts Council grant to help fund a year-long bespoke Gold Dust mentoring package with Sally starting in September 2008.
Sally sent me homework via email and letter ahead of our first meeting. These messages were open, friendly and contained her joy and excitement about her daughter’s forthcoming marriage.
I will never forget Sally’s sunny house filled with books. It was a short bike ride away from my flat in the Chesterton area of Cambridge. Her hospitality enveloped me after a long day at work. I arrived for the first time to a plate of Jarlsberg sarnies. How did she know this Norwegian cheese was one of my comfort foods?!
I was commuting to London every weekday for a full-time job and fretted about fulfilling my side of this mentoring partnership. One time Sally give me a ticking off for being late. I was mortified but it did the trick. I needed to be reminded that her time was precious plus I’d paid for the mentoring. Why didn’t I make the effort to get there on time? Sally was coaching me in life and in writing.
I think it was in early 2009 when I heard the dreadful news that her daughter’s wife had died. It seemed to me that Sally’s love for her daughter and grandchildren powered them through an unspeakable time and all the while she kept up with work and mentoring committments and found time to write. She seemed superhuman to me. I declared her my inspirational heroine and vowed to do my best writing for her.
Sally suggested I enter my rough sketch of a biography about Chas Chandler in The Tony Lothian Prize prize awarded every year by The Biographer’s Club. The prize “celebrates exceptional work by first-time biographers.” Sally won many writing awards in her life so I felt I was in good hands as she guided me through the application process.
Sadly around this time I experienced my own emotional earthquake: Dad’s diagnosis of cancer in May 2009. I moved back to Tyneside in the June and was there for my Mam when Dad died six weeks later. Astonishingly I’d managed to submit my application to the prize days before his death.
A few months later I was washing dishes at my new home along the Tyne Valley when I got this overwhelming feeling that I hadn’t been shortlisted for the prize. Soon after I checked my emails and saw a message from the Biographer’s Club confirming this. I was fine about it. I had other things to think about.
The Gold Dust scheme ended but I maintained links with Sally who encouraged me to submit a fresh application to The Tony Lothian Prize in 2011. I got short-listed and was joined at the posh prize ceremony by Sally and Jill Dawson. I didn’t win but boy did I drink some fine wine that night.
I was asked to write a testimonial for the Gold Dust website so I wrote about the way Sally had changed my writing. I also said she had more energy than anyone I’d encountered.
Sally gave me the following advice and I’ve passed it onto aspiring writers over the years:
I always enjoyed her emails written at speed, in purple font and ending “love Sal.”
Sally died last month. Her daughter got in touch to tell me and give details of the funeral in Cambridgeshire. I could not make it but I thought I’d blog my appreciation of her writerly support and her teaching.
I’ve been reading through our email correspondence and note her final message to me was three years ago on the 22nd October 2019. She’d agreed to come to the London launch of my book The Princess of Felling but then discovered she couldn’t make it. In purple type she wrote “have a great time at your launch and sell loads of books. love Sal.”
Dearest Sal, the award-winning biographer who lived an extraordinary life. Your enthusiasm for living, loving and writing will live on in your family, friends and mentees. Thank you x