1966-2017: An Appreciation
published: 9 /
John Clarkson pays tribute to our writer and his friend Mary O'Meara who died in December.
Mary O’Meara and I never met.
We both tried to get together over the last year, but it wasn’t to be. My girlfriend and I were down in Mary’s adopted home city of Manchester from Edinburgh in late April for the weekend, and we arranged to meet up with her then. Mary had been through several months of treatment to combat ovarian cancer and it was temporarily under control. She, however, had to pull out after she went down with what seemed to be a stomach bug, the after effect of many bouts of chemotherapy and a still weakened immune system. The “stomach bug”, however, transpired unfortunately to be far more than that, a relapse in what was a ferocious cancer. She talked briefly about visiting Scotland and Edinburgh, a city she had been to just once and loved, after that, but she was already too ill.
I regret that I didn’t meet Mary that weekend. We talked a lot on email during the four years that she was involved with Pennyblack, more so after she was diagnosed with cancer in July 2016, and in our own way we were good friends. There were ways in which we were clearly very different, but there was a remarkable lot of common ground and we had a strange, shared history.
We were both nearly the same age. I was eight months older than her, born at the tail end of 1965 and Mary in the summer of 1966. In that crucial time between twelve and eighteen when a lot of what you listen to then is a lot of what you will listen to for the rest of your life, we had grown up and come of age with many of the same musical idols – Bowie and New Order, Blondie and The Pretenders, and The Smiths. We were also both librarians by trade, and, although we rarely talked about our careers and day jobs, it was a further link.
It, however, ran deeper than simply that.
There was also a strong South London connection. Mary was born in a house in Tooting High Street, the second of four children of Irish immigrants, and had spent her early childhood there before her parents took the family – three older daughters and a younger brother – back to the Republic of Ireland in the early 70’s and settled in Waterford. She had also spent several years in the late 90’s and early 00’s living not far away from Tooting in a flat that overlooked Wandsworth Common railway station. Balham, which is where Pennyblackmusic was founded in 1998 and our webmaster is still based, falls in between both of them. It is a little over a mile north of Tooting and half a mile west of Wandsworth Common railway station. I have been travelling down to Balham three or four times a year on Pennyblack business for the last nearly twenty years, and know the area well.
We were both also graduates of Loughborough University. After moving back for some years to London in the late 80’s, Mary had arrived in Loughborough in 1993 where she studied English Literature. I had been at Loughborough a decade before, having enrolled there in 1983 to study Library Studies at the now closed Department of Library and Information Studies. All Library Studies undergraduates had to take a secondary subject. I chose to do English, and so I spent several hours a week in the English department. Mary and I also each lived for three years in the same on-campus hall of residence.
When you have spent much of your life in the same two influential landscapes, drunk in the same bars as we would have done in both Balham and Loughborough, shared the same address for three years, been taught by some of the same lecturers, eaten in the same refectory night after night and been to see films and gigs in the same Student Union, it creates a strong affinity even if you have never met. As Mary put it with her usual succulent wit in one of her latter emails, “friendship was meant to be.” Serendipity and odd coincidence, however, had a big part to play in Mary’s friendships and relationships.
After graduating from Loughborough in 1996, Mary returned to London where she worked in various bookshops in the Charing Cross Road area and finally Marylebone Books in the University of Westminster. She began working in libraries in 1997, initially as a graduate library assistant in Brunel University, before going on to take a MA in Information Management at Thames Valley University from 1999 to 2000. After moving to Heaton Moor in Stockport on the perimeters of Manchester in 2002, Mary worked in a medical library, before spending the last thirteen years as a librarian at the University of Manchester.
Mary packed an enormous amount into her life. She worked as well for several years as a promoter in the Blue Cat Café, a small venue, in Stockport. She managed a band Outsider, who under her management changed their name from Stalker, were playlisted on XFM and won a session on Janice Long. After Outsider split up, she managed another local artist too, singer-songwriter Hayley Faye, under the moniker of I Can Hear Music Management. Mary also had a strong interest in alternative medicine, and trained as a Bowen therapist.
Her ultimate passion though was for writing.
A Manic Street Preachers fan, she was heavily affected while she was at Loughborough by their lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards’ infamous disappearance from the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater on the 1st February 1995. In a move that was typically positive in spirit and feeling the need to reach out and share what they meant to her, she formed a Manic Street Preachers fanzine, ‘Terrible Beauty’.
‘Terrible Beauty’ ran across seventeen initial editions. It took Mary to both fan and fanzine conventions across the UK, including four that she helped to co-organise specifically for the Manics’ fanbase between 1998 and 2002. After a few days away she would also frequently return home to find letters from their fans piled high behind the door.
Running ‘Terrible Beauty’ had its bizarre side, as perhaps was inevitable for such an outsiders’ band as the Manics and a community in long-term grief at the loss of one of its principal members. Some of those letters would run to ten pages long, and sometimes Mary would take calls from young fans in the phone box outside the flat she was living in at the time near Ealing Common wanting her to come out and give them her autograph, it being the closest they could get to the Manics’ themselves.
In January 2003, Mary closed ‘Terrible Beauty’. While she reprised it for a one-off final edition in 2015, she decided to instead to focus on a new venture, ‘Urban Scrawl’, a fanzine to celebrate the musical community in her new home city of Manchester, and ‘Urban Foxx’, a sister record label to accompany it.
Vivienne Lindley was Mary’s closest friend for over twenty years and her flatmate for the all the fifteen years that Mary lived in Stockport. She was Mary’s latter co-editor at ‘Terrible Beauty, and co-ran with her ‘Urban Scrawl’ and ‘Urban Foxx’, which released records by the indie bands Small Victories, 50Hz and Desolation Angels.
She recalls this on email about ‘Urban Scrawl’ and ‘Urban Foxx’:
“We started ‘Urban Scrawl’ in January 2003. It ran for two issues and focused on music and culture in Manchester. The first issue featured Haven on the cover and an in-depth interview with them. The second issue followed later in 2003 with Desolation Angels on the cover and also an in-depth interview.”
“As for ‘Urban Foxx’, we founded the label in 2002 as we moved to Manchester in October of that year. Small Victories was our maiden release - UF001 - and was a double A-side 'Holding On Hopefully'/'Spare Parts'. It was followed by a 50Hz single, 'In the Town'. We worked extensively with Desolation Angels with the intention of putting out an album on our ‘Urban Foxx’ label. Eventually the album 'Asylum' was released on a new label we had started with a third party (Danny Donnelly who owned the Blue Cat Café) called Blue Cat Records. We also put out two singles with the band - 'Asylum' and a double A-side 'Ringroad'/'Steppenwolf'. A further compilation album called 'Out of the Blue' followed. This featured bands such as Haven, Desolation Angels, Tom Hingley & the Lovers and Lee Griffiths.”
Mary was also the author of two books, a rock biography ‘Between the Lines: A History of Haven’ (2012) and a novel, last year’s ‘A Certain Kind of Light’.
‘Between the Lines’ tells of the story of Haven, an indie rock band of the late 1990s and early 2000s from Cornwell , who were discovered by Joe Moss, the former manager of the Smiths, while he was on holiday there. Moss, who became their manager and mentor, encouraged Haven to move to Manchester, where they signed a deal with Radiate Records, an offshoot of Virgin Records and released two albums, 2002’s ’Between the Senses’ which was produced by Johnny Marr, and 2004’s ‘All for a Reason’.
Despite having Top 30 hits in 2002 in the UK with the singles ‘Say Something’ and ‘Till the End’ and touring in both America and Japan to promote ‘Between the Senses’, Haven’s early success was not to last. The recording of ‘All for a Reason’ was plagued by studio problems, Radiate closed down in 2005 and while a third, self-produced album was recorded it was never released. Haven eventually disintegrated as its members drifted apart and away from each other into other bands.
In parallel to this, ‘Between the Lines’, which is partially autobiographical, also reflects on Mary’s own growing relationship with the band, recalling how, after interviewing them for ‘Urban Scrawl’ shortly after her arrival in Manchester, she discovered in an absolutely remarkable piece of syn-chronicity and coincidence that she and Viv had moved into the house next door to them.
In an unusual twist on the rock biography format, ‘Between the Lines’ is as much a reflection on friendship, Mary’s own with the group and its four members’ relationship with each other, as it is about the rise and slow fall of a band.
Fate also has a part to play in the extraordinary ‘A Certain Kind of Light’, which was published in May. In it, its narrator Eileen McCarthy moves from Manchester to South London and ironically Balham to take up a job as the arts editor on a local listings magazine, and meets Charlie Gitane, an actor and the head of a local theatre company who she has already felt attracted to after watching him on television and in a theatre play. Eileen feels an instant bond with him, but Charlie, involved with one girlfriend and then after they break up with another whom he eventually becomes engaged to, never returns Eileen’s love.
‘A Certain Kind of Light’ steps into magical realism. Eileen has colourful nightly dreams which she feels she needs to untangle if she is to understand her relationship with him and sees a psychic who persuades her that she and Charlie are twin souls or flames, whose connection is so strong that it is overpowering and potentially destructive for both of them.
‘A Certain Kind of Light’ for me, although and perhaps because I am an agnostic, asks imperative questions about what we perceive as being real, and acknowledges the fact that there are matters in this world and possibly beyond it which we can’t explain. Other writers and reviewers too have acknowledged how beautifully it captures the intensity of being in an unrequited love affair, that claustrophobia when you cling onto every returned smile and email for days. I can honestly also say as a regular visitor to Balham, where the majority of it is set, that I have never seen this most ordinary of London suburbs in the same way again after reading ‘A Certain Kind of Light’. Eileen herself ultimately becomes unconvinced that her and Charlie really are twin souls, and realises that she has to learn to love herself first if she is to love anyone else properly. Despite working on it for three years, Mary was, however, initially wary about publishing ‘A Certain Kind of Light’, feeling that it might be misinterpreted and people might find it too odd. She sat on it for over a year, only changing her mind after she was diagnosed with cancer and it gave her the prompt she needed to put it out. It is an important, courageous book. If there is a good thing that has come out of her cancer, then that is it.
Mary joined Pennyblackmusic in January 2014, having previously spent a year writing for Melanie Smith’s excellent online publication ‘Mudkiss Fanzine’ until its closure, and quickly became a much valued and highly regarded member of our team. She especially enjoyed writing the ‘Ten Songs That Made Me Love…’ column, and compiled together four of the series on Blondie, New Order, David Bowie and The The. She also hoped eventually to write a piece for it on the Manic Street Preachers.
She was kind. I know this because she was kind to me. She was aware of how rewarding it can be putting a magazine together, how satisfying it can be pulling all its different parts into place and seeing the finished result online or in print. She knew also, however, of what else it can involve, all the regular late nights, the feeling of constantly being on call, and how if you are not careful because it involves so much work usually on top of a day job that you can sometimes feel that your life is no longer your own.
There are times in which it has been too much, and I have had to ask for help. She was not alone in offering her support, but she was always amongst the first to volunteer. She helped run our Twitter feed. She worked as a sub-editor and proof reader, and proved really good at it. In contrast to those others who have given their time in this way, most of whom I had known for years and largely had the chance to go out for lunch or a drink or out to gigs with, she was still relatively new at Pennyblack when she started to assist behind the scenes as well as in front of house. It says I think a great deal about her as a person that she was prepared to help someone she had never met, and it did a lot to push on and cement our friendship.
At her funeral, a letter was read out which a seven year old Mary had written to Santa Claus during the Christmas of 1973. In it, she wrote that she understood that he must be very busy and that it might, therefore, not be possible as he had lots of other children to get around, but if he could leave for her a doll she would be very grateful. That was my experience of Mary, always thinking about the other person. It is perhaps not surprising that she was a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, our most compassionate party leader in thirty-five years. She was involved also with various equal rights and women’s groups.
I have since then heard other stories about Mary’s concern for others. Jonathan Tindale met Mary when they were both working as library assistants in Brunel University. They then both went on to do MAs in Information Management at the same time. His 2015 first book ‘Squashed Possums’ tells of his experiences living in a caravan in an isolated part of New Zealand, and his second book ‘Daddy Day Care’, another memoir about how in a reversal of traditions he stayed at home to look after their small children while his wife went back to work, is due out later this year. He credits Mary with helping to start his writing career.
“Mary was quite clearly the cool one, dressed in black and interviewing rock stars,” he recalls. “She'd sit in the staff room reading books on ley lines. On reflection, Mary was always supporting other people in their creative endeavours, the Manics, answering their fans’ letters, and then also in Manchester, with Haven, the gig promoting, always pushing other people into the limelight. She gave me my first publishing opportunity when I wrote an awful review of a friend's gig. She read all my early drafts and was always so supportive. I might not have stuck with writing if it hadn't been for her.”
Mary was also brave. In her first email to me, after she was diagnosed, she said that she knew she had to stay positive, and she did, remaining despite months of chemo, optimistic, resilient, humorous.
She, however, knew when to stop. When the cancer came back in April, there was more chemo, a massive operation in August that left her exhausted, and briefly real hope. In October, she was hospitalised twice in quick succession, and more cancer was found. In early November, with more chemo being all that was on offer and the outcome definitely the same, she decided to stop her treatment.
She died five weeks later in the early hours of 10th December on her own terms and at home in her own bed.
There was more serendipity at the funeral. It took place on what would have been Richey Edwards’ 50th birthday. Mary had had the time to plan her funeral, and the reception took place at the Night and Day Café and music venue where Mary had first met and interviewed Haven for ‘Urban Scrawl’ shortly after her arrival in Manchester. It was also, in an incidental twist of fate, where I had arranged to meet her before she had to abandon our meeting a few months before.
At Night and Day Viv Lindley showed Jon Tindale; Leila Kassir, another friend of Mary’s from London, and me a series of photographs that she had taken on the day that Mary’s copies of ‘Between the Lines’ had arrived at their flat from the publishers. The photos show Mary in a black dress clutching the box they came in, bending her body into the most remarkable shape as she places it on the ground and prises it open and then a look of total joy and happiness flashing over her face as she opens one of the books for the first time. They encapsulate for me much of what I came to know and admire and really like about Mary during the time I knew her – her creativity, her passion, her love of music and enthusiasm for life.
It is how I will always remember her.
John Clarkson would like to extend thanks to Vivienne Lindley, Jonathan Tindale and Leila Kassir for their help with this article. The photographs that accompany it were all take by Vivienne Lindley.
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901 Posted By: Daniel Reid, Blackburn on 01 Nov 2019
So sad to recently learn of Mary’s passing. Mary took a chance on my band back in the Blue Cat days and really created some fantastic memories for us. She is often in my thoughts not only for being a kind gentle soul but also because Mary gave us our name! When we first met Mary she swiftly did away with our terrible creepy band name “Stalker” and decided because we were the out of towners from Blackburn we should be called “Outsider” which we happily accepted and I’m pleased to say we are still “Outsider” today, we never did split up. It’s an honour to have that little gift from Mary and we will treasure it and wear it proudly for years to come!