THERE was a phase a few years ago when supermarkets thought it was a good marketing wheeze to advertise themselves as hotbeds of budding romance, with images of love blossoming as burning gazes locked over the chilled ready meals and bin ends of Chardonnay.
Well, it may well have been at another location in the store – likely as not beside the dog biscuits – but, gentle reader, this couple did feel the first piercing dart of love’s arrow for the first time in Tesco.
Sally Goldsmith, a poet and singer/songwriter who was very active on the Sheffield community arts scene, had written and produced a musical show that was about to be performed. Rony Robinson, writer and much loved BBC Sheffield presenter, was involved in a play at a small theatre up the road.
“I had been interviewed by Rony on his Radio Sheffield programme about various things I’d worked on over the years,” says Sally. “I didn’t really know him, but he told me about his show, and I offered him tickets to mine. That’s how it started.”
Spool forward a good few years and the couple, with their new rescue dog, are living in a terraced house in Totley, an apple fall from where Rony grew up and right by the edge of the Peak District. The romance is still going strong, and to be in their company for even a short time is to experience a great sense of the openness and playfulness between them.
“She respects my writing more than I do myself,” says Rony.
Sally: “He doesn’t even keep the scripts of his plays…says they’re disposable…I think you’re a bit of a Yorkshire Dylan Thomas.”
Rony: “If I am I hope I have his kindness, and maybe some of the beer…”
“He thinks I don’t prioritise my poetry enough, but he’s better at juggling,” says Sally.
On her website, she sweetly acknowledges his support of her debut volume of poetry published last year, saying ‘(Thanks to) my lovely Rony for the biggest gift – making every day a chance to play and muck about with words.’
Well, what can you say? Not a lot, except that phrases like “marriage of true minds” pop into your head. Here are two people of a certain age whose relationship with each other – and with the words they craft, hundreds of thousands of them a year – is vital and full of mutual curiosity and amusement.
He has a real common touch as a broadcaster but can also go 15 rounds with the toughest politician. After Oxford University he became a teacher and is still passionate about education. He was first published in 1971 and has been a writer ever since, with more than 100 plays produced on stage and radio, as well as novels and poetry.
In South Yorkshire he is a legend. He modestly says it was Tony Capstick, his late co-presenter on current affairs phone-in shows at BBC Radio Sheffield, who was really the meister. “He was so popular and so brilliant. Some of his popularity rubbed off on me, I suppose.”
Sally is a southerner who studied history of art then got involved in the London political scene. She joined an anarchist collective living in a row of old railways cottages in the Pennines (“It was like Corrie, but in the hills…”), fell in love and had a son. Deciding she didn’t want her baby to be communally owned, she left and moved to Sheffield.
Her path then took her into songwriting, musical performance and community arts projects that enabled ordinary people to tell their story. At one stage she also worked for the city’s art galleries, taking valuable paintings from the collections out to libraries for the community to share and enjoy.
In time, a yearning to write poetry moved to the foreground, and her faint confidence was boosted by an MA in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Today writing poetry makes her more critical of her song lyrics.
But finding her mojo as a poet was a painfully slow process, says Sally. It often takes until middle-age for a female poet to hear her own voice.
“For years I helped others to express themselves and I loved the work but I wasn’t really giving myself a chance,” she says. Her deep involvement in the community, from local history and woodland conservation groups to helping the people of Sky Edge describe the history of their close-knit neighbourhood, may mean her poetry is sometimes on the back burner but she has won acclaim in spite of that. A couple of years ago won a Hawthornden Fellowship prize of a month-long retreat in a castle in Scotland.
Rony and Sally’s house can safely be described as snug. But there’s a surprise waiting up top. Scale two narrow and vertiginous flights of stairs, and the darkness below opens out into a wide open space, a lofty room with windows at either end covering the whole footprint of the house.
A wide expanse of bookshelves purports to have ‘hers’ on the left and ‘his’ on the right, but Rony’s collection has obviously migrated leftward. Some of Sally’s scores of poetry and theatre books have taken refuge in the loo.
In amongst the shelves are pictures of their dear departed dog Maisie, their own balding childhood teddies (sitting close enough to natter), Rony’s mother’s diaries (“The day my father died she simply wrote: ‘This is the unhappiest day of my life’.”), and a knitted Rony complete with headphones sent by a fan.
Ulysses, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, lots of JB Priestley, Dylan Thomas, Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots feature here. There are several books on Edward Carpenter, the 19th century writer, philosopher and gay activist – an interest they share.
There are desks at either wall separated by the large roof light with a view out to the Peaks. Back to back, they work – Rony just quietly doing it, and Sally often finding it difficult to settle.
“I’m easily distracted. I love this room, and I like it when we read each other’s work, but I sometimes need to escape.”
That’s why she’s bought a 1940s caravan as a bolthole to write in. It’s parked somewhere out in the Peaks, with three other poets seeking solitude at the same spot. Sounds like a radio play waiting to be written…
But it’s here in the house that Rony and Sally have co-written successful radio plays – mulling over stories, how many voices to have and what songs Sally could add. Their stories graze over mums and dads in Rotherham, menopausal women and love in old age.
Sally’s electronic piano sits in one corner alongside a melodion with various bits of percussion. Rony plays the autoharp and composes songs. His geeky love of Bob Dylan is not shared by Sally. Books and obscure bootleg albums are his pride and joy. His favourite song is Mississippi.
“We’re always telling each other stories,” says Rony. “It’s as if we give each other permission to be playful. When Maisie died we bought a dog puppet, and we took it on holiday, giving it ’her’ voice. It must sound mad that we ventriloquise our dead dog.”
Rony is “a bit secretive” about his new novel, says Sally. She doesn’t seem to mind. He says he’s writing “an old man’s romantic book”. He may not be the radical Rony of his early years, but he still cares deeply about the same things (social justice, the state of our schools) that exercised him as an idealistic 16-year-old and fuelled his writing.
He finds inspiration in the hundreds of ordinary South Yorkshire folk who ring in to tell their stories to him on the radio each week. “He comes in on a high many days,” says Sally.
“I had an elderly couple call in today,” he adds. “They’d lost their dog, and were debating whether to have another one at their age, and whether they needed to move home to make it easier. I treasure those conversations more than interviewing any politician.”
I leave them to their stories, the couple who got lucky in Tesco.
Tomorrow: Textile designer Joan Murray on the cubby hole of a room she has turned into a walk-in wardrobe and studio in a lovely old terrace in the middle of Skipton.