'Chocolat' author condemns 'bigots' of Barnsley who teased her as a child

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The Independent Online

It is a place that symbolises the very essence of Yorkshire grit, a proud former mill and mining town immortalised in the film Kes and home of the renowned Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Yet Barnsley, according to the author Joanne Harris, was a narrow-minded place to grow up in.

The writer of the best-selling novel Chocolat has told how she suffered bigotry and prejudice in the South Yorkshire town as a child because of her half-French background.

The attack on her home town in an interview with Yorkshire Life magazine comes three years after she quit her birthplace to move just outside Huddersfield.

Other citizens of the town were quick to dispute her remarks.

"She's really letting the side down because Barnsley has been very good to her," said Dickie Bird, the former Test umpire. "I know she's talking about the past, but I've never known anything like that in my time here."

Other famous sons of the town include the broadcaster Michael Parkinson, the Essex and England cricketer Darren Gough, and the former miners' leader Arthur Scargill.

John Threlkeld, deputy editor of the Barnsley Chronicle, also a native of the town, added: "This has always been a very, very friendly place, not bigoted at all. I think this is a problem with Ms Harris rather than with us."

This feeling is echoed in a letter being published in the local paper from former neighbours of Ms Harris who said she was getting "too big for her boots".

In the interview Ms Harris admits to being teased over being half French as a child and is quoted as saying: "Barnsley is a small, parochial town full of bigots. It's the least cosmopolitan place there is. There is a static community where there has never been much of an ethnic community, unlike Bradford or Huddersfield, and foreigners are quite rare." She added: "My mum's French and that made our family quite unusual and I think people thought we were a bit peculiar. Anyone not from Barnsley is singled out, it's inevitable. It wasn't always bad, but we were an unusual family to people; we lived differently, we ate differently and we spoke a different language. We were all a bit curious to people."

She was born in the town in 1964, after her mother had moved there to teach French at Barnsley Girls High School. After studying at Cambridge, she returned to the area, where her parents still live, and taught French and German for 15 years until her writing took off.

Ms Harris stressed last night she was talking about the Barnsley of the late 1960s and early 1970s rather than the modern town.

"It was very different then. People had only seen the French on television and things like continental quilts and yoghurt were still relatively unknown. Every-thing is very different now and those attitudes no longer exist. The town has moved on and is continuing to change and I feel I've been doing my part, by doing things like opening bookshops and working with writing groups, to help correct stereotypes about Northern towns."

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