DEWSBURY has been very good to me.
In a career where I have been fortunate enough to perform in the West End, appear on television programmes such as Doctor Who and toured the country, I have never forgotten that it is Dewsbury that grounded me, taught me values and showed me what community really means.
That is why I returned here and have decided to bring my children up in an environment where they will learn those self-same beliefs.
During my journey, I have sadly discovered that the name “Dewsbury” means something very different to those who haven’t had the privilege to have lived, worked or visited there.
I learned this during my first major show, Annie – ironically of course, about overcoming the “hard knock life” to succeed. All that people knew about the town was its link with the Yorkshire Ripper and national (though thankfully, not regional) press coverage has centred around three individual cases that have scarred Dewsbury’s reputation.
A few years later, when I working in London and had had my second child, friends were greatly surprised to discover that I wanted to return home to Kirklees because I believed it a safer environment than the capital. This was in the wake of the July 7 bombings and the national media clamour to identify the lead bomber as being from Dewsbury, what they described as a hotbed for radicalism and division. Then in 2008, there was Shannon Matthews. In his excellent book Chavs: The demonization of the Working Class Owen Jones is one of the few voices to point out that Karen Matthews’s abhorrent actions represent a lone case, not at all representative of the community of Dewsbury who did, after all, pull together to find what was originally believed to be a missing child.
Those jibes continue but it is my hope that the forthcoming BBC drama about the Matthews case looks on the community of Dewsbury sympathetically. Equally disturbing incidents have occurred in more affluent areas and yet their communities have not been lazily and continually tarnished.
There is no disputing Dewsbury has areas of deprivation but it also has a sense of community, diversity and history that should be celebrated.
My father Allan Clegg was general manager of Batley Variety Club in the 1960s – and once brought the likes of Shirley Bassey and Gracie Fields to its stage. I want to play a similar role in making the town vibrant again – which is why I have joined forces with my local hospital to pioneer a campaign that has positivity at its heart.
Our main goal remains to raise funds to make people’s stays in hospital a more comfortable experience. But we have been overwhelmed by the support and a determined desire to portray our area as a safe, warm community where everyone matters.
We began with a 1940s show which raised money to help buy items such as DVDs and CDs for stroke rehabilitation patients. It has also enabled music therapy classes to continue.
My husband – the singer/actor/entertainer Kevin Curtin – was once struck down by Guillain-Barré syndrome, which attacks the nervous system. It was months before he could walk again and so I know how important the smallest comfort items and support can mean to someone facing a long stay in hospital.
Working with consultant gynaecologist Dr Kathryn Fishwick, we are now hoping to raise more cash to pay for state-of-the-art cancer treatment equipment and begin to offer better screening. Future fundraising plans include a charity ball and a murder mystery.
The best bi-product of this campaign has been to see the people of Dewsbury galvanised by a desire to help each other and improve our image.
I began this piece by highlighting how fortunate I have been to enjoy a career in show business. I now run a community fitness business and have been totally inspired by the warmth of my members.
One of my favourite days at work came recently though, when I toured dementia wards at Dewsbury Hospital – just singing a few of the old favourites. I am not ashamed to say I shed tears because what I witnessed was a re-awakening. Patients, full of goodness, reconnecting and re-engaging.
To me this was a powerful metaphor for the whole of Dewsbury. A town where with a bit of positivity, we can create a safe, united and thriving community that is an example to others and where we can all be proud to say: “Dewsbury has been very good to me.”
Karen Clegg is a Dewsbury-born singer, actor and owner of KC Fitness, Dewsbury.