In a searingly honest book of poetry, Jackie Litherland writes of her rollercoaster life as the partner of an alcoholic. She tells Women's Editor Sarah Foster about the dark times and how she emerged from the other side.

THE words are raw and intimate, so that reading them, you feel almost voyeuristic. "Eyes lit with lust, in you gold dust," begins one poem. Another, on a different note, proclaims: "I'm in my ravaged corner, friendless on the hard floor." With each new line another nuance is revealed. What you're left with is the pure, unvarnished truth of one woman's life with an alcoholic.

The woman in question is Jackie Litherland. I've read her work before we meet and I'm impressed - she writes with passion and intelligence - and I hope she'll be as forthright in the flesh. When I ask about her partner, the late journalist and poet Barry MacSweeney, she is as frank as she can be, but before I broach this difficult subject, we talk of her career.

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"I went to the Regent Street Polytechnic in London in 1954/55, which then offered the only course in England in journalism," says Jackie, a very youthful looking 70. "Then I went straight into a local paper called the Hayes Post as a junior. I came up to the North-East when I got married to Maurice Levitas, who was my second husband. That was in 1965."

Since Jackie, who comes from Warwickshire, was then pregnant with her second child, she stayed at home while Maurice worked. He earned a share of local fame. "He was a lecturer in sociology at Neville's Cross College," she says. "He taught teachers but he was also very politically active. We were both communists. I became a communist in 1956 and joined the party and then it folded under me."

But after the couple had moved to Durham, where Jackie still lives, the marriage broke down. Around this time she found a job. "I just called into The Durham Advertiser and a Mr Hurrell, who was the editor, gave me a job," she says. "I was there for ten years."

It was at a journalism conference that Jackie first met Barry MacSweeney. "I met him in 1976," she says. "I was at The Advertiser and he was at a paper called The Kentish Times, and we met at a National Union of Journalists conference in Buxton. We were both keen trade unionists. I was then separated from my husband and so I was, I suppose, free, but wary, as you are at these sort of times. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend who said to me 'Jackie, I'm going to introduce you to a friend of mine. You'll like him - he's one of us'."

As she explains, she had no thoughts of a relationship. "He was married to Elaine Randell, the poet, so there was no romance," she says. "We were inseparable during that conference then we corresponded for a number of years after that."

Yet what Jackie didn't know was that Barry was an alcoholic. She left her job to take up studies and in the meantime, the pair lost touch. "I left The Advertiser in '84 to go on an NUJ bursary to Ruskin College, Oxford, to pick up my education, because I'd gone in as a cub reporter without a degree or A-levels," she says. "I went to Ruskin for two years then I went to University College, London, to get a degree, then I came back. The Advertiser had closed down and opened up as a free paper and I didn't want to work there, so I became a professional poet. I had my first book out in 1986."

Jackie next crossed Barry's path through Elaine Randell, by then his ex-wife. "I joined a poetry organisation called Colpitts Poetry, which puts on poetry readings in Durham, and Elaine came to read up here," she says. "She said to me 'have you heard from Barry recently?' and I said 'no I haven't', and she said 'I'm worried about him. He's being very difficult so can you get in touch with him?' I said 'I don't know where to start' and she said 'he's working on The Shields Gazette'."

So Jackie rang her former friend and found their bond was still intact. "We talked for about two hours and I asked him to read in Durham and he said he hadn't done many readings for a long time but that he would," she says. "He read in Durham in the early October of that year, which was 1993, and that's when our friendship began again and deepened into romance."

The courtship was slow and rather old-fashioned. Jackie makes it sound idyllic. "We spent a lot of time together going for walks and picnics and talking about writing," she says. "It was idyllic."

Yet Barry's gentlemanly manner masked his addiction, which he was careful not to show. When Jackie finally learned the truth, she failed to grasp its implications. "Eventually he told me but I didn't really know what an alcoholic was," she says. "Being a journalist, I knew what having a drink was because I'd seen it in the industry so I just thought 'he's a journalist, he drinks a lot', but it's completely different. It is an illness. After a few months he would occasionally have these changes of personality. He would suddenly become angry and that would surprise me because he had a very sweet nature."

As Barry battled to curb his drinking, he asked for Jackie's help. At first she refused, afraid she couldn't bear the burden, but he won her over. "I said yes because I could see how difficult it was, so that meant I had to find out a bit more about alcoholism," she says. "I then found out that some of the characteristics that he was displaying were actually part of the addiction."

Then something happened that's haunted Jackie ever since. "It was 1995, a year since we'd started our relationship, and I went over to Barry's house in Newcastle taking fruit and flowers because it was our anniversary," she says. "He said 'I've got a bit of a headache so I'm going to lie down' and suddenly, the most extraordinary thing happened. His head just started to swell until it became almost half the size again. It was swivelling around, then his eyes started to stare into a corner and bulge horrifically, and I was so struck with fear I didn't know what to do. Then he started to shake all over."

Barry was rushed into hospital with Jackie at his side. For 12 long hours, the doctors battled to save his life. "It was extraordinary," she recalls. "They had to keep waking him every ten minutes and his heart was going up and up and up. I said to one of the specialists 'what's caused this?' and he said 'the ravages of alcohol'."

While Barry recovered, the episode left its mark. "I think from that moment on, I lived in fear that it could happen again, that he could just die like that, and I think he did too," says Jackie.

Thanks to her campaigning, when Barry went into rehab, The Royal Literary Fund paid the bill. But this was sadly not enough, and though he fought a valiant battle, he never conquered his addiction. "He said 'I keep failing' and I said to him 'you could say that Barry, but you could also say you keep trying'," says Jackie. "He never gave up trying to stop drinking, and that took a lot of courage. He also never stopped writing. His most famous book is the Book of Demons, and that's the story of his alcoholism."

I ask as gently as I can how Barry died. "He died an alcoholic's death," she says wistfully. "He choked to death. He was alone."

What strikes me most is how forgiving Jackie is; that there is clearly no resentment. "I don't blame him," she says. "This is how addiction works. He did want to marry me - we were thinking about getting married - but to be honest, the periods of sobriety and relapse were never resolved. The idea was that when they were, we would get married. I loved Barry very deeply and he loved me very deeply. It was a great love."

Now, six years on from Barry's death, Jackie says she's reached a point of equilibrium. Thanks to her family, and great support from Vane Women, a writers' group she helped create, she's found the strength to carry on. Above all, she feels compelled to go on living - and for Jackie, that means writing. "There are always things to write about," she says. "You never know where you'll find your inspiration."

l The Work of the Wind by SJ Litherland (Flambard Press, £8.50).

Jackie will give a free talk about the book at Bishop Auckland Town Hall, at 7.30pm tomorrow. Tickets are available by calling 01388-602610 or visiting www.bishopaucklandtownhall.org.uk

l Jackie will launch her next book, The Homage, about former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain, at Durham's Gala Theatre, on October 17, at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £5 and are available by calling 0191-332-4041 or visiting www.galadurham.co.uk