I think I was about seven when we moved to Irthing Avenue in Walker. It was the shortest time we lived anywhere when I was little but some of the most important threads in my life started here. It was the upstairs of a pair of flats but these were like semis with tiny gardens in the front and an alleyway at the side. The backlane was unusual on Tyneside because it wasn’t wide enough for a car- it was a pedestrian backlane with cobbles and a gutter running down the middle like a Manchester ginnel. Me dad built a bench seat in the yard and as nobody else had a seat, all of our friends used to play in our yard. But this house had no shortage of good places to play – in front of the house was a big rectangle of waste ground. The weeds grew really high and we would lie amongst them, unseen by the world, we thought.
On the other side of the backlane was Allendale Road, running north to south down to Walker Road and the river. This was my first connection with the Tyne. I don’t know if I’d even been over it at that point – we wouldn’t have had any connection with South Tyneside but imagine spending seven years in Newcastle and not knowing the Tyne, but I was only a bairn.
Standing on Allendale Road, looking south, you have a panoramic view of Jarrow and Hebburn – or Heaven as I thought I’d heard. It puzzled me for a long time that anyone would name a place ‘Heaven’ but looking at that view probably did have some kind of spiritual influence on me. I had never really looked up before – my world was on the ground – I didn’t even climb trees. We lived in the city – there weren’t any nearby. But here I could see ‘another place’ – it had streets, roads and buildings and best of all was the view at night. The whole scene was a latticework of yellow street lights. Main roads had a brighter yellow and you could follow the route. Some of the little streets had white lights – the whole effect was magical. I couldn’t see any people but, I’d never been there – that was the main thing – and I wanted to go. That’s a feeling I’ve had a lot in my life but I can’t believe that the first place I ever wanted to go was Jarrow.
I never knew anyone who had a garden but I knew what an allotment was and just across Walker Road, on the slope down to the river, were hundreds of allotments. It was all fenced off with a big double gate and inside was like a little town – the main road went down and there were streets off on each side – rows of fences and gates leading to each allotment. When we were having lamb for Sunday dinner, I got to go to the allotments to buy a bunch of mint. I loved going on my own. It felt so important and grown up opening those big gates and then, straight in front of me, down the hill was the river – a big, fascinating piece of water.
I don’t know how me mam made a connection with one of the allotments but she showed me exactly where to go. I had never seen anything so beautiful as that allotment – I had no idea if I was looking at a flower or a vegetable but there they all were – colourful and abundant in neat little rows. It also vaguely registered that there was a little house there and the people were often sitting down drinking tea – probably spacing out at the view. I would never have got any work done if I had a garden there. In another part of my life, I had an allotment in Newbiggin by the Sea and from the top half of the garden you could see the sea not very far away through the dunes. I spent a lot of time resting on my fork, just watching the waves.
Sometimes when we didn’t have lamb, I’d go and get a bunch of sweet peas and walk back with my nose in the flowers – a scent that is now in my ‘smell memory file’ for ever. As I walked back home, I could smell Sunday Dinner coming from the houses – roast meat, gravy and Yorkshire Pudding. Smell is brilliant. I love the way that a fleeting glimpse of an aroma can transport me over miles and years. Fresh roasted coffee takes me back to the Old George pub down the Bigg Market and the courtyard at the back of Pumphries Coffee House – a wonderful place that of course isn’t there now. Patchouli oil is the 70s. and there’s a special smell associated with Allendale Road Park – not the yukky, sickly smell of the Bone Yard that hung in the air when we lived in Enslin Street but the powerful heady smelly of flowering blackcurrant. The bushes lined the edge of the park – which was really just a big empty green space with some swings at the far end. The bushes had been planted long ago in a double row and there was now a tunnel under the branches. We spent the whole of one summer holiday crawling along this space and finding some bigger spaces where we could have picnics or make up games. The smell of the leaves, which I suppose is bit like cat piss, was on our clothes and hair for the whole six weeks and it’s imprinted in my brain forever.
What a long time that was then. Six weeks holiday. School was ok but the joy of that feeling of endless freedom stretching ahead when we ran out of school on the last day was almost overwhelming. I went to Bolam Street School then – a big grey Victorian building with separate girls and boys yards to play in and outside toilets. The only thing I remember about that school was being told to take a piece of green glass in one day so that we could all watch the eclipse. It was pretty dramatic but I don’t think we got any science with it.
When I was little and you wanted to play with someone, you went and called on them – literally. You would stand outside in the lane or maybe just inside of their gate, depending on their parents, and just call out their name ‘Gillian, Gillian, are you coming out?” all shouted with long slow vowels and a sing songy voice. If they didn’t want to come out, no excuse was needed, you just got no answer or their mother would shout ‘she’s not coming out, she’s been naughty’ just like that scene in the Life of Brian.
We moved a little way down the road to Enslin Street where all of my memories are about playing out with our friends. I have no idea what me Mam and Dad did with their lives but me and me sisters played out for the next three years. The street was quite short – about 30 houses and all except the end two houses were typical Tyneside flats. We lived in the first house and it was a proper house – it not only had an upstairs, it also had an attic, but I don’t recall anything happening with that. In front of the house was a piece of waste land – ‘the wreck’ or maybe it was ‘the rec’ –I’ve never written it down before and I don’t know why it was called that – because it was a wreck or was it for recreation? It was neatly divided into rough ground with the remains of a building – only about three or four bricks high but enough to be a castle or a house. The other half was flat gravel – perfect for skidding on bikes and playing Rounders.
The back of Enslin Street had a short backlane and the houses opposite were on Belmont Street. It was blocked at the top by the wall into the church hall and at the bottom by the houses on Walker Road. Except for when the women had sheets on the line across the lane, this place was ours –it was a complex world of friendships and falling out and secret places. We played a whole range of games; skipping games – regular skipping with a big rope – but also ‘American skips’ when it got invented – a long string of elastic bands that two people held at their ankles and someone did complicated skipping movements. Two baller, hide and seek, sardines, British bulldog, hopscotch, hit the can, statues and of course for two weeks of the year when Wimbledon was on, we all played tennis – the rest of the time the tennis rackets were used for Rounders
The other great game that we played was the precursor to skateboarding – ‘going down Belmont Bank on a skate and a book’. This was very much not allowed – for two reasons. One of the things that we always got for Christmas was an annual – the Beano, the Dandy, the Jackie or whatever comic you were into. The size of these books and their hard covers made them ideal for this game – this was also before roller boots so these were old fashioned roller skates with metal bits that made telltale holes in the book. The other reason it wasn’t allowed was that it was really dangerous. The bank was steep going down towards the river and we would balance – kneeling or sitting – on the book and then launch off down the pavement. It was a long way and with no way at all of steering, we frequently went into the road or into a garden wall but if any of us did make it to the bottom, we had to jump or fall off pretty quick or risk going straight across the road. None of us ever got really hurt but I guess from a parent’s point of view, it wasn’t a good game – we loved it all the more of course because it was forbidden.
Before advertisers and TV people realized that children are a valuable audience, there was no television on Saturday morning – instead we went to The Pictures. The Gloria Cinema was just across Walker Road and – before it got turned into Bingo – it was one of my favourite places in the world. On Saturday morning we’d be in the queue by 9 o’clock with a bag of sweets and when the door opened we’d run in to grab a seat in a mad screaming rush. There was a full programme on for the whole morning – cartoons, slapstick – old Laurel and Hardy stuff, a B movie (usually a Western) and a serial – Captain Marvel was the highlight and the last thing on. When it became clear that the cinema was to close, there were still about twenty episodes of Captain Marvel to go so one Saturday they showed them all together just so we’d know the end –he saved the world of course.
The noise in the Gloria must have been tremendous – I don’t recall anyone ever telling us to be quiet or stay in our seats – in fact I don’t recall any adults around at all – no Health and Safety and risk assessment and nobody ever got hurt. I don’t remember anything being said to us about what we couldn’t do or who we shouldn’t speak to. It was just sort of understood that we knew the rules and the boundaries and we did. Kids seem to have had a lot more common sense in those days. During the summer holidays and on Saturdays we’d go out after breakfast and not come back until dinner time. We had our own world and there were never any adults in it except when we got shouted at for riding our bikes through the wet sheets or something. Or if somebody had had a fight with someone else and it was deemed serious enough by their mother, for her to come out in the lane and do a bit of focused shouting.
Usually on a Saturday, we’d have chips for lunch and I got to go for them. There were two chip shops to choose from each the same distance away, but when me mam didn’t specify ‘hurry up’ then I’d go to the “old Women’s chip shop” down near Pottery Bank. This place was run by three women, apparently sisters. They were all large and wore floral wraparound pinnies and hated each other. There wasn’t much space between the counter and the fat fryers and they would always get in each others way and bicker and argue all the time. Sometimes you had to wait ages to get served while they had a fight although sometimes the customers would join in when they got sick of waiting– great entertainment and pretty good chips too.
And then of course there were ‘hoy oots’ –the highlight of what was often a busy Saturday. Sometimes there’s be a Jumble Sale in the church hall at 9 o’clock (after the demise of the Gloria) – this is an important thread that stayed with me long term from Enslin Street – a love of second hand things and the joy of finding things that other people have thrown out. There’d be a queue and at the head of it would be Nellie Woodbine with her old pram. I don’t think that was her real name but she was notorious as a ferocious grabber of bargains and would fight anyone for what she wanted. We’d head for the ‘toys and things’ table and get loads for our few pennies. Then we’d go and check out if there were any weddings on – hoy oot time.
It was a tradition in the North East to throw (hoy) money out (oot) of the car window as the wedding party drove away and we would be there to get it. Valerie Robson and her sister Vivienne lived across the lane from us. We were often not friends but on a Saturday it really paid to be friends with Valerie – she was quite a large girl and usually managed to get the most from the hoy oot. So we’d stand outside the church shouting “hoy oot, hoy oot” and then scrabble about on the ground for the pennies and occasional sixpence. We’d then get into a huddle with whoever you were friends with that day, count up and head off to the shop to spent it all on sweets and fizzy drinks and go up to the graveyard to have a picnic.
There was such a lot to choose from when you went to spend your pennies at the Sweet Shop. You could get eight Black Jacks for a penny or a penny gob stopper which lasted for the whole day. On the shelves behind the counter were all the big glass jars of sweets that got weighed out. You usually got two ounces for sixpence. There’s a professional sweet shop in Heaton called Clough’s. It’s still there and they only sell sweets. When I was little, it seemed like there were millions of them to choose from. There was also a metal spiral staircase at the back of that shop which fascinated me. I had no idea where it went but it was an ambition of mine to go up it. Sadly I never fulfilled that ambition. Many years later, I was sitting having a cup of tea with my friend Steph in a little shop near Wick in Scotland. There were a number of shelves with big sweetie jars and I went along the lines and told Steph what each one of them tasted like. I was amazed at how many I had eaten at some point in my life – pretty much all of them. Wonderful things like Pineapple Chunks, Peanut Toffees, Rhubarb and Custard – two very distinct flavours in the one sweet. Cola Cubes, Milk Bottles – little rubbery white things shaped like bottles, Parma Violets, Sherbert Lemons and Pear Drops that always made you cough. There were white chocolate drops with hundreds and thousands on them and sherbert filled Flying Saucers but I didn’t like Aniseed Balls or that hard bitter liquorice.
Saturdays were great – Sundays were just Sunday – boring. How was it different? There was something in the air. We went to church and then had a long time over lunch. Somehow you had to be quieter on a Sunday afternoon and of course, you couldn’t play in the graveyard because it was Sunday. Playing out wasn’t the same on a Sunday because lots of people would go to visit their grandparents or go somewhere else and games weren’t the same with smaller numbers. I always reckoned you could look at the sky from your bedroom window and know it was Sunday. There was usually a boring, old film on TV and the only highlight of the day was when Vince’s ice cream van would come tinkling into the lane and all the kids would charge out of the houses for a sixpenny cone.
I did my eleven-plus in Enslin Street, although it always puzzled me that we never actually had a test. Anyway, I passed. I remember me Mam and Dad’s delight that I had a place at Heaton High School – a prestigious and very old fashioned girl’s grammar school with a uniform that didn’t seem to have progressed since the twenties –a hideous pinafore with a sash and a purse belt. Plus you had to wear a hat – either a navy blue panama hat or a beret. This was the 60’s – fashion, music and short skirts – but that all stopped at the doors of Heaton High School. I don’t know how many times I got told off or got a “black mark” for my skirts being too short. We even had regulation navy blue knickers – imagine trying to impose that as a school uniform rule today?
When I first went to Heaton High, we used to dance around the Maypole. I can’t really believe we did that – it seems almost medieval and it wasn’t easy. We all had to stand in circles, holding different colours of ribbon and then do complicated sideways skipping in different directions so you ended up with a fancy pattern of plaited ribbon down the pole. It looked great and it was fun but it was really easy to make a mistake and then of course it all had to be unwound. We were never told why we did it – a bit like reading Jane Austen – they missed out the interesting bit. We were forced to read Northanger Abbey which I never finished and thought was terrible. Why did nobody tell me what the book was really about? How come no-one at that school ever wanted me to be interested in Jane Austen as a feminist? Why didn’t we talk about the pagan rituals of Mayday? I do remember years later sitting with a group of feminists who were astounded that dancing around the Maypole was still happening in the 60’s.
The other fun and ancient thing we did at Heaton High was to play Lacrosse. What a brilliant game. The stick is like an upside down hockey stick with a little net to cradle the ball while you run. There are no boundaries and if you want to tackle someone, you whack their stick with yours and try to catch the ball in the air. Sadly, we were the only school in the area who played it so there was no-one to play against and it dwindled out as a sport at the school.
Another massively significant thing that happened to me in Enslin Street was music. Me dad’s youngest sisters, Brenda and Linda were about ten years older than me and I looked up to them as teenagers. They both had bedrooms that drew me like a magnet when we went to Grandma McGowan’s. They probably hated this annoying little girl who poked around on their dressing tables, but the kindest thing they ever did was give me an old record player. The first record I ever owned was ‘I want to hold your hand’ – the Beatles and the music of the 60s arrived at just the right time for me and I can’t imagine life without it. Living in Britain in the 60s and 70s, life was music. It was everywhere and it was connected with the clothes, art, Swinging London and all that. It’s the expression of youth – rebellion, movement, freedom and that feeling when you’re a teenager that the world doesn’t understand you, but suddenly you hear one song that just connects in your heart and you have to listen to it again and again and again. The Stones “As Tears Go By’ was one of those for me. The Stones and the Beatles somehow don’t go together with dancing round the Maypole. The 60’s were an interesting time. I always think of it as colourful but when I look at pictures of Newcastle then, its all grey and it seems that everyone except young people, were also grey.
I loved my childhood in Enslin Street – we lived in our little world with its own rules and structures that were as fluid as our friendships. I am so glad I was a child then and not have to live in today’s world of fear. I remember coming back to Britain with my own children when they were about five and seven and suddenly realising there were a whole load of new rules – mostly around strangers but actually just about the fear of fear. Yes, we did dangerous things but we sort of knew they were – it was usually dangerous if you instinctively knew that you didn’t tell your parents – but we were all in it together and I suppose we looked out for each other. Maybe we were a bit more aware, I don’t know, but I think we gained more from it all than sitting safely indoors playing computer games – except for hand eye co-ordination of course. It was a time when I didn’t have any cares but maybe that was because I didn’t have any responsibilities and I wasn’t in charge of my own life. I was part of a group –my friends out in the lane and the family. I took an interest in what everybody was doing because they were my life- but 1966 was looming and my life was about to change.