Some translation and explanation may be required before I begin this story for the benefit of people who are not familair with all things Geordie. People who come from Tyneside in the North East of England and more specifically, from Newcastle upon Tyne, are called Geordies and the language that we speak, bears the same name. It’s a unique and powerful dialect that is often incomprehensible to other English speakers and it reflects our history and the pride that all Geordies feel in our heritage. This story is not written in Geordie but there are some words that may need clarification – a note on the use of ‘me’ – it’s Geordie for ‘my’ and is most commonly used about family members – me Mam, me Dad, me Grandma but when actual names are used, ‘our’ is substituted for ‘me’, as in our Jill, our Lynne. Even more correctly in Geordie, we say ‘wor’ instead of ‘our’….wor Jill, wor hoose. A bairn is a small child.
I was born in 1952 in Newcastle General Hospital and I had a spooky experience once when I met a woman who was born on the same day, in the same place – we were probably incubator neighbours – we looked at each other and wondered if we’d been swapped.
The first house that I lived in isn’t there anymore. Chapman Street, in the East End of Newcastle was pulled down as part of the development of the Metro sometime in the late 70s. It was a long row of Tyneside Flats – front doors in pairs – the first one leading to the downstairs flat which had two bedrooms and the next door went upstairs to a three-bedroom flat. When the women cleaned their doors and their frontstep, they would kneel on the inside and wash a semi-circle of the pavement in front of the door as far as they could reach. Grandma Webb reckoned you could tell what kind of house it was by the state of the front door and the clean pavement.
My parents had moved into number 79 Chapman Street when they got married and my first memory is sitting in a wooden swing between two doors, probably before I could walk. Granda and Grandma Webb, me Mam’s parents, lived upstairs with Aunty Maureen and Granda was a fireman on the railway. The main London to Edinburgh line ran just behind the house and they were all steam trains then so someone had to keep the fire stoked up. Imagine going to work everyday and looking at a whole railway truck full of coal and knowing that you have to shovel all of that into the boiler. His regular trains were the ‘Flying Scotsman’ and also the ‘Mallard’ – this train still hold the world speed record for a stream train – set in 1938 – impressive.. I always imagined him leaning on one elbow, hanging out the window with one hand and pulling the whistle with the other. He would be black with the coal dust when he came home and I loved it when he took his cap off – the whole of the top of his head and half his forehead was white, then there was a line and the rest was black. He also had black gums on his false teeth – nothing to do with the coal and he would jiggle them up and down to scare us. I didn’t think of it when I was little but I’d loved to have gone on the train with him – that’s a memory I’d have liked to have. I probably got my love of trains from Granda Webb – it’s in the blood.
Our house had a long hallway called the ‘passage’ and this was a playroom for me and me sisters. It would have been unthinkable to play in the bedrooms – they were just empty all day long. They were for sleeping, for being ill, and later on, they were the place of punishment when you’d be sent to bed. The way that we use that one space has changed so dramatically in the last twenty years. These days, kids live in their bedrooms – it’s their space. As children, we didn’t have our own space, just the bits outside where we were allowed to play. Toilets have changed too. In Chapman Street we had an outside toilet. You had to walk through the yard to get to it. It was cold and dark and one of the hard things about growing up was when you got old enough to go to the toilet on your own – scary. I wonder if that’s where I got my fear of spiders from. Next to the toilet was the coal shed and every week the coal man would drive up the back lane and pour a couple of bags of coal into the shed. These guys were black like Granda but they wore different clothes – leather waistcoats and a big sack thing on their heads so they could sling the big bags of coal up on their shoulders.
Coal, ships and football – essential, basic elements of the heritage of being a Geordie. Football came into my life much later and sadly, my only real involvement with the coal part of my heritage is my everlasting anger at the way the miners were treated by the government in the 80’s. But coming back to ships, if you drive east out of Newcastle, along the Coast Road for example, you can look south over the river around Wallsend and Jarrow. There’s a big bend in the Tyne there where they launched the huge ships and the main thing that you see are cranes – loads of them in all shapes and sizes looking like flocks of colourful, bizarre birds. That’s my heritage. They’re not shipbuilding cranes anymore but they used to be, great huge things dwarfing and defining the view all around and being used to build enormous ships.
As I grew up, ship-building was on the wane on Tyneside. There were still a lot of Yards – the main one being Swan Hunter’s. My Uncle Mickey worked there but he was often laid off – between ships I guess. I think his job title was ‘holder upper’ – something to do with holding things in place for welding but that’s got to be one of the best job titles ever. There used to be a street in Wallsend called Leslie Street, sadly gone now. It was two short rows of terraced flats with a wall across the end. Beyond this wall was one of the main slipways at Swan’s and as the ship grew, it dwarfed the houses. They were building some huge tanker once and me Mam took us down to Leslie Street – I had never seen anything so big. It towered above the houses and I imagined coming out of those doors everyday and seeing this thing getting bigger and bigger.
People were proud of the ships that had been built on the Tyne. I remember me Mam telling me about The Kelly, a warship of some kind that had been a bit smashed up in the war. She, the ship not me Mam, had limped back to Tyneside where she had been built and hundreds of people lined the river to cheer and cry and welcome the ship home to be repaired like a lost child. I think me Mam always cried when she told that story but the ship was a Geordie – that says it all.
When we were little, we played in the Passage – me and our Jill and our Lynne. We had baby dolls first, including a black doll that our Jill had that we called the Darkie Doll. But the Teenage Dolls were the best – they had breasts and Marilyn Monroe hair. This was way before Barbie. The dolls were about two foot high, white of course, and gorgeous. Even though they were all the same, we could recognise features on our dolls so we always knew our own. Later we were allowed to play out and then we had two different worlds to play in. The front street was long, going up to Chilly Road, with a lane cutting across it and a corner shop at the end of our block called Daisey’s – she was a little thin woman with round glasses who of course wore a pinny like the
other older women. I was thinking about that woman who invented the wrap around dress and wondered if she got the idea from the pinny. It was a wrap-around dress with no sleeves and it was usually made in some tiny floral print – very useful and very ugly and thankfully, not very much of my mother’s generation. She always wore the kind of pinny that you tie around your waist, like the perfect mothers portrayed in the 50s. The women who wore big pinnies also tied scarves around their heads like a turban probably to hide their curlers. I’m pleased to note that me Mam never wore a turban.
We learned about territory, not in a gang kind of way but just knowing where the boundary of your world was. Basically it was where your Mam could see you. At the bottom of the street was an office block belonging to Parsons and it had quite a grand entrance with tiled steps and a roof. We would play there in the evenings or at the weekends when the office was closed. Parsons also had a load of factories along Shields Road Front (as opposed to Shield’s Road where the shops were) and they made very, very big things. Sometimes all the traffic would be stopped while an enormous Pickford’s lorry, a low loader with hundreds of wheels, would carry some huge round metal thing either in or out of the factory. We never knew what they were for and as we hadn’t grown up with a constant diet of children’s TV, our horizons were pretty small. Spaceships hadn’t even been thought of, so we didn’t imagine that they were rockets to the moon. I wonder if I’d even noticed the moon then. I was probably never out at night except in the winter when we went to my other grandparents who lived over in Scotswood on the other side of the town.
That journey involved getting two buses and we’d usually go on a Sunday, after lunch (we obviously called it ‘dinner’ – lunch was a thing of the future) and leave when it was dark. We’d walk down the very steep hill of Greenhow Terrace to the bus stop on Scotswood Road opposite the pub called the Hydraulic Crane – so much a part of our heritage that we name pubs after them. Scotswood Road is the main route west out of the town along the river and it was a busy road with lots of bus routes. City buses are yellow and were all double deckers and I would watch these strange and exotic red, single decker buses going to places called Stella, Stanley, Pity Me or Crook. I had no idea where these places were or that Stella was an ugly old power station, but it seemed more exciting than ‘Wallsend’ that was on the front of our bus. That must have been my earliest bit of curiosity and wondering what’s around the next corner.
But my world was actually in the back lane. There were only houses on one side of the lane. On the other side was a row of small factories and I have no idea what was made or repaired there but the biggest one was the main attraction for us. They did big noisy things with metal, a small foundry I suppose, and we’d stand by the huge open doors and watch men with masks making big white sparks while other big things were banged and moved around and the whole place smelt of rust. Best of all was when the overhead crane was moving like a ski-lift across the factory floor but I don’t suppose I’d heard of skiing then either.
We were one of the first people in the street to have a TV and I used to watch ‘Watch with Mother’ when an awfully posh woman would call us ‘children’ and ask if we were sitting comfortably before the programme started. Bill and Ben were my
favourites – I wonder if that’s how I got into gardening. We were also one of the few people to have a car but I guess that was because me Dad was one the few people to have a job. He worked for the ‘Corporation’, Newcastle City Council, as a pavior and every morning he’d put his cycle clips on, pick up his bait (his lunch) and go off to work. His best mate at work was Bobby Brown and he would spend a lot of time at night moaning about the foreman who was called Robbo. That’s all I really knew about me Dad’s job. He laid pavements and when it snowed he got overtime for working on the gritters.
He must have got paid weekly, on a Friday because then he’d always bring us something for a treat, often from the fish shop: a packet of crab’s legs or willicks, things that took a long time to eat. We were given hair clips to eat the crab’s legs and pins to get the willicks out. Also on a Friday the Popman would come round. This was just like a milk float only it had glass bottles of pop, loads of different kinds that we would have a fight about before he came. The flavours seemed so real and strong but I guess our diet was generally healthy in a post war austerity kind of way. We didn’t have loads of highly flavoured things and there wasn’t much fruit around so it all tasted pretty powerful to us. Dandelion and Burdock and Ice Cream Soda were my favourites.
Me Mam was a fully paid up member of the Co-op. Probably the first number I ever had to remember was her ‘Divi’ number. It was about eight digits long and every purchase was registered so that at the end of the year you got a dividend back which was a percentage of your shopping – great idea and I love the whole co-op principle. They were one of the biggest landowners in
Britain after the Church and everybody had a Co-op nearby – the Stores as we called it. The problem with the Divi was that you had to go and collect it from the main Co-op offices in the town in what was actually a very beautiful art deco building. Sometimes me Mam must have been desperate for it because I remember standing in a huge long queue that wound around the fourth floor of the store for hours. We played among the rails of clothes along with loads of other kids. I don’t think she knew how much she’d get till she got to the counter but it was obviously worth it.
The Stores had everything. There was traditionally a small row of shops: the grocery, butchers, hardware and clothes. A few years ago, I worked in a community centre in Manchester that was in a traditional old Co-op building with five shops on the ground floor and offices and a dance floor upstairs. The one we went to from Chapman Street is gone now. There was sawdust on the floor, wooden counters and huge blocks of butter and cheese. We got milk from the Co-op too – seven pints a day of full fat milk and you paid for it with little plastic tokens. That’s why we had custard everyday.
There weren’t any trees in Chapman Street but Heaton Park was about twenty minutes walk away. Me Mam would get the pram out, a big old Victorian-looking thing with leather straps for suspension and a basket underneath for all the sandwiches and stuff and we’d go off with a picnic for the day.
There used to be about eight main tributaries into the Tyne from the north side but the only one now visible is the Ouseburn and along its route is one of the best park systems in any city in Britain – Jezzy Dene. When my children were small and we had no money, we’d go for walks along the whole of the length. Actually I don’t think we ever did it all – it must be about five miles. Jesmond Dene is the park area that runs along the Ouse and is in a gorge which is quite deep in parts. It spreads out in places to a few different parks. At the top end is Paddy Freeman’s, then Armstrong Bridge, and then Heaton Park which covers a huge area and is just a wonderful exciting place to walk. It was the country for us when we were little. My sister Lynne and I had children about the same age. We both had no money when they were small and we were both single parents on benefit. We’d go off to the beach or to Jezzy Dene with a picnic for the day, pretty much as my mother had done although we didn’t have a big pram.
The other place we went to often when I was little was the coast. It’s only about twelve miles from Newcastle to the sea and there’s a line of different beaches between Tynemouth and Blyth about twenty miles long. Before the Metro was built there was a train line from the central station to the four different stops along the seafront. We’d usually get off at Cullercoats but we always walked along to the Long Sands. Me Mam thought Cullercoats Beach was too common.
The temperature of the North Sea is probably around five degrees all year. I had never experienced warm water until I went to Goa about thirty years later, so I just thought that freezing cold water that makes your toes numb was normal. We’d get up, see the sunshine and decide to go to the coast for the day. Aunty Pat would probably come with her kids and we’d load up the prams and walk up to Heaton Station and on to the train to Cullercoats. We’d get on the train in bright sunshine and we’d get off in a freezing fog which may, or may not lift during the day, but we never went home no matter how cold it was. We’d get a tent, a big green canvas thing that you hired for the day. They don’t have them now and I wonder what North Tyneside Council did with all of those tents. Me Mam and Aunty Pat would sit on deck chairs and drink tea from the flask and we’d run around with jumpers over our bathers. The tide goes out a long way at the Long Sands and when it was really foggy, you just walked ahead and then you were lost. Everything went quiet, it was grey all around and you lost all sense of direction – the sea was gone, your Mam was gone. You might hear the distant sound of some kids crying because they were lost too, but I thought it was great and a bit scary to walk around in it and then be surprised at where you were when you came out or you’d suddenly hit the water.
When it’s not foggy at the coast, it’s glorious. It isn’t very often warm, I must be honest about that, the temperature of the sea and the wind from Siberia see to that, but the light is magical. It may be biting cold and your cheeks are stinging but the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the air is exhilarating. Lynne and I followed in me Mam’s footsteps and brought our kids up on freezing cold beaches too.
Me Dad had two weeks holiday, the last week in July and the first in August, and we almost always went away somewhere, usually up to the coast of Northumberland. It’s a secret that I reluctantly share that we have some of the best beaches in the British Isles along the coast of Northumberland. I don’t really want to share this information because one of the brilliant things about these beaches is that there is no-one on them. I guess that could be partly to do with the temperature and the wind but beaches are not just for sunbathing.
We had a Standard 8 car. It was black – that’s about all I can remember about it. Me Dad still went to work on his bike so maybe we only used it at weekends. This was the first in a long line of vehicles that my father owned each of which had some kind of impact on our lives and various ongoing problems. That first car was probably one of the very few in the street and whereas now, you’d be lucky to find a parking space outside your door, then I guess, the car stood out a mile. Looking at old photos of Tyneside, you can guess the date by the very low numbers of cars in the street.
I started school in this house. We didn’t have things like playschool or a nursery class in those days. You just started proper school in the September of the academic year you were five in. My birthday is in July so I was one of the youngest in the class. I must have had very high expectations of school since I came home crying after the first day because I couldn’t read.
It was North View School, which also isn’t there anymore. It must have been a Victorian building, because I think me Grandma had gone to that school too. My first teacher was Miss Turk and she had one blue eye and one brown. I thought she was wonderful and would sometimes ‘help’ her by tidying up her desk and her drawer. I don’t think she was very impressed with that and now I wonder if she repressed my natural tidy nature and that’s why I live in a permanent mess.
One thing I really miss from those days was Sunday. Actually there are two sides to that: Sundays can be the most boring and depressing day of the week when time seems to stand still and nothing happens, but sometimes we’d go into The Town (me Mam thought it was common to say The Toon) just for a walk around and enjoy the fact that the shops were closed and there was hardly anyone around. We’d saunter slowly around, looking in shop windows and stopping in Marc Tony’s for an ice cream. You miss all that when you’re just shopping. Shoppers rarely look up for instance. The architecture in Newcastle is glorious and the tops of the buildings often have cute little turrets or round attic spaces. I used to dream about living up in one of them and spending my time looking down at the shoppers. And there were millions of starlings. I loved it when we walked through the Toon in the early evening when we were coming back from Grandma McGowan’s. This would be the time when all the starlings would move from one roof top to another. The sky would go black and there’d be a great noise of wings and squawking. They got rid of them all when the city was modernized. I suppose that lots of bird poo isn’t really wonderful for beautiful, historic buildings and when they built smart, bright concrete 70s buildings they wanted them to stay clean. I’m glad I knew the starlings though.