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MANboy GEORDIE

Memoirs of a child in care 

Chapter 1

"Show me a boy of seven and I'll show you the man"

I see a young man with a vision of the future

I see an old man with a memory of the past

Together they are both naive and full of wisdom

What is it that makes up an ordinary man I have to ask?

1.1 1955 (1) Corbridge, Northumberland (Birth at Dilston Hall)

I was born at Dilston Hall, Corbridge, Northumberland, on the banks of the Tyne

which makes me a Geordie; something of which I am extremely proud.

Until the age of eight I celebrated my birthday on the 6th May, and then later on the 4th

although my mother Elsie always insisted that my true birth date was the

5th of the 5th 1955. Such things at that time were of little

importance to the Social Services when taking children into care.

Dilston Hall, is the country seat of the Earl of Derwent, and since making this discovery

I have delighted in telling my family ‘I told you I was of Royal descent’; mainly because having

been blessed with something of a Prince Charles nose they have been merciless

over the years, and so it was nice to turn the tables.

For a while, in dreams, I had decided that I was the illegitimate son of the Earl;

one close friend affectionately calls me Derwent.

Curious about my place of birth I discovered that Dilston Hall was turned

into a maternity hospital after the war as facilities in the area were few

and far between; today it is the headquarters of Mencap and a residential home

for people with learning disabilities and so has had quite a fascinating history.

For now though it’s still 1955.

1.2 1955 (2) Stonehaugh, Northumberland (My Birth family)

Elsie Dorritt (my birth mother)

Charles Henry Morpeth (my birth father)

My parents, Elsie and Charles Henry, already had two children before I arrived.
My sisters Kerrie and Christine were about 4 years and 2 years old respectively
and we all lived in a forestry workers’ cottage in the village of Stonehaugh.
Naturally my Father was an employee of the Forestry Commission at that time.

Outside my first home in Stonehaugh nearly 50 years after I left it

The village was very isolated, as I found out when I returned for a visit
almost 50 years later, consisting only of a few streets and a very small social club
but there was no denying it was a beautiful place to live.
The surrounding scenery gave an ambience of peace that most people could
only dream of although I’m not convinced that my parents felt that way about it.
One thing which delighted me about ‘my’ house, when I finally found it, was that
it was the only one in the village painted completely green, my favourite colour.
A few weeks after returning from my visit to Stonehaugh, a close friend told me
that the village of Stonehaugh was famous for having the biggest swingers
club in the UK! Obviously there was more to that little social club than I had
at first realised.
1.3 1955 (3) Stonehaugh, Northumberland (Disfunctional parents)
It was many years later that I found out Elsie had psychiatric problems.
And according to my Fathers’ sister (Auntie Joan) he (Charles Henry)
suffered from schizophrenia caused by a bullet which had been lodged in his head
since the war.
It’s difficult to know at this point whether this is true because my Aunt was
very protective of her brother, and his family clearly didn’t warm towards Elsie.
Although the family lived in an idyllic location and had an income, it was apparent
that all was not well in the household. Charlie was out at work all day leaving Elsie
at home in a very isolated place with three  children under the age of five; it was
only a matter of time before things imploded.
There’s no doubt alcohol din’t help the situation.
1.4 1956 (1) Tyneside Social Services (Into care)

It isn’t really clear what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but I do
know that the family split up when I was around eighteen months old,
placing me into the care of the social services with my sister Christine.
She would have been around 3 and half years old and, as was the policy, we were sent together to the same children’s home.
Our elder sister Kerrie apparently stayed with Charlie, who returned to his parents
Anthony and Hannah in Rowlands Gill, Co/Durham.

Hannah Morpeth, my Grandmother

Around 30 years after this event, when I finally tracked her down I asked Elsie
directly why she had put me into care. With a practical sort of honesty she said
that she had been receiving benefits but was struggling financially and so went to
the benefits office to ask for more money.
The office refused to pay her more money at which point she placed me
on the counter saying “Well I can’t keep him on 8/- bob-a-week…..
you keep him”; she then walked out.
Over the years, as I began growing into manhood, I developed quite a strong sense
of humour which at one point in my life bordered on the cruel.
It was around then that I first heard this story and my first reaction was that it
was so cool; in some bizarre way it justified my own cutting and sarcastic
sense of humour.
Since then, and having reflected on things often, I have tried to imagine how
a Mother must feel in giving away her child. I can’t.

Chapter 2 – Children’s Home

 


2.1 1956 – 1962 (1) Childrens Home West Boldon Co/Durham (The building)

Although I’m not exactly sure about when I went into the children’s home, other than believing it was sometime during 1956, I do know I remained there until 27 December 1962. Forty two years later, I would return and drive straight to it without the need of a map, to the astonishment of my Wife Carol and my niece Mia.

9 Owen Drive, West Boldon, Co. Durham, was two semi detached houses knocked into one and was situated on a street of houses which I often think of as un-Geordie. Compared with the two-up, two-down terraces synonymous with the area, the Home was very modern for the day. Instead of a front and back yard, the house had front and back gardens with properly laid lawns and finished with knee high fences and a gate.
Inside the house, the downstairs was split into three rooms. From the back door, which was always our entrance, the kitchen/parlour was the first room we would enter, and this was where we spent most of our time. A very long coat rack housed around 20 sets of coats, hats, scarves and boots belonging to the children who were aged up to 18 years old. An equally long wooden table ran almost the length of the room and a chair was provided for everyone. The room was equipped with cooking facilities and Belfast sinks which (when they weren’t being used for pot washing) would double up as a means of scrubbing some of the smaller dirty children. Meals were taken at the table and many of the social activities took place in this room.
Through the kitchen was a community sitting room which I remember being considerably more comfortable than the kitchen. I think the presence of a carpet and armchairs is what gave me that impression although I don’t recall having the pleasure of using it very often. As with most communities the pecking order dictates the way of life and the sitting room had a tendency of being the domain of the older children. At some point during my stay a black and white television was installed although I’m not exactly sure when.
Through the sitting room a lobby housed a front door, the stair well and ‘Aunties’ office; an area we would not normally use during the course of the day unless we were in trouble. The front door was for Auntie and her staff to come and go; the stair well was the way to bed; and Auntie’s office was the last place we wanted to be.
Up the stairs on the top floor one long corridor travelled the length of the house. To the left of the corridor, the girl’s room faced the back garden and to the right the boys’ room faced the street. At the end of the corridor was a bathroom/toilet. The corridor ended with a left turn leading to a fire exit which led out onto the roof of an out-building in the garden.
Perhaps having strong memories of every room in the house is one of the reasons that I could drive there so many years later without directions.
2.2 1956 – 1962 (2) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (The youngest child)
Many years after leaving the children’s home my sister Christine would tell me how protective she was of me during those 7 years but I have no recollection of this. She would also tell me how she had taught me to read and write, which sounded plausible, but again I have no memory of her reading to me or teaching me in any way. In reality I am ambidextrous but I’m not sure if I have developed this as I have grown older through doing the many creative activities I pursue, or whether it was something that came along during an early unorthodox education.
Strangely I don’t have a single memory connecting me to my sister at that time, nor do I have knowledge of her experiences in the Home. It’s almost as though we didn’t see each other from the day we arrived until the day we left.
One recollection I do have, however, is that there were no children younger than me when I arrived and from what I remember there were none of my age when I left, although that was probably very unlikely; it’s just that I had no firm friendships with any of my peers.
To this day though there are two people I have very clear memories of; Jimmy O’Brien, who was far older than me, and B.L. (Belle) a girl who I believe was around 13 or 14.
2.3 1956 – 1962 (3) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Jimmy O’Brien)
Jimmy O’Brien was the oldest of the children at Owen Drive and with sketchy recollection I would say he was of mixed race, which I imagine was quite rare at that time in the North East of England, although that is only my opinion.
As the Home ‘elder’, the children all deferred to him, particularly on issues of falling out, with which he seemed able to wave a magic wand and resolve everything whilst, at the same time leaving both parties satisfied. His approval carried far more weight than that of the staff and he would be the first person to see the ‘Good’ marks in exercise books, or be told of someone’s achievement that day. Young as I was, even I couldn’t help but notice the unending patience Jimmy had when it came to comforting his smaller companions or giving them time and support with school work and problems. Just the vision of him picking up the football and going into the back garden turned him immediately into a Pied Piper with us all running to follow, shrieking with delight. The children loved him.
As an observer, I was always envious of the confidence the other children had; they seemed able to go to Jimmy with their problems without the worry that he would tell them to sort things out themselves. They went, he sorted, and they left happy. It wasn’t something I was ever able to do. I think I was terrified that I may have been the exception to the rule, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The very thought of rejection from Jimmy helped me develop the skills to carry anything I may have considered a burden, and in retrospect there were a few.But in a strange way I think he knew me far better than I gave him credit for at that time. It seems more than coincidence that it was always him who found me in a corner crying but who never asked why. It was him who sat down on the cold tiled floor with his arm around me giving me the first hugs of my life. It was Jimmy O’Brien who knew me because Jimmy O’Brien had been there. I adored him.


2.4 1956 -1962 (4) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Meal times)

 

Meal times were never a happy occasion for me although they seemed to be the highlight of the day for the other children. Everyone had their own place at the table and there would invariably be a race to get there first. Pushing, shoving and jostling each other were par for the course, which was something I found very frightening; everyone was so much bigger than me.
It was also the norm to hear verbal threats under the breath of some of the more assertive boys. “Shift or you’re dead”, was typical ‘pecking order’ speak, which means nothing, but which at that time absolutely terrified me. I believed everything I heard. It wasn’t unusual for me then to cower somewhere, hoping to be forgotten about, but since meals were not served until everyone was seated it wasn’t long before I was verbally hounded out. It became something of a sport.
 
2.5 1956 – 1962 (5) Childrens Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Cowed)
 
When I sat on my chair at the table the only thing I could see was the underneath of the table and so, in the absence of a cushion, I developed the strategy of sitting on my heels which was very uncomfortable. The chairs were solid wood and so apart from getting painful knees, cramp was a close friend.

Given what I now believe was the trauma of my family break up, I didn’t have the best appetite in the world, and found that much of what I was given made me gag. To this day my memories of the cuisine include tripe and boiled onions, although I’m sure there were more palatable meals often because I’m still here. Long after leaving the home, however, I was still considered to be parky.

The other problem at meal time was that no one could leave the table until everyone had finished, which for me was a rare occurrence and which put me back into the firing line of those who had long finished and wanted to go and play. The solution to the problem usually depended on whether there was any Staff present in the room. If staff were not around I would be given a range of incentives to encourage me to eat. Staff resolutions usually included bringing back uneaten food the following day; people were starving in Africa.
I couldn’t say which method I preferred.
2.6 1956 – 1962 (6) Childrens Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Rejected and ridiculed by the boys then stitched up)

The back garden was the hub of our recreational world and assuming it was still light after dinner, everyone would pile out with the football. Team captains were voted in by the girls for their team and the boys for theirs, and were normally the biggest and gobbiest from each gender. Loosely speaking then, this could be described as democratic. There was something of an assumption that I knew the rules of the game and so not wanting to attract unwanted attention did not enlighten anyone that I didn’t. Of course all Geordie boys are born with this sacred knowledge and for me to admit that I hadn’t would have made me (without a shadow of doubt) a girl. Perishing the thought I took my place on the ‘pitch’ and tried to look as though I knew what I was doing.
To coin a phrase, it doesn’t take many ‘balls-ups’ before one’s skills come under question and in my case there was multiple choice. Giving away goal kicks, corners and penalties for reasons which were beyond me were regular crimes punishable by what was known as a clip round the ear and a kick up the rear. The unforgivable crime of scoring an own goal however brought in an entirely different range of penalties which began with my being sent off by my own team! It would be days before I heard the last of it and the situation wasn’t helped by the girls congratulating me and making me an associate member of their team. At length and by mutual agreement I didn’t take part in the football games but sat on the side lines passing the ball back in when it went out.
It was expected, weather and light permitting, that everyone would be in the back garden after dinner allowing the staff the space and time to clear away the plates and things, and so it wasn’t long before I began to feel isolated sitting out watching something I didn’t really understand. Even in the summer months the ground always seemed to be cold and the draught whistling up the legs of my short pants didn’t help.
Often as the games progressed they would become more and more noisy and volatile, especially if the scores were close as the time began running out. On one occasion the ball was kicked so high that it went over the fence into the next doors garden, and as it was my job to retrieve it quickly I shot up and went off for it. Part of my enthusiasm was a need to ingratiate but I also wanted to be known as being ‘good’ at something even if it was just getting the ball quickly back into play.
The out building in the garden formed part of the fire escape for the home and had wrought iron steps leading up onto its roof. Climbing the steps I got onto the roof and tried to scale the fence between our house and next door. When I fell, I landed with each leg astride the barbed wire fence and was left dangling upside down with the knot of the barbed wire impaled in the top of my inside leg. I learned later that Jimmy had cut the wire and brought me down with the knot still in my leg, which doctors were later able to remove before sewing up the wound. My first recollection of the sitting room was being held down in there as the doctor darned my leg with thirty six stitches while I screamed blue murder. The silence in the garden was deafening.
After being jobbed, I remember thinking that one more inch and I would have qualified for the girl’s team on merit. Jimmy sat with me for what seemed like days. Eventually he gave me a drawing book and crayons. I don’t recall saying thank you to him. In fact I don’t recall saying anything.
And I didn’t realise it at the time but that one gift opened a door for me.
 
2.7 1956 – 1962 (7) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Bedtime in the cold North East was a sanctuary)
 
 
Back in the 1950s in the North East of England it always seemed to be cold. There were hot days because I remember spending much of the summer holidays bursting bubbles in the newly laid tarmac on the roads. It lived in my memory that the main roads were all laid with red tarmac which, when I saw them again forty odd years later, gave me a peculiar sense of belonging. But the winters were invariably very bitter.

The warmest place in the Home seemed to me to be the kitchen, which was in stark contrast to the boy’s room at bedtime. And the shock of going from one to the other was further exacerbated by being half damp, and clad in baggy ‘jama’s after being scrubbed in the Belfast sink.

There were several beds in our room which were gradually filled up as the evening wore on. Being among the youngest I was one of the first to go to bed along with others who were around about my age, and we all occupied the same bed. As with other things there was a pecking order and the bigger boys got to sleep in the middle of the bed where it was obviously a lot warmer.
Being on the end usually meant at least one visit to the floor during the night, either by falling out or being pushed; either way my place got nobbled and it wasn’t unusual for me to have to crawl round the bed and climb back in on the other side. Which ever side of the bed was wet in the morning was because I had done it and then moved round into the dry side! The fact that the middle was also wet was because it had rolled in from where I had been sleeping. The new day had a habit of starting the way the old one had ended with a mass scrub in the Belfast sink which was, naturally, my fault.
2.8 1956 – 1962 (8) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Clothes)
Clothes were something I was never short of. The fact that I was too short for the clothes was more to the point. Being the runt of the litter meant that I inherited everything that didn’t fit everyone else.
The fashion of the day, for young masters such as myself, were gigantic off-white Y-fronts and vest, flannelette shirt, short grey pants buttoned-up-the-fly held up with braces, and long grey socks with garters. Top and bottom was balaclava and hob nail boots, with matching tatty jacket and scarf at amidships to complete the outfit. Owing to the length of the jacket sleeves it was some years before there was a need for me to wear a pair of gloves.
Apart from the fact that baggy clothes are draughty in the cold weather, going to the toilet was something of an art. With my vest touching my knees and tucked into my y-fronts (the top of which were somewhere around my armpits), this simple task usually meant a complete strip. And since the braces keeping up my pants were too long and therefore crossed around my neck to shorten them, I was soon left with the choice of developing the necessary acrobatic skills usually displayed by Houdini, or strangulation. And doesn’t the cold just want to make you go more?
Looking back, the smell of urine seemed normal although I don’t think I had connected it to me until now. Obviously I didn’t always get my clothes off quickly enough.
2.9 1956 – 1962 (9) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Isolation)
The daily journey to school was something like a camel train with a line of children walking up the street, eldest at the front, smallest at the back and all holding hands. I have no recollection whatever of attending a school in West Boldon, although obviously I must have; but the walk to school was a bit like running the gauntlet. In fact walking anywhere was a nightmare. The very sight of us all in the community at any one time gave an air of ‘Here come the Clampets’, which to the delight of other children was an open invitation to enjoy themselves at our expense.
‘Snobblin’ was the art of snow-balling as many of us as possible which, when occasionally looking back on as an adult, I have seen the funny side of, but which was far from that at the time. Being hit by a rock of ice and then laughed at hurts as much on the inside as it does on the outside. Strangely though, at times like this our community closed ranks and I became very protected by my peers only adding to my confusion at the time; one minute love, ten minutes hate? In hindsight I can see it was a ‘united we stand or divided we fall’ strategy but it was also ownership. We will do to ours as we will, but you will not (for he is ours).
By the time I had grown old enough to venture out on my own I had developed a mistrust of almost everyone and had mastered the art of going everywhere unseen. Before going anywhere I would first of all try to not have to go at all. If there was no way of avoiding going out I would endeavour to do it after dark when everyone else was indoors. If I had to go out alone during the day I would avoid all routes which passed places where groups of children would congregate and always make sure there was an adult within shouting distance. The balaclava was a must on any excursion, I walked as quickly as I could and my face always faced front. All conversation from anyone was ignored. If necessary I would walk literally miles out of my way. With the best will in the world, however, there were times when I would be spotted by ‘enemies’, chased, caught and beaten. It was during these early years that I became something of a good runner and for a time as an adult enjoyed it as a pastime.
Somewhere around the age of six I had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t safe at home and I wasn’t safe outside either, and began living in a constant state of fear. My stomach was always knotted up, my appetite was poor, and more and more I tried to disappear from view; only to be rooted out by who ever, depending on where I happened to be at the time. School teachers, Home staff, peers, children outside, all seemed to have the need to deflect their own failings by making an example of me in public.
2.10 – 1959 -1962 (10) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (My pencil is my best friend)
As time went on I became more and more isolated particularly from the boys. That is, with the exception of Jimmy who, when he saw me drawing in my book would always stop to look at my pictures, and would always be complimentary. Drawing became my true passion; I didn’t need anyone to draw and I could draw anything I liked. Strangely, many of my pictures were of things I had never seen, such as elephants and pyramids, which were probably something to do with a longing to escape. The wonder of what the world was like ‘somewhere else’ became a fascination for me and as the wonder grew, so my artistic skills began to develop.
Almost without my being aware, much of my time at the Home was spent increasingly in the company of the girls, which really came about through default. The boys didn’t want me to be in their group and I was very happy not to be, in fact it was a blessed relief not to have that burden on my shoulders. And as the girls occupied themselves with girlie activities they were content to let me sit on the periphery of their circle with my drawing book and ‘not cause grief’.
Some of the duties in looking after the younger children often fell upon the older ones to carry out, such as bathing and dressing, and putting to bed, and since I had transitioned into the girls group it seemed natural to me that one of them would tend to my needs. Presently, however, it became the norm for one particular girl to tend my needs; whilst at the same time attending her own.
2.11 1956 -1962 (11) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Pecking order)
 
Belle was older than me. I think she must have been about 14 but I don’t know how or why I came to that conclusion other than the fact that children see age as very important in terms of the pecking order. Someone 6 and three quarters would feel they had far more rights than someone merely 6 and a half, including the right to thump them without being hit back, regardless of whether their victim was bigger than them. And the younger of the two would accept this as normal.Obedience to Belle, therefore, was natural to me and never something I questioned, even within the safety of my own mind.
2.12 1959 -1962 (12) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Sex)
 
Having sex as a six year old boy with a 14 year old girl was like having your privates scrubbed with a Brillo pad, but that’s the way it was. And that’s the way it was until I left the Home in 1962. The most regular memory of this happening was in nearby corn fields where I would lie down as Belle sat astride, allowing her to keep an eye for anyone coming. The bathroom of the Home was also a regular venue.
It’s a strange thing to say but for some reason I felt that I had a responsibility to protect both Belle and myself from being found out, and would quickly assume an explainable pose whenever we were disturbed. In the absence of any other affection there was no doubt it met a need within me too.
2.13 – 1956 – 1962 (13) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (As Jimmy left a part of me died)
 
Cattle market day was on Friday. Prospective foster parents would come and view the children who would line up; tallest to the left, shortest to the right, all scrubbed up and with a smile to delight.
I think by now there were children younger than me because I have vague recollections of being somewhere in the middle, but there was never any question of where Jimmy would be. As the oldest, he was always the first to be seen and the first to be rejected; in fact he never was chosen to be taken home by a family.
At some point, he finally reached the age of eighteen which meant he could no longer stay at the Home. When the day came for him to leave, he was given new clothes, some money and after saying emotional farewells to us all was ushered out of the door, leaving me (and no doubt others) in a state of absolute shock. I believe they had found him a flat and a job; but I never saw him again.
The void was almost unbearable. And the terror of sharing that same fate, in being sent off into an abyss, was probably the first time I had ever been faced with reality. It was as though he had died. A part of me had also died. Any faith or belief I had in being a ‘chosen’ one was just no longer there. The once ingratiating smile that Jimmy had encouraged me to develop had gone, and the cattle market became just another day. As the prospective foster parents passed down the line I saw nothing but shadows; through glazed over eyes.
2.14 1959 -1962 (14) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Indifference)
 
From time to time a big fuss was made over me by the staff. A sort of sycophantic kindness. A hot soapy bath would be followed by my hair being combed, my teeth being cleaned and a set of well fitting (Sunday) clothes being carefully arranged on my skinny little body; after which I would be sat to wait with Auntie in her office.
“Now you will be a good boy won’t you?” seemed to be the code for ‘or else’, to which the required reply would follow “Yes Auntie”.
It was from this routine I knew I had a visitor who would be taking me out for the day, but I had become devoid of the ability of showing pleasure. To look pleased was not a good idea.
Anything given could so easily be taken away; there were no real certainties.  The art of sitting as inoffensively, and as invisibly as possible, had become one I had mastered long before, and which had replaced any natural outburst a child should have had when anticipating a treat. Coupled with no aspirations whatever, a state of indifference was both natural, and painless.
2.15 1959-1962(15) Children’s Home, West Boldon Co/Durham (My beautiful Auntie Joan )
Auntie Joan was my Father’s sister, and if I were to talk as a man of over 50 I would say she had been sent from Heaven itself. As a 6 year old boy, however, I had no real appreciation of her in that respect.
Every so often, possibly three or four times a year, she would come to the Home and take me, and my sister Christine, out for the day. I have fairly strong memories of a place called Roker Park which had a large lake, and where we were able to feed the ducks which I loved doing. I had grown to love all animal life mainly from pictures I had seen in books and so to be actually among them gave me immense pleasure.
It was on these outings that Auntie Joan would bring my sister Kerrie who I remember as being very pretty and nicely dressed, although that is the limit of my recollection of her; other than somehow knowing she was taking horse riding lessons. It seemed natural to me that as I obliviously fed the ducks the girls would do whatever girls did; and I presume that is what happened. They had their day and I had mine.
Obviously mindful of this, Auntie Joan never left my side and must of had the patience of a monument as she sat watching me feed ducks for what must have been hours on end. Although the sun always seemed to shine on these outings, a whipping North Eastern wind would usually come around towards the end of the day and she would engulf me in her coat to keep me warm. Only when we had to leave, for fear of missing the bus, would she eventually say ‘Howay hinny, will adda gan yame’; and taking us back to the Home broke her heart every single time.
2.16 1959-1962(16) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (My little sister Brenda)
At some point along the way, our rare day trips began to include another woman who I didn’t know, and who was accompanied by a little blonde haired girl.
The child was about two years younger than me and I remember thinking there was something unusual about her. It was something I found very endearing though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time although I think I had sensed a similar vulnerability, and I felt almost protective of her.
Playing with the little girl in the sand is one of my most treasured memories of childhood. There were no complications; and I don’t think there was a single conversation either. Just two children playing.
The woman and girl never came to the Home but would just appear from nowhere at wherever we went for the day.I think there was an expectation on me to know who these people were, it was sort of taken for granted and although I liked the little girl and we had become friends, I disliked the woman intensely. Eventually, Auntie Joan asked me if I knew who they were and I told her I didn’t.
“Alan, this is your Mam. And this is your little sister Brenda”.
2.17 1959-1962(17) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (A woman, three daughters and me)
The day trips eventually evolved into short holidays of either a week or a weekend, and these were taken in the seaside resort of Seaburn, which for me and Brenda meant hours of playing together in the sand on the beach.
For one reason or another, however, Auntie Joan did not come on these holidays, and as I began seeing less and less of her, so too I began to feel that loss.
My older sisters Kerrie and Christine spent time with each other and occasionally with Elsie, our Mother, who would squat in a hired deck chair with almost nothing pleasant to say. On the rare occasion she spoke to me it would almost certainly be to chastise; which in due course went in one ear and straight out of the other. It was a toss up as to which of us was less emotionally attached to the other.
1959 with Brenda (far left) and Christine
It would be many, many years later before I learned that Elsie did not like, nor want boys, but tolerated my presence to enable her to see my sisters. Paradoxically, I tolerated her presence in order to see Brenda and it was scenarios such as this which formed the basis of our relationship.
A measure of how this ‘Spit-Spat’ relationship began developing could probably be summed up in a couple of anecdotes. One tale told how Elsie could cut an orange expertly into three pieces giving my sisters a piece each, but was unable to quarter the fruit. Not to be outdone, I remember receiving a Parker ballpoint pen in the post for my birthday and sending it back the same day with a note to say ‘No thank you’.
Those who know me these days know how much I love fresh fruit and eat it in copious amounts, although I cannot cut an orange into three portions. And given my love of writing and drawing it wasn’t easy for me to return such a beautiful pen at that time but over the years I have found that some of my most favourite drawings, poems and songs have been produced with the cheapest of materials. It isn’t what you have; it’s how you use it.
2.18 1959-1962 (18) Children’s Home West Boldon Co/Durham (Escape)
As the years rolled by, and Fridays came and went, so too did the yearnings for anything other than what I had. From what I had seen of my Mother, the thought of going back to her was the last thing I wanted; but I did miss Brenda. And Auntie Joan. And what of my Father? And Kerrie? And how come I have a younger sister anyway if my parents have parted? Questions, questions. Every question that came into my head was answered with another question. After a while, I stopped wondering. I had to; it was the only way I only could deal with the ‘now’.
Visits during the winter months were less frequent which, in a way, helped me to cope with the ‘now’. The worst thing about a trip out was having to come back to the Home again at the end of the day, and so at least I didn’t have that burden.
Unusually however, sometime during the Autumn of 1962, I was scrubbed up, sat in Auntie’s office, and made ready to receive someone who I didn’t know. “You will be a good boy now, won’t you?” said Auntie, to which I returned the reply expected of me “Yes Auntie”.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that being awake alone at night was something I found very safe. I could think about anything I wanted to. I could dream. I could wonder. I could imagine. I could wish. I was free.

 Chapter 3 – Foster Care in Geordieland

 

Chapter 3 – Foster Care


3.1 - 1962 From West Boldon to Stanley Co/Durham (1)

Katie Dixon
Billy Dixon

Katie Dixon was a 44 year old woman, married to Billie, who was two years younger, and who was a miner at Beamish Mary Colliery, Stanley, now Beamish Museum. They were married on 12th July 1941 as war raged between Britain and Germany; as a miner Billie was excused military duty.
The couple lived at 54, Tweed Terrace, South Stanley; a two-up two-down with an outside ‘nettie’ in the back yard. In the kitchen, one wall was almost entirely made up by a coal fired cooking range which I loved because of the warmth. The other thing I loved was their pet budgie ‘Sparky’ who could talk and who would sit on my head. Facing the back yard was a tiny kitchenette complete, of course, with the customary Belfast sink.

Front entrance 54 Tweed Terrace, South Stanley, Co.Durham
Back entrance 54 Tweed Terrace with my Great Niece Elisha

(The photos above were taken when I went back after over 40 years. My Wife Carol, my niece Mia and my Great Niece Elisha came with me)

The front room, which was rarely used, was fairly nondescript but housed the china cabinet complete with the best tea sets and cutlery along with other prized pieces of furniture. Upstairs were two bedrooms.

Although Billie was not the best gardener in the world, the front garden was full of leeks, spuds and onions. Katie’s washing line also spanned the entire garden.

Katie was unable to have children of her own as a result of having too small a womb, and so the couple had obviously approached social services to foster a child although I don’t know any more detail.

It turned out that the first meeting I had with her was one of several daytrips to her home during that Autumn which culminated in a weekend stay; a sort of market research to see if we were compatible in the family sense. It was during these trips I met other members of the family from both Katie and Billy’s sides although I recall being quite shy toward them. I was also at a loss as to know what to say to Billy but there was no question of my ease with Katie.

As Christmas approached I remember Katie asking me what I would like for a present and having never been asked such a thing before had no idea what to say. Somewhere along the line I blurted out the first thing that came into my head ‘a red airplane’, and then carried on with whatever it was I was doing.

If it can be assumed that we were all being auditioned, it seems we all passed. On the 27th December 1962, I moved into the Dixon household, Katie became Mam, Billy became Dad, and a belated pile of Christmas presents greeted me in the front room; topped by a red airplane.

A new chapter in my life had begun.

3.2 - 1962-1963 (2) South Stanley Co/Durham
 
The winter of 1962-3 was arctic. Especially in the North East. Looking out from my bedroom window, the back yard had completely disappeared under what must have been six foot of snow; in fact the back lane was buried too. It was so sudden that it was almost unreal, but the silence was magical. For a boy of seven the whole thing was so exciting, and I just loved it.
From a practical point of view, however, the outside ‘nettie’ was unreachable and so needed to be made accessible; thus providing the first opportunity for me to spend time with ‘me Dad’ on my own, something I had really looked forward to. Armed with a shovel each we set about digging away the snow from the back door and down six steps into the yard before tunnelling our way to the toilet door.
Although I spent most of the time trying to make conversation as we worked, most of what I said was either ignored or met with a grunt and I soon began to wonder whether I was in the way, or hindering the task. I thought afterwards that Dad could probably have finished the job far more quickly had I not been there as he was used to hard labour in the pit; it wasn’t a rejection of me. No doubt the men worked so hard that they didn’t have the time, or the energy to talk to each other. It wasn’t a rejection of me.
3.3 - 1962-1963(3) South Stanley Co/Durham
The nights during that winter were absolutely perishing and the warmest room in the house was the kitchen by the open fire. Around teatime it would be my job to fill two buckets of coal and bring them in, to save Mam having to go out after dark in the cold.
After stoking and building up the fire, me Mam would get tea ready while me Dad got himself ready for his nightly visit to the club. The only time he didn’t go out was when me Mam had no money to give him which wasn’t very often, and which meant he would sit with a face that said everything; in a silence that made my stomach tighten. I’d seen her empty her treasured copper jar so often for him that I began to think she had to buy a peaceful life with the little bit she had managed to put away for emergencies.
As young as I was, I was very perceptive and quickly became aware of the dynamics of the relationship. The atmosphere at home when Dad was out was relaxed and harmonious and yet there was a part of me that so wanted him to be close to me, and to me Mam.
At that time, we didn’t have a telly and so spent the evenings listening to the ‘wireless’. My favourite programme was ‘Sing something simple’ on a Sunday night with either the Mike Sam Singers or the King Singers although I don’t remember which it was. But I did learn every song I heard. And when we finally did get a telly I was absolutely hooked on the Black and White Minstrels.
As I got changed into a warm vest and flannelette pyjamas by the fire, me Mam would be warming up a house brick in the oven on the range to wrap in a towel and put into me bed. Not that I needed it with the amount of blankets on there, but I loved the care. And I loved the candlewick bedspread on top of the blankets. Being in bed with all that weight on me felt as though I had been nailed to the mattress. Dead cosy.
But cosy as I was I couldn’t sleep. Not until me Dad came home, hopefully not too drunk and nasty. Hopefully not shouting at me Mam. And hopefully happy enough to go to bed at the same time as her. Then I could sleep.
3.4 - 1962-1963(4) South Stanley Co/Durham
In many ways I was still a bag of nerves even though I had left the Home, and now had a family of my own.
The feeling that I was there because it was what me Mam wanted became stronger when I overheard drunken rows. Katie would tell Billy not to shout or he would wake the bairn up and he would respond with: ‘This is my hoose and ah’ll dee what a want; if HE dissent like it he can gan back to where he cyame from’.
When he was sober, however, he didn’t say anything like that in front of me. Come to that, he very rarely said anything at all to either me or me Mam, and when he did it wasn’t complimentary.
For a long time, I put me Dad’s behaviour down to the hard working life he had to endure, and the culture of the men of the Tyne of that era. Working conditions in the pits were dreadful, scary, dark and dangerous, and the hours were long and unsociable. No doubt it was normal for all of the miners to shout and abuse their families after a day like that. It didn’t occur to me that I lived in a street full of pitmen who had happy, well balanced families. I thought the kids were happy because they had never been to the Home and had always lived with their Mams and dads. And I thought the Mams did what Katie did and put a brave face on it all in public.
It would be many, many years later before I would change that viewpoint and see hard working Geordie men for what they really were; loving, loyal and dependable.
3.5 – 1962-1963(5) South Stanley Co/Durham
A seed had been planted in my head that I could, at anytime, be sent back to where I had come from and the confidence that I had so quickly developed, vanished. It had never occurred to me that I could end up being sent back at the Home, and the insecurity which came with that thought was indescribable.
From being a bright eyed, curious and happy little boy with a new life and a new family I had ‘morphed’ almost overnight, into a cowed, insecure bed wetter with a mind saturated by a sense of impending doom.
Being certain that something horrible is about to happen; knowing there is no one you can turn to for help; knowing there is nothing you can do about it, does something to you which you never ever forget; even if the event never happens.
It was this powerlessness, and the shock of betrayal I felt from those I had begun to trust which literally turned me mentally from a boy into a man at the age of seven.
Someone once wrote: ‘Show me a boy of seven and I’ll show you the man’. It’s a saying I hate because I personally find it too painful. But if I ever met the author we could probably communicate without ever opening our mouths.
3.6 – 1962-1963(6) South Stanley Co/Durham
I think Katie had become aware that something was wrong fairly quickly from my behaviour. I had also reverted to calling her Aunty which eventually, and subtly, she brought into a conversation while she was making my favourite meal of corned beef and tatie pie. I used to wait for the bowl so that I could lick out any spare mixture not used in the pie.
“Aa thowt aah was ya Mam hinny, wit ya started caalin us Auntie for?” she asked. “Aye ya wor me Mam but ya ganna send uz back to the yame” I replied between licks of the bowl. At this point she realised that I had overheard the rows when she thought I had been asleep. She stopped in her tracks. Her eyes welled up.
Kneeling down with her arms around me, she put my world right in just a sentence “Alan ya my laddie noo and ye’ll gan back to the yame ow’er my deed body”.
“And divent pay nee heed to thee Faatha, he says some daft things when he’s been oot on the toon”.
3.7 - 1962-1963(7) South Stanley Co/Durham

I think me Mam must have had a word with me Dad because there was something of a change in the way he behaved towards me. He still went out and got well oiled on a regular basis but was notably quieter when he came home. I like to think that he’d finally realised that he was now a Father, although the truth was probably more to do with him getting a kick up the backside from me Mam.
More and more, though, Dad began taking me out to places where we would be seen by people who were important in his life, and made the point of letting them know that I was ‘his lad’. Notably, I would often go with him to the pit to collect his pay packet which exposed us to many of his workmates; and beneath his thick skin I sensed immense pride, particularly when someone would say “He’s got a look o’ you aboot him, Billie”.
Although in public Dad was able to play the part, and clearly enjoyed the recognition it brought, he seemed unable to be anything at home. He was a man who had somehow arrived at the age of 42 without developing a strong interest in anything at all, but who did everything which was expected of him. He would weed the entire garden, dig the soil over, even mix manure into the soil, but would never plant anything. Not only would he do this to the front garden, he would also do it to an allotment he had. As time went on I realised it was me Mam who would plant the vegetables, including the revered Geordie Leek although he would always take the credit if a prized specimen was produced.
One thing he did do, however, was to go to work every day and hand his pay packet to Katie every week, which in her eyes defined ‘wor Billie’ as ‘good man’. The fact that he was emotionally constipated became less of an issue now that she had a very tactile son who seemed to fill that gaping void in her life.
There’s no doubt a gaping void in my life was beginning to close too; slowly.
3.8 - 1962-1963(8) South Stanley Co/Durham

Following the issue of my Father’s drunken behaviour, Katie too began making concerted efforts to make me feel more secure. The fact that I had reverted to calling her Aunty was something which I imagine had quite shocked and hurt her, but which also incensed her into addressing the issue. To begin with she invited all of my new relatives to our house to meet me.
Katie was the second of four children from the Campsell family which spawned from a tiny village near-by called ‘No Place’. The eldest was her brother, my Uncle Tommy who was married to Aunty Mary, and they had two children; Edith and Thomas. They also had a pug dog called Ling Field Fair Man (Ling for short), who grunted a lot and ate sheep’s hearts.
Katie’s younger sister Isabelle was my Aunty Bella and she was married to Uncle Wilf (Pollard) and they lived in East Stanley. Their children were Ken, Lorna, and Alan who was just a bit older than me. Alan and I were fairly near in age and became good friends often taking a bus into Newcastle at the weekends. Ken worked as a journalist for a local paper and as Katie would say ‘Blaa Hole Bella will never let you hear the last of it’.
All of Katie’s relatives lived in East Stanley which was about a mile and a half away, and where she would often take me on a walk to visit them. All, that is, apart from her younger brother, my Uncle Eli, who I only met on a few occasions. It seemed he lived something of a secretive life, although I don’t know why, and only ‘turned up’ when he was in some sort of trouble; much to my Dad’s annoyance because Mam adored him and would never turn him away.
On me Dad’s side there were two sisters, one older and one younger than him. Aunty Eva was the oldest and lived in Chester-le-Street with her son Billie whose claim to fame was his enviable collection of bird’s eggs; although it turned out later that Billie wasn’t Auntie Eva’s son he was the son of another member of the family.
Aunty Mona, the other sister, lived in Newcastle and worked as a Stewardess in various clubs in the North East. Her son Paul was in the Royal Navy and I worshipped the ground he walked on. When he came home on leave he would take me rowing on the lake and tell me stories about his travels to far away places.
And so the clan gathered in our little house in Tweed Terrace although how we got them all in was a mystery to me, and Katie beamed and beamed and beamed. Quite recently I watched the DVD ‘The March of the Penguins’ and saw a similar look on the faces of the adults when their chick finally hatched from the egg. I never called her Aunty ever again. She was me Mam.
3.9 1962-1963(9) South Stanley Co/Durham
 
There’s an old tradition in Scotland, and the North of England which has abounded for centuries and this is called ‘First Foot’. Basically what it means is that the first person over the threshold of ones’ home on New Year’s Day should be a dark haired male carrying a lump of coal and this would ensure the family would enjoy good luck in the coming year.
Although I had been born platinum blonde, and was fair for many years, by the time I got to Stanley I was very much a darker haired fellow and so qualified for the prestigious job as First Foot. My Dad, by now, was almost bald and what hair he did have was silver grey, and so prior to my arrival their custom was to borrow a child for the job and reward him with a Pokie (a bag full of nice things to eat).
And so at 11.55pm on New Year’s Eve, I was put out into the backyard with a lump of coal and told that I wouldn’t be allowed back in until past midnight. Un-amused I sat on the cold back step waiting to be let back in when a voice came over the wall from next door’s yard, “Alan, is that you?”. I hadn’t made any friends yet and so didn’t know who it was, other than it was the voice of another little boy about the same age as me. “Aye, it’s me. Who’s that like?”.”It’s me, and ah’m wor forst foot” came the reply, at which both back doors opened simultaneously. “Hey ah’ll see ya the morra an we’ll swap stuff oot o’ wa Pokies”, at which he went in the house and the door closed.
When I went back into my house, I gave me Mam the coal and she gave me my Pokie saying “Happy New Year bonnie lad. And who were ya taalkin to oot there?”. Rummaging through the Pokie with delight at the apples and sweets I told me Mam that I didn’t know who it was but that I was going round to see him the next day.
I can’t remember the name of the little boy next door, but we became firm friends; and he introduced me to the rest of the gang of children who played on the cobbled back streets of South Stanley at that time. Games of Jacks, Marbles and Conkers were all regular pastimes but it was Bogey Racing and flying home-made arrows on the field that were everyone’s favourites.
3.10 - 1962-1964 (10) South Stanley
 
Sunday evenings continued to be my favourite times of the week. After a roast dinner and a scrub in the sink I would settle down in front of the fire with me Mam to listen to the wireless. As well as the ‘Sing Something Simple’ show I also got to hear the songs of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Matt Munro, Sammy Davis and the like, learning them off by heart. My absolute all time favourite was (and still is) Dean Martin who’s voice still stops me in my tracks.
Being a foster child I was appointed a Social Worker which I hated, not least because it was a different one every time he or she came. I also hated the way they would check me Mam’s cupboards to see if she had bought enough provisions; and the way they would swan around every room in the house without expressing the common courtesy of asking first.
One day a new Social Worker came and didn’t do any of the usual things. Instead he sat down and talked to me about things I liked. I was gob smacked! “Ah hear ya like music Alan? Ya Mam sez ya lissen to the wireless all the time. Whey, av got a present for ya. Here y’ah” and he gave me a mouth organ. I was thrilled.
Every day I practiced me songs quickly building up a repertoire of songs of the day. Me Mam’s favourite was ‘Moonlight and Roses’ and mine was ‘The Blaydon Races’.
Naturally, I never saw that Social Worker again but another door had been opened for me. Jimmy had opened the first one when he gave me my drawing book, and now a Social Worker had brought music into my life. All I needed now was talent; but that is in Gods hands.
3.11 - 1962-1964(11) South Stanley Co/Durham
 
Although I had settled well into my new abode, liked my family and had made a few friends I was still quite nervous about where I belonged and where I would eventually end up.
Me Mam would say that I’d go back to the kid’s Home “o’er her deed body”, while me Dad had said almost the opposite, albeit in drink. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to my sisters (Brenda in particular), while another part of me dreaded the idea of ending up back with Elsie. Life was a sort of hybrid between grief and ecstasy.
But once in a while I did get one or two questions answered by my Auntie Joan who (to my delight) continued to come and see me, whenever the powers that be allowed her to. The process of our meetings was quite strange in that the two families never actually met. A Social Worker would collect me from me Mam and take me to a cafe on Stanley Main Street where Auntie Joan would be waiting. The Social Worker would remain with us for around an hour before taking me back to me Mam. Heaven only knows what they thought we might be plotting.
From Auntie Joan, I learned that my sister Christine had been fostered out to a family called Bell but after two weeks they had sent her back to the Home because Mrs. Bell apparently couldn’t cope with her. I was horrified. Not because of any emotional attachment to Christine but because it reinforced my own insecurities. And not wanting them to be known to anyone, I could do nothing but sit silently although the shock was obvious.
I can only imagine that my reaction was perceived by everyone as being one of deep concern for my sister  because shortly afterwards Christine too was fostered by Katie and Billy, and came to live with us at South Stanley. It was my belief that Katie genuinely believed that this was what I wanted and that in some way it may help to ease some of my pains.
The selfish truth is that although I was mortified at the idea that Christine might end up back in the Home, I felt my new life was about to be absorbed by a past that I was still terrified of, and I still lacked the skills or the courage to communicate such things. Complicating things more was that I felt divided loyalties. In later years, Christine would voice loud and often her belief that I was a ‘chosen’ one who always got what I wanted, and that she was where she was for that reason.
Life, once again, was about to change. And there was still no news of Brenda.
3.12 - 1962-1964 (12) South Stanley Co/Durham
 
The first change to occur after Christine’s arrival was the sleeping arrangements. All of a sudden I lost the sanctuary of having my own bedroom; the space to think through things which bothered me, and the place I would practice my music. Worse still my drawing books were vulnerable and though me Mam had never commented on them they were certainly a major outlet for my feelings at that time. It wasn’t until after the event that I realised how important it was to me, having that haven to escape to; that privacy which allowed me to assimilate things in a way which made me feel secure.
As a consequence I, once again, began to internalise everything; developing a mind which could do almost anything in my head from drawing pictures to writing songs. More refined still, I mastered the art of retaining banks and banks of such things until I felt safe enough to express them in a tangible way.
The importance I placed on my creative mind, and the safety of my innermost feelings, was such that everything else became quite mundane to me. As a result, Christine became somewhat more dominant (although in her words more protective) making decisions about what we would do that day and with whom, which I suppose I appeared quite happy about in the main. In truth, as long as she left my head alone I couldn’t give a monkeys but it was only a matter of time before she would realise that.
It’s an odd thing to say but even at such a young age I had a feeling that I would, one day, need to recall certain memories fairly and truthfully, even if I was the only one to ever read those memoirs.
Perhaps in some ways I am pedantic or autistic, even boring. As a child I had no voice, no status; no presence. As a man the truth is extremely important to me.
3.13 – 1962-1964(13) South Stanley Co/Durham
Now and again, on a Saturday, I was able to ‘escape’ on a bus to N’yuCassel with my cousin Alan and we’d spend the entire day ‘gannin roond the Toon’. I loved it.
Tyne Bridge
Alan knew Newcastle like the back of his hand and took me everywhere. He had an amazing confidence in crossing busy roads, zipping up back alleys, whistling at the girls, and generally being cheeky to anyone whose paths we crossed. Fortunately for us both we were good runners.
I admired Alan enormously and loved his mischievous way. I think he too quite liked the way I looked up to him as my older cousin; he was always very considerate of me. Somehow he knew that my favourite part of the day was going down to the quayside to see the boats on the Tyne and he always made sure there was plenty of time for us to do this.
At the end of the day, we would both catch the bus home to Stanley with Alan getting off a few stops before me, reminding the driver to tell me when it was my turn to get off.
One day, however, although I can’t remember why, Alan wasn’t with me and I was travelling home alone. On the bus with me was only one other passenger, a young girl who at first glance I thought was quite ugly. As the journey continued, I couldn’t seem to stop looking at her, and the strange thing was that the more I looked the prettier she became. By the time she got off the bus I was in love with her, and totally distraught that she had gone.
I never forgot that experience. It taught me something quite difficult to put into words at the time although many years later I was finally able to write  a song about the tale. It’s called Gypsy Blue.

3.13 – 1962-1964 (14) South Stanley

 

3.14 - 1962-1964(15) South Stanley Co/Durham


Whilst living in Stanley I attended Stanley Main Street School although I remember very little about it; other than the fact that I was caned on a regular basis. I can only hazard the guess that this was because I was behind with my schoolwork; I was far too shy and timid to be disruptive.

 


The days of ingratiating my self with dominant, bullying children were long past and if anything I spent the bulk of my time keeping a low profile. In hindsight, given the energy I put in to keeping myself safe probably explains the reason that my schoolwork suffered.

 


The very fact that I tried to keep my head down was excuse enough to be picked on, either by teachers in the classroom or children in the playground. Several times a week I could be found standing in the corridor having been kicked out of class for lacking in some way, only to be collared by the head who’s speciality seemed to be inflicting the greatest amount of pain with the least amount of effort. As for break times, assuming I wasn’t kept in, the chances were I would be found in the centre of a group of boys chanting “Scrap, Scrap, Scrap”; more often than not on the ground, taking a thrashing. I wasn’t the sort of child who could hit someone back even when they were pummelling me.

 


Either the boys had different break times to the girls or there were separate playgrounds (I don’t remember which) but the only time I saw Christine was going to and from school. Whilst I was scared of my own shadow, Christine had quickly developed a reputation for being as hard as nails and took great delight in ‘sorting out anyone who so much as touched her brother’. On the one hand, I suppose I was safe when she was around, though on the other hand became even more vulnerable when I was on my own.

 


The hypocrisy of the situation was that Christine was in fact my biggest threat; not so much physically, although she wasn’t adverse to giving me a hiding. More, emotionally. Which she knew only too well was my Achilles heel. Echoes of the Home came back into my life: We will do to ours as we will, but you will not (for he is ours).

3.15 - 1962-1964(16) South Stanley Co/Durham


The annual holiday with Elsie still continued until 1965 at which I refused point blank to go. For now though, although it wasn’t something I readily looked forward to, it did at least give me the chance to see Brenda.

 


Being a little older I realised that Brenda had a serious visual impairment which explained why I had previously thought that there was something unusual about her. It was never something we talked about but its very existence brought out a protective side in me I didn’t know I had. Very much the coward, I couldn’t stick up for myself, but where she was concerned it was a very different story.

 

Probably the most poignant thing of all for me was whenever we needed to walk anywhere; from the beach to a cafe, or from the park to a shop. Christine and Kerrie would walk either side of Elsie vying for her attention, while Brenda would always seek out my hand with hers as we trundled on behind.
No one in my life had ever needed me before, or wanted me for that matter. But that one gesture from my little sister gave me hope.

3.16 - 1962-1964(17) South Stanley Co/Durham


In some ways, for someone on the outside looking in, I suppose it appeared I was quite lucky really because as well as the annual ‘holiday’ I had with Elsie, I also a holiday with the Dixons; which for the first few years were taken in Blackpool.

Blackpool, mid-sixties with Katie and Christine

During the early sixties, Blackpool was a very popular destination for Geordies, boasting a seven mile long beach, the Golden Mile with its illuminations, and of course Blackpool Tower which was a replica in miniature of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
I did, on one occasion (though only the once) ascend the Tower with my Dad but was so terrified I was almost sick. The platform on the top was made of a sort of see through grid which meant that if you looked down you would see people the size of ants; as well as all the greasy rickety mechanisms and cables that powered the lift. Worse still was the fact that the top of the Tower moved continually giving you the impression that it was going to tip over at any minute. Never again.

One thing I did like about the Tower though was the famous ballroom at the bottom where Reginald Dixon would appear playing an organ which came up out of the floor. I thought that was fascinating. It was also the place where me Mam taught me ballroom dancing to the strains of Glenn Miller as me Dad propped up the bar and Christine sat bored out of her face.

I think there were times when me Dad decided he’d knock the ‘wimp’ out of me because not satisfied with petrifying me atop the Tower he took me for a ride on the Grand National, which I believe at that time was the fastest big dipper in the U.K. I still have no idea how I hung on long enough to survive that ride and could never decide whether I hated it more than the trip up the Tower (or less). If I had to make a choice between experiencing one or the other now, I think I might just commit Hari Kari.

There were many facets to our week in Blackpool; brilliant meals from our lovely chubby landladies, the beach and the donkeys, bingo for me Mam, the boozer for me Dad, and even a chance for Christine to enjoy a flirtation or two.
1963 Blackpool with Billy
But if anything brought us together as a family it was the live show that me Dad always managed to get tickets for. Over the years we were lucky enough to see a myriad of famous entertainers of the day, including Ken Dodd, Freddy (Parrot-Face) Davis, Des O’Connor and Shirley Bassey; who coupled with the various cabaret acts, dancers and magicians gave us all a reason to laugh together.
I remember wishing that we could somehow keep that feeling forever and ever, and live like that. But of course that was never going to happen.
3.17 - 1962-1964(18) South Stanley Co/Durham

For me to say that Christine didn’t care for me would be wrong. There were times when she was very protective for all the right reasons; or loving toward me because she genuinely felt that way, at that particular time.
The inconsistency in her approach however, given my past experiences, meant that my defences were always up and she was kept at arms length. With a lack of trust being the basis of the relationship it sadly became one in which we tolerated one another, or just used each other for our own ends.
Someone once told me, many years later that you are the ‘sum total of your life experiences to date’. If that philosophy were to be true then I can only surmise that Christine was who she was, and was the way she was, because of her upbringing up to that point.
Whilst I had no knowledge of her experiences in the Home, there were two things which I knew beyond doubt would always prevent her from settling in normally. The first, which she voiced often, was that she felt she was fostered to the Dixons almost out of pity and because I, who always got his own way, had wanted her to be.
The other thing was that she genuinely grieved over our family splitting up, and never stopped harbouring  the dream that we would, one day, all be reunited. “One day we’re going back to our real Mam and Dad where we belong” she would whisper to me, which was just about the last thing I wanted to hear. I never replied to her.
Although something in me understood her far more than she understood me, we were two sides of the same coin.
 
3.18 - 1962-1964(19) South Stanley Co/Durham
 
If I found it difficult to get on with me Dad I think Christine found it impossible. Not because he was reserved with her, quite the contrary; particularly in drink.
When sober, he had a tendency of leering at her out of the corner of his eye, which at times even made me feel uncomfortable, but in drink his behaviour was very questionable. One of his favourite habits was to tickle her all over quite manically (which he had convinced himself she loved), and wherever his hands happened to land was because he was unsteady due to the alcohol.
It doesn’t need me to try to describe how Christine felt about this kind of thing, but I thought it was important to note in order to understand why she did not settle quite as easily as me into the Dixon household. Suffice to say that she grew to hate him.
In fairness to me Mam, she always intervened, was always on Christine’s side and always gave him a piece of her mind, which was no mean feat for a tiny woman challenging a six foot miner. The impact on me, and no doubt on Christine too, was the sad realisation that there was no real love between Katie and Billy. And as time went on we both grew closer to her, and more protective of her. Especially me; I had to.
3.19 - 1962-1964(20) SouthStanley Co/Durham
 
As time went by, and life went on, I suppose in the main that Christine and I were just like any other sister and brother with the one difference being that she actively kept up a communication with Elsie.
In those days (before technology) their interactions were by post, and on the arrival of a letter I think me Mam found it quite painful watching a delighted Christine run up the stairs to read her mail in private.
It was farcical really because before the day was out the contents would be forced into my head, and the first thing I would do was go and repeat the lot to me Mam anyway. On the bright side I did at least get updates on Brenda.
Something happened then. Something that had quite a profound effect on Christine, on me, and no doubt on me Mam and Dad. There hadn’t been a letter for some time and so I think we were all quite tense.
In my case, being a bit of a sensitive soul, the tension went straight to my stomach; I never could cope with negative atmospheres. The sense of dread, of not knowing what was going on consumed me almost into paralysis. With Christine, such things created mood swings which at times could be explosive; impacting on everyone and anyone.
Finally, one day, a Social Worker arrived.
3.20 - 1962-1964(21) South Stanley Co/Durham
 

From time to time I had wondered why Elsie had not made the effort to have all of her children back (notwithstanding the fact that she didn’t like me very much) but things became clear with the visit from the Social Worker. Their very profession had become synonymous with bad news and so I pinned my ears back and waited for the worst.
It transpired that Elsie had gone into a hospital which specialised in mental health issues although I still don’t know if her admission was voluntary or if she was sent there by doctors. What I did know, however, was that her stay would be long term; I felt nothing but indifference. What did concern me was Brenda; where she was and who she was with.
Whether it was a consequence of Elsie going into hospital or whether it was for some other reason I don’t know, but I found out that Brenda had been fostered to a family called Cooper who lived in Lancashire who were unable to have children of their own. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I decided that it was wonderful that my sister was now part of a family of her own, away from Elsie; there was no more reason for me to have to visit the woman again. On the other hand I was terrified that I would never see Brenda again. Where was Lancashire? It sounded a long way away. And if I ever did manage to find it would her new family welcome me or not. The realisation that I may never see her again hit me very hard.
Around the same time as Christine and I wrestled with our own emotional roller-coasters, me Dad announced that the pit where he worked, Beamish Mary, was to close and that the miners were to be relocated to the Midlands.
The news shattered me Mam. So much so that it was many, many years before I even gave Brenda another thought. Katie’s entire life was centred round the North East. Her family and friends, her past and her present, her culture and traditions. Seeing me Mam cry was far worse than anything I had ever experienced before and there was nothing I could do about it, other than cry with her. And while the outside cried, so too did the inside as I watched me Dad show no regard whatever for his Wife’s feelings.
3.21 - 1962-1964(22) South Stanley Co/Durham
Angel of the North
And so began the end of my life as a boy Geordie. We were to move to a town called New Ollerton near Newark in Nottinghamshire and our removal expenses would be paid by the National Coal Board. Plus, as me Dad would remind us all often, we would be living rent free for the first 12 months. Big deal.
I suppose a part of it all, for a young lad like me, had an element of excitement about it. At least I would be out of reach of the bullies who continued to make my life a misery; their current reason for giving me a pasting being that they had realised I had a different surname to that of my parents and I refused to tell them why.
But there was no escaping the sadness of me Mam and the increasing isolation she felt from her Husband. Whilst Billy was on a roll, Katie continued to try to keep things emotionally stable for both Christine and me. Her usual simple, but wonderful, dinners of corned beef pie or pease-pudding and ham shank graced the table bang on the button of teatime, and all other usual routines were stuck to rigidly.
But the day finally arrived for us to leave, and as we saw our entire possessions loaded onto an open pit lorry, they looked as pathetic as we did closing the front door for the last time.

Chapter 4 – Leaving the North East and life in the Midlands

4.1 1964 – 1971 Newcastle to New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire

My recollection of leaving the North East, although sketchy, is powerfully emotive. The relief of escaping my tormentors was little consolation when balanced with the thought that I was leaving the only culture I knew. It didn’t help that me Mam and Christine were to travel south by bus while me and me Dad were to accompany the driver in the lorry. I had so desperately wanted to travel with me Mam and be supportive in some way but I think cost had something to do with the arrangement; and the idea of Christine travelling with me Dad was not an option.

 
As the lorry grunted its way out of Tweed Terrace to the silent vigil of the neighbours on their doorsteps, I could hardly bear to look at me Dad. The broad smile on his face made me feel quite sick. I remember trying to decide if his grimace was genuine delight at the thought of a new life, in a brand new rent free house, or a way of trying to hide his embarrassment at having made a decision which none of his family approved of. Whatever it was, it stank of selfishness, and any misgivings I may have had vanished then and there in realising the man didn’t care about the feelings of his Wife or his children.

 
The eight hour journey south was in silence, broken only by the occasional tweet from Sparky, me Mam’s beloved budgie, who’s cage was in a vice like grip on my knee. It was during this silence that I made some of the most profound decisions of my life; decisions which would impact for years.

4.2 1964 – 1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (1)


Breck Bank was one of about forty streets which had been purposely built to receive migrant mineworkers from the North, which collectively became known locally as the ‘Geordie Estate’. The houses were indeed brand new semi detached properties with a garden to the front and back, three bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, dining room and lounge. There was also a built in utility room/shed adding to the functionality. In terms of character they had none whatsoever.

 
For the shallow minded, and clearly there were some, it must have felt like a step up the class ladder, but for the more discerning it was no more than a ghetto. One thing which did get my vote, however, was the indoor nettie; although I didn’t know at the time that most of the local people did not have this facility. Pit houses of the day all had outside toilets and daft as it sounds this issue did become quite contentious within the community; albeit underlying. At some point too, the penny dropped that I would once again have my own bedroom and hiding my delight was not something I was about to do. To quote Fred Flintstone ‘Yabba-Dabba-Doooooo!!!’.

 
Moving house in the sixties was always something of an embarrassing event for families in transit as everything they owned ended up on public display; usually in the front garden of their new home where the haulers dumped it regardless of the weather. The priority then would be to get everything inside first, and then later place things in their respective rooms.

 
After what seemed like hours, we finally got everything inside the house, closed the door and sat in the mayhem exhausted. With nothing more that we could feasibly do that day, me Dad suggested he went out to find a fish and chip shop which naturally won everyone’s vote.
I suppose if he had ever returned with the food I imagine we would have canonised him, but it seems he found the Ollerton and Bevercotes Miners Welfare and Institute first. We didn’t see him again that day.

4.3 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (2)


New Ollerton was known by those who lived there as a village but it was far from that in my view. Having none of the things that I would equate with a village it was, to me, more of a town. The term village gives the impression of somewhere being small, quaint and rural, and with a sense of community, but the only redeeming feature I could see was the open planning of the streets.

At the front of all of the older pit houses were lawns which were tended religiously, by the Estates department of the National Coal Board, which admittedly did give the place a good feel on a summer day, although I did find it confusing that all of the streets were named after either a tree or a forest; no doubt in honour of Nottinghamshire’s famous son Robin Hood.
By contrast, the ‘Geordie Estate’, to the locals, was a sort of appendage they would rather have done without but compromised with, given their need for more mineworkers in the area. The newness of it all was something of an eyesore and did seem out of place, and so it isn’t difficult to imagine the feelings of encroachment at that time. Paradoxically, however, there was also an underlying envy in that the new houses had facilities which the older ones didn’t (e.g. indoor toilets, fenced gardens) which I suppose begged the question ‘why them and not us?’ The old world was obviously not as idyllic as it appeared. Such things did little for community relations.

The morning after the night before arrived, and the first day in our new world began. Amidst the bedlam of things all over the house I was quite relieved when me Mam asked me to go and find the local shop to buy milk.
Leaving the house and walking into a street I had never been in before, I felt like a chick hatching from an egg. It was the first time I had ever felt anonymous, and as I stood there I just soaked it up. It was liberating; a feeling I have never ever forgotten. Even today I love being in those situations, especially walking through big cities where not a soul knows me.

Just then, I heard a voice. “Hello”. As I looked around I saw a little blonde haired girl standing behind the gate of the house over the road. For a minute I nearly died of shock. I thought it was Brenda. But it wasn’t.
Her name was Annie, and she became a life long friend.

4.4 1964-1971(3) New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire


As with all of the families on the estate, Annie’s was from the North East; I think from Chester-le-Street, where me Dad’s sister Auntie Eva lived. Her Dad, John, didn’t work under ground, he had a job with a little more prestige in the lamp room although I didn’t see a lot of him; as with my Dad, the working shifts could be very unsociable at times. But Annie’s Mam Irene (Auntie Irene to me), was a lovely woman and became a very good friend to Katie. As fate would have it the family also had an elder son called Alan who eventually would join the Army, but who meanwhile became the focus of Christine’s attention. It seemed natural therefore that the families became good friends. I still see Alan occasionally today.

If any one thing set the families apart I think it would be the fact that John didn’t drink alcohol to any large degree. Only on occasion would he venture out for a half pint of beer and even then it would be to a pub rather than to the Miners Welfare. If that were not impressive enough, I also noticed (being overly observant/a nosey little so-and-so at that time) that he usually took his Wife and children with him; he wasn’t a lone drinker. In fact if I was with Annie at the time they were going out, I got to enjoy the occasional soiree myself, which included a ride in his whopping big silver Zephur.

Naturally, it wasn’t very long before I began to make comparisons between the life styles of the two families. On the face of it, John was extremely caring of his Wife and family and ensured whenever possible that they all had quality time together; something I craved. He had made the effort to pass a driving test, and bought a family car which made shopping trips bearable and which took them ‘home’ to the North East at least twice a year for holidays.
For a long time I mitigated in my mind in favour of me Dad. In fairness to him he had a far more dangerous and isolating job which didn’t lend itself to the development of his social skills. If anything it hampered them. He had also been an underground worker since the age of 14 and had become conditioned as a boy to address the dehydration as soon as the men hit the surface. Clearly he was conditioned long before he married me Mam. I reasoned that perhaps I had been too hard on him. And despite everything, I loved him. He was me Dad.

4.5 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (4)


Whinney Lane Junior School, New Ollerton, is the first real memory I have of my schooling which I began attending around the age of nine. As Annie was a few years younger than me she attended Whinney Lane Infants School, next door, and so we walked there and back together.
The school itself was typical of the sort you see in films from the sixties with long corridors and glass windows in the classroom doors, through which the headmaster or deputy head would eyeball in search of unruly pupils. In my case however, the tradition of my standing in the corridor continued to be par for the course (as it had been in the North East) and so looking me out was unnecessary as I was already there to be found. Being invited to the office was something I expected rather than anticipated and with corporal punishment being the norm I was caned on a regular basis.
Each classroom housed around thirty children, each of whom had a wooden desk in which they kept their books, and which was fitted with an ink well. The dip pens were made of a purple plastic which, despite their disgusting taste, I had an awful habit of chewing and apart from the fact that I was punished for the deed, spent the following two years gurning; not knowing whether to swallow the bits or spit them out.
Having fallen behind with my education it wasn’t long before I had problems keeping up with the class, and the familiar scenario of being targeted once again became my reality. Memories of this time are very negative and quite painful, not least because being a bit older the process of being systematically singled out had also become embarrassing. The irony of it was that I so wanted to be just like everyone else and do well. I began to think that I was some sort of a freak.

 

It’s a strange thing to say but there was a part of me, at that time, that knew full well that a particular teacher had taken a dislike to me and abused his power in making my life a misery. And in an even stranger twist of fate, it would be to me he answered twenty years later when I challenged him over his treatment of my own daughter.

4.6 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (5)


As in the North East, me Dad worked long hours in his job at Ollerton Colliery and so it wasn’t very often that I got to see him, let alone spend time with him; but then one day he said “Howay lad, get yer coat on yer comin wi’ me”. I was thrilled.
But the thrill quickly vanished when I looked at his face. Something was wrong, and he was frightened. I’d never seen me Dad frightened before, and like any child in that situation I was terrified. Regardless of the relationships, children see their parents as invincible and protective, and to realise they are not is a massive shock. The rapid change in my emotions almost made me pass out and though I tried to ask him what the matter was no words came out of my mouth.

As we left the house I was still struggling to put my coat on and keep up with me Dad who was known for his long stride. When I finally managed it I hung onto his arm and ran with him as he marched. “Dad, where we gannin? Dad? Where we gannin?” I spluttered. He didn’t answer.
At the end of the street was a telephone box, he opened the door and we both squeezed in. In a deathly silence he placed a pile of two bob bits on the shelf and dialled a number. Even though I strained to get the gist of what was going on I couldn’t and had to wait until the call was over. Outside the phone box me Dad was as white as a sheet. For the first time in his life he put his arm on my shoulder. “Aah divent naa what the hell am ganna tell yer Mam bonnie lad. It’s Eli, her brother. He’s committed suicide”.

Horror. I was consumed by it. Me Mam adored Uncle Eli and the thought of telling her that news was almost unthinkable. But we knew it had to be done. Yet the tragedy opened both our eyes, and our hearts. Walking back up the street me Dad kept his arm around me and I hung on to his hand. And although he had not liked Uncle Eli he dreaded having to tell me Mam because he didn’t want to hurt her.

The vision of me Dad hugging me Mam as she thumped his chest in tears still haunts me. But through all of the pain our family were in, I knew now that me Dad loved me Mam. And he also loved me. Sadly it took a crisis for me to see it.
4.7 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (6)
 
Just at the point that I was witnessing me Mam suffer the most dreadful emotional pain at the loss of her brother I began to wonder where God fitted into all of it.
I did know, for some bizarre reason that I was listed as a Methodist and so decided to check out the local chapel. The congregation numbered a measly dozen or so who were ranted at on a weekly basis by a minister demanding to know where the absentees were, and so it didn’t take me long to decide to sling me hook.
Continuing my quest, I joined Sally’s Army figuring that if I didn’t find the ‘big cheeze’ there I would at least get the chance to play my mouth organ once in a while. And who knows I might even get a uniform. As it turned out, whatever I was searching for in the spiritual sense certainly wasn’t there; and our musical tastes were poles apart anyway and so, to the dulcet tones of ‘Hallelluya’, I slipped out the door and legged it.
Disillusioned I put religion on hold, even though over the years I did attend various churches but only to take advantage of their recreational facilities. I suppose you could say I was a hypocrite, and there were many occasions when I was copped for exhibiting behaviour less than was expected of a member. Being booted out of the Cubs for sneaking into the Brownies tent springs to mind and although the church was not directly connected to the Cubs word soon got back. I came to the conclusion that they were all in cahoots and went my own way.
It would be a long time before I would eventually find spiritual peace. I would have travelled the world, married, become a Father and a Grandfather, and had a near death experience before I was finally blessed with peace of mind.
4.8 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (7)

Even though my school life was totally miserable I still managed to make a few friends, although they were all in different classes and so weren’t exposed to my ridicule; which is probably why I commanded an element of respect from them.
To be truthful, of our gang of four boys, the others saw me in something of a leadership role and often deferred, which was obviously totally new ground to the likes of me. I think it may have had more to do with the fact that me Mam would spoil us all rotten with cakes or whatever when we called in, whereas their parents wouldn’t even let us in the yard.
But since I appeared to have been appointed (elevated, even) to such a position, I quickly began developing the skills required to calm differences and ease confrontations, which strangely enough came very naturally. On wondering where on earth I could possibly have acquired the ability to fit into such a role, a penny suddenly dropped. Jimmy O’Brien.
There was no doubt in my mind that having spent years in the Home watching Jimmy mediate, and guide the other children through disagreements, disappointments and all manner of difficulty, I had sub consciously taken it all in, processing those qualities I had so admired in him and building them into my own personality.
Although I had lost Jimmy tangibly from my life, I felt that a part of him had stayed with me (and still does), like some sort of guardian angel. His legacy to me is something I take very seriously in that I endeavour to treat everyone respectfully, regardless of how they may treat me; the warmth I feel inside is worth it. I can see now why Jimmy was the way he was.
4.9 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (8)

Although me Dad worked underground, as a belt repair man he didn’t earn an enormous wage; unlike for example a face worker, who quite rightly was paid top whack and of course the highest bonus. I wouldn’t say we were poor, but then (as Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof might say) ‘I wouldn’t say we were well off either’. In terms of pocket money, a tanner a week seems to ring a bell although me Mam would add another tuppence if I combed her hair and pulled out anything that looked grey. But as any boy of ten would tell you there are things heneeds which can’t be squeezed out of his allowance. Things such as, such as, such as a bike, and such as fishing tackle for example.
One day me Dad came home and announced he had got me a Sunday job cleaning the car of the Welfare Steward and that I would be paid a whopping half-a-crown for doing it. I was dancing! Half-a-crown! I was rich. I could hardly wait for Sunday; and when it finally came I shot up to the Welfare like a rocket. The car was a big silver Ventura that looked like something out of an American movie and I loved cleaning it; especially the inside because I got to fiddle with the controls and drive a dream up the Nutbush turnpike.
It wasn’t long before earning my own money became something at which I became very adept; in no time at all I added a morning and evening paper round to my C.V. At the peak of my juvenile employment, I added still two more jobs to my working week; a Saturday morning Co-op delivery round, and the Sunday morning (less prestigious) task of feeding pigs stale bread on a farm in Bothamsall. The latter is not something I would recommend.
Naturally, me Mam would not allow me to be carrying such riches around in my pocket, and would put the bulk of my money away for me, until I had saved up enough for whatever it was I was after. But it was at quite an early age that I realised I didn’t need to be a Professor to bring the bacon home, and (touch wood) I have never been out of work in my life; albeit I am no Professor. Perhaps as my Wife Carol would say ‘I woke up and smelled the gravy’.
4.10 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire(9)

Between my part time jobs, my friendship with Annie, and my activities with me mates (which included fishing, bike rides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award), there was little space left in my head to dwell on the misery of school.
Although the bullying and abuse still happened on a day to day basis, I was starting to become immune to it all. I remember an incident when I bent over a sink in the boy’s toilets to take a drink and had my face pushed so hard that the impact bucked my teeth. Afterwards I just carried on with my day as though nothing had happened.
The predicament of being loved by some people and hated by others was one which, although I had lived with all of life, was never something I found very easy to cope with.  Wondering whether I was likeable or not became increasingly difficult for me to assess; the confusion leaving me prone to nightmares and crying fits, both of which I went to enormous lengths to keep from me Mam. In hindsight, there is no doubt me Mam was aware of my turmoil (what Mother wouldn’t be?), probably putting it down to things from my past rather than my present; and did what any loving parent would do; nurture and love.
In the middle of all these ponderings, it didn’t occur to me that as I guarded areas of my mind from others, so too did me Mam. Whenever there was an argument between her and me Dad, we knew all about it; everyone did, it was loud enough. And the themes of the rows were always the same; me Dad’s drinking or how much she missed ‘home’ and hated Ollerton.
But there was something Katie managed to keep to herself for a very long time, and when I think back to that period of time I feel ashamed for being so selfishly wrapped up in my own agenda that I didn’t become aware of it earlier. She had been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.
4.11 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (10)
There’s a theory that we are all born with cancerous cells in our bodies but not all of us develop cancer. Some people think that those who develop it do so following trauma in their lives and Katie certainly had her share of that.
Leaving the North East was almost like cutting off her air supply, but then losing her beloved Brother to suicide must surely have contributed too. But it was still several years before I became aware of her condition. Only when she began to lose her voice did it occur to me that something was wrong; yet throughout these years she was still every bit the loving, stable person she had always been for me.
As a family we did always manage to get back ‘home’ at least once a year which for me Mam (and me) was a real highlight, even though we had to split-up and squat in Z-beds at both Auntie Bella’s and Uncle Tommy’s. I quite liked those arrangements because I got to sleep in my cousin Alan’s bedroom while Christine shared with Lorna; me Mam and Dad stayed with Uncle Tommy and Aunty Mary over the road. The worst thing about it all was going back to Ollerton at the end of the holiday.
I think the Social Services must have helped out with holidays because as well as the trip North, we also had many seaside packages over the years to places such as Great Yarmouth, Butlins Filey, and Southsea in Portsmouth, and I don’t imagine for a minute that my parents could have afforded those trips too. If that was the case, then it is one of the few things I am eternally grateful to them for because there is no doubt that they would have been aware of Katie’s condition. And to allow us all those halcyon days together as a family was a priceless gesture. They are memories I cherish.
4.12 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (11)
Around the age of eleven, I paused.
So many things had happened so quickly that it almost felt as though my soul was being compromised. Since the day I was born I had been all things negative to almost everyone I met and had developed survival strategies based on that philosophy. With ‘deference’ being my middle name, creeping and crawling had become things at which I was so adept one could say I was a master of those arts. But something had changed.
In a public sense, it hadn’t gone unnoticed by school teachers, that I appeared to command the respect of a group of peers (my gang of lads), some of whom it was known would do well in both education and in life; and despite their best efforts to dissuade them from hanging around with the likes of me, found that their words fell upon deaf ears. Forced to rethink their view, and to moot the possibility that there may be more to me than they had originally thought, suggestions were put to me Mam and Dad (through open evenings and school reports) that “Alan could do well if he applied himself more to his schooling”. Me Dad’s reply was pure Shakespeare and has had a treasured place in my memory ever since; “Wor Alan’ll dee well with or withoot thoo jumped up buggers”. Pure Shakespeare.
Around the same time, my little friend Annie had also begun to take flak from other children because she had a habit of rocking her head from left to right, and although the cruel jibes had been happening a while, she hadn’t told me about it. But then victims of bullying rarely tell anyone of their plight. I obviously knew of her rocking habit but merely saw it as an endearing part of her personality. On the day I finally witnessed her being called names by a group of older kids I literally flipped and went for them. Their shock at being attacked was exacerbated by the fact that it was me doing the attacking; me, that puny wimp who they had enjoyed plastering from time to time as part of their daily routines. It was the last thing they expected. It wasn’t until much later, when my own shock emerged, that I crapped myself at the thought of the incident but I learned a valuable lesson from the experience; bullies are cowards.
Incidents such as these, coupled with the awareness of my parents’ vulnerability, began a forced change within me. Whether I liked it or not, I was growing up fast; and becoming stronger. My psyche now began conditioning itself to always look out-of-the-box, and to consider the bigger picture, which is something as an adult I do as a matter of course. Writing my autobiography is a good example; if I thought I did not have the mental capacity to complete the job, I would never have started.
With concern for me Mam, who had now begun losing her voice, a hatred of bullying, and a complacency of formal education, I left Whinney Lane Junior School to go to the big school (the Dukeries Comprehensive) with Dad’s Shakespeare still ringing in my ears.
4.13 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (12)
In September of 1966, and still one of the few boys wearing short pants, I walked up the long drive of the Dukeries Comprehensive School, New Ollerton, to begin a five year stint of education; an education which would determine what I would do for the rest of my life. My first impression was one of fright, (or for my younger readers, it would be a fair comment to say that I ‘bricked’ myself).
The building itself, built on the pattern of the day, was two stories high in the shape of a square, at the centre of which was a grassed quadrangle, the social hub of the place. Facilities which included a swimming pool, concert hall, language labs, tennis courts and library almost left me thinking that I’d just stepped out of Doctor Who’s Tardis and had wandered into a strange city on another planet; it was absolutely massive.
Although I had gained some confidence in myself, and wasn’t quite as timid as I once was, the size of the school, and its twelve hundred inhabitants, was not something I got used to over night. It reminded me of a cross between an ant colony and a graveyard; every time the bell went off, hundreds of people moved from one room to another, after which the place fell silent again until the next bell.
Complicating things for me even more was the structure of the school. Instead of merely being a member of a particular class, pupils were first of all assigned to one of six ‘houses’, all of whom competed against each other in every facet of life from sport to art, and from music to heaven knows what. Within each ‘house’ students were then separated into Tutor Sets where they began their day, and ended their day; the idea being that one’s Tutor was one’s mentor. Finally a streaming process based on reports from the Junior School, determined which Class a student would be placed in; S.L.A. & B. being grammar level, and C.D.E.F. & G. being secondary levels.
One of the biggest dreads for everyone was finding out which Class they were to be placed in; or to put it another way whether they were to be publically acknowledged as being thick by being bunged in with F-Troop. Given my history in the Juniors I was convinced humiliation was on its way; so what’s new? So come on, bring it on.
I was staggered to learn I had been placed in 1A.
4.14 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (13)
The first few weeks at the big school turned out to be quite laid back. As new intakes (sprogs) we were given guided tours of the various areas such as the science block and the farm unit; and very little expectations were placed on our young shoulders. Although I was still quite nervous, there were a couple of things that quickly had me ‘chomping at the bit’, and which I was really looking forward to.
The first of these was the Art Block. Over the years, I had honed my drawing skills, particularly in the area of buildings and maps, using bits of wood as rulers and anything I could find that would make a mark on my paper. To see such an abundance of resources in the umpteen studios was, to me, greatly impressive. Drawing boards and tee squares, easels and paints, clay, fabric, canvas, cartridge papers; the list was endless, and to say I drooled at the mouth would be an understatement. The idea that I might one day become a draughtsman was one that me Dad very much approved of as he had harboured such hopes for himself as a younger man, which was another incentive.
The other area that took my eye of course was the music department. Ever since Bill Hayley brought Rock and Roll to the U.K. there was a revolution going on and I was loving every minute of it. The Beatles (particularly John Lennon), the Stones, and the Who were absolute gods to me, but my biggest heroes of all were the guitar playing solo men such as Dylan, Donovan, Pete Seager and Cat Stevens with their sometimes abstract (almost poetic) folk song writing. The image of one man with a guitar and harmonica performing anti-war and anti-establishment songs to the world held me absolutely mesmerised, and still does, as those who know me will testify. For me to do a gig today without a Dylan or a Cat Stevens song is unthinkable.
Whether there was room within the formal musical curriculum for my particular skills and tastes, however, remained to be seen.
4.15 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (14)
Looking back, art and music aside, there were a couple of other things that really took my attention. The Farm Unit held a particular fascination for me because I loved animals and had never had the opportunity to get close to them before; apart from the pigs at Bothamsall and the ducks at Roker Park, and we’ve been there and done that.
I have to admit I wasn’t too fond of horses, possibly because they got a lot of attention from all the other kids, preferring to get up close to the cows; I loved stroking their lumpy docile heads and listening to them chew their cud. Years later when travelling in the Gambia, I was horrified to be offered a bowl of ‘Cow’s Nose Soup’, but then that’s another story. Actually I was surprised to learn that cows like you blowing up their noses.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, there was a point when I decided without a shadow of a doubt that I would be a farmer when I grew up. The image of me driving a tractor laden with bales of hay as the sun went down was just so romantic to me. Until me Mam told me that I would have to be up at the crack of dawn and work me guts out till bedtime come rain, wind or snow. A sobering thought.
I think I made my final decision when, through the Rural Studies syllabus, we were expected to clip the milk teeth of piglets with pliers and then castrate them with a scalpel. To remove the testicles of an entire herd of hogs was bad enough, but when I looked round at the plant-pot in which they had been placed to see the farm cat chomping on them, my backside could not be seen for dust.
Incredibly, Rural Studies was the only subject at which I excelled in school, achieving a Grade 1 CSE, although it was probably more to do with the grounds man (who worked on the farm) becoming a friend, rather than my academic abilities. He also became a close friend of my sister Christine, who eventually he married.
On a totally different note, and notwithstanding the fact that I was very dubious about the existence of God, I really enjoyed Religious Education, in particular learning about eastern faiths. Hinduism, Shinto, Islam and Buddhism were just so much more passionate ways of life than anything I had hitherto come across to date. Unlike what I had seen of western religions, the dedication of the people who followed these paths, and their beliefs, filled me with absolute respect, and my yen to travel grew even more.
Life as a religious chameleon would last another thirty years before I finally found what it was I was looking for.
 
4.16 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (15)
Although there were many things about the big school I had come to enjoy, and some subjects for which I had an unquenchable thirst to know more about, I loathed formal education. Particularly when I found myself stuck in classes being taught things for which I could see no point.
Chemistry springs to mind, also algebra. Since I had no intention of pursuing a career that might even remotely require me to know the kind of complicated formulae, or abstract reasoning with which I felt I was being impregnated, I became angry at the fact that my learning time was being limited. Classically, my anger came out by sarcastically challenging any teacher attempting to teach me things I did not want to know; and with corporal punishment still being the order of the day, it wasn’t unusual for me to receive several thrashings a month for rebellious behaviour.
Having worked with teenagers as an adult, I know how frustrating it can be when they constantly question decisions or instructions they are given, and do so in a way that makes me look foolish; (although through experience I have found that there are ways around attitude issues, provided tolerance plays a part). I mention this because I’m reminded of a particular scenario in the technical drawing class when I got so far up a particular teacher’s nose that he threw a blackboard rubber at me, which as I recall bounced off my head. I stood up, walked out of the classroom, and ignoring his yells of “Get back in here boy”, went home.
When me Dad heard about the incident, he almost ran up to the school, burst into the classroom, and read the teacher his horoscope in front of all and sundry.
To me the teacher was a failure. Not because of his violence, but because despite his high level of training he couldn’t debate reason with an eleven year old boy without pulling rank or resorting to bullying. My disrespect of him set in motion a distrust of the establishment which, far from saying all those in public office were like him, they certainly came under my scrutiny; and still do. As for me Dad, he was a hero.
4.17 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (16)

After a while, life for me in Nottinghamshire became tolerable, largely by default because I had no choice but to accept it. In mixing with local kids, my strong Geordie accent began to soften as I picked up some of the local slang (mainly to be understood without being laughed at); although it always came back on our annual pilgrimage to the North East. In reality though, I knew as I grew older that Newcastle was fading away from me. Me Mam knew it was for her too; which did nothing to ease her mind throughout her illness.
Not being one to sit and moan about things I couldn’t change, something in me decided to make the best of a bad job and to grasp any opportunity that happed to come my way; and there is no doubt that as a young teenager I led a full and enjoyable life. Bike rides, fishing and swimming with my friends were big favourites, as was time with Annie. Although we were both growing older and had our own social circles, we still spent quality time together; a holiday to Great Yarmouth holds fond memories for me. There was also the annual ‘Pit Trip’ to Skegness, on which every child was given 10/- (ten shillings), crisps, sweets and pop, all paid for by the Coal Board.
As well as having an interactive life with people I had come to know well, there was still a part of me that needed to have ‘something else, removed from everyone else’ (if that makes sense), and in meeting that need I joined the Sea Cadets, where I remained a member until the age of 16 when I joined the Royal Navy. It was also where I smoked my first cigarette.
To those who knew me at the time my joining the Cadets was an odd thing to do because they had the view that I would dislike the discipline, although as it turned out I thrived on it. Having strict boundaries were no problem when my achievements were always recognised and applauded, and it was this strategy that the Navy employed to maintain incentive in young people. It also bonded the cadets, not unlike a ship’s crew, whereby each of us wanted our comrades to as well as possible too, to the point where we would support them in any way necessary.
By now, there was little doubt in my mind where my future lay.
4.18 1964-1971 New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire (17)
Around 1969, my parents announced that we were moving house and just for a minute I almost screamed with delight thinking that we were at last going home to Newcastle. Fortunately (for me Mam’s feelings), I managed not to as it turned out that our new home would be one of the older pit houses in the adjoining village of Boughton. I was never very sure about why this move was to take place other than it being a financial decision. The rent on our house in Breck Bank at the time was somewhere around five pounds a week whilst the rent on the older properties were 24/- a week (£1.40) and so presumably this had a bearing on the matter.
Prior to moving, we got the opportunity to go down and have a look at the ‘new’ house and surprisingly we were all pleased with what we saw. The semi-detached property was at the very end of a long road and so only had neighbours on one side; to the other side of the house was a field where villagers stored their touring caravans through the winter months. At the front of the house was an open plan lawn which was maintained by the Coal Board Estates Department and to the back of the house was the longest garden I had ever seen. Better still the garden was extremely well maintained with two lawns, a fish pond, vegetable plot, fruit bushes, garden shed and conservatory which brought the outdoor nettie indoors.
Inside the house downstairs a small kitchenette led to a parlour which in turn led to a front room, with the upstairs having three bedrooms and a bathroom. Perhaps the thing which pleased me Mam the most was the fitted cooking range in the parlour; designed exactly the same as the one she had in Geordie land. For me, it was the fish pond and the garden shed, although the conservatory proved to be the perfect place to keep me bike and fishing tackle. I think Christine really appreciated the tidy garden as messy yards were something she found quite embarrassing; and in fairness she tended the lawns and plants regularly to keep it looking good. No doubt the lower rent was well received by both me Mam and me Dad.
And so, with everyone happy, we once again commissioned the open pit lorry to take all our worldy goods (to the scrutiny of all and sundry) out of the Geordie Estate and down to our new house at 112, Newark Road, Boughton, Notts.
4.19 1964-1971 112 Newark Road, Boughton, Nottinghamshire (1)

The first thing to hit me the morning after moving to Newark Road was the peace and quiet. After getting up and dressed, I went straight outside into our new garden and literally lapped up the silence; broken only by the sound of birds chirping to one another. It was wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I had to keep pinching myself to prove I wasn’t dreaming.
Not wanting the moment to end I began walking slowly down the garden path, past neat borders overflowing with flowering plants filled with busy bees, ants, ladybirds, and all kinds of life who’s collective sound could only described as that of nature. The sort of sound you hear when you walk up a rarely used country lane.
Half way down the garden I paused at the fish pond to sit on the rocks which had been placed around the edges. At one end of the pond were reeds which must have been three feet high, some of which bowed down to almost touch the yellow flowering water lillies covering the surface. Looking into the water I was delighted to see several dozen goldfish, snails, hoverflies, and thingies I’d never seen before; so delighted in fact that had I been a poet I would have most certainly shot off to write a sonnet there and then!
Sitting on ‘my’ rock was my most favourite place in the whole world and over the following two years there is no doubt it became a lot smoother than when I first perched upon it. I could sit. I could be alone. My imagination could be free; and I was at peace in my solitude.
I have no doubt that I was fortunate to learn at a very early age that being at one with nature was one of the most powerful healing processes there is. At various times in my adult life when I have felt heart broken, or when my soul feels as though it is literally weeping, I have taken solace in things not made by man; and its there that lies real power.
4.20 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (2)
 
Life seemed to be moving on very quickly; it didn’t seem five minutes since I had been a small child in a very big and complicated world and now here I was a young adult, with a definite view of where my future lay.
Both me Mam and Dad knew I wanted to join the Royal Navy and although me Dad was all for it, me Mam was less keen. My original thought of enlisting as a 15 year old like me cousin Paul at H.M.S. Ganges was scuppered by me Mam arguing ‘I was too young to know me own mind’; but who eventually compromised by saying that if I still felt the same way at 16, I could go with her blessing.
Looking back, I now realise that I was a very big part of her life, and the idea of me leaving must have grieved her considerably. Many has been the time as an adult that I have been stabbed by a pang of guilt recalling how selfish I must have been, but having had teenagers of my own I now realise that me Mam would not have seen me that way.
With my future decided, albeit two years hence, I began for the first time to feel quite empowered in that I knew what was going to happen; and more importantly that a decision of mine had been respected. As might be expected, the school took advantage by suggesting that my entry into the Royal Navy would never happen if I didn’t achieve a certain level of education, and so to a certain degree I stuck my nose to the grindstone; but (I consoled myself), I was doing it for me…not them.
Socially, I still had my small group of mates with whom I continued to enjoy all those things that boys like to do. And although I didn’t live near Annie any more, we still maintained our strong friendship, meeting up fairly often. In fact I recall a Christmas Dinner night out with the Co-op staff (for whom I delivered groceries), to which Annie came along with me as my partner. By the end of the evening most of the gathered thought we made such a lovely couple they virtually had us married off. If the truth be known, both my Mam and Annie’s Mam Irene had mooted the same idea on occasions but from our point of view we were just very good friends. And I’m delighted to say that we still are.
4.21 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (3)
 
Tribute for an unknown man.
I saw a man die today. He was someone’s son. His Mother wasn’t there when he died. So I held his hand. I was a complete stranger and knew he was dead; yet his own Mother didn’t. The thought horrified me. I don’t know why but I was desperate for her to know as soon as possible. Please God don’t let it be me that has to tell her.

It was a Saturday morning in 1970 and I was 15 years old. I had just left the Co-op on my delivery bike and was riding down Main Road, Boughton, taking groceries to Mrs Gosforth at 47 Hazel Road. I liked taking her shopping because she was a dead generous tipper who would tip me 2/6d (Half-a-crown). The new currency had just come in and as I rode along I was trying to work out how much 2/6d was in ‘new pence’. Whatever new pence I had in my pocket always seemed less than when I had a pocket full of half crowns, two bob bits, tanners and thrupenny bits; and did I miss the ten bob notes?
I hated new pence. Especially the half pennies that were worth sod all. I knew it was all about Britain joining the Common Market but I didn’t much like the sound of that either; I was happy being British and didn’t want to be a European. The whole issue had me totally absorbed. Absorbed, that is, until a gut churning BANG shocked me senseless. It was so loud that I stopped dead with my head scrambled. I didn’t want to look; but I had to.
A motorcyclist had been hit by a car on the junction of Main Road and Hazel Road, and was lying in the road with his bike almost on top of him. The car had stopped but the driver was just sitting in his seat staring into space. I ran over to the man in the road. His eyes were open but he was in a dreadful state. There was blood everywhere. A wound to his thigh gaped so wide that I could see his bone but it wasn’t bleeding. Wondering where all the blood was coming from, I suddenly saw that it was pumping sporadically from his nose and mouth. Desperate to do something I put his scarf to his nostril to try to stem the flow but it just kept coming out of his mouth. As I held the man’s hand, I told him that someone had phoned for an ambulance and it was on its way although I didn’t know that for sure; and as he looked at me I got the feeling that I hadn’t been very convincing. Then his eyes closed. It would not be the last time I would see a man die in the street.
I hope someone holds my hand when it’s my turn.
 
4.22 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (4)

In the July of 1970, many of my friends decided to leave school and take local jobs. For the boys this meant joining the National Coal Board who promised everything from professional training to a pension scheme. For the girls it meant a choice between the Mansfield Hosiery Mills or the Meridian factory; neither of which paid particularly well, possibly due to the high turnover of staff through marriage or childbirth. For those who failed to make the grade at any of these establishments there was the hen houses, plucking poultry.

Since I had agreed with me Mam that I would wait until I was sixteen before joining the Royal Navy, I had the prospect of looking forward to grunting myself through a 5th year at school, but at least (as students) we were given slightly more autonomy. School uniform was more relaxed and some work was allowed to be done at home, or at least in rooms away from the formal teaching environment. I also managed to find time to indulge in a few of my other passions which included stamp collecting and swimming since these were two areas I had chosen to undertake as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. As it turned out I never finished the award but did at least achieve a bronze medallion in life saving. By and large things were okay in my world.

In hindsight I think that me Mam hoped I would change my mind about going into the forces although in my heart I knew that that was where I wanted to be. Her cancer had begun to develop to the point where she had almost lost her voice totally although there was never a time when I thought her life may be in danger. Her passion for going to Bingo carried on but only if either Christine or me could accompany her to call out if she won. The same thing applied if she needed to go to the shops, or catch a bus because she became increasingly embarrassed at being unable to be understood. Eventually it was decided that she would undergo an operation to have her larynx removed and replaced with a plastic voice box; she was consequently placed on the waiting list.
 
4.23 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (5)
 
As life rolled on there was an air of acceptance in the house that I would soon be leaving home, coupled with a certain dread that Mam wasn’t well and that an operation was imminent.

Dad seemed to be spending even more time at the Blue Tit and the Miners’ Welfare returning home drunk and very late. There were rumours of him seeing other women rumours I flatly refused to believe until one day I was out walking with him and he was tackled by a man in the street. Words to the order of ‘Effing well keep away from her….’ seem to ring a bell although the incident was never discussed between us. I have often hoped me Mam never got wind of it although in reality that is probably unrealistic.

Christine and Clem’s relationship, by now, had become open and they had become engaged. Clem continued to work at the school farm unit while Christine worked at the same Co-op for whom I delivered groceries. She still had contact with Elsie and our sister Kerrie and so there were times I got news of them by default. News on Brenda, however, was not forthcoming and it would be fair to say that a part of me pined.

Throughout my last year in school, I did work fairly hard although I continued to hate formal education. To me it was a means to an end, and the fact that I knew the Navy required a particular level of achievement in Maths and English spurred me on at times when I would have happily walked away.
Friends at the Sea Cadets were also very supportive; particularly the younger boys. I had arrived at the point where I had become something of a role model to them and the idea of me failing entry into the Navy for being ‘too thick’ was not just an option. In fact it was unthinkable. Many a ‘Sea Cadet’ night we would all sit round sharing a fag, talking about the ships we would sail on and the foreign lands we would visit. Great memories. 
I still like a smoke….and I still hate formal education.
4.24 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (6)
In tying up a few loose ends regarding this particular period of my life I would probably be first tempted to mention music, since it was (and still is) one of my greatest passions.
As was probably predictable, I never did fit into the formal structure, as emphasis always seemed to be placed on those with an interest in either joining the school orchestra, or heading for a colliery band, although in fairness, my ability at reading music was pretty abysmal.
 

I seem to recall my feelings at that time were twofold. Envy (of those who not only had the natural flair to learn what I felt to be almost a foreign language, but that they also got so much 1:1 tuition to develop their skills) and contempt (bloody pansies, bring on the rock and roll).
Over the years, of course, my own taste and skills have also developed, albeit the hard way, and with maturity I have grown to respect musicians of all levels of ability, and to love all forms of music (including both orchestral and the big band sound). Paradoxically, I now have friends in the classical world who admit to a certain envy of me!
One of my most favourite, and not to be missed, programmes on the wireless these days is the David Jacobs Collection (Radio 2 Sunday evenings), and my all time favourite instrumental is a piece called ‘Sailing by’ which precedes the shipping forecast every night at 12.45 on Radio 4; and which I make every effort to not miss when I am in UK.
But of course, back in 1971, I would never have had a bar of that. My portable Bush Wireless, given to me as a birthday present from my sister Christine, was permanently tuned to Radio Luxemburg.
4.25 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (7)
In the July of 1971, my life as a scholar finally (and thankfully) came to a predictable end with my leaving the Dukeries Comprehensive School with 5 unimpressive C.S.E’s; two of which I think were grade 4, another two were grade 5, and as I mentioned previously a grade 1 in Rural Studies! (?).
Fortunately, my grades in Maths and English were acceptable for entry into the Royal Navy, and although I had applied I had still to hear back as to whether I would get an interview. In the meantime, much of my time was spent between working at my part time jobs, and sitting, pondering, by the garden pond on my favourite rock. Being so one tracked there’s no doubt in my mind that I was probably at my most selfish during this time, given the situation(s) of my parents. But then, at the end of the day, I was a boy.
But then, at the end of the day, I was a boy.
Finally a letter came calling me to an interview at Nottingham which had me jumping in the air with delight. I was also to attend a full medical examination at Derby on the same day.
As it turned out the interviewers were really nice, always using my Christian name, and complementing me on the few achievements I had made in life thus far. Then following a fairly simple logic test, a general assessment was made and I was told that in their view I had a future in the Stores Accountancy branch, pending an A1 medical.
In Derby, later the same day, all inhibitions went out of the door as I was ordered to strip, bend down, and perform a multitude of exercises in the nude, including press-ups, squats and pull-ups on a bar near to the ceiling. The shape of things to come? But the boy done good and passed. (‘Yes!!!’).
Not long after a letter arrived ordering me to arrive at H.M.S. Raleigh, Plymouth, on 27th September.
4.26 1964-1971 Boughton, Nottinghamshire (8)
For some weeks, me Mam had been collecting together everything on the list which the Navy had told me to bring when I went to sign up, and had been packing them into a brand new suitcase she had bought for the purpose. Two pairs of pyjamas, two bath towels, two hand towels… she also added a few things she wanted me to have with me; photographs, writing wallet (including stamps), and a male manicure set. “Make sure ye rite tiviz reglar bonny lad, and keep yersell tidy. And divent forget yer wireless and yer mooth organ”.
When the day to leave finally arrived, the parents of one of my friends arrived to take me as far as London on the train, and then make sure I got the right connection to Plymouth; he worked for British Rail and knew the routes and routines, and tactfully busied himself taking my case to his car while I said my goodbyes.
Dad shook my hand and gave me one of the few hugs I ever remember having from him that felt really sincere. He almost didn’t want to let go. And neither did I. All of sudden everything had become very real, and I felt my stomach sink. Eventually we let go and there was tears in his eyes. Almost simultaneously, Christine cried openly and we grabbed one another. We had been through many tough times together over the years, and had not always seen eye-to-eye, but then through it all we had come through fairly bonded. Through the length of that embrace we both sensed something of an ending; a closure. Whatever had been had now passed, things we once knew were no longer relevant, and we were no longer children. She was a grown woman with a man in her life, and a future ahead of her; and I was…….
Saying goodbye to me Mam was just so painful. Here was a woman who at the age of 44 took me out of hell at the age of 7 and transformed me into the young man before her, with the world at his feet. Here was a woman who I had seen taken away from the only culture she knew only to be left pining to return for the rest of her life. Here was a woman who for years had suffered a cancer which was becoming progressively worse as each day passed but never once compromised her love for me. Being the woman she was our hug was brief. “I won’t come ootside, hinny. Just mek sure ye rite and tell us ye got there safe. Gan on, away we ye”.
“A love ye Mam”.
Dad and Christine came out to wave the car off and just as we pulled away I looked back to see the letter box close.
4.27 1971 Boughton to Plymouth (1)
On leaving Boughton, my friend’s parents drove me to Newark, Northgate station where we all boarded the train for Kings Cross. There’s very little I remember about the journey; I didn’t feel particularly talkative but I was grateful for having people with me who knew what they were doing.
When I finally got around to sitting down and looking around the carriage I noticed it was almost full of young boys the same age as me, all clearly going to the same place, although not one of us had a word to say. The silence at times was deafening.For a moment I wondered why we were all leaving home to join the Navy if it made us feel so miserable, and no doubt there were others wondering the same thing, but before I had the chance to answer my own question the train pulled into Plymouth.
On the platform, Naval personnel were waiting to greet us all and quickly ushered us towards waiting transport; which took off at speed as soon as it was full, allowing a second shuttle to pull up in it’s place. Along the way we passed by Devonport dockyard which was heaving with warships, and as we all craned our necks to look; particularly when the pride of the fleet H.M.S. Ark Royal came into view. As we wound on along the country lanes of Torpoint, the bus suddenly turned a sharp right and we drove into the training barracks of H.M.S. Raleigh.
Not yet a man but no longer a boy.  A Manboy.
 

32 responses to “MANboy GEORDIE

  1. Annie Hird

    13/10/2013 at 1:19 am

    Alan, I was born at Dilston Hall in 1958 and for the first 5 years of my life lived at West Wylam, until we had to move to Doncaster in South Yorkshire as my father was a miner and the pits in Northumberland and Durham closed on a weekly basis in the 1960′s!. I have always had a fascination with my birth place as my mother used to tell me stories of the hall being haunted by one of the Radcliffe women who had been tarred and feathered for adultery. She said that her father, my grandfather, who had done some worth in the early fifties on the hall (he was a plumber) told her a tale of men refusing to work late at night in the hall due to hauntings and my aunts also relayed stories to me of the nurses who worked there after it became a maternity hospital would always walk in two’s down the long drive when they finished their shifts – do you know anything of these haunting tales

     
    • Alan Dixon

      13/10/2013 at 10:03 am

      Hi Annie and what a great story. I hadnt heard about the hauntings but having visited the place as an adult I can see where you’re coming from. The long drive up the hall is very imposing and I can’t imagine how staff must have felt doing the night shift.

      I’ve recently been working in a children’s home which used to be part of a workhouse (the hospital wing) and colleagues would tell me similar tales – par ticularly when I was on night shift.

      As part of a course I’ve recently done the subject of institutions was included and the cultures of the day were quite dreadful and so I’m not surprised that dreadful stories such as yours have been passed down the line (tarring and feathering was par for the course).

      I hope life in Doncaster is good for you; I often bypass there on the way north (and south) as I live in Nottinghamshire these days.

      Alan x

       
  2. marie

    24/07/2013 at 12:35 pm

    I am trying to find my birth mother. I was born at dilston hall in 1965. her address was hallington drive in south west denton, newborn or hallington drive south west denton Newcastle. I am now in Canada so any help would be appreciated. I cannot locate this address anymore.

     
    • Alan Dixon

      24/07/2013 at 8:00 pm

      Hi Marie and THANKYOU for your mail. What a nice surprise to have a mail from someone who was also born at Dilston Hall. I have a few readers who may be able to shine some light on your question so I will definitely pass it on and see what we can all come up with ( I’ll also investigate). I was up in the north east last week and loved every minute of it; I think many of the aesthetic changes are wonderful although having said that they have come at the cost of my own childhood images. No longer do the ships go up and down the Tyne the way they did and the industries have long gone. Having said that the welcome you receive is just as warm as always and just being there fills me with pride. I hope life in Canada is good for you x Alan

       
      • marienehring@sympatico.ca

        24/07/2013 at 8:59 pm

        Thank You Alan. Any help would be great. My mothers name was Kathleen Mary Burns and her address on my birth certificate was 20 Hallington Drive, South West Denton, Newburn, Newcastle. My birth name was Janice Ann Burns born at Dilston Hall. . That is about all I know at this point. Date: Wed, 24 Jul 2013 19:00:53 +0000 To: marienehring@sympatico.ca

         
        • Alan Dixon

          24/07/2013 at 9:40 pm

          Hi Marie. You’re very welcome. We’ll begin tomorrow; I’ll put a post on my home page to flag it up to my followers (I have 130, many of whom live in Geordieland – one or two specialise in tracing people’s past and their relatives). Fingers crossed x x

           
          • Brian Pears

            25/07/2013 at 2:35 am

            Hi Marie – It might not be the same person, but there was a Kathleen M Burns married a Clinton M Backhouse at Newcastle in 1976. As of 5 years ago Clinton and Kathleen were living in Carlisle, but I don’t have the exact address.

             
          • marienehring@sympatico.ca

            25/07/2013 at 7:48 am

            Wow thank you. How did you find that info so fast. I keep hitting road blocks.

             
          • Alan Dixon

            25/07/2013 at 7:52 am

            Thank you Brian it sounds like you hit the nail on the head for Marie.
            Marie Brian is quite an expert with these things he has given me invaluable help and so fingers crossed he will be able to help you too x x

             
          • marienehring@sympatico.ca

            25/07/2013 at 8:03 am

            Thank you for the great information. I can’t believe he found something so fast. I keep hitting road blocks from this end.  what would you suggest my next move would be. I am not sure where to go from here. Thank you

            Alan Dixon commented: “Thank you Brian it sounds like you hit the nail on the head for Marie.
            Marie Brian is quite an expert with these things he has given me invaluable help and so fingers crossed he will be able to help you too x x”

             
          • Alan Dixon

            25/07/2013 at 8:12 am

            Marie perhaps Brian may advise us on your next move as he has vast experience in this field, my guess would be to google Carlisle census records who may hold a current address? A little later today I will put a post on my home page to keep momentum rolling.
            Brian – as always – sincere thanks for your support with Marie’s issue. You are a star. Alan

             
          • marienehring@sympatico.ca

            25/07/2013 at 8:15 am

            Thank you to you both. This is such great information. I look forward to hearing from you soon. I will do some research from my end today also.

             
          • Brian Pears

            25/07/2013 at 7:01 pm

            I’m working on the address for Marie. Watch this space.

             
      • Brian Pears

        25/07/2013 at 10:23 pm

        I have the Carlisle address, and I’ve sent it directly to Marie.

         
        • Alan Dixon

          25/07/2013 at 10:36 pm

          Brian thanku so much. I really appreciate that and im certain marie will too. A wonderful gesture. Priceless kindness. Alan

           
  3. gingerdolly

    24/04/2012 at 3:38 pm

    Alua, I do hope you don’t mind me commenting. I idly searched my maternal grandmother, Hannah Morpeth, and was a little shocked when your blog and her picture jumped out. On reading your story it was like ants crawling on my skin because I kept thinking this can’t be the same people. I didn’t (I suppose don’t) have a close relationship with the Morpeth side of my family, but have been a bit curious after my mother once let slip some of what happened to Charlie, my father Trevor’s father.

    I’m told I look like our respective Aunt Joan, one of my regrets is that I didn’t spend more time with her and Arthur – the nicest of people.

    This is a lovely website. Best of luck with it, Jane

     
    • gingerdolly

      24/04/2012 at 3:39 pm

      apologies, that should say PATERNAL grandmother, not maternal.

       
      • gingerdolly

        24/04/2012 at 3:56 pm

        I really am puddled! Charlie was my Dad’s brother, not father. As I say, I didn’t really get to know that side of the family. I think my Dad is the only one of Hannah’s children still alive, and he still lives at the Gill

         
        • Alan Dixon

          22/10/2013 at 7:15 pm

          Hi Jane x Just a thought, I’m in Newcastle for three or four days from 30 October and would love to meet up for a coffee if you’re around. I’m sorry I have lost your email address so this is a long shot but you can mail me at spailpinfanac@aol.com Really hope it can happen x x x Alan

           
    • Alan Dixon

      24/04/2012 at 8:00 pm

      Hi Jane. It’s lovely to say hello. The last time I saw you you were a child (1976) with beautiful red hair like your Mother Valerie. Your Dad is my Uncle Trevor and we met a couple of years ago at (my niece) Maria’s house in Rowland’s Gill when I quizzed him in depth about my Father and their early lives. Am I right thinking you are in the health profession and your brother is a banker?

      Aunty Joan was the idol of my life, I worshipped her. I remember she passed away on the early hours of millenium morning when I was out doing a gig and I felt as though part of me had died. She used to take me out of the kids homes for day trips (as you’ll see if you read my blog in depth). it was Aunty Joan and Uncle Trevor together who gave me so much information that I craved to hear. I blamed my Father for years for the break up of the family and then after meeting Trevor completely changed my view. It was so profound I wrote an appendix here on my blog to redress things.

      I imagine you are aware form your father that my sister Kerrie passed away on 1 April; sorry if you didn’t know Jane. Her funeral is next week in Lowestoft where she lived, after which I am bringing her ashes back up to the North East at her request. If you are in the area when I’m there it would be nice to meet up. If you’d like to message me privately you can email me at spailpinfanac@gmail.com

      I’m glad you like my site Jane and hope you call in often. I’ll just check in a minute if I have uploaded photos of Uncle Trevor and me, and Aunty Joan. If not I will so that you can have copies if you want them.

      It would be lovely if you stayed in touch Jane, my blood relatives are very thin on the ground :(

      Lots of love Alan xx

       
      • Jane RM

        25/04/2012 at 8:59 am

        Alan, I am so sorry to hear about Kerrie passing away. I hadn’t heard, but unfortunately as you’ve probably gathered my side of the family haven’t really kept in touch. I have a beautiful photo of her at my mam and dad’s wedding, which I will scan and send to you. She passed on my 40th birthday.

        My dad gets a little confused sometimes, my brother is a banker but I actually work for a charity in Newcastle. I will email you separately, so you can keep in touch.

        And I still have very red, very long hair. x

         
        • Alan Dixon

          25/04/2012 at 9:59 am

          Hi Jane xx
          Thanks for getting back to me. For what it’s worth I spend most of my life confused :) It’s great to know you’re in Newcastle, I so miss the Toon and I’d love that picture. I’m having to prepare the service sheet for the funeral and would like to add a few snaps. I’ve put a page on here with the few photos I have.
          Great to know you still have very long red hair, I love it. And praise be to whoever I still have most of my hair and teeth.xx Alan

           
        • Alan Dixon

          22/10/2013 at 7:09 pm

          Hi Jane x Just a thought, I’m in Newcastle for three or four days from 30 October and would love to meet up for a coffee if you’re around. I’m sorry I have lost your email address so this is a long shot but you can mail me at spailpinfanac@aol.com Really hope it can happen x x x Alan

           
  4. Parker

    23/02/2011 at 12:42 pm

    Alan

    Thanks for the warm welcome.. Your blogs are very interesting, thought provoking, they brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my face. Your art is every good and I look forward very much to seeing more. If you are planning another visit to the area, I would be very happy to meet up with you. The new community hall is now fully open and we could share a beer or two. Of cause, if your driving I’ll have the beer and you can have the orange juice :-).

    Parker

     
    • Spailpinfanac

      23/02/2011 at 3:46 pm

      Parker
      Such kind comments; apologies for the tears but delighted you also smiled. There are always two sides to a coin. Really glad that you like my art too and of course there is always more to come.

      I checked out your stonehaugh.com site and loved it. Very ‘villagy’ and community orientated. The new hall looks terrific and I’m sure it’s well used by everyone.I particularly liked the children’s page; the little poem by one of the children is wonderful.
      And of course the photographs are superb, the place is just as I remember it – beautifully remote.

      It will be lovely to revisit in the summer and soak up some of the atmosphere. I’ll keep an eye on your Events calendar. Orange juice works fine for me :)

      Alan

       
    • Alan Dixon

      14/04/2012 at 5:07 pm

      Hi Parker – hoping you’re able to read this – I need to come up to Stonehaugh on family business within the next month or so. Can you just confirm you received this message please. Thank you Alan

       
  5. Parker

    22/02/2011 at 2:53 pm

    Hi,

    What a small, small world we live in…… I have just been searching for some graphics for a website I have just started (stonehaugh.com) after being volunteered for the job in December 2010. Anyway, I stumbled across your site and what a surprise to read that you once lived in the house that I now live in…. wow… I have lived in Stonehaugh for about 9 months now and since having installed a wood burner in the lounge near the close of 2010 I have been curious about who has lived in 3 Middle Burn End after finding daubed on the chimney breast in white paint, the name Sue. I have asked around, but, no one seems to know who it is. The picture on your site looks like it’s it was taken recently, I know this, because the previous owner took his satellite dish when they left and I have had a replacement fitted.

    Halode.co.uk is my personal website, which is still under construction. Would you mind if I put a link to your site from mine.

    Many thanks

    Parker

     
    • Spailpinfanac

      22/02/2011 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Parker. Thank you for your mail and a warm welcome to my website.

      It is indeed a small world; and congratulations on your new job in creating stonehaugh.com. I will be a regular visitor. I will also check out your personal site at Halode.com.

      It’s amazing really to get a mail from someone who is living in my first house there in Stonehaugh.

      As you can see my site is my autobiography and when I began writing I decided to start at the beginning and visit Dilston Hall (where I was born) and then Stonehaugh (my first house); the photo was taken about 4 years ago (I am 55 now).

      I was born in 1955 and lived there for 18 months before being taken into care. The houses were built for forestry workers which is what my father did when he came back from the army.

      I am happy for you to put a link on your site to my mine Parker and I hope you stay in touch. I was in Newcastle last weekend and will be visiting again in Summer; it would be lovely to meet you in Stonehaugh if you’re happy to.

      Warm regards Alan

       
    • Richard

      01/02/2013 at 11:09 pm

      Hi, Like you I have just stumbled on this, I lived in Stonehaugh from 1952 until 1968, although I can’t help you out as to who Sue was my Mother is still alive and may be able to help. I will ask her the next time I see her and will get back to you.

       
      • Alan Dixon

        01/02/2013 at 11:14 pm

        Hi Richard and thanks for that. Any info you find out would be greatly appreciated. What a small world we live in. I was in Stonehaugh recently to scatter my sister ashes. Are you still in that area or have you moved on? Warm regards and thanks for calling by. Alan

         
        • Anonymous

          02/02/2013 at 3:54 pm

          Hi Alan, believe it or not but I now live in Corbridge. My parents were from Wark Dad worked for the Forestry and we moved to Stonehaugh when I was about 10 months, as I said I left in 1968 to join the army but Mam and Dad were there until 1977. Dad Died and as Mam could’nt drive she moved to Chollerton. Keep in touch Richard

           
          • Alan Dixon

            02/02/2013 at 4:40 pm

            Hi Richard. I think our worlds are almost becoming parallel, I was born in Corbridge at Dilston Hall and my father also worked for the forestry. I guess one difference is that I went into the Royal Navy.

            The present owner of the house I lived in at Stonehaugh told me to call in if I ever came through. I did but unfortunately he was out. I did check out their new social club though and although it was shut it looked quite good. It’s a funny place in that there was no one to be seen, they all appeared to stay indoors. It was also the same the previous time I went.

            I will stay in touch Richard, I’m here on my website daily and my email address is spailpinfanac@gmail.com Take care and I hope life is being good to you and your family. Alan.

             

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