Memoirs of a child in care
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 4thalthough 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)*
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.
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.
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.
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.
2.4 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.
|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 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.
(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.
3.6 – 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.
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
3.15 – 1962-1964(16) South Stanley Co/Durham
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.
3.16 – 1962-1964(17) South Stanley Co/Durham
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.
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 hope someone holds my hand when it’s my turn.
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.
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.
|I still like a smoke….and I still hate formal education.|
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.
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.
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.