A Small Splutter of Memories

The first ten years 1938 – 1948.

‘Geordies’ may well be ‘salt-of-the-earth’, but it occurs to me that I may not be a typical Geordie. I don’t think that I was ‘wired’ to be a conformist and I haven’t been since I was twelve, even though common-sense tells me that conformists hold together the fabric of society. It’s really essential that most people tread an orthodox path, build nests and contribute their 2.5 children.

I was born in 1938. My brother, Derek, was almost two. Shortly after, my dad went away, sucked up by the War. My memory of the first few years is unreliable, but I recall freezing winters, air-raids and my saintly mother as the centre of my universe.

We lived in a cramped, basic flat, at ground level in the two-tiered terrace buildings. There was a small walled-in backyard, containing the outside toilet and a small brick ‘shelter’ to which regular night-time air-raid sirens consigned us, presumably on the theory that German bombs would distinguish between homes and ‘shelters’.

The upper flat housed a mother and a little girl my age. We shared the upper bunk in the shelter during air-raid warnings and whispered conspiratorially in the flickering candle-light. One night, she puckered and pecked me on the cheek, but at five my romantic passion hadn’t yet surfaced and I either giggled or recoiled, probably scuttling any undefined plans she had for our future relationship. Despite being considered by my mother to be good looking, for me the lure of girls was a few years off. (My mother could afford to be blind to my big ears. I was the one tripping over them.) Anyway, I was under the influence of older kids and my understanding was that girls could be tolerated but not permitted liberties. I believed that if brains were dynamite, girls wouldn’t have enough to disturb their hair. (I did come to understand that these views were misguided. It just took a while.)

Life brought injustices. I attended St. Oswin’s Infant School where I was tortured by an inability to pronounce the sibilant ‘SH’. An opportunist teacher took perverse pleasure in having me check the school meal money in front of the class. To the predicable rapture of my miniature-monster class-mates, I faithfully stumbled through ‘one silling, one silling and sixpence …..’. For a time I suffered sensitivity on steroids. Such problems have the potential to be either soul-destroying or character-forming, but appropriate psychology was still in the closet back then. Humiliation was just a standard teacher’s tool on stand-by with the cane.

Life produced other pitfalls. Grey Street shared an L-shaped back lane with Coburg Street and Coburg Street kids seemed mostly to be older and bigger. One day, Derek and I had to out-run some bigger boys for the sanctuary of our back yard. Having only just managed to ram home the door-bolt in time, we fell about laughing as a two-pound jam-jar sailed over the wall and smashed on Derek’s head like a guided-missile exploding. He was either too brave or too stunned to cry, even though the impressive seepage of blood certainly deserved a respectable wail. It would easily have rated 8 on my tantrum-justification-scale. He even endured the stitch-up with British stoicism.

I believe I subconsciously observed that the jar smashing on Derek meant that I was left unscathed. Some time later, Mam took us both for a hospital check-up because we both had bones jutting out just below our knees. I had enough instinct to let Derek be examined first. I observed him wincing at the probes and admitting pain. I heard him sentenced to several months in a plaster-cast to the lower leg. When examined and probed myself, I was on full alert. Of course it bloody hurt, but I didn’t even blink. I was opposed to plaster-casts. (I still have the bone protrusion, but it’s never been a problem.)

A 10-rating on my tantrum-justification-scale occurred, ironically, on Christmas Day. First, I was concerned to notice the absence of our two back-yard hens, on whom I doted. Second, I was horrified to be confronted with the all too recognizable contents of our Christmas dinner. This was rationing-desperation gone-berserk – and so did I. Mam bore the brunt, but my venom was also unreasonably aimed at my older cousin, Roy, who lived in Coburg Street and had been recruited to do the evil deed (to my young mind, he was the contracted killer). I went hungry that Christmas and caused distress to my mother.

I met my returning dad when I was six. The memory is a little clouded now. I think Derek and I were on Tynemouth Road during a street game of ‘CUT-THE-BAY’* when a tall, dark man, in immaculate RAF uniform, appeared some way ahead of us. Drawing upon the superior knowledge of his two-year seniority, Derek said falteringly “I think that’s wor dad”. Tentatively, we followed the stranger until he obligingly stopped at 112 Grey Street and was urgently admitted. We debated what to do as the situation seemed a little daunting. The man had, after all, seemed as imposing as any policeman (who might clip your ear if his day was going too slowly). I think it was Derek’s suggestion that the man may have brought us presents and this possibility over-ruled my apprehension, so life proceeded to a new chapter.

We absorbed his presence gradually. He went back to his trade as a gas-fitter. We scored new shoes and other improvements. Next Christmas brought me a second-hand bicycle and he escorted me, on his own rusty metal steed, up a pathway between fields, on my first wobbly bike ride. Two women ahead were unaware of our approach and I panicked at running out of room, swerving in each direction before riding straight into the ample posterior of the older woman. I was the one who sprawled in the dust and she was the one who showed most concern. “His first ride”, apologized my re-claimed dad and everyone, except me, chuckled appreciatively. I did better next time.

I embarked on my first career. Attending a designated soccer match and phoning in the final score at full time earned five shillings from the weekly football paper. Some diversion eventually prevented me from attending the allocated match and this caused me to latch on to an easier method. I thought I was being fair in reporting a 1-1 draw each week and only reconsidered this strategy when I learned of one match going 11-0 to the home side. Apparently, the discrepancy went unnoticed, but I gave up crime and resumed honest reporting.

In any case, I got my come-uppance from Eddy Shannon’s mother. Eddy was a year younger and lived across the road. One day, I was playing in the street, imagining myself as a movie hero engaged in mortal combat, my ‘weapon’ being a pole I’d acquired from somewhere. I didn’t even see Eddy, who wandered into my imaginary battle-area and also into the pole and immediately ran back indoors howling like a banshee. I was taken by surprise, but I knew he hadn’t been hit very hard and I resumed my game. Eddy then re-emerged wielding a thick cane. He came straight at me, thrashing at the air with serious menace. He swung at me and, in defence, I swung back. There didn’t seem any option and, once again, he caught a blow. Off he went, howling again.

I should have moved more quickly. His mother hit the street running and I made a belated dash for my front door, made it into the passageway, but only to have her push through the door and push me against the wall. Mam was out shopping or at one of her casual jobs, so I endured an uninterrupted session of being slapped and violently shaken before finally being released. Nothing had been said, but I felt the perceived injustice more keenly than the slaps. Initially Eddy was hit by accident and then by forcing me to defend myself, I knew there was a lesson in there somewhere.

Joan was born when I was nine and I may well have started off a little suspicious of this attention-hogging intruder, but she soon set about winning me over with her beams and gurgles. I was quite quickly in favour of little sisters and this was reinforced when her presence gave us enough wait-list status to score a three-bedroomed house on the new West Chirton Estate council housing development, so that we all moved on to a new chapter of life, providing such unimagined luxuries as a bathroom and an indoor toilet, plus a large back garden for dog romping.

It seems a good point to leave my early childhood recollections. I was ten, attending King Edward Junior School, heading toward another change, to Tynemouth High School and my non-conformist future.

*NOTE: ‘CUT-THE-BAY’ was a popular game with Grey Street kids. The ‘bay’ was a small square of ground that served as the ‘prison’ for members of one team when they were tagged (touched) by any opposing team-member. Prisoners could be released if any free team-member could elude any tagging and succeed in crossing the bay (with an appropriate whoop of ‘CUT-THE-BAY’).

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