"Bliddy mackerel" he roared, giving me a clip across the ear, "go back tomorrow and get some herring"!
I have just experienced a flash flood on my small farm in Australia, 10 inches of rain in 2 hours, my fences flattened, sheep swept away and it’s a quiet night because my TV has been zapped by an electrical storm. So, I will accept your invitation and record some memories of my early life in Whitley Bay, starting with a story about North Shields.
Well to a 14 year old lad back in those days, North Shields was like a foreign land. You had to be careful going there, even then in the early 1950’s it had a reputation. There were very tough lads living there. From memory, the herring season must have coincided with the English late spring and I can remember clearly riding my bike to the fish quay on Saturday mornings (more often during school holidays), often with my friend Jim Naisbitt from Lish Avenue.
My parents were both schoolteachers but times were tough in those days and with 5 children to feed, cheap herrings were always welcome, even better if you could get them for nothing. You might say my trips to North Shields met with parental approval. As if it was yesterday, I can remember cycling down the steep hill into North Shields in the early mornings. Seemingly huge tenement buildings appearing out of the mist and on the left, a bank containing countless numbers of pigeon lofts, with flights of pigeons wheeling overhead. Nearing the quay, you came upon several smoke-houses and through the open doors you could see and smell racks of kippers amidst the billowing clouds.
Reaching the fish quay, it was all hustle and bustle with hundreds of gaily painted drifters and trawlers from all parts of the UK, busy discharging their catch of various kinds of fish. Back then herring came ashore in large wicker baskets by the ships derrick and great care had to be exercised to land the baskets gently on the ground, otherwise several fish would slither off the top. As they hit the ground, they were grabbed by eager kids and women loitering around for that very purpose and only occasionally would we be ordered off the premises. Within hours we usually had our bags full with anything up to a hundred herrings. The return trip up the hill towards Tynemouth was always tougher, sometimes we had to push our bikes.
Back home at 36 Eastbourne Gardens, Whitley Bay, my parents would be waiting patiently for my return and the herrings quickly prepared for an immediate tasty meal, coated in oatmeal and then grilled. When we had plenty (in the days before household refrigerators), mam used to make soused herrings, rollmops that seemed to last forever, altogether different from the ones you get today in cans. Well everything seemed to be going good and the Bell family were getting their regular supply of herring until the day when, our bags already full, we spotted heaps of mackerel for the taking. There must have been a glut on. There they were, just caught, bigger, brighter than the poor old herring. What to do? A snap decision: dump the herring and bring home mackerel instead. On this fateful day, I eventually got back home pleased as punch with myself and walked into the kitchen with the heavy bag of fish to hear my Dad call out, ” get them out, you’re late, what kept you? “. “Dad”, I said, “we have something better today, look at these beauties. “Bliddy mackerel” he roared, giving me a clip across the ear, “go back tomorrow and get some herring!”