My new school was to be this big foreboding Victorian building that had turned black over the century with northern bad weather and no doubt being surrounded by chimneys belching out coal smoke and soot 24/7 – I remember Todd’s Nook Secondary Modern looking just like something out of an L.S. Lowry painting, in fact attaching the description ‘modern’ to part of it’s title was a joke.
I was nine years old with my bottom hanging out my pants and holes in my socks when I started my schooling there; It was on a freezing January morning with all the pipes and radiators frozen solid that we were all sent back home after assembly till the caretaker could get the whole school’s plumbing thawed out.
‘Playtime – Todd’s Nook school yard 1950’s’ – Darnell Street and New Mills (off Barrack Road)
It was at Todd’s Nook that I learned to fight and play football, both very badly I might add – and as for any other class room activity I was useless, totally rubbish! I remember the following day back after the hot water pipes had been thawed out and the big old Victorian radiators started banging and pumping out heat again – when playtime came we were all ushered out into the school yard into the ice and snow – for some reason I found the need to climb up a drainpipe on the back wall of the school woodwork room, just to see if I could make it to the top of the ground floor windows – in fact almost half the height of the whole building – (see photograph for height of windows) – I clambered up in my old slippery leather soled shoes and reached the designated height to which I had set my sights upon – when I looked across New Mills I realised that I was level to the second floor windows of the adjacent houses.
A loud voice bellowed from below ‘Get down boy – what do you think you are doing climbing up there especially in this weather’ – it was Mr Hind my soon to be art teacher. ‘You could break a leg boy – where are your brains – down now’ he ordered. I shimmied down the drainpipe as quickly as I could and wandered off around the periphery of the play ground.
An ugly cast iron fence with each upright post sporting three sharp spikes (again, see photograph) separated us from the outside road. On occasions a ball would get kicked over onto New Mills and go rolling downhill towards Barrack Road. Kids were forbidden from climbing over the fence and had to run around the whole school building in order to retrieve their runaway ball – by the time they had ran around the school building their ball had usually gained so much momentum that it was speeding on it’s way to Whitley Bay.
On this particular freezing morning some lad tried to unsuccessfully scale the fence and ended up impaled upon it’s rusty spikes – he had to be lifted off by the caretaker and quickly taken to the Newcastle General Hospital to be stitched up and cared for. I made a mental note never to try such an extraordinarily stupid thing.
My new bedroom looked out over a grey brick back yard with old sagging washing lines stretched across it. Over the wall was a mirror image of the same terrace-type house staring back from over a wet, miserable and gloomy lane. A bedraggled cat ran along the wall; surefooted it skipped over the broken glass someone had cemented into the top to prevent anyone climbing over it into the yard. It wasn’t quite like looking out over the farm fields to the pit pond – still it soon became home, and I quickly made new friends around the block. My father didn’t visit me much. In fact, twice in six months, and when he did come he smelt of beer, which I hated. He seemed to shout a lot at my uncle Bob and auntie Peggy. I was told to go and visit him on Saturday’s after the matinee – I much preferred ‘The Cisco Kid and Pancho’ to seeing my father, smelling of beer and Capstan Full Strength. I went three Saturday’s running. The third time he was not in. It was to be another twenty years before I saw him again.
Uncle Bob was a bricklayer; he left the house at six o’clock each morning, travelled thirty miles by bus to work, carried a hod full of house bricks up and down ladders all day, six days a week, for a wage of eight pounds plus overtime. This paid the rent (one shilling and three pence per week) and everything else into the bargain. I even received one-shilling pocket money. This kept me in Beano’s, Beazers, Dandy’s, Topper’s and sweets.
‘Our Gloomy Victorian back yards and lanes – Outside toilets and coal houses heated with a paraffin lamp on winter nights to stop the water pipes freezing – We didn’t know any better’
I would go to ‘Snow Street Baths and Washhouse’ once a week for a swim and a hot bath. The pool was built at the turn of the 20th century – green and off white cracked tiles lined the bottom and the sides. When clambering out, you had to be careful not to bump your head on the tiny wooden lockers that ran along each side of the pool, some three feet from the edge. Twelve good strokes and you could do a length, provided you weren’t attacked by paddling cockroaches on the way.
It was on my way home from Snow Street that I was introduced to my first Woodbine. The Woodbine was passed around the street corner, behind the boy’s toilets at Todd’s Nook, and in the air raid shelters on Fenham Barracks. Down in the shelters we’d sit for hours pretending we were in an underground city, hiding from make-believe soldiers – we would pick up old dog ends from the air raid shelter muddy floor and with whatever tobacco was left in them we’d roll into cigarettes and smoke them, then obviously turn a putrid green colour and throw up. We would then run wild through Nun’s Moor Park shrubbery pretending to be Robin Hood which in turn drove the parkie (park keeper) mad. ‘Get off those bikes – Get out of the flower beds – if I catch you I’ll swing for you!’ he’d bellow through the bushes.
One night we went too far. It was 9.30pm and I was supposed to be back home for 9.pm no later. As the park had been locked up for the night we decided it might be a good idea to plant several privet hedges, a couple of flower beds and construct a rockery complete with a statue, in the middle of the bowling green. Heads down, crawling around in the moonlight, we eventually transferred several large plant items into the middle of the bowling green and central to it all we erected a waste paper basket on top of several rocks from the rockery. Despite our efforts it wasn’t quite the wonderful Victorian styled garden that local municipal parks still tried to adhere to. When I got home covered in mud around 10.pm I was in big trouble but probably not quite as much trouble as I may have gotten into the following day if the parkie ever found out who had rearranged his bowling green design.
The next morning we dropped by on our way to school to look at the scene. Capability Brown would have been proud. The parkie, however, was not. He and a couple of other men were standing there in disbelief at the landscaped splendour before their eyes. Steam was pouring from every orifice as they screamed and shouted about it. The parkie saw us out of the corner of his eye – he looked crazed – we got on our bikes and rode fast down Nun’s Moor Road to school. Looking back on it now we were lucky not to have been caught and made to work our weekends cleaning the park public toilets for him as a penance.
Nun’s Moor park keeper taking a tea and cigarette break in park shed.
Jimmy Gray, a friend from the next street invited me to spend a couple of days with him visiting his grandmother – she lived in Dunston which seemed at that time, miles away but was only on the south banks of the river Tyne along the road from Gateshead – never the less, for a nine year old boy it was a bit of an expedition – I had never been invited to stay at Jimmy’s grandmother’s before – I had never been invited to stay anywhere before.
My auntie Peggy made me scrub myself within an inch of my life in the old tin bath, then put on my best jacket and grey flannel short trousers and packed a couple of jam sandwiches to share with Jimmy en route. Ten minutes later we were chauffeured over the Tyne bridge to Dunston in the back of Jimmy’s dad’s trusty old Riley.
Jimmy’s grandmother, with a face like an old dried prune, a fat tub of a woman in the obligatory granny pinny and slippers, met us at her front door – his father drove off into the evening back to Newcastle to attend a football match.
Down past the cabbage patch in Jimmy’s granny’s back garden we were able to see over the river to Newcastle – it looked vast, sprawling with lights all over the place – we were able to make out the four huge flood lights at St. James Park, shining down no doubt over thousands of boozy, yelling blokes on the stands.
‘What would you like for supper you two’, shouted Jimmy’s granny from inside her scullery.
‘How about fish n chips gran’ replied Jimmy. ‘Ok, I’ve just left that bath for the pair of you – you can get yourselves in there and have a good scrub and into your pyjamas while I’m at the chip shop’ she exclaimed.
I followed Jimmy into the scullery and gazed down at the old cast iron bathtub – it was full of murky water with a slimy froth of sorts floated around the surface like some stagnant swamp.
Jimmy threw his clothes on a kitchen armchair and climbed into the quagmire that was his granny’s bath – ‘Are you coming in or what’ Jimmy shouted – I had already been scrubbed by my auntie Peggy that evening but I begrudgingly started to undress and joined him in the filthy warm water.
Something kept rolling around at the bottom of the bath tub and at one point almost did me some serious damage as I sat down hard on it – I fished around in the watery murk and grabbed what I thought to be a large marble, but aghast, what I found in my hand staring straight at me was Jimmy’s granny’s missing glass eye – It was the last thing on earth I could have expected to find, sitting there speechless with Jimmy in a tub of warm frothy gray soup – it was surreal, well it was surreal until Jimmy also found something lurking in the deep – ‘hey I’ve got something here too’ – raising his hand from the swamp, Jimmy gripped a large (I don’t even want to think about this never mind write it down) granny’s backside present.
‘Oh shit! shit!’ I shouted as I leapt out of the bathtub, propelled forward with all the force of an Olympic high jumper – I was horrified as I whizzed out of the scullery to find a towel – Jimmy followed, dripping all over the place – he rinsed his hands in water from a kettle on the stove and started laughing like a drain – ‘my gran normally keeps her glass eye up there on the mantle piece between her pipe rack and that candlestick’ – he pointed up to the mantle piece, drying himself on the corner of the kitchen tablecloth.
Just then Jimmy’s granny came in – ‘I couldn’t get any fish’ she shouted coming along the hallway, ‘they’d ran out so I’ve got you both saveloy and chips and a pickled onion each’.
I lied about the picked onions!
You can listen to the song of the story by clicking on the link as follows :- ‘Jimmy Gray’s Granny’s Eye’
– the track features fine fiddle player Peter Knight (ex Steeleye Span) – Toby Shaer on whistle – Heather Harding on tenor horn – Lauren Field on backing vocals and a whole lotta jiggery pokery by yours truly – enjoy!
‘Jimmy Gray’s Granny’s Eye’ is part of Foskett’s highly acclaimed debut folk and roots album ‘LATE BLOOMER’ and is available from www.foskettsfolkfactory.com/music – also iTunes, Apple, Amazon, Spotify and all on-line stores.
Colin Prior – a school friend from Todd’s Nook and his dad’s new car on the cobbles of Jefferson Street.
Todd’s Nook school friend Colin Prior and his dad’s new used car on the cobbles of Jefferson Street – not quite the more up market Riley that Jimmy Gray’s dad owned but a car all the same – a rare possession for any family in the 1950’s – checkout the blanket covering the rear bench seat – all the comforts of modern motoring. One couldn’t take corners faster than 10 mph in such an old jalopy for fear of rolling them over – and many did!