Three years had passed, it was 1960. I had almost become a country kid but then fate had decided I’d be a townie street kid. I’d failed my eleven plus exams big time and remained second bottom of the B form – the boy who was bottom of the class was definitely a sandwich short of a picnic and too dim to even try cheating; I forget his name but he would sit there during every class, nose running down his upper lip into his mouth and staring into space. Thinking back now it was clear that I could not apply myself because I had never learned how to learn, due to this I was lazy and unmotivated or maybe just disinterested.
Our teachers at Todd’s Nook secondary modern school didn’t really show much interest in pushing any students that fell behind and my auntie Peggy and Uncle Bob never pushed me on my educational front either. They probably thought that I’d eventually leave school and get a trade serving my time in an apprenticeship, if it turned out that I ever had any aspirations past such a future then I was definitely looking past my station in my working class lifestyle and should forget such nonsense.
However, I did shine to some extent in one subject which was art. I could draw a circle and a straight line and possessed an eye for most visuals. Due to this unusual occurrence the art teacher, Mr Hind (Hindy) did pay me a modicum of attention in his class which I found the most refreshing half hour of my school week. Also most kids in my year wanted me to help them with their technical drawing and art, but they never seemed to reciprocate when it came to maths and english where I’d sit there helpless and unable to comprehend the simplest equation. In general the kids of Todd’s Nook just wanted their school day to be filled with the possibilities of amusement rather than focusing on anything a school teacher had to offer.
I remember a couple of the more brazen kids in my class would often threaten the class softy – His name was Russell Farnfield, a nice bespectacled boy who always washed behind his ears, whose hair was always neatly parted and would not say ‘boo’ to a goose – The deal was, if Russell didn’t attach a pen nib dipped in ink to the end of a milk bottle straw, throw it successfully at Hindy’s tweed jacket when he was chalking away on the black board, they would spit into his mouth at playtime.
Playtime often came around and again Russell Farnfield would be found tied to the school yard railings whilst several bullies would spit into his mouth – Mr Hind was also to be seen obliviously wandering around the school yard, sporting several milk bottle straws dangling from the back of his jacket, held there by pen nibs stolen from the art room cupboard. Funny that!
To most of us growing up in them, the 1960’s were extraordinary. Prime Minister Harold McMillan had coined the phrase, ‘We never had it so good’ – which wasn’t totally correct but the idea endured.
It was certainly possible as the sixties began, for the young to look forward with confidence to a life which would offer work and exciting times. Everything seemed possible and everything was on the change. The remnants of the Empire were fading fast, yet it was probably the last decade that Britain had an identity all of its own. Europe still began on the other side of the Channel and North Sea. We made and drove British made cars – We watched British made television programmes on British made televisions, wore British made clothes. We knew who we were!! It was definitely the decade of the young. We were children on the Welfare State. We had been kept healthy by it and above all were educated by it.
It was a decade that created ‘teenagers’. They had certainly existed in the fifties, but nobody acknowledged them apart from blaming them for the excesses of the early Rock and Roll years. In the sixties they came into their own and would be targeted by the world of commerce which provided the clothes and entertainment which still further defined them. The contraceptive pill, when it appeared, offered the young a sexual freedom, that earlier generations had been denied. Germaine Greer made young women aware that they need not be second class citizens in a male dominated world, or in our case a Geordie male dominated world.
Women’s self perception was about to undergo the most dramatic shift – the new attitude was summed up by every 19 year old girl with a Kathy McGowan hairstyle (shoulder length with a fringe) – Women felt that the Pill had put them in charge and they now proclaimed their sexual independence so emphatically leading them on a path which soon led to the term ‘permissive society’ which was not a pejorative description way back then.
The Beatles and Rolling Stones and a host of other pop groups at that time gave the young a voice. American artists like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other such folk singers gave them a vision. Political awareness grew with the knowledge that the young could, perhaps influence events. Involvement in protest groups, most notably CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) grew by the moment. It was the decade of the demonstration. Students were a minority but they were the peer group leaders whose actions were admired by those not prepared to act themselves.
I had stopped going to the physiotherapist in 1960 and ended up in and out of Sanderson’s Orthopedic hospital (for kids with polio). They spent two years enthusiastically encasing my limbs in plaster of paris, which I enthusiastically smashed in a vain attempt at playing doors (back lane football). So I’d go back to Sanderson’s Orthopedic for wobbly hobblers. The day I was admitted, Auntie Peggy was ill with shingles, so Auntie Hannah took me. She told me I was going to have a check-up for a couple of hours. I remember the nurse taking me into a bathroom, whilst Auntie Hannah waited in the waiting room.
After the bath, I was escorted into a room down a corridor, which was full of plaster casts. I was plonked onto a bench and told I was going to have my ligaments stretched by bending and stretching my legs and ankles into an uncomfortable position (rather like one of those rubber bendy toys) and then gypsum plaster would be slapped on to hold me in that position till they stretched. I was wheeled on a trolley, legs burning hot in their thick, white encasements, into a ward of kids. Some of them had plasters from head to toe, propped up on boards, with heads, arms and colostomy bags protruding. Some just had plaster from the waist down. I freaked out, burst into tears and wondered where Auntie Hannah was. After all, this was only supposed to be a check-up – that’s what she said. The nurse explained that she’d left a couple of hours ago and would be coming to visit me in a few days time. How could she do this to me?! I cried all night long.
After the initial shock of being lied to and dumped into this foreign world of plastered sickies I eventually became acclimatised to the hospital gig; we had school in the ward, we made cane baskets, I went to the toilet on a bed-pan and had a thermometer stuck under my tongue several times a day. I also endlessly gazed at pictures of Hayley Mills and Kathy Kirby. The attraction of Hayley was her portrait of the blond haired and freckled twin of the 1961 Disney movie ‘The Parent Trap’ as opposed to Kathy’s lip gloss and boobs! Every twelve and thirteen year old boy at that time was totally besotted for life by Hayley Mills who was to become a friend of mine some twenty five years later.
I was awarded a bed right next to Leslie – Leslie was a little chap who was in fact eighteen years old but had been bestowed with the mental intellect of a five year old kid. Every now and then Leslie would dissappear down into the cage on his bed (we all had them, they were like large wire fireguards that kept the blankets off our plasters) eventually immerging with hands full of hard poo which he then proceeded to fling around the ward at the other patients, nurses and whoever else was in his firing line. Of course he always left me out of his shit flinging onslaught because as soon as auntie Hannah had left me at visiting times I would bung Leslie my grapes and half of my cheap boiled sweets, which probably added to the problem of Leslie’s regular bowel movements anyway!
An American kid called Tom Riley had the bed straight opposite me. He could bend his arms from the elbows outwards at a right angle which was freaky to say the least – he could also bend them in the natural direction, inwards to the body; He would often swing them around like pieces of soft rubber and shout obscenities over to my small backward friend in the bed next to me. Tom was in a mess with polio as were a lot of kids in the 40s and 50s.
To relieve the bordom of the ward we would sometimes try to escape at night – after lights out all eyes would be on matron who would sit at the end of the ward at a small desk with a little light glowing down onto various papers, themometers and assorted hospitally stuff. Eventually someone close to her would give the signal that she had dropped off to sleep.
This was the time where we’d lower our plastered bodies down onto the ancient parquet flooring and slither along on our bellies under our beds, trying to avoid but mostly bumping into the odd pisspot en route and make for the double door exit of the ward. Some in full body plasters with metal cross bars between their legs were always left behind, unable to lower themselves down off their beds, sniggering and holding back their muffled laughter in order not to wake up the fuhrer.
The plan was to slither ourselves down the corridor, down two flights of stairs and outside onto Sandyford Road in Gosforth to see if we could get ourselves arrested by the police. Our plot was eventually scuppered when a deaf, blind and most probably drunk orderly on night shift drove his trolley over some of us in a dark corridor on route to the stairs. The following morning light revealed a parquet flooring that resembled a plaster of paris skating rink. Of couse we would never give a second thought to how we would actually hoist ourselves back up off the floor into our hospital beds. We were soon threatened with being gagged and tied to our beds at night with barbed wire and being shot at dawn by a firing squad – all we had to do was just think about venturing out of our blanket covered cages and we would all be plastered from crown to toe-tip with only a straw to breath through. Of course some of this isnt true!
Two years later after making enough cane baskets to supply every garden centre in the known universe and force feeding little Leslie several tons of grapes and boiled sweets, I eventually had my plasters removed for the last time. Tom Riley who had given me dozens of copies of his coloured American newspapers and had been transformed from a human jelly into one of the callipered wobbly hobblers on crutches.
Newcastle’s Sanderson’s Orthopaedic Hospital was very active in helping thousands of polio victims get on their feet and live comparitively normal lives; just as the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Aylesbury was founded by neurologist Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann in 1944. Gutterman treated servicemen who had sustained spinal cord injuries in World War II – he got them up off their backs and onto their feet and moving where they would otherwise have been left to die.
I remember as I was leaving Tom was doing his Douglas Bader impersonation on the hospital lawn. I was too weak to even stand on my pins. My wrists were fatter than my legs. Once home to Hamilton Street it took a while before I could even walk over the back yard to the loo without being carried there and back by my Uncle Bob.