Newcastle: a personal cultural geography

‘Kiddar’s Luck’, ‘The Machine Gunners’, ‘A Funny thing Happened on the Way to Utopia’…

Kiddar and the ‘Sons of the Battle-axe’ would ‘drift…going ever-north’, exploring the white sands, rock pools, harbours, Spanish City and St. Mary’s light house, before heading back, and the more earnest trudge through the pit villages of Backworth and Benton.

How I learned to love Metroland.

Driving the endless roads and roundabouts from the A1 under the A19 to the coast, my brain refused to recognise landmarks and features. I was unable to navigate unaided. I drove these roads on visits north for over twenty years, past signs to Wide Open, New York, Shiremoor. But these names remained as little more than imaginings of some ‘Truman Show’ as, under guidance from local accents, I negotiated another roundabout exit – bear right, turn left? I remained in blissful ignorance. But the Metro, this most ‘un-English’ creation delivered me to ‘Palmersville’ as unlikely as ‘New York’, yet, as I exit the station, pubs, people, parks, houses, spill their occupants into the streets. I ask directions, synaptic connections are made and I remember. This Metroland is inhabited by people, not streams of listless traffic. Metroland, where the carriage overhangs the track, and waddles towards you like an unstable duck. One of the greatest assets any city can have, a quick, clean transport system – antidote to the frustrations of road obsessed urban travel. The Metro, where we share the same spaces, the same experiences and learn to rub along. 
    Jack Common, Robert Westall are my primary good companions round the Metro, along with the ghost of T. Dan Smith. Smith, a risky companion in a city where many live with the consequences of his politicking and corruption.

Newcastle Central Railway Station ‘with the immense curved space inside it seems to epitomise the refusal to compromise common sense and natural dignity…’ (Nairn’s Towns:27)

The Toon
It was rumoured that the writer and broadcaster Iain Nairn claimed Geordie roots, and for an architectural obsessive like him, walking through the grandeur of Grainger Town from Central Station, it is easy to see why he would be wish it to be so.
   Nairn foretold of ‘dark forces’ in the shadows. Dark forces waiting to sweep away architecture that owes more to the Baltic than to Florence. A city centre evocatively caught at the turn of the nineteenth century in the paintings of Louis Grimshaw, and her brother Arthur.
    I search for traces of The Royal Arcade ‘where many political groups – differing only in their degree of unreality used to meet’ [Kiddar’s Luck]. I wander to the bottom of Pilgrim Street where the sweep into the A 167 and the intimidating 55 Degrees North, leave neither space nor sound for street life. I do find the Royal Arcade, but a virtual one, on the website of  55 degrees North * and in the pages of Gavin Stamp’s ‘Britain’s Lost Cities’.

On a Saturday Kiddar would venture into the crowded streets alone, ‘Why, a boy’s soul is as rich with possible men-to-come as a hen’s gut with eggs; in loneliness he can let some of them rehearse an imaginary life, and must do if his future is to be a full one’. (Kiddar’s Luck:128-9)

I head for the Laing where, in The Ampersand where the young Jack Common wooed his girl friend Bianca, firstly with shared sandwiches on the steps, then with a shared kiss upstairs behind a Japanese suit of armour. In Ellison Square I am looking to imagine ‘Skilbeck’s commercial college’ where, in 1917 at the age of 14, Jack Common enrolled, rather than disappear into manual work with ‘the Sons of the Battleaxe’ – the street gang he grew up with and who feature heavily in Kiddar’s Luck. Skerry’s, as it was actually known, once sat at the far end of the square from MEA House. In the Ampersand, Common wrote: ‘To the ordinary eye, Skilbeck’s College was not an imposing edifice…no more than an irregular section of street facade, a smattering of gold lettered windows…He looked up and saw those successive flights of gold-lettering as a Jacob’s ladder challenging him to climb to unexampled success.’ [163] I see in my mind’s eye the old architectural photographs of Newcastle city centre and understand how T. Dan Smith might be considered one of Nairn’s ‘dark forces’. Once leader of Newcastle City Council, Smith was jailed for corruption along with the architect John Poulson. Amber Films’  ‘A funny thing happened on the way to Utopia’, has a dramatised documentary style account of these episodes interwoven with extended interviews with Smith in his post prison, reflective years. A plausible charmer, a complex man. A man with insight, energy, contacts, and the whiff of power.

‘MEA House appears as a strange angular terminus.’ (A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain: 175) and stands in Ellison Square, once the home of Skerrys College – where Will Clarts ‘looked up and saw those successive flights of gold lettering as a Jacob’s Ladder challenging him to climb on to unexampled success’. (The Ampersand: 163)

Palmersville    
​I hurry on foot from the station. It is late, dark. I turn the corner. Twenty yards away a man emerges from the shadows through a side gate. He turns, in tired clothes, a bristle shadow under his watchful eyes. I pull my hands from my pockets, pick up speed, walk at pace. I over take him. Ten metres on I hear a call, ‘Hey pal’. I walk on. ‘Hey, pal,’ he repeats. ‘You’ve dropped £20.’ I turn back, despite my instinct that this is the opening of his scam. He rises from the pavement. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘You’ve dropped this.’ He holds out the note in his right hand. His crooked mouth broken, missing teeth risen to a smile. Thanks, I say. I am eager, I am grateful, I am gushing. I am guilt ridden. I am on the edge of Brasilia. Next morning, I head for Killingworth. I engage the first roundabout, the first swathe of green, the landscaped lake. ‘Killingworth Corbusier’, ‘The Brasilia of the North’. Smith invited Le Corbusier to Tyneside, but it didn’t work out. Open spaces, built for the car. A vision of space, and sky. This utopia in the making, already had a make over, with the demolition of the original flats and their replacement with low rise housing. When ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ was filmed, they chose Killingworth, for it’s optimism, it’s belief that things could be different, better.

Cobalt Park: Space, light, greenery – what is there not to like, although there may be one problem (isn’t there always one?) expressed in this critique of Le Corbusier: ‘This is the paradox of Le Corbusier, his faith in sociability, even though his work was born of monasteries, temples and silence. It is a paradox which confronts all city-builders’ (Imaginary Cities: 78-79).

Cars constantly pass on their way to somewhere. I feel exposed, out of place, an intruder. I return to Palmersville, take the Metro the short distance to Northumberland Avenue where I am met by stacked car parks, pylon’s looming out of the mist. I walk on to Cobalt Park, witness the realisation of Smith’s Brazilian dreams. A world of space, light, clean air. Smith’s Utopia. Utopia – no place – a deceit. But dreams can be realised through power and money and Smith had access to both, and they were his downfall. The business parks of Regent, Quorum, Cobalt, Killingworth, are dreams turned to a familiar, faulted reality, but dreams non the less.

Alastair Bonnett is intrigued by the ‘urban void’ of this Newcastle city centre motorway intersection. He decides to risk the constant traffic, security fences, and the anxieties of those who might be watching and explore this ‘dead zone’ in an attempt at ‘recolonisation of the city.’ I suspect he soon wishes he hadn’t. He bravely admits that the traffic island ‘retains its dignity but I have somehow lost mine’.(Off the Map: 114) Nice try though. [Map: Google Earth]
Go-carting the paths from Paddy Freeman’s Pond was one of Kiddar’s earliest memories. Later with his father, ‘We’d walk the hot, red paths of Jesmond Dene, brick red gravel dust throwing heat up into my inclined face, and the tiresome rich green of full summer seeming to shout at one to look, look up, look around.’ (Kiddar’s Luck: 26)

Cullercoats
​I am at  ‘The Coast’, where pedestrians spill from the Metro to wander aimlessly. While car passengers on the tarmac conveyor gape through windscreens out to sea, just like the rest of us. A  hundred years ago Jack Common, with his little penniless gang, wandered out of Heaton to Tynemouth, where ‘the land fell off the cliff edge,’ and he found ‘everything a seaside town should have, and what it hasn’t you can get next door at Cullercoats’ [112].  ‘The Coast’, where idling, taking your time, are not crimes. Where looking out to sea, dreaming, imagining that things can be different, is a major pastime. Winslow Homer, the Cullercoats artists, all inspired by a shore of battle ship grey sea, that surprises with cloudless days of mediterranean blue.

From their den in Dockray Square Chas and his gang in The Machine Gunners had a great view of the mouth of the Tyne, and the barrage balloons that were strung around the mouth of the river, including the South Shields Sausage, the Willington Windbag, and the Fish Quay Buster.

North Shields
​When I started reading Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’, I thought I was simply reading a children’s book with reference to North Tyneside. But as I was drawn into the story I realised I was reading about the complexity of characters, how they can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time. The book is set in fictional Garmouth, an amalgam of North Shields and Tyneside, at a time of intense bombing during the Second World War. Chas McGill, is a teenage boy, who finds a German machine gun, and a captured German gunner. T. Dan Smith would not be out of place, neither would Jack Common’s fictional Kiddar and his ‘Sons of the Battleaxe’, complex characters all. Chas set up his den in a heavily overgrown Dockwray Square, overlooking the Tyne, the High Light the Fish Quay, and barrage balloons with magnificent names like ‘Fish Quay Buster’ and ‘South Shields Sausage’. 

Dockwray Square, once the home of a young Stan Laurel, also the imaginary home of the Machine Gunners. They built their den there, complete with German aircraft machine gun, and German pilot. The pilot sought refuge there, or was he their prisoner, or friend? They eventually released him to the North Sea, only for him to choose to return.

Westall, like Common, left Tyneside as a young man, and like Common couldn’t leave it alone in his writing. Social class is at the heart of these worlds of imagined memory, and so is humour. This is no ‘Misery Lit’ but an account of a creative, optimistic, nuanced world, where the human spirit is alive and well. Jack Common felt that optimism: ‘Why here, from North Shields on, the air was full of the great sea-glow, a salt radiance brightened all the long Tynemouth Streets.’ [112]

‘I was five and no infant. …the Tenth Avenue entrance…said Boys. This was it, I thought, undoubtedly.’ The caretaker sent him round to the infants. Kiddar ‘settled down to the life of punctual attendance and pretended industry which was the normal surface to show at school’. (Kiddar’s Luck: 35)

Chillingham Road
My mother in law started it, with the loan of an uninteresting looking book, a hardback in a paper cover like surplus wallpaper from a child’s bedroom. I kept it for a while before in an idle moment I Googled the author, Jack Common, and it led me to Karl Marx’s eyebrows! The sculptor Lawrence Bradshaw used him as the model for Karl Marx’s eyebrows! I dug Kiddar’s Luck from under the pile of books and started to read.

‘The sons of the Battle-axe’ created a den at the back of the Chillingham and after collecting together the empties ‘we could sit drinking and smoking as much at our ease as were our fathers in the bar next door’. (Kiddar’s Luck: 57) 

If it wasn’t for Kiddar’s Luck – I am tempted to write – I’d have no luck at all. But Jack Common wouldn’t write that. His twin books are full of imagination, optimism and wonder: wonder as a child at his mother’s knee, wonder at the Shields Bridge and the wind that rocked the trams, wonder as he go-carted the paths that fall from Paddy Freeman’s pond, wonder at the power of the locomotive when his father took young Kiddar to stand with him on the footplate in the goods yard; optimism on his first day at school – he was no ‘infant’ – he would start at the Juniors! Imagination of the young boy, playing detective through Jesmond Vale, the heights of St Peter’s, Grainger Street and the Big Market, taking his first steps into adolescence. 

Third Avenue: the centre of Kiddar’s world. ‘The Edwardian builder imitated magnificence even in the cheapest house.’ (Kiddar’s Luck: 16) From his back bedroom Kiddar saw the ‘brimming of a blue light when an electric train passing in the gully beyond the opposite houses ground on the live rail.’ (Kiddar’s Luck: 28) 

There is spirit evident in all these works: literary and architectural dreaming, defiant ambition. I see it, read it, hear it, feel it, smell it all round Metroland. But, perhaps not from behind the windscreen of a car.

The football writer Tom Furnival-Adams has a fascinating contemporary site dedicated to his grandfather Jack Common The site includes a blog, bibliography and John Mapplebeck’s rarely shown 1974 film ‘Common’s Luck’, which includes readings by Jack Common.
T. Dan Smith – Amber Films’  ‘A funny thing happened on the way to Utopia’
artuk.org *(successor to ‘BBC Your Paintings’)
Tyneside Modernism:* Owen Hatherley – for more on the architectural legacy of T. Dan Smith 
55 Degrees * – for The Royal Arcade

*The editor of placesandculturaltraces.com is not responsible for the content of these external sites.