Birth, Sting & Attila the Nun – Chapter Three of The Bernician Chronicles

Baby M O'B

A Meteoric Birthday

According to eye witnesses, I came into this world, bloodied but unbroken, after a twenty six hour, breach birth, in the maternity ward of Newcastle General Hospital.

The birth was recorded at 12:04 AM on April the 25th 1969, on the evening of which and I was named Michael John of the family Waugh, as a fire-breathing meteorite, half the size of a full moon, lit up British skies.

My twenty year old mother, Kathleen [who gave birth to me at just twenty years old], and my twenty four year old father, John, were both from tough, working class, Geordie families.

The Armstrongs, my mother’s family, were from the west end of Newcastle, whilst my father’s clan, the Waughs, were from Shiremoor pit village, where many generations of our family have lived and worked since the Industrial Revolution.

Shiremoor is just a few miles to the north of Newcastle, the city which became world famous for powering the British Empire with vast quantities of coal, for its prolific shipbuilding, its iconic bridge over the River Tyne and for the football club which had won the FA Cup six times by 1955.

Thankfully, I don’t remember my 26 hour breach birth, which my mother maintains to this day was a horrendous ordeal for both of us. However, just after my birth, when the blood was cleaned from my face, it became apparent that it was yellowed with jaundice. Despite this, I still weighed in at just under 9 LB’s.

Leaving Hareside

My earliest memory is sitting on the kitchen floor of our bungalow in Cramlington New Town, Northumberland, when I mistakenly drank turpentine from a former lemonade bottle, on the day we were moving to our new home, just a few streets away.

The new house was a semi-detached, three-up, two-down, Belway home, on the Collingwood Grange estate.  My parents purchased it with the proceeds of the sale of the bungalow, which they acquired with money gifted to them by their parents, when they got married in February 1968.

M O'B with his parents at his christening in June 1969

Sting in the Tale

Having had Catholicism imposed upon me by baptism, just a few weeks after my birth, I was forced to attend church every Sunday.

Then from four till nine years old I attended St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Cramlington, which was run with a rod of iron by a tyrant I will unaffectionately call Attila the Nun.

The only male teacher in the school was a certain Gordon Sumner, who soon afterwards changed his name to Sting, formed super-group, The Police, and appeared alongside Phil Daniels in Quadrophenia, one of my all-time favourite films. My memories of Sting, however, are vividly mixed.

The Iron Man

Since there were no other male role models at St. Paul’s, it is perfectly understandable that myself and my first best mate, Michael Rolt, idolized Mr. Sumner.

He made singing hymns in morning assemblies much more interesting with his accomplished guitar playing, whilst he also read us a wonderful rendition of The Iron Man by Ted Hughes in English class, to at least one captivated four year old in a room full of thirty two.

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t credit Mr. Sumner [as he was] with indirectly assisting the birth of my voracious appetite for great literature, by reading the brilliantly written fable with such sincerity and story-telling prowess. That I will always remember fondly.

However, a few weeks before he left the school to pursue his acting and musical careers, Michael and I were severely reprimanded for following him round the playground, when he was supervising break time.

“If I catch you two following me around this yard again, I’ll bang your heads together…” is what he said to two little lads, barely in single digits, who worshiped the ground he walked on. But it was worth it just to hear Michael say: “Well you can bugger off then, you bloody wanker!”

To his credit, Sting let us walk away without saying another word and he didn’t report it to Attila either, which would have been a fate far worse than the disappointment of realizing the futility of idol worship.

M O'B at six in 1975

Attila the Nun

Whilst my early academic achievements, my cherub-like visage and my amiable disposition got me out of trouble at school virtually every time I needed them to, even I was not spared the lash of Attila’s tyranny.

Not long after Sting left St. Paul’s, Attila visited every class to tell us all that nobody could leave any food on their plates at lunchtime, whether we liked what we were eating or not.

She then decreed that if we disobeyed her it would be our fault that black babies in Africa die of starvation; and that God would punish our wickedness by condemning us to burn in hell for all eternity [along with any family members who didn’t go to church on Sundays].

From the moment she said those words, I had a brick in my stomach because I knew there was always at least one vegetable I left on every school dinner plate; and that Attila frequently prowled the dining hall in search of innocents to cast down as evil, white-skinned wretches, the supposed scourge of God’s creation.

The Devil’s Favourite Vegetable

That very lunchtime, we were served one of my favourite meals of mince, dumplings and potatoes. I wolfed it down as fast as I could, in the hope that Attila wouldn’t see the dollop of turnip that remained untouched on my plate. To my utter dismay, she then entered the dining hall and walked straight over to me.

“Michael, before I forget, would you tell your Mummy and Daddy that you need to be at church no later than 7 am on Sunday, so that you can practice the reading of the Gospel before everybody starts to turn up for the service at 7:30.”

For one death-defying moment, I thought I was going to get away with it but her wrinkled face turned to stone, as she looked down at my plate.

“I see what’s going on here…” she then said with underplayed venom, before picking up my plate and walking off towards the kitchen hatch, where the meals were served.

She emptied a pot of cold turnip on to my plate and marched back to where I was sitting in the rapidly emptying dinner hall. “You are going to eat every last morsel…” barked Attila, as she slapped the plate of turnip in front of me.

“But I can’t Sister, I’ll be sick! It’s happened before…” I replied, with tears starting to stream down my face. Attila was nevertheless undeterred and picked up a large spoonful of turnip, before prizing my mouth open, shoveling it inside and forcing me to swallow the Devil’s favourite vegetable.

A Just Desert

As I swallowed my cruel punishment, the tears subsided and I stared into her cold, dark eyes, knowing that the creature before me was truly evil and dead-set on causing the maximum amount of misery for two hundred four to nine years olds; each of whom was imprisoned under her totalitarian regime against their will, in an open prison for Catholic minors, by another name.

A second later, my stomach ejected what felt like everything I had thus far eaten during the course of my young life and Attila was covered from habit to expensive shoes in a multi-coloured coat of vomit.

“Just you wait, Michael Waugh. The Lord is very angry with you and he’s going to be acting through me when I punish you.”

With that, she stormed off to her office and I was alone with a dinner lady called Mrs Ainsley, who helped me clean up the mess on the floor. I could tell from her friendly face that she felt sorry for me, knowing that in all probability I was going to take one hell of a beating from Attila, upon her return.

However, for reasons best known to herself, I left school that day without being summoned to Attila’s office and the next day she acted as if the incident had never happened.

A lucky escape, to say the least, but there was no single moment I spent in that school when I felt free from the threat of violence from Sister Mary Agnes.

An Act of Mass Cruelty and Injustice

On another disgraceful occasion, during lunch break, an older boy who had a reputation as a tearaway, threw a stone over the fence at a lad from another local school, knocking him to the ground and making his head bleed.

Around a hundred children were playing on the enclosed grass fields by the main buildings. Having just put the phone down with the headmaster from the injured boy’s school, Attila came marching out and blew her whistle. We were then forbidden from moving a muscle without her permission.

She briskly walked to the centre of the playing fields and drew an imaginary line between the children who had been playing in each half of the grounds. She then barked that everybody in the half from which the stone was thrown would be punished severely, if one of us didn’t tell her who threw it.

None of us did because taking a beating from her was always preferable to grassing on a fellow prisoner, who would no doubt terrorize anybody who grassed on him, for the rest of their time at the school and beyond.

A Tyrant Beyond Forgiveness

Simply because we were standing in the right half of the fields at the time, I, along with three dozen others, was ordered to go to the next lesson in silence.

The rest, including my eight year old cousin, Kevin, were told to line up outside her office, where their legs were brayed mercilessly with the hardest training shoe Attila could get her hands on, which she affectionately called “the slipper”.

Seventy children went into the office that day but none of them left without being violently punished for something they didn’t do.

It’s hardly any wonder then that I abhorred authority, rejected religion and declared my atheism by eight years old. Much to my annoyance, however, my mother insisted that I had to keep going to church until I was sixteen.

Voracious Appetite For Creative Writing

My love for creative writing started with a series of compositions I wrote about a mad professor, which I began when I was just four.

The stories focused on a chair he had invented, which cured the suffering of everybody who sat on it, no matter what ailed them, as he traveled far and wide, doing what he could to solve the world’s problems.

My first teacher, the lovely Mrs. Duffess, did nothing but encourage me to develop this ability, which, along with my extensive vocabulary and my appetite for self-learning, convinced her that I had the God-given intellect of a prodigious autodidact.

This was founded upon her frequent observation that, from the day I started school, the extent of my self-learning was already way in advance of what the school syllabus had planned for my educational development.

Somewhat inevitably and much to my own sadness, I was moved a year ahead of myself when I was five, leaving behind most of my new friends and Mrs. Duffess.

Nevertheless, despite the horrors of St. Paul’s, having learned to read the back pages of the Football Pink and Evening Chronicle before I started school, I had a clear advantage over my peers.

By the time I was six, I had read every book in the school, I was borrowing classics like Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Shipwrecked, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Robinson Crusoe from the local library and I already knew that I wanted to be a writer.

Unexpected Invitation

Around the same time, the brightest girls and boys at St. Paul’s were asked to sit a national intelligence test, in which I scored top marks.

Incredible though it may sound, this led to an attempt by Attila and the senior priest at St. Paul’s Church, Father Cass, to persuade my parents to send me to sit the Eton entrance exam.

This I gleaned when they paid an unexpected visit to our house on a school night, with a senior nun who apparently had the ear of the bishop of the diocese, who was in full support of their proposal that I accept the rare opportunity God had granted me.

Having been supplied with a list of the children who scored highest in every age group, the elite school’s admissions officer wrote to Attila.

Their letter made it plain that I would be offered a scholarship to Eton Preparatory School,  in the likely event I passed the entrance exam, which they felt was much easier than the test I’d just scored top marks in.

Nevertheless, I refused to even countenance the idea of going to a posh boarding school in the south, where I would have been despised as the token Northern pauper.

The obvious fact that my parents couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant fees without a bursary, would have been used mercilessly against me by the boys who would have been my peers, whom I now know would have included Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

You can’t take Newcastle out of a Geordie

Given that it is well-established that you can take a Geordie lad out of Newcastle but you can’t take Newcastle out of him, I would have been expelled for busting posh lads noses within a week of arriving at Eton prep.

So it was a complete non-starter from the outset, no matter how many people would have been happy to hear tell in later years, of how Boris and Dave rued the day that the grandson of a Newcastle pit-man was asked to sit the Eton entrance exam.

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