River Tyne, Coal Dust and Black ‘n’ White Blood – Chapter Four of The Bernician Chronicles

Blue Bell Pit

River Tyne, Coal Dust and Black ‘n’ White Blood

Even though men born on the banks of the River Tyne have a reputation for liking a fight, I always took the non-violent option during potential physical confrontations with my peers, whenever possible.

This was predominantly due to advice given me by my Dad, whose early life was, at least to a certain extent, punctuated by violent episodes.

These were largely born out of his reputation as a hard bastard from Shiremoor, which meant that hard bastards from West Allotment, Backworth and Wallsend would always want to provoke a punch-up with him, whenever the opportunity arose.

A generation later, I came home unscathed from a scrap at eight years old, expecting him to be proud of me, for pummeling a lad who was provoked by some older boys to start a fight he was never going to win. I was truly shocked when he told me I should never gain a reputation for being a tough lad.

His reasoning was very simple: if I did gain such a reputation, one day somebody tougher will come looking for me to deliver the kicking of a lifetime. 

However, whilst I took the advice to heart, it would also be churlish to deny that the threat of violence was not something I had to deal with on an almost daily basis, as soon as I started St. Paul’s at four years old.

It goes without saying that my attitude [and my Dad’s] was very different when there was no possibility of avoiding physical confrontation.

Do No Harm, Take No Shit

Whether in the playground or on the way home, when I couldn’t talk my way out of trouble with boys I met from other schools, or with boys from my own school, I managed to win every fight I couldn’t avoid within just a few blows.

No matter whom I was faced with, no matter how hard they tried, nobody could ever land a punch before they were subdued with reasonable force, which prevented me from ever suffering the scourge of bullying.

Before long it was well known that I had never lost a fight, so very few lads ever tried to start one with me after that. Needless to say, on the few occasions when they did, my opponents were almost always goaded or bullied into it by older boys.

Wor Jackie Milburn

The Granddad I Never Met and Wor Jackie

On my mother’s side of the family, the Armstrong and Thompson men had been dockers and merchant seamen for generations, all of whom lived in the streets of tenements from Scotswood Road to Denton Burn, in the west end of Newcastle.

My Granddad, John Michael Armstrong, was a warm-hearted docker from West Denton, who married my hard-working Grandma, Iris Thompson, the daughter of Minnie and Cecil, who was born within walking distance of John Michael, during the Autumn of 1930.

My Granddad reputedly loved to drink a few Brown Ales, play the piano and sing Geordie classics like the Blaydon Races in their local pubs, especially after he saw his beloved Newcastle United win at St. James Park.

While we were playing in the old second division after WWII, he saw the team win promotion in 1949, after a lad from Ashington called ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn staked his claim as a homegrown legend, when he was still grafting part-time as a pit-man.

John Michael knew Wor Jackie was a genuine working class hero, if ever there was one. That’s why Newcastle fans still worship him to this day.

He was one of us and he never wanted to be anything else at the expense of that, which will always bring a tear to the eye of even the hardest of Geordies.

Tragically Premature Demise

It saddens me so deeply to say that, just six months after the birth of my mother, who was the apple of her father’s eye, John Michael died in his sleep of an undiagnosed heart malfunction, whilst Iris and my Mam slept beside him, in the late spring of 1950.

His sister, my aunty Vera and her new husband, my uncle Dave, were sleeping in the bed next them in Minnie and Cecil’s house, separated by a curtain down the middle of the room.

To say that they and the rest of the family were utterly devastated by his loss is an understatement. The truth is, nobody ever really got over my granddad’s death.

My Grandma could not have loved John Michael more than she did and it shone from her eyes every time she ever spoke of him during her life, no matter what circumstances she found herself dealing with.

A Truly Heroic Woman

Despite the fact that this left my Grandma a widowed mother of a baby girl, at a time when it was very hard for a woman to support a child without a bread-winning father, she dedicated herself to making sure that my mother had a much better life that she ever did.

Working in the General Hospital Food Stores, she saved enough money to buy a house of her own and my mother wanted for nothing, except the beloved father who she had no memory of, to whom Iris remained devoted until her dying day.

I still well up when I recall what she said in defence of her refusals of three marriage proposals during my mother’s childhood: “I had my man and nobody else is ever going to replace him.”

I’m so grateful to my Grandma for teaching me what true love is – an indomitable choice we make with heart, soul, mind and body, which even death cannot tear asunder.

The older I get, the more I miss her presence in my life, so perhaps Groucho Marks was right – time really does wound all heels.

Love Transcends All

As every Newcastle fan will know only too well, for my Granddad to die just before the FA Cup wins in 1951, 1952 and 1955, which no other Geordie would have celebrated with more passion or good humour, only exacerbated the tragedy of him dying when he had so much to live for.

Having never suffered from any previous health problems, with a wife who adored him and a six month old daughter who needed her Dad, the lack of his presence guaranteed that my mother would never know life without grieving for the father she loves so much but has no memory of.

Nevertheless, from the earliest times of my life, my Grandma and everybody on the Armstrong and Thompson side of the family, insisted that I am just like my Granddad was, in almost every respect.

This naturally led me to fear that I would also die at twenty seven in my sleep, until I surpassed that age with what one family doctor described as “the constitution of an Ox.”

John Michael remains the only person I have never met to have my wholehearted love and I have lost count of the number of times I have felt his immortal spirit, pulling me back from potentially fatal disaster, whenever I have needed him to.

Whoever coined the phrase, you can’t miss what you never had, knew not of what they spoke.

The Granddad I Did Know

My other Granddad, Jack Waugh, a pit-man from fourteen years old at Blue Bell Colliery, was just as obsessed with Newcastle United as John Michael. This generational fervour was passionately instilled into my Dad, John, and then into me, as early as I can remember.

Jack was a breeder and trainer of champion greyhounds and whippets, a prize-winning grower of leeks, cucumbers and tomatoes and a skilled angler and trout tickler.

So his wife, my Nana, Nellie, my Dad, his sister, Mavis, and their younger brother, Robert, were always well provided for, despite not having an inside toilet and living on post-war rations for several years following WWII.

Newcastle's 1955 FA Cup Winners

Five FA Cup Wins In Five Years

After Jack missed the cup final wins in ’51 and ’52 because he couldn’t afford the trips to Wembley, he vowed that the same thing would never happen again.

He started breeding turkeys to sell at Christmas in 1953 and 1954, which he used to pay for tickets to see Wor Jackie score the first goal with his head in less than a minute, against Don Revie’s Manchester City in May 1955 – the last time we won the cup.

When I sat on his knee as an enthralled eight year old and asked him what it was like to see us beat Man City 3 – 1 at Wembley, he said the following unforgettable words:

“I was late getting there, so I ran from the turnstile and up the steps into the stadium. And as I’m running I can hear that the match has kicked off, so I’m desperate not to miss ‘owt.

Then, just as I get to the top of the steps, Milburn nods the ball into the back of the net, inside the first minute, and the noise was so loud I couldn’t hear meself shout! Wor name was on the cup that year, no doubt about it.

But there was nothing better that seeing Wor Jackie, a miner’s son from Ashington, win his third FA Cup winner’s medal in five years.

He was one the greatest footballers who ever lived son. Even Pele knew who Wor Jackie was. The pride of Newcastle, that’s who, because he was one of us and everybody knew it.”

Hunt, Smith and Gladstone

Following a five year apprenticeship to become a draftsman for a Tyneside shipbuilders, my Dad quit his ‘job for life’ as a draftsman and got a temporary position selling insurance premiums in Cramlington, mostly door to door, at the start of the 1970’s.

Soon afterwards, he formed an insurance brokers called Hunt, Smith & Gladstone and opened an office on High Bridge Street, Newcastle, in one of the most exclusive and architecturally beautiful parts of the city centre.

Within a few years, he had built up a clientele which included many of the Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesboro players, including skillful and lightning quick Newcastle winger, Stuart Barrowclough, who provided us with free tickets to away games and Player’s Lounge passes wherever we saw a Newcastle match.

Tueart's goal

Losing at Wembley

From not long after my fourth birthday, I accompanied my Dad and numerous friends at every Newcastle home game and by the time I was six at most away matches as well.

Sadly, this included the League Cup Final defeat by Manchester City in 1976, when Denis Tueart scored the winner with a once in a career overhead kick, in a match we didn’t deserve to lose.

The Pride and the Passion

However, as long as I live, I will never forget the immense pride I felt to be one of the 38,000 Geordies who sang ‘Newcastle, Newcastle, Newcastle’ so loudly that nobody watching city’s captain, Mike Doyle, lift the trophy, could ignore the fact all anybody could hear was the losing side’s vociferous support.

This is exactly what happened two years previously, when Kevin Keegan‘s Liverpool trounced us 3-0 in the FA Cup final, which I watched live on BBC1 at my Grandma’s house.

Toon Fans Wembley 1976

While my Dad and I walked Wembley Way after the defeat in 1976, in a sea of black and white and a veritable cacophony of The Blaydon Races, I remembered what Keegan had said after beating us in 1974:

“If that’s what Newcastle fans are like when they lose, imagine what they’d be like if they won.”

Something inside me knew that those words meant that probably the best player in Europe yearned to play in front of the loyalest, most passionate fans in world, who would literally worship the ground he walks upon.

Supermac

The Supermac Roar

When I left St. Paul’s to begin my first of three years at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic. Middle School, in September 1978, I had already seen some of the best players of the 1970’s play against Newcastle teams of addictively erratic form, under four very different managers.

During that time I was fortunate enough to meet and get the autographs of most of the top players of the era, including my idol, Malcolm MacDonald. Very few centre forwards, who weren’t born with black ‘n’ white blood, have been loved on Tyneside, as much as Supermac.

To this day, I recall, as if it were yesterday, the excitement I felt when I heard the Supermac roar of anticipation erupt from the soon to be condemned Leazes End, every time he got anywhere in the last third of the pitch with the ball.

Without a hint of exaggeration, Supermac was simply electrifying to watch and he still loves the Newcastle fans every bit as much as we love him.

Gordon Lee’s Legacy

Like almost every Toon fan of my generation, I will never forgive former Newcastle manager, Gordon Lee, for selling Supermac, Jimmy Smith, Terry Macdermott, Frank Clark, John Tudor and Terry Hibbitt, then fucking off to Everton the first chance he got.

This inevitably led to our relegation in 1978, the season after we finished in the top six of the first division and qualified for the UEFA Cup, after being widely acknowledged as one of the most entertaining sides in Europe.

Such is the nature of supporting Newcastle United. At our best, we can beat any side in Europe. At our worst, being a supporter feels like a life-long curse, which can never be lifted.

Brian Clough

Brian Clough

I did, however, get to meet Brian Clough at the City Ground during the season we went down, where he let me kick a ball around the pitch, after his Nottingham Forest side played us off the park. He even joked that we might have done better if I’d been in the team that day.

Cloughie was every bit as funny, unconventional and charismatic in real life, as he was on his numerous TV appearances, most notably, the two interviews by Michael Parkinson in the seventies.

I was so lucky to be able to meet him when he was in the prime of his extraordinary life and the teams he managed were some of the best sides I ever saw play.

St. Peter’s RC Middle School

The three years I was incarcerated at St. Peter’s, almost entirely with the same children I’d just done five years at St. Paul’s with, were only different in respect of there being a male tyrant, instead of Attila, who used a belt capable of welting any hand, instead of a training shoe on the back of the legs.

The most despicable incident I can remember occurred when a boy called Stephen joined our class at the start of my final year. As if his bright ginger hair hadn’t already guaranteed that he got a hard time from the school bullies, his plight grew all the darker before the end of his first day.

Same Shit, Different School

After asking our teacher permission to get a drink of water from the sink in our classroom, Stephen, in his abject nervousness, twisted the plastic cold tap too hard and it came off in his hand.

This caused waves of uncontrollable laughter and a permanent torrent of water, beating down full pelt into the sink, making it impossible for the teacher to continue the lesson because of the noise.

As one would only expect in a den of vipers, Stephen was sent in tears to the headmaster’s office, where the sadistic Mr. Prendergast refused to even hear any excuses or explanations.

Prendergast belted both Stephen’s palms three times, the intense fear of which reportedly caused the poor boy to shit himself on the way to meet his cruel and unjust punishment.

The rampant smell was thought to have enraged Prendergast enough to make him discharge three strikes on each hand, instead of his usual single strikes for first time offenders.

Rivers of Change

It was therefore obvious that remaining top of my year across every subject, totally avoiding the belt and being selected for the school football team were not enough to quell my enthusiasm for moving to a different school and what was effectively a brand new chapter in my life.

This largely unfolded five miles north of Cramlington, in Hepscott village, on the outskirts of Morpeth, where Malcolm MacDonald had previously lived before Gordon Lee moved in, just around the corner.

Nothing [and I really mean, nothing] would ever be the same again.

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