It’s been nearly ten years since John Orton wrote ‘The Five Stone Steps, A Tale of a policeman’s life in 1920s South Shields. (Link below to interview with John in 2018).
I caught up with him recently and asked about his development as a writer over the last decade.
As a young boy I loved hearing my Nan’s tales of Auld Sheelz – you couldn’t shut Gertie up once she got started. When I was given a dog eared copy of Sergeant Tom Gordon’s Memories, which told as much about the folk of Shields in the 20s and 30s as about the job of the polis, it just inspired me to write.
The Five Stone Steps was well received, particularly in Shields with tales of the polis on night-watch having their little pot of whisky tied to the back door of pubs, back street bookies, and the unlucky prisoners turning up in court with black eyes and broken ribs – ‘an unfortunate accident when he accidentally fell down the five stone steps which led into the cells.’
I started writing a sequel and needed a last chapter set during the Second World War and the blitz on South Shields. First I discovered Amy Flagg’s photographs of the ruins after the raids which are held in South Tyneside Libraries photographic archive https://southtynesidehistory.co.uk/
Then I read about the Police Auxiliary Messengers (PAMS) – when phone lines were down during an air raid, lads of 16 and over would be sent out on bikes to deliver urgent messages with bombs flying round their ears.
Mossy Hamed tells the story of the ‘Blitz PAMS’. He’s a lad of mixed race – Arab Da’ and South Shields Ma’ – who rides his grocery delivery bike with his six marras as they live through the first years of the blitz.
Mossy falls for one of the other lads, Jackie – but this is not a modern day story! Jackie is really a girl who was turned away by the Polis for being a lass so dressed as a lad and got the job.
I really enjoyed writing Blitz PAMs and got straight into my next book ‘A Chill Wind off the Tyne’ whichis about life on the riverside pubs and streets of Holborn, a neighbourhood of South Shields next to the shipyards.
The book highlights the struggle for work of Yemeni and British seamen, the miners strike in ‘26, the burning down of the Casino on the sea front, and the police raid on the pitch and toss schools at Trow Rocks.
After a good break from writing, having the odd bottle of Newcastle Brown and watching the grass grow, I happened upon a press report of Scottish prisoners captured at the battle of Dunbar in 1650.
The survivors of the brutal death march from Dunbar to Durham were sold off as indentured servants, mainly to the colonies, but I was startled to read that forty were sent to work in the salt pans of Shields.
This set me off again and ‘He Wears a Blue Bonnet’ tells of the experiences of six highland Scots who discover life in Shields under Cromwell’s Commonwealth.
It’s been described as ‘a rattling yarn that takes on the life of poor Tyneside fishers, fish wives, keel-men and panners. A salty tale – love in the sand dunes, sweat in the salt houses and dodging the press gang.’
To check out books by John Orton they are available from The Word, South Shields. They can also be bought on Amazon as paperback or Kindle.
Check previous interviews with the author:
DEATH MARCH of the BLUE BONNETS – in conversation with author John Orton | ALIKIVI : NORTH EAST UK (garyalikivi.com)
BOBBIES, BOOKIES & BEER – author John Orton talks about the stories of police in 1920’s South Shields | ALIKIVI : NORTH EAST UK (garyalikivi.com)
Alikivi May 2023