UNDER HER SPELL : Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-45)

Memories of events years ago can sometimes be sketchy but after checking my diaries and emails it was March 2012 when I was shown a South Shields birth certificate for Eileen O’Shaughnessy by the Local History Librarian Ann Sharp.

We bumped into each other near South Shields Registry Office where I was going to collect a family research certificate. The Orwell connection peaked my interest but was more intrigued when I noticed her birth address was Park Terrace, now re-named Lawe Road – just two minutes from where I live.

I wasn’t a fan of Orwell’s writing then, I heard about him – who hasn’t? Over 20 year ago I went to see a theatre production of 1984 at Newcastle Playhouse, and have since read 1984, Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London plus selected essays and journalism but it was more from a local history angle that I first approached this story.

In May 2012, May being Local History month in South Tyneside, a display appeared in South Shields Library and an earlier blog from October 2018 mentions this –

There were three large boards. On the left was a birth certificate and census records. To the right was a photo of George Orwell and a picture of a cemetery in Newcastle. In the middle was a large black and white photograph with about a dozen men standing near sandbags and a machine gun at the front, obviously a war image. Then I noticed a dark haired woman crouching behind the machine gun. I looked closer and got goose bumps’.

Who was this woman who was born in South Shields married to one of the most controversial writers of the 20th century, buried in Newcastle and had a photo taken on the front line of a war ?

Ann mentioned that Eileen had been to the Spanish Civil War explaining the photograph, also “an American lady has been in she is researching for a book about Eileen”. That was Sylvia Topp and she left note looking for any help searching locations where Eileen lived.

Sylvia Topp outside The Customs House, South Shields 10 May 2012 (pic Alikivi collection)

We arranged to meet and I took Sylvia down to South Shields riverside and The Customs House where Eileen’s father worked as a Customs Collector, then into the town centre where he had an office then onto her childhood home in Beach Road.

Afterwards we had a meal in the Italian Restaurant on Winchester Street and left it where I would look into Eileen’s North East life. This proved difficult because there wasn’t much information out there about Eileen.

As the months passed the research grew and in the blog Oct. 2018 –

There wasn’t much information out there just a few bits and pieces that had been mentioned in Orwell books. So there was extensive research over the next year or so. Phone calls, letters, checking and re-checking details.

Interviews on camera were arranged around the country. One led to another, and another. It felt like being gently nudged along to find more about her. I never came across any obstacles, everybody asked wanted to be part of the documentary and were only too happy to help’.

I remember the time I was filming in Sunderland Church High School where Eileen was a pupil. I phoned reception who passed on my number to former Head of English, Sylvia Minto. Next day she rang and we arranged to meet at the school.

We filmed in the main hall where the walls were full of honours boards with names of pupils who went onto higher education. Eileen read English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and her name was on a board. That same board is now in a room in my house.

A couple of years ago the school was closing down and the receptionist remembered me and got in touch – “of course I’ll have it” not realising the sheer weight and size of the board at 5ft x 3ft !

Someone else who was also captivated by Eileen was South Shields born Professor Robert Colls who had just published his book George Orwell – English Rebel.

pic courtesy of The Shields Gazette

Then teaching cultural history at De Montfort University, Leicester, Colls featured in an article in The Shields Gazette (25 October 2013) by local journalist Terry Kelly.

Colls said “One of the pleasures of writing about Orwell was not only getting to know him, but getting to know Eileen. The evidence is sparse but I really like her and Orwell’s spirit was lifted after meeting her. Her letters show great fun and sharp wit. Getting to know Eileen was an unexpected treat”.

In the October 2018 blog I finished off with –

‘Who knew that a library visit in 2012 would take me and my camera, from South Shields to Sunderland, Newcastle, Stockton, Warwickshire, Oxford, London and finally Barcelona. I remember I had the camera in my backpack walking through Barcelona Airport thinking how did I get here. It seemed so effortless, the whole process just fell into place’.

Link to a short edit of the film ‘Wildflower’  

George Orwell’s first wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy (Alikivi, 11mins edit) – YouTube

To find out more information or how to join the Orwell Society check the official website:  www.orwellsociety.com

Alikivi  March 2022.

BLUE PLAQUE FOR EILEEN O’SHAUGHNESSY (1905-45)

The Word is a recent addition to the landscape of South Shields, a new cultural centre and library that was an appropriate venue for the start of a weekend of events to celebrate the life of South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

Education was a big part of Eileen’s life her mother Marie had a teaching background and Eileen attended Sunderland Church High school where she was awarded a bursary to St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

It was 2012 when I first came across Eileen and March 2014 when the resultant documentary Wildflower was first shown in South Shields with Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp making the journey up the M1 to watch the film about Richard’s mother, and wife of author George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair).

In 2018 a flurry of activity surrounded the story of Eileen – plans were made to publish the book by Canadian author Sylvia Topp and a nomination for a blue plaque in the town was proposed.

With the Orwell Society (OS) driving the project forward, South Tyneside Council agreed to the proposal and to get the ball rolling I added the local link.

Dave Harland is owner of 35 Beach Road, Eileen’s childhood home. I first met Dave in 2012 when we arranged to film in his house, he knew about the O’Shaughnessy family being previous owners making him a valuable addition to the documentary.

Newspaper cutting from The Shields Gazette, August 2002.

20 years ago local journalist Janis Blower told Dave about the previous owners and the article featured in a Shields Gazette double page spread (7 August 2002). “It’s a lovely old house and there are lots of original features we have tried to keep. I believe the house dates back to the end of the 19th century” said Dave.

I popped in to see him and suggest the idea of a plaque, of course he was thrilled about the news and had no objections “a plaque is a marvellous idea, absolutely wonderful”.

With this news the OS steamed ahead with the nomination and planned an event in March 2020, which would have been the 75th anniversary of Eileen’s death. But when covid brought lockdown in the UK, the pandemic scuppered plans.

‘The Round’ room ready for the celebratory event of Orwell Society talks & film in The Word (pic Alikivi collection).

We finally got to meet up at The Word on Saturday 26 March 2022 and planted a flag for Eileen. Led by the OS Chair Quentin Kopp, Patron Richard Blair (Orwell’s son) with around 30 members of the society from all parts of the UK including Richard Young from Epsom, Stephen and Margaret Ingle from Dunblane, Richard Keeble and Mariline from Lincoln, John Lloyd and Helen Davies from ‘a small town near Hereford’ plus special guest for the day, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck.

In the large circular top floor room a screening of the documentary Wildflower was followed by a Q&A with Quentin Kopp and author Sylvia Topp, Tom Kelly read his poem ‘You, you, you’ then Richard explained the mission of the Orwell Society and his father’s legacy.

The Orwell Society in King Street, South Shields 26/3/2022 outside building where Laurence O’Shaughnessy worked as Customs Collector (pic. Alikivi collection).

Afterwards we walked over to The Customs House and King Street where Eileen’s father Laurence worked then went to her birthplace on Lawe Road 10 minutes away. Unfortunately the house is covered in scaffolding and hollowed out with only the front façade left.

Our MP Emma Lewell-Buck has raised this in the House of Commons and we are looking to work with South Tyneside Council to resolve this issue.

Outside Westgate House, Beach Road, South Shields 27/3/2022 l-r Quentin Kopp, Mayor Pat Hay, Richard Blair, Mayoress Jean Copp, Dave Harland, Gary Wilkinson (Alikivi) Sylvia Topp. pic. courtesy Shields Gazette.

On a bright blue Sunday morning in Beach Road, Dave Harland welcomed into his front garden the OS plus Mayor Pat Hay to unveil the blue plaque.

“It was a real honour to unveil a special blue plaque in tribute to a little-known local woman who shaped and supported one of the greatest writers of the 20th century”.

“George Orwell wrote masterpieces but Eileen’s influence over him and the impact she had on his creative writing is often overlooked. There’s no doubt she was a guiding force in his life”.

Quentin Kopp added “I’m delighted that after the enforced two year delay Eileen has been given great recognition at her family home”.

Richard Blair at his mothers grave St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond 27/3/2022. (pic Alikivi collection)

Finally an emotional journey to St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond, and the grave of Eileen Maud Blair. Kept in immaculate condition, OS member Brian Thompson from Newcastle regularly tends to the grave planting flowers and uses hand scissors to keep the grass trim, he also arranged for a small plaque to be added near the headstone.

For his work tending to his mother’s grave, Richard thanked Brian with a gift of a hardback graphic novel of 1984, I was also pleased to receive a copy of Animal Farm “for all the hard work you’ve put in recording my mothers life in South Shields” said Richard.

Richard Blair presenting gift to Gary Wilkinson (Alikivi) at his mothers grave St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond 27/3/2022 (pic Brian Thompson, OS member).

He finally added “My mother played a vital role in Orwell’s life, not just as a supporter, but at times, when he had bouts of illness, a carer, and also as a creative inspiration. I am thrilled that we are finally able to celebrate the life of my mother in this way.”

Link to the film ‘Wildflower’  

George Orwell’s first wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy (Alikivi, 11mins edit) – YouTube

To find out more information and how to join The Orwell Society check the official website: www.orwellsociety.com

Alikivi  March 2022.

‘ROCK AT THE SHARP END’ – highlights from the book by Sunderland author Geoff Docherty.

Docherty talks about his life from being doorman, club promoter and band manager. He remembers some of the big names that he attracted to Sunderland’s Bay Hotel

’The door leading to Marc Bolan’s dressing room was jammed with female admirers desperate to meet him. Some were crying with emotion. Others waited to meet their new heroes, Free, especially Paul Rodgers. I’d never experienced female adulation of this intensity and found it impossible to empty The Bay that night’.

Docherty fills the book with stories about bands on their way to making it, and groups already there, but next he needed a bigger venue….

’During negotiations involved in moving to The Locarno, there were important hurdles to overcome. The first was the name. Over in the States were two highly respected venues called Filmore West and East. I unashamedly plagiarised the name by renaming the Sunderland Locarno, The Fillmore North, on the night I hired it. Whether I could persuade the best groups to appear was in the lap of the Gods’.

He did – and the book contains a chronology of gigs that Geoff promoted from the Bay Hotel – Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and The Who – to the Locarno – T.Rex, Mott the Hoople, Kinks and Bowie – admission and price paid for the act are included in the details, £150 for Bowie and 10 shilling to get in.

After a visit to a local nightclub, Annabels, he spotted a band who were playing and ended up being their manager…’In the three years I managed them, Beckett did two John Peel radio shows, 33 dates supporting The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 19 dates supporting Captain Beefheart, 22 dates supporting Slade, five supporting Wizzard, three supporting Ten Years After and countless University and College gigs. They also made an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test’.

Docherty gives great detail of the meeting with Peter Grant and the subsequent Newcastle Mayfair booking of Led Zeppelin on the 18th March 1971. Not short on anecdotes and how the music world affected his personal life, Rock at the Sharp End is a must read for any fan of North East music.

Gary Alikivi  May 2020

LETTERS FROM JARROW (2) – Red Ellen & the ’36 Marchers

A significant event in Jarrow’s and my family and history research, was the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. This was the march to London to protest about mass unemployment and extreme poverty in the town.

Off the back of the 2009 documentary Little Ireland, Tom Kelly (Jarrow playwright) and I put together Jarrow Voices, a short film highlighting the involvement of Ellen Wilkinson MP and the Jarrow Crusade. The film also featured the story of William Jobling who lived in the town. (Link at the bottom of the page)

The film was premiered on 10th December 2009 at the Human Rights Day in Newcastle City Library, and in October 2011 screened at the Films for Justice in the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle. Here is the script that Tom prepared for the film.

START:

Jarrow Voices looks at two iconic events associated with the town, the gibbeting of William Jobling in 1832 and the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. Voices that need to be heard.

It was in June 1832, that Jarrow pitmen William Jobling and Ralph Armstrong, attacked South Shields magistrate Nicholas Fairles. Jobling was arrested on South Shields beach, tried and found guilty at Durham Assizes and sentenced to be hung and publicly displayed upon a gibbet on Jarrow Slake.

Jobling being placed upon a seventeen foot high gibbet underlined the power of authority and sent a powerful message to the unions, their voice was virtually silenced.

Fairles, prior to his death, acknowledged that Jobling was with Armstrong but did not carry out the attack.

Isabella, Jobling’s wife, could see her husband clearly from their cottage near Jarrow Slake. Sadly she had no memory of her husband when she died in Harton Workhouse in 1891.

William Jobling was displayed on a gibbet that became known as ‘Jobling’s Post.’ He hung for three weeks until his friends stole the body. To this day we don’t know where his body lies.

The gibbet remained on Jarrow Slake until 1856 when it was taken down during the development of Tyne Dock. Today you can find the gibbet in South Shields Museum.

Jobling worked at Jarrow’s Alfred Colliery which closed in 1852. In that same year Palmers shipyard was opened by Charles Mark Palmer and his brother George. Palmers became one of the greatest shipyards in Europe. However when Palmers closed in 1933 the town’s fate was sealed. Jarrow was reliant on Palmers for work and almost 80% of the town became unemployed.

Jarrow’s Council decided to organise a Crusade and walk to London to make the government aware of the town’s plight. On Monday October 5th 1936 two hundred men left Jarrow and walked into immortality.

The Jarrow ‘March,’ as it’s known in the town, had leaders with Irish and Scottish connections: Symonds, Scullion, Hanlon and Riley. A trawl through the list of marchers underlines this: Connolly, Flynn, Flannery, Joyce, and my uncle Johnny, reflecting the immigration into the town.

Sadly none of the original marchers are alive today but one direct connection we do have are the letters written between Con Shields and his late father who was one of the cook’s on the march. The letters are one of the most heart- warming stories of the March and the late Con Shields re-tells his tale with passion and enthusiasm.

Matt Perry, writer and historian in his book, ‘The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend’ gives a clear account of the Crusade and its impact at the time and to this day. He also looks at Ellen Wilkinson’s contribution to the crusade and her life and times.

The name we associate more than any other with the Crusade is that of the town’s MP, Ellen Wilkinson. ‘Fiery’, ‘firebrand’, ‘Wee Ellen’, all have been used to describe one of the twentieth century’s most charismatic female politicians.

Sometimes it seems that the past never leaves Jarrow but what I do know is that we need to remember two Jarrow voices: William Jobling and the Jarrow Crusade.

END

In the next ‘Letters from Jarrow’ post we look at the background of the people involved in the march and how it is still important to the town today.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAc4jiF4ReI

Gary Alikivi  May 2020

LETTERS FROM JARROW (1) – The IRA on Tyneside

Recently I completed a DNA ancestry test which came back 14% Scottish and 86% Irish, a bigger percentage than I thought but not a surprise as in 2008 I had already researched the family tree through census’, birth, marriage and death records, plus visiting Ireland a few times.

My Irish family came to Tyneside in the North East of England around the late 1880’s, and settled here – a long way from County Galway, Derry and Antrim.

Amongst old certificates, photo’s and letters, my Grandfather wrote down his memories describing where he used to live and play as a kid in Jarrow at the time of the First World War. He also talked about his mother and that the family were members of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

‘My mother’s family originated in Galway in the west of Ireland. She came from a big family, her brothers, uncles and cousins were all fishermen. I remember my mother as being a very hard working woman. She worked as a Stoker in the chemical works over the bridge in East Jarrow.  She worked there all through the 1914-18 war.

She was a very kind woman, strict but fair, and was very religious. The family were also involved with the IRA and Sinn Fein’.

These last remarks were very interesting because when researching my family history I came across Donmouth, a North East local history website by Patrick Brennan (link at the bottom of the page). In one of the sections he covers the IRA in Jarrow which I have condensed here.

After being cruelly treated by England over the centuries – for example the Great Famine 1845-50 – Irish people were looking to create an Independent Irish Republic.

Politically there was a massive growth in support for Sinn Fein who established a new assembly in Dublin and on the first day proposed a Declaration of Independence. The British Government wouldn’t support this and Sinn Fein would settle for nothing less. Battle lines had been drawn.

A Volunteer force, known as ‘Black and Tans’ landed in Dublin. The IRA operated a guerrilla campaign attacking small groups of Black and Tans and murdering informers. Reprisals on an innocent Irish population, involved out of control Tans on an orgy of looting and arson.

(If you are interested in this time of history why not check out the 2006 film ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ by Ken Loach, or ‘Michael Collins’ starring Liam Neeson released in 1996).

By 1919 the Irish Self Determination League (ISDL) was formed, the purpose was to raise funds for Sinn Fein but some members decided to take direct action. Mainland Britain had its first arson attack in Liverpool Docks, days later, a large explosion and fire near London Bridge.

On Tyneside, many men and women of Irish birth gave support to the Irish republican cause through membership of the ISDL or Irish Volunteers – better known as the IRA.

Since the 1880’s Jarrow had an active political organisation in the Irish National League, and held an important role in the ISDL. They held political meetings, fund raisers and ceilidhs in Lockharts Cocoa Rooms and the Co Op Guild Hall in Jarrow. 

More direct action was called for resulting in more volunteers being recruited and by the end of 1920 six companies with a total of 160 men had been established:

A Company – Jarrow. B Company – Hebburn. C Company – Newcastle.

D Company – Wallsend. E Company – Bedlington. F – Company – Consett.

Within a few month a further four companies were set up: Stockton, Chester-le-Street, Thornley and Sunderland bringing the total to 480 men.

Arms, guns and explosives were either stolen from Army Drill Halls or obtained from foreign sailors. In Jarrow, babies prams were used as cover to transport weapons to and from an arms dump in St Pauls Road in East Jarrow.

March 1921 saw the first incendiary attack at a Newcastle warehouse and oil refinery, plus a timber yard at Tyne Dock. Largely unsuccessful, the second attack was more ambitious, 38 fires at 20 different farms were co-ordinated to be lit at 8pm throughout Durham and Northumberland. This demonstrated the extent of the I.R.A throughout the region. (Reports from the Evening Chronicle 1921).

A number of operations were planned and executed around Tyneside. Farm fires and attacks on oil works in Kenton, Wallsend, South Shields, and an aircraft shed in Gosforth was destroyed.

Also the daring attack in Jarrow – a gas main blown up on the old Don Bridge. This story was featured in my documentary ‘Little Ireland’ (link at the bottom of the page).

Report from the Evening Chronicle 23rd May 1921.

THE SINN FEIN OUTRAGES: GAS MAIN BLOWN UP

At 11.15pm on Saturday night there was a heavy explosion at the west end of the town, and it was discovered that a hole 18 inches by 18 had been made in the lower of two gas mains carried across the Don bridge at East Jarrow. The gas company’s workmen were soon on the spot, and the main was temporarily repaired.

‘They were just trying to make a point, that’s all they were trying to do. Not harm anybody, just trying to make a point that they wanted home rule for Ireland’.

(Con Sheils speaking in the film ‘Little Ireland’ 2009).

The IRA on Tyneside were severely damaged when two of their top men were arrested in connection with the theft of explosives from a colliery in Blyth on the Northumberland coast. They were sentenced to prison but released in 1922 as part of Truce arrangements made a year earlier.

But more trouble was on the horizon with pit strikes, extreme poverty and mass unemployment meant the Irish had another fight on their hands – by 1936 Jarrow was about to march onto London.

For further information:

https://garyalikivi.com/2018/08/22/little-ireland-documentary-on-irish-immigration-into-jarrow-uk/

http://www.donmouth.co.uk/

 Gary Alikivi   May 2020 

BOB & WEAVE with North East actor Micky Cochrane

‘Carrying David’ is a one-man play reflecting the highs and lows of Glenn McRory’s unrelenting drive and sacrifice to become the first world boxing champion from the North East.  After performances last year, a short run of dates were scheduled for April.

The play was written by Ed Waugh (The Great Joe Wilson, Hadaway Harry) and starring Micky Cochrane. When I caught up with Micky I asked him what impact the Coronavirus pandemic having ? Unfortunately the shows at the Newcastle Theatre Royal and Canal Cafe Theatre in London have been cancelled. I really hope we can reschedule but it’s all so uncertain now. I’d worked hard to get into really good shape so I’ll continue with that. Long term I don’t know what will happen.

What other work have you done with writer, Ed Waugh ? One of the earliest plays of my career was The Revengers written by Ed and Trevor Wood. I also did Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather by the duo. In recent years I’ve worked a lot with Ed who I get on very well with. I played music hall legend Joe Wilson in the ‘Great Joe Wilson’ in 2018 and grew to have great affection for the man.

Have you had a magic moment on stage when it’s all going great ? Absolutely. It’s a great feeling when you know going into a run how strong the show is and then the audience lift it to another level. I remember doing ‘A Nightingale Sang’ by C.P. Taylor. Most of the cast were on stage for my entrance and I couldn’t wait to get out there. The script is so good and the cues so fast it was such a buzz to be part of it.

With ‘Carrying David’ in every performance I felt I recognised a moment where I knew the audience were with me and with the story. That’s a pretty special feeling.

How did you get interested in acting ? I always acted and performed at school. Got my A for Drama but left school thinking it’s not something that someone of my background does. I maintained an interest from afar but didn’t see it as a career. I had all kinds of offers to join youth theatre and Drama clubs.

After years of many jobs and no direction it was my mother who persuaded me to give it a shot. I took a degree, got an agent and became a professional actor.

Is stage work in your family ? Singing and performing definitely. My mother is an amazing singer with a lovely voice. My older sister and younger sister are both good singers. My younger brother Stephen is a singer and fantastic songwriter and we are in a band This Ground Moves. My niece has an amazing voice. We’re the Geordie Osmonds.

Have you worked in TV or radio ? Yes, highlight was doing Man Down with Greg Davies. A great experience and a good laugh. Done quite a few ads in TV and radio.

What role would you like to play ? It’s ambitious, but I’d love to explore the part of Johnny Byron in ‘Jerusalem’. Maybe a ‘Line of Duty’ villain, love playing shady characters. I also have a real interest in playing strong characters or any who have a vulnerability to them.

Have you any work lined up this year ? I was meant to be working at Live Theatre this summer, with November Club in late summer and at Alnwick Playhouse at Christmas, but Live Theatre has been cancelled for now. It’s fingers crossed for the others. Who knows what happens next. It’s a sad and surreal situation we’re in.

Interview  by Gary Alikivi  March 2020.

OUR LAYGATE – in conversation with Ann Ahmed

Ann explained...In research I came across an article which said Laygate was the best example of integration in Britain. And it was. It is one of our best examples, so why haven’t people heard about it ?

I would just like to do it justice and spread the word about the unique area where we lived. I would like other theatre’s to see it and try and play it to a wider audience. I’ll push it as much as I can. The story deserves to be told.

I met Ann at The Word in South Shields just down river from Laygate, an area where she grew up…..

I was raised in the community of Laygate after the 2nd World War and seamen settled in the area after the war. It had Arabs, Africans, Somali’s, Malaysians, it was a very tight community. The area wasn’t looked upon fondly by some people outside that community.

My grandfather and step grandfather where from the Yemen, so my dad was really dark. My mam was from Scotland, she had a terrible time from her family because she was married to a black man. She was ostracised from them. He was a seaman who was away for 2 year stretches and the money wasn’t there. No Social Security or Health Service then.

Not long ago somebody asked me ‘Did you really live in Laygate ?’…I said ‘Well I wouldn’t lie about it would I’. It had, and sometimes still has, for whatever reason, a bad reputation, but it was the friendliest, welcoming, community spirited place you could ever go.

Nothing has been written about the community from this angle. Most stories are about the Arab riots, but I wanted to show what a great place it was to grow up in.

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and I still see most of the people that lived there. I bumped into one of the girls I know and we got talking about Laygate, and she said ‘All of that will be lost, all those stories, those memories, you should write it down’. So I went away, thought about it and started writing things down.

My friend’s dad had a Somali cafe, well it was a sitting room with chairs and tables in. He would get a chicken, kill it in the backyard, and we would pluck it’s feathers out.

Once I remember coming from the shop’s with some bread and I was walking up our back lane when Hanratty was there with his horse. He would collect scrap or old clothes with a cart and horse.  He often gave out  balloon’s to kid’s who got him scrap.

Well, I was desperate for a balloon so I gave the horse the bread. When I got in the house, my mam went mad, she nearly killed me, because she had 4 kids to feed.

So with more stories like these I rang Ray Spencer, Director at The Customs House and asked him would he be interested, could he see it playing at The Customs House ? We met up and after reading through them he said a definite yes.

What is the play about ? It’s about how we got on, the relationships we had, the abuse we suffered sometimes from outsiders, and it’s mostly based in our backlane, Laygate Place, with other scenes in our sitting room and Holy Trinity School.

I wanted to show how we lived together in that community, you could say from a woman and child’s perspective. Not just my family, but the Arabs at the top of the street, the Somali’s down the road, the Arab cafe just along the way.

We may have had our fights and arguments as kids, but at the end of the day we are all still lifelong friends. Some I’ve known for 60 years.

How long did it take to write the play ? About 5-6 months, but with re-writing and editing, it has taken nearly two years. I got together with Susan Evans, she wrote a play for The Customs House and she showed me the format she uses, which was a great help.

How many characters are there ? We’re looking for actors for the play. We need 14 in all with 7 of them being able to play children so they should be about 16-18. It’s hard trying to get a Somali actor locally, so if anyone feels like auditioning, contact me via Facebook.

Because of cost’s involved I’ll be fundraising for the production. If people would like to donate I’ve got a GoFundMe page  gf.me/u/wz89xz   or they can contact me through Laygate Play Customs House on Facebook.

We’ve also got a fundraising Batty Bingo night at Armstrong Hall on 18th April 2020.  The last one we did had a great turnout, great tributes and the tickets for this one are selling fast as well. It’s £10 a ticket but well worth the money !

‘When the Boat Comes In’ written by Peter Mitchell has recently played at The Customs House, will it have a similar look ? It is the same as being set in the North East and we all have Geordie accents but that play dealt with unemployment, strike’s and an affair. This won’t, it’s centred on a small community.

What is your family background ? My mam had a really tough time bringing us up. We had to rely on family and friends. But, during the ‘50s and ‘60s nobody had anything, so it didn’t bother you as much as today when they want the latest games or trainers.

Having nowt we did feel it, but you just got on with it. We eventually had to leave Laygate when the Housing Act came in because it was classed as a slum. That is where the story finishes, 1968.

Where you sad to leave Laygate ?  Yes and no. I think if our house had an indoor bath and toilet I would have liked to have stayed, but it was classed as a slum.  If you wanted to go to the loo you had to go down the backstairs and into the yard.

We had the blackest backsides known to man because of the newspaper we used as loo roll (laughs). We were moving to a house that had an indoor toilet and a bathroom.  It was like a palace to us!!

While I was writing the story, I organised a reunion at Trimmers bar with all my friends and people from Laygate. I told them what I was doing and that I wanted to include some stories about what they did as kid’s.

We finished by asking what was Laygate like for them growing up, and they all said it was the best time, it was lovely, it really was. We’re all proud to be from Laygate.  It was great bringing back all those memories.

It’s called ‘Our Laygate’ because to us, the kids of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when it was mostly an integrated community, it is ours. I know it’s still integrated today and it’s still a great, vibrant community – but to us, that era is ours.

Our Laygate is on at The Customs House 14th & 15th July 2020. Tickets £12.50

Interview by Gary Alikivi   September 2018.

TYNE CRIMES with Natasha Windham, author of new book ‘Jarrow Murders and Misdemeanours’.

When researching the book did you come across any unusual or strange stories ? Maybe more shocking than unusual, but the amount of gun crime I uncovered surprised me. Jarrow really was like the wild west of the North-East!

Also included in the book is a story about a Jarrovian one-legged arsonist who later became a popular comedian and dancer. That was certainly one of my more unusual stories.

What inspired you to write the book ? I’ve always been interested in true crime and had been studying Jarrow from a genealogical point of view. I was trying to understand what the town would have been like when my ancestors were living there in the Victorian period.

My interest widened and I began to keep notes on the stories that had shocked me the most. I then had several days last spring when I was feeling more inspired than usual which resulted in me contacting Amberley Publishing and securing a book deal.

What is your connection to Jarrow ? Half of my family are from Jarrow, including my dad and grandad. I can trace my paternal family in Jarrow as far back as 1848. Over the years, the Windham family have lived on High Street, St Paul’s Road, Catherine Street, Bede Row, Sheldon Street, Buddle Street and Valley View. My dad and distant cousins still live there today.

What are your memories of the town ? I remember visiting my great-aunt, Jenny, on the Hedworth estate. She lived on a street called Greenlands and I remember the sounds of the metro trains passing by.

Jenny was quiet, sweet and unassuming, and every time we visited, she would give me and my brother mars bars and bags of jelly babies. She had an incredibly kind and helpful neighbour called Billy who really looked after her in her old age. Sadly, they’re no longer with us.

Have you any ideas for your next book ? I think so. I’m considering one idea in particular, but I’m unsure whether it will come to anything. There are moments in my life when my mind is filled with too many creative ideas and it’s difficult sometimes to untangle them and decide what to focus on.

‘Jarrow Murders and Misdemeanours’ is released 15th May and available to pre-order from Amazon, WH Smith and other online retailers including the publisher Amberley.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   March 2020.

IN SHARP FOCUS a conversation with actor Steve Wraith

How did you get involved in acting ? My first acting role was King Canute when I was at school, from that moment on I always wanted to be an actor. I’d fallen behind at school and I couldn’t read or write so my parents put me into private education.

I was entering poetry competitions in the Durham area and doing well, that’s where I learned reading lines. The school were impressed so encouraged my parents to push my stage work further.

So I went along to The Peoples Theatre in Newcastle on a Saturday morning, the exercises built up to putting on a play 3 times a year, it was a fantastic training ground. I met new people and got the chance to play some good parts. I think that’s where I got to play the villain like I do now, they just cast me in them roles from day one. I really enjoy them, I played the Artful Dodger and never looked back (laughs).

I was there until I was 16 and did two trips abroad with them, 3 weeks in America doing Under Milk Wood in places like New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Then we went to Russia where I played the Artful Dodger it was fantastic, we were there as communism was starting to fall, the whole western influence and McDonalds being built.

Then I went to Newcastle College and I was all set to be an actor because I never stuck in at school really, before I left school they asked me what I wanted to be and the headmaster laughed when I said an actor.

That’s a great incentive though isn’t it…..Yes, funny I regularly meet one or two teachers still, we go for a coffee now and then. But I packed in college when I was promised a certain amount of money plus an Equity card to do a panto, by the end I had done 54 shows but what I was promised never materialised.

I was involved in not only doing two shows a day but putting the set up and taking it down then travelling to the next venue, really when a promise is given you should be rewarded. The guy who was responsible for the production shall remain nameless. Looking back I thought if that’s acting you can stuff it, the one thing I wanted to do I was walking away from.

But I’ve come back to it after a break away, it happened after my experiences meeting with the Kray Twins and actors Mike Read and John Altman (both ex-Eastenders). John was doing a play called Bouncers by John Godber at Sunderland Empire. He rang me up ‘I’m coming up to your neck of the woods do you want to meet up ?’ We arranged for him to do a night on the door of the nightclub where I was working at the time.

On the night he was watching my mannerisms, everything I was doing on the door, even when there was a fight on.

6 months later I took my mother and my wife to see the play he was in with Nigel Pavaro and Chris Connel who I knew from college. We were walking up to the Empire and lo and behold who was standing on the door in his doormen gear…it was John and nobody recognised him.

Afterwards we went on a great night out in Newcastle and the conversation got round to me being an actor years ago and John recommended that I should get back into it. I was happy working on the doors but fellow Geordie Chris Connel passed me a number for Janet Plater who was setting up an extras agency. He said there will be a lot of sitting around but give it a go so I met up with Janet and signed up, that was around 15 years ago.

What was your first job as an extra ? My first job was on a new TV series called The Night Detective, later became 55 Degrees North. It was a speaking part which Janet wasn’t sure I would get, so I went to The Mitre in Benwell, where they used to film Byker Grove. Thing was I had been singing a bit too hard at the Newcastle match the previous night, they had won so I had a few drinks and ended up with a sore throat and thick head.

When I got to The Mitre I met the director who to be fair, was also looking a bit rough. He said ‘You’re looking a bit ropey Steve’. I told him where I’d been and he laughed ‘So was I’. We spent the next 20 minutes talking about the match.

Finally I started reading the script and was playing a wheel clamper who clamped the villains car. When we had finished I left the Mitre and 20 minutes later Janet called saying ‘You’ve got it, you’ve got the part’.

Filming on that programme felt great I thoroughly enjoyed it. The script arrived in the post I had two scenes to film that’s two days work at £750 a day. They sent a car to pick me up, I had my own caravan with ‘Wheel Camper 1’ written on the door, I could have been sitting smoking a cigar thinking I’ve finally arrived (laughs).

Then it was sitting waiting for the phone to ring from Hollywood. Janet rings ‘I got you a part in Byker Grove, you’re playing a security guard, just a background artist. Get to the Monument for 7am’. Well I was back to earth with a bump, welcome to the world of the extras. That was where I was gonna have to cut my teeth really.

But I enjoyed it and I got to say Ricky Gervais absolutely nails what being an extra is all about in his TV series. You hear people saying ‘I’m an actor really I’m just doing this in between jobs’. It is funny but I networked a lot mostly with the techies on camera and sound, lighting guys, a lot knew me and we got on really well because of my love of Newcastle United.

Then after 3 years of extra work I wanted to give acting another go because the lads I got to know were contacting me about work coming up. I rang my mate Steve Melville Head of Drama at Gateshead College he suggested a course which I did and enjoyed it, we done a play at the end of the year and I got the buzz back.

Have you had any magic moments on stage ? You know you’re in the zone when you’re words are perfect and you let the character do the talking. I can’t remember much about it just applause at the end and thinking this is what I want to do.

I never finished the original college course all those years ago so I done a full time degree at the age of 37. I learnt a lot about myself, the craft and proving to myself that I’ve trained properly and turn up at an agents door and say right I’m ready.

I went back to Janet Plater but she didn’t share the same enthusiasm and didn’t take me on as an actor so I put my notice in as an extra. Meanwhile I saw an acting job for a low budget film based in the North East called ‘In Our Name’, the role was a Sergeant Major playing scenes with Joanne Froggatt from Coronation Street. I went to the casting and got the part.

The Scottish director Brian Welsh was struggling for contacts to venues like a boxing ring and nightclub, with my contacts I provided that for him and we hit it off really well. At the wrap party he said ‘What can I do for you?’ I was looking for an agent so he hooked me up with Sam Claypool and in 2011 I done a cast for her, she said ‘You’re raw but I think I can do something for you’.

How did working on the TV series Vera come about ? Sam got me the part in Vera, I’d cast 5 times for the TV show and in 2015 I was lucky to get it. That was 3 times self-taping and twice face to face. The process at first isn’t face to face it’s self-taping where you pick a blank wall behind you and with a camera or phone you do your bit and send it to the director.

The part in Vera was called Big Pete who wasn’t a nice character and ran a restaurant. He was running illegal immigrants through his kitchen and paying them in food. It was a great opportunity, six and a half million viewers, being on a big show like that is great for the cv.

From that I was cast in The Rise of the Footsoldier working alongside Shaun Ryder in his first and last acting role (laughs). Also working with people I’ve watched on films over the years and suddenly now I’m in the green room with them and on set. Fantastic to work with them, we choreograph the fight scenes a week earlier then go down to film.

maywether

What you got planned for 2020 Steve ? It’s an exciting year Shirley Lewis is representing me in London for other acting parts where she can put me in front of directors.

I have other interests like my publishing company working on various books and an Event Management company where we promote boxing events, in March we have Floyd Mayweather up here again so there’s tickets to be sold for that, yes an exciting year with plenty to look forward too.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

TRADING PLACES – 250 years of South Shields Market

In September 2018 I made a short documentary about South Shields market with former Shields Gazette award winning journalist Janis Blower.

Janis has a wide knowledge of local history through producing the Cookson Country feature in The Shields Gazette and working on the books ‘Aall T’githor Like Folk O’ Shields’. An interview with Janis talking about her work featured in the blog ‘Have You Heard the News’  (27th January 2020).

We had previously worked together in 2016 on a film about South Shields Photographer and Historian Amy Flagg. Janis added the voice of Amy in the short film ‘Westoe Rose’.

Included here is the full script that Janis wrote about the 250 year old South Shields market, a link to the film is at the end.

Trading Places

Author Joseph Conrad is said to have refreshed himself in its ample public houses on his voyage from life before the mast to The Heart of Darkness. It has rung to the strident tones of politics and religion. Marked the coronations and deaths of monarchs; been a centre of commerce and conviviality.

A public forum one day, a fairground the next. War almost did for it. Peace would prove no less transformative.

Over the 250 years of its existence, the fortunes of South Shields’s historic Market Place have fluctuated with those of the wider town. Both have had to adjust to social and economic change. Within the lifetime of many townsfolk, that has included the decline of the market itself.

The rise of the discount retailer has seen a corresponding fall in the numbers of bargain hunters. Gone too is the tradition for Shields folk to put on their glad rags on a Saturday afternoon and go ‘down-street,’ to stroll up one side of King Street to the Market, and down the other.

For a post-war generation, this was the era of stalls piled high with crockery, pans and nylons – to be sifted through to find a matching pair, of reconditioned boiler suits and other stalls selling goldfish and rabbits. In winter the lamps would flare in the chilly dusk.

By then, the market was no longer open until 10 o’ clock at night, as it had been before the war when, the later the hour, the more the cost of Sunday’s joint fell.

In those days visitors would also have found Harry Randall’s toffee stand where homemade toffee, with a free bag of horehound candy, could be bought for sixpence. Also the stall piled high with assorted tripe into which the stall holder would shove his hands, shouting: “Come on, get amongst it!”

And there was the painless dentist, who guaranteed to pull a tooth with his finger and thumb for a shilling: This was the market as part-public service, part-spectacle, like the stocks that a century earlier had once stood opposite St Hilda’s Church.

Or the fairs that would visit, in spring and autumn, with their prancing horses and shuggy boat rides or, likewise, the travelling  menageries that would also descend at regular intervals.

The Friday flea market has in recent years returned the square to aspects of what it was then, at least commercially, though the old clothes stalls are no longer confined to the side nearest the church. South Shields-born poet James Kirkup immortalised these in a poem, writing:

“The old jackets rub shoulders on the rack of life and death, the crumpled trousers all undone swing in a driving wind, a boneless abandon, soft-shoe shuffle in the sands of time. Laid away, the painter’s dungarees are dingy white, stained with forgotten schemes for houses decorated out of sight…”

Gone, though, is the fresh fish market: also the groups of men who, hands cupped round their Woodbines or Capstan Full Strength, would gather around the Old Town Hall in the hope of being tapped for work on the river.

An old Shieldsman, writing of his Victorian childhood, remembered each trade having it’s own beat. “While the Church side was common to most parties”. Men milled in this way, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers, until as late as the 1960s, before the skyline increasingly ceased to be criss-crossed by cranes.

The Market Place pulsed with life, not only in the numerous pubs – of which there were at least six before the First World War and as many again in the surrounding streets – but also in the shops.

Marks and Spencer started out in the town with a Penny Bazaar here. Barbour’s with a shop on the west side of the square, specialised in weatherproof clothes that would evolve into the garb of aristocrats. Crofton’s, the legendary department store on the corner of King Street, would survive one disastrous fire early in it’s existence but not a second.

That catastrophe was visited one autumn night in 1941 when the town suffered the biggest air raid of the war. In a matter of hours two sides of the square had been reduced to smoking ruins. The then-170-year-old Town Hall – miraculously stood firm, albeit not undamaged. The ‘Old Cross,’ as it was affectionately known was left looking out over a sea of devastation.

Over the next 20 years, new buildings would grow-up around it. There would be no attempt to reconstruct a square which had once been likened to the market place at Bruges. Post-war modernity won the day, in keeping with a town which, under Borough Engineer John Reid, was sweeping away much of its Victorian housing and redrawing its commercial heart.

Concrete took the place of brick, with new pubs going up on the site of the old and the building of a new tax office, Wouldhave House, with shops adjacent. Small thoroughfares which had run in and out of the square for much of its existence, like Thrift Street and little West Street, disappeared. East Street and Union Alley, became backwaters.

Today the square continues to evolve. Words remain its currency, – not those of the fairground barker, or the radical anymore, but as the home of the town’s main library, housed within an award winning building dedicated to writing and creativity.

The Market Place own story, meanwhile, continues to unfold….

Gary Alikivi  January 2020